Endurance, Experience, & Skill: Preparing To Lead Climb

By: Ashley R.

How do I know if I am ready to start lead climbing? What grade should I be climbing to get there? How can I improve to get to this point?

These are all questions that many beginner and intermediate climbers are asking themselves. Maybe you’re ready for something new, excited, or have an outdoor sport climbing destination on your bucket list. These are all common reasons to want to become lead certified and to soon be considering yourself a sport climber.

When evaluating someone to see if they are ready to begin lead climbing, I usually start with these three words: Endurance, experience, and skill/ability.  

Endurance is a major when it comes to climbing outdoors, as well as lead climbing in a gym. It takes a lot more strength and endurance to clip your protection while climbing than it does just to just scale the wall on top rope. Hanging on with one hand, clipping stances, and overhung routes are all common with sport climbing. They require a large amount of stamina compared to the type of climbing you are probably used to.

Experience is just as important as endurance and strength when it comes to lead climbing. For example, let’s say you are a strong climber but have only been climbing for two months, you may assume you are capable of climbing many of the lead routes at your local gym. This may be the case, but because of lack of experience, it is possible for you to fall off routes for reasons such as blowing a foot or losing balance. Taking unexpected falls on top rope or bouldering isn’t nearly as bad as taking a nasty lead fall. Before you consider taking a lead class, you need to be experienced enough to have awareness of the kinds of falls you are taking, and the reasons behind those falls. This is something that only a handful of months of climbing under your belt can help you accomplish.

Alright, let’s talk numbers. If you’re reading this blog post you’re most likely wondering what grade you should be capable of climbing before getting started with this new challenge. While everything I shared above plays a large role in determining your readiness for sport climbing, you should also be capable of sending multiple 5.9s in a row and topping out on most 5.10s (inter+ and mod- at Kendall Cliffs) either indoors or outdoors. If you are comfortable climbing routes of this difficulty, then lead climbing might be something for you to look into.

It is extremely important to talk to gym staff at your local climbing facility about lead climbing, especially if you have an interest in doing so outdoors. This can be very dangerous if you are not educated on how to properly protect yourself. You can gain so much knowledge by simply talking with other climbers or by taking a handful of classes.

Lastly, I want to share a few strength and endurance tips for preparing to lead climb that I used to get to the point that I am today.  One thing that is super simple and that you can do in a short amount of time at Kendall Cliffs is to climb laps on the auto belays. Climbing up and down the auto belay routes (between 10-20 times) can greatly increase your endurance while giving your forearms a good pump. Either come to the gym just specifically for this or end your day with this great workout. Second, work on having quiet feet while you are climbing. This is something that most experienced climbers should have down. It helps prevent unexpected falls because of sloppy feet, which is something no sport climber wants to experience. Finally, ask a friend or employee to set a top rope for you on a lead route at Kendall Cliffs and practice clipping quickdraws into the bolts. This is a great final step before venturing into taking a lead class. You will gain confidence on clipping so that it feels like part of the climb. Talk to a gym staff member about the proper way to clip into bolts and practice away.  With this method, you can essentially “mock lead” most routes in the gym with a simple top rope.

Lead climbing can not only be a rewarding experience, but get you climbing in some incredible places as well. Keep climbing hard and be mindful when you make those falls, and you will be ready for a lead class in no time.