Making the Transition to Trad
Europe, the birthplace of climbing, has amazing limestone sport climbing and incredible mountains for mountaineering and alpinism.
But what the Lower 48 lack in steep limestone cliff bands and soaring mountain ranges like the Alps, we more than make up for with the best trad cragging in the world. We have Yosemite. We have Eldo. We have Indian Creek and the Utah desert. And we have the Gunks. We would have Squamish, too, if it weren’t for the pesky detail that Squamish is actually located just north of our border in Canada (fortunately, border crossings are pretty mellow, eh?).
To be a climber in America means that you must, at some point, become a trad climber. Whether that means you just dabble in it here and there, or you become a full-blown bolt-eschewing tradster, traditional climbing is necessary part of our climbing culture. To not take the time to learn how to trad climb means that you are missing out on some of the greatest vertical adventures America has to offer.
Making that transition, however, takes time, effort and commitment. Consider how easy it is to go skiing for the first time; just go to any ski resort, rent some sticks, slap them on your feet and have fun skidding and tripping your way down the Bunny Slope all day. Easy peasy.
Trad climbing couldn’t be more different. It’s complicated. There is a lot to learn—from getting familiar with all the gear, and then learning how to place it—and the penalty for not knowing everything is potentially quite costly.
Here are some tips for making that transition to trad climber. Make it slowly. Make it right. But whatever you do, just make sure you make it. After all, we live in the best country for trad climbing in the world.
The 20/50 Rule
Trad climbing, of course, involves an understanding of placing and removing protection—nuts, hexes and cams. A good beginner rack will contain roughly 20 pieces: 8 nuts, 8 cams, and four random assorted pieces such as Tricams or hexes. Pick up this rack. Now take the time—about two or three days—to walk along the base of your local cliff and place every piece on your rack in as many different spots as you can find. Ideally, you will practice placing those 20 pieces 50 times, in 50 different locations.
Follow the Leader
There is no better way to learn trad climbing than following a leader on a multi-pitch route. Multi-pitch climbing combines all the skills: placing pieces on lead, building anchors for belays, route-finding, rope management and (typically) rappelling down after you reach the top. When you follow or “second” a multi-pitch route, you’re basically just top-roping. That said, you need to know more than just the basic skills you learn top-roping in a gym. This includes being able to remove gear (i.e., know how to use a nut tool to excavate a stuck nut) and rack it on your harness without dropping it. You also need to know how to give a lead belay. And you need to be able to learn how to belay in a multi-pitch setting, which often contains unique/different challenges such as dealing with a rope that is flaked on top of you at a hanging belay.
If you want to become a trad leader, then follow, follow, follow.
Actually, Follow an Experienced Leader
As a trad noob, the chances are high that you will be mostly climbing with (and therefore, learning from) other trad noobs who are probably only slightly more experienced than you are.
It’s rare to find truly experienced trad leaders who want to sacrifice their day climbing easy routes with you—a person who is slow, inefficient and might freak out at any given point. (Don’t worry; we were all like this at one point).
Therefore, it’s more than worth your money and time to hire an experienced, certified climbing guide to teach you how to trad climb.
Liz Sudderth, a lawyer from Philadelphia, has been climbing for four years, mostly in the gym and on the sport-cliffs surrounding the City of Brotherly Love. However, she has ambitions to become an experienced, competent trad climber who can go to some of these great bastions of trad climbing in the U.S., and lead up a route on her own.
“I’ve been trad climbing several times, but I’m learning,” says Liz. “I’m a total noob. It’s hard to learn; it’s intimidating.” Liz was planning a trip to visit her sister, who lives in Salt Lake City. “My sister and her husband are skiers, but not climbers. I didn’t know any climbers out there. I needed a guide.” So she hired Alex Lemieux, a guide with Utah Mountain Adventures, who took her multi-pitch trad climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon on her visit to Utah.
“I definitely asked him to teach me trad climbing,” says Liz. “We practiced building anchor. Really it all comes down to efficiency. That’s what I wanted to work on. Managing at your belays. Alex was a good guide for that.”
Liz has kept working with guides in areas closer to home. Now, she is planning to spend more time in Utah to just put in more practice. “I’m hoping that, like learning a foreign language, immersion in a trad-climbing destination like Utah will be the key for me!”
Lead Your First Route
Once you put in your dues, placing pieces hundreds of times on the ground, cleaning hundreds of pieces as you follow experienced leaders, it will be time for you to lead your first trad climb. You think you know what to do, you think you know how to do it. Now it’s time to find out if you’re right.
Choose a route well below your free-climbing abilities. If you can climb 5.11a in the gym, you might want to try start out with a 5.5 to 5.8 trad climb. Consider practicing the route on top rope first. Place gear on top rope. Have your experienced partner check that gear and give you critiques about whether it was placed correctly.
But no matter how many pitches you’ve followed, books you’ve read, or guides you’ve hired, there is no substitute for experience. At some point, you have to step out of the nest and see if you can fly. Don’t wait too long to find out, but also don’t rush it either. When you feel you’re ready, you are.