When Should You Start Lead Climbing?

By: Jake M.

Lead climbing is an extremely exciting and challenging part of the sport of climbing. For many, learning to lead is the logical next step after getting comfortable on top rope, and is a means for someday leading trad or sport routes outside. Most outdoor climbing requires at least one climber to climb on lead, and many outdoor climbers consider lead climbing as ‘real climbing’. While leading brings new excitement to your climbing, it also adds a number of associated risks that are not present in top rope climbing. It is not to be taken lightly nor something you want to rush into. I have personally seen many climbers try to lead before they were ready. On the other hand, I have known many climbers who are more than ready in terms of skill, but they don’t know where to start their leading journey. Here are a few things I suggest for all climbers to help prepare them to take their first lead class.

Climbing Level                                                                                                                              

Lead climbing of any kind requires much more endurance than top rope climbing. Carrying more gear, locking off to clip in or place gear, and not having a tight rope to lean back on for balance all require a stronger level of climbing to accomplish. Many accomplished climbers believe you should be able to comfortably top rope somewhere in the 5.10 level before you start to lead climb. Not only should you feel comfortable at this level, but you will need a reasonable degree of endurance on this grade of climb. Although you will be leading easier grades to start, having a higher level of climbing technique will help.

One thing I suggest for everyone trying work on their endurance is to try down climbing. Try to start out climbing for 100 feet total or setting a timer for 5 minutes of straight climbing. One additional bonus to down climbing is that your belayer gets to practice giving slack out, which is perfect training for lead belaying.

Confidence

Lead climbing requires a whole other level of confidence that top rope climbing does not need. This goes beyond overcoming a fear of heights. Confidence to lead is more about trusting your climbing skills, trusting your gear, and being brave enough to take bigger falls. This confidence can be built through extra practice and knowing what to expect before taking the leap into leading. Many experienced lead climbers and climbing gym staff would be more than happy to talk about lead climbing to help you get more confident with the idea of pushing into this new climbing style.

Leading is much more of a mental game than top rope climbing and that is totally normal. Be prepared to put in the work for making yourself, as well as other climbers, confident in your lead climbing. You don’t just need to be confident in your skills, but also the skills of your climbing partner or whoever is belaying you. If you don’t have one already, start looking for a consistent person or small group that you can climb with. Building this trust goes a long way with knowing who is on the other end of your rope.

Climbing Gear

At the point of starting to lead climb, you should have started to put together a decent amount of gear. At minimum, you should have (or have access to):

  • Climbing Harness-comfortable enough to take falls and hang in for a long time
  • Climbing Shoes-your shoes makes the biggest difference in how you climb
  • Belay Device-any device that you are comfortable using. Ask other leaders about their preferences as there are pros and cons to different styles
  • Climbing Rope-30 meters of dynamic climbing rope minimum. Start getting familiar with handling and coiling your own rope
  • Optional: Quickdraws-if you want to lead outside, you will eventually need draws. However, most gyms have permanent draws already placed for you to clip into.

Practice

There are several elements of lead climbing that we can practice before adding in the associated risks. One of my personal favorites is called mock leading. This is where you climb up a route with hanging draws while on top rope but also have a length of rope hanging off you. When mock leading, you can get practice clipping draws and while climbing, without worrying about taking bigger falls. A new lead belayer can also practice giving slack out on your practice rope. To set a top rope on a lead route, ask a gym staff member or an experienced leader for help hanging a rope.

Other things that you can practice are different clipping styles, learning to recognize improper clips, and even more endurance training. Lead climbing is all about keeping calm, being confident, and pushing through the challenge of you have set for yourself. If you practice properly, your will be much more prepared for the first time you get on the sharp end for real.

Lead climbing can bring back the excitement and passion for climbing that gets people hooked when they first start climbing. If you are looking for a new challenge or have big plans for climbing trips outside, it may be time for you to start lead climbing. It is important to remember that no amount of blog posts, theoretical practice, or YouTube videos can substitute proper instruction and real-life experience. If you think you are ready to take the leap, talk to one of our gym staff about scheduling your Intro to Lead Climbing class.