Most climbers begin climbing by following or toproping and then progress to leading. Many climbers who aspire to lead stay in this mode too long. The follow/lead progression can give a skewed sense of climbing’s safety. Safety is secured in the short term by dramatically diminishing the fall consequences. When the climber starts leading, the increase in consequences is so dramatic that many climbers don’t realize how much the risk has changed. Or, realizing the increased risk, they freeze because they are inexperienced with the new risk. When they do take their first lead fall, the harsh reality comes rushing in. The experience has too many unknowns to allow learning to occur. This approach compromises safety, which is the very motivation for the follow/lead progression.
Whether you are recreation- or performance-based in your climbing, you need to become familiar with fall consequences. Unless you have no intention of ever leading, I suggest leading immediately, after you’ve learned some basic climbing and belaying skills. By leading first, you are acutely aware of the consequences. They are continually present as you push yourself up through each difficulty grade. With the continual presence of consequences, you will tend not to push yourself past what is appropriate.
The fear of falling will be in your awareness, monitoring your progression. Sometimes you will be able to climb and not fall, and sometimes you will fall. By falling, you’ll learn how to fall and your belayer will learn how to catch a fall. Leading first will allow you to learn the foundational skills—-climbing, falling, and belaying—-at a similar rate and build a broad and stable foundation for your climbing. However, remember, the distinction we made in previous lessons about no-fall and yes-fall zones, and engage each appropriately.