What Is Lead Climbing? Rock Climbing Basics

In the world of climbing there are a lot of terms that can confuse new climbers. A question I hear all the time is “What is lead climbing?”. If you are climbing outdoors, most beginners don’t need to worry about lead climbing.

Indoors, a beginner has likely been lead climbing without even knowing it! The fact is lead climbing is a very common and important style of climbing and there is a lot that goes into it.

In this article we define what lead climbing is, learning it, the different skills that can make you a better lead climbing, and finally, the risks involved with it.

What is Lead Climbing?

In climbing, the lead climber is the first climber up the rock. This is significant because in outdoor climbs he will attach the rope to pieces of protection placed periodically throughout the climbing route. The rope being attached to protection provides safety for all the climbers by limiting the distance they would fall if they slip off the rock.

When you are climbing indoors you are usually hooked into a top-rope setup, but this too is considered a form of lead climbing. Even though there is only one climber and a belay person on the ground, the climber acts as they are leading the route.

When you are sport climbing, the protection is in the form of permanent bolts drilled into the rock, when trad climbing the lead climber is responsible for placing his own removable cams or nuts and the last climber up will pull the removable protection pieces.

Learning to Lead Climb

If you are climbing indoors you will naturally get to learn lead climbing just because of how things are set up. When climbing outdoors you should take time following until you’ve gone through some of the steps we outline below.

This type of climbing comes with extra responsibility and falling when leading is often much more dangerous than when following, so you want to make sure you’re ready!

Get Properly Trained

Most climbing gyms and reputable climbing schools offer courses to teach lead climbing. A good, experienced climber will also be able to show you the ropes. However you get your lead education, it’s an important part of learning to climb.

You should be comfortable with clipping quickdraws, belaying the leader, managing your rope, building anchors, and placing trad gear (if trad climbing) long before trying to lead a route outdoors!

Mock Lead

If you have the luxury of being able to do a mock lead it can be extremely helpful. In this setup, you have both a top rope and a traditional belayer. The top rope gives you an extra measure of safety while practicing the skills necessary to lead.

When leading you need to be comfortable clipping in, managing your rope, and staying calm when climbing above your protection. These are all things that are easier to practice with the top rope for reassurance.

The only drawback to mock leading is that you will need two people to belay you.

Learn the Route

When I am teaching someone to lead climb I always make them either climb a route they’ve done before or learn the route and be able to talk me through the different moves on the ground.

If they can walk me through the different moves of a route and tell me when they are going to place protection, how they will prepare for it, and what holds they’ll be using I feel confident they will be able to methodically work through it when they are physically doing it!

Start Easy

We always recommend leading for your first time on a route that is below your skill level and that you’ve climbed before. You have enough to think about when leading that you don’t want to also be wondering what the route is supposed to look like.

Climbing a 5.10 indoors with the safety of a top rope is much different than lead climbing it outdoors! Start lead climbing things that are well below your skill level to gain proficiency and comfort.

Learning Lead Climbing Skills

There are a handful of skills that you need to learn, think about, practice, and always keep in mind when lead climbing. These are things that don’t come into play when following on a sport climb or when top-roping but are vital for being a solid lead climber!

Clipping the Rope into Quickdraws

Clipping into a carabineer sitting on the ground is very, very easy. Clipping into a carabineer from various handholds and positions you’ll find yourself on a climbing wall is significantly harder.

If you hand is behind the carabineer, you can put the back of the carabineer in your palm, wrapping your fingers and thumb around and using them to push the rope through the gate.

If the gate is facing you then you’ll want to support the back with your thumb and use your index and/or middle finger to push the rope through the gate.

There are other ways to quickly open the gate while sliding the rope through. However you choose to do it, you’ll need to be comfortable using both hands, from both sides, quickly and efficiently before you’re ready to do it climbing.

Reducing Rope Drag

Your rope should run as straight as possible under you while climbing to eliminate drag that can come when your rope is tugging or snagged, and to make falls as safe and as short as possible.

There are several lengths of quickdraws, short ones being around 6 inches and longer ones about 2ft. Knowing when to use each is a skill that needs to be practiced!

When to Clip

When climbing resting positions are normally ones in which you have a very good hold with one hand and are able to extend your arm fully. This keeps tension off of your elbow, bicep and triceps. These are also the best holds to clip from.

You also need to be aware of how much slack is in your rope line. If you pull through a long lead in order to reach for a clip and you miss, your fall with be significantly further.

Clipping is the worst time to slip because this is where the longest falls happen so you want to do everything in your power to find a safe and easy spot to clip into the next piece of protection!

Manage Your Rope

The rope always needs to be outside of the frame of your body. A rope that is running under a leg can easily catch up on your leg in case of a fall, flipping you upside down and putting you in a very dangerous position.

Avoid Cross Loading and Other Carabineer Faults

There are a LOT of wrong ways to use carabineers and quick draws. While we will cover a few, be mindful of anything that puts extra stress on the gate of a carabineer, on the metal piece rather than the connector section, or anything that could keep the gate from fully closing.

One common loading issue is cross loading. This occurs when the carabineer is loaded sideways. This can happen if the rope is hanging from the gate or if the gate is resting on a rock.

Lead Climbing Risks

Lead climbing is simply more dangerous than top-roping or following. If you are leading, you are the only one who can make sure your protection does its job, and you will generally take the worst falls if any piece of protection happens to fail or you slip.

There are some things you can do to minimize your risk though:

Examine your Equipment – Before you climb you need to take a good look at bolts, ropes, the belay device and all your quickdraws. While climbing you need to make sure your rope is clipped in correctly to each piece of protection.

Find A Good Belayer – Your safety relies greatly on the person belaying for you. This person needs to be someone you trust who will take care of the rope and communicate well with you.

Climb Safe – This is just general good practice, but especially important lead climbing. Don’t climb routes that are too difficult, keep an eye out for potential problems, and understand how you will fall at all times. Sometimes you know you’re hitting a challenging move and might slip, but it’s the slips you’re not ready for that tend to result in the worst falls.

Learn to Fall

Falling is a skill unto itself and as much as possible, especially for newer climbers, should be practiced in a controlled environment.

If you’ve seen The Dawn Wall, then you understand lead climbers can sometimes take repeated falls while tackling dangerous routes, so it’s important you have built up experience and confidence is falling safety.

The Final Pitch

We hope this article has given you some tips on safe and successful climbing. Lead climbing is a challenging but rewarding discipline of the climbing world if done correctly.

Remember to always be aware of your surroundings, be sure to clip into the next piece of protection or rest before trying to reach for a clip, and practice taking falls in a controlled environment.

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Our writer/editor and youngest team member, Nick is in school for journalism with a minor in climbing. Just kidding. There is no minor for climbing. We wish though!

Nick has the benefit of being fairly new to the world of climbing, and thus is able to look at our content and make sure we explain things in a way both experts and people who have never put foot on a wall will understand!