Trad climbing is the foundation of our sport—the backbone, scoliotic from humping too many loads, that braces us for run-outs unknown and summits untouched.
Trad climbing, and its attendant skill set, is what allows us to get into some of the coolest, raddest places on the planet, whether that’s the flank of El Capitan, the chimney of a lonesome desert tower, or even straight up a rowdy Patagonian spire.
For the most part, though, you don’t really need to climb particularly hard to be a trad climber—at least not in the sense that building a textbook three-point anchor requires having Daniel Woods-grade pinch strength. But you know what? Climbing hard(er) sure does help. In fact, it helps a lot. And nowhere does one learn and train to climb harder than in a climbing gym.
I know what you’re thinking. Gyms are the trad climber’s sworn enemy. They’re the antithesis of what you’re “all about.” They’re crowded. They’re loud. They’re a scene. And they’re full of brash young grommets who’ve never even heard of Fritz Wiessner or Royal Robbins, nor know how to Jam Thine Hand and Lock Thine Ring.
That said, those brash young grommets can climb circles around most tradsters, and if they ever put down their GoPros long enough to take the time to learn proper trad-climbing skills like placing gear, rope management, and efficient belay transfers, they will quickly make a mockery of what today’s trad climbers consider difficult or dangerous.
There’s no question about it: climbing gyms are where you get strong. And getting stronger (and better) is what contributes to less pump when placing gear, more reserve for deciphering that dicey run-out crux on Eldo’s immaculate Jules Verne (5.11a), and just an overall more enjoyable, relaxed experience. Plus, the stronger you are, the more routes are available to you to climb around the world. No more waiting in line for the five-star 5.8 when the 5.11 R to the right is open for business.
There are many fantastic reasons one should never go to a climbing gym—namely, rock climbing was, is, and always will be an outdoor sport. Yet if you can get past your own ego (and a few other logistical hurdles), you will discover that putting in your time at the gym will help you become the trad climber you’ve always wanted to be. Here are a few tips for getting started:
You may think your trad-climbing identity is a badge of honor, but gym climbers will laugh at those who walk around with a daisy chain girth hitched to their belay loop, cams hanging from their harness, or with board-lasted high-top Kaukulators perpetually on. Look the part. Remember, you’re not a trad climber when you’re climbing in a gym—you’re a gym climber now. Just go with it.
Gym climbers wear flashy tight-fitting slippers. If you’ve never worn a snug-fitting high-performance shoe, there may not be any reason to start now—unless you are actually serious about improving your footwork, in which case you definitely should get a set of soft, snug slippers like the La Sportiva Cobra, the Scarpa Instinct S, or the new super soft Five Ten Team XVi. Soft shoes will help you build up better toe strength which you need for being on your feet all day on multi-pitch edging routes.
Whatever you do or decide to wear, don’t wear your climbing shoes while you belay your partner, and remove every piece of superfluous trad-climbing gear from your harness. That includes extra locking carabiners, Tiblocs, cordelettes, and adjustable daisy chains.
The only time I ever failed to finish tying my knot was in the climbing gym. I got up to the second bolt, looked down and, holy hellfire, my bowline wasn’t finished! I’m not the only one. The venerable writer John Long, whose how-to climbing books have taught generation upon generation of budding gumbos how to do the vertical dance, didn’t finish his knot in the gym recently and took the worst climbing fall of his life, shattering his ankle to bits. There are so many distractions in the climbing gym. Seeing if that cute girl/guy is looking back you. The birthday party of screaming 6-year-olds. The loud music. It really is easy to blow the most basic rules of safety here, even with decades of experience under your belt. Check your knot. Check your belay. And stop checking out the cute girl in the Verve top.
Here’s one rule with a direct correlation to trad climbing: Get an early start. If you can get to the gym and silently work out before the hordes arrive, you’ll be stoked. No waiting in lines for routes. No one sizing you up, or down. Usually gyms seem to play better music in the earlier hours, too; in other words, they don’t play dubstep. Have you noticed that there seems to be an unspoken societal agreement to not play dubstep before noon? Apparently, the sound of robots having sex in the a.m. just doesn’t feel right—to anyone. This is one of those things that just fills me with optimism about the entire human race.
Trad climbers hate taking the belay test because it’s usually given by some kid who probably climbs 5.14 but isn’t even old enough to drive, let alone remember the days of when people used to belay around their hips, while wearing feathered hats and smoking from long Calabash pipes. Yet alas, everyone must take the Belay Test to climb in the gym, and if they don’t pass, they remain in a state of arrested development, doomed to boulder like children until one day they grow up and learn to catch a lead fall like an adult.
I suppose it’s annoying to be forced to prove to a 16-year-old that you know how to do something you’ve been doing for 20 years. But at least the belay test helps keep the indoor climbing experience safe. After all, you’d hate to get the chop in the gym.
One of the biggest limitations trad climbers have faced is the mantra of “the leader shall not fall” that has been engrained into the collective trad-climbing consciousness. Yet today, with good gear, good ropes and a good belayer, the trad leader actually can fall.
A well-placed cam or nut in good rock is as bomber as bolt. But so often what holds us back from testing out that scenario is the unfamiliarity we trad climbers have with letting go and dropping into the air. The gym is a great place to begin to work on overcoming this fear—or at the very least, learning how to maneuver your body into position to brace for a fall. Training doesn’t have to just mean running laps or doing pull-ups; it can be mental, as in overcoming a fear of falling through lots of practice in the gym.
Another inhibition common to trad climbers is the inability to “go for it.” We get to a crux sequence and instead of trying to execute the moves, we freeze up. How many times on a route have you gotten to a hard section only to hesitate, pause, futz around with gear, and doing whatever you can to avoid having to actually try a sequence. all the while delaying the inevitable call down to “Take!”?
That’s a common pattern that can become habit if we don’t constantly work on breaking it. The gym is one good place to start. Learn to go for it. Telling yourself, “One more move” is often all it takes to surprise yourself by doing that one more move.
After a few months of dedicated gym climbing, you may suddenly find yourself having fun with your newfound community of plastic pullers. You may be having so much fun that you suddenly find yourself rationalizing another trip to the gym before heading back to the crags. Pretty soon, you may have actually turned yourself into a full-blown gym climber.
But don’t let that happen. Head back outside, get scared and keep yourself honest. After all, rock climbing is an outdoor sport.