For those of you who have already tasted the sweet nectar of trad but haven’t quite drunk deep, it's time to step up and get serious. Before you tie in and rack up for your first lead we need to cover some important stuff. It’s important to know how to read the guide and know where to climb, how to place gear to protect yourself and the second, what managing the rope means and how to build an anchor and belay the second. You should pick up a lot of this while you’re seconding and learning about trad but it’s nice to have it all in one place. That said, there is so much more to know than can be contained in a few blog posts, so read up and remember there’s always more to learn. Leading a route usually comes after some experience seconding and a bit of theory so if you’re not there yet don’t stress, hop back towards blog number one and number two and ease into it gently.
Route guides and descriptions are often like treasure maps, lots of info but scarce on what’s important. For starters, let's look at the guide as a whole. In the front you’ll find useful things like the access arrangements, the aspect (what direction the crag faces and how that affects sun and shade on the wall), a description of the star rating used and a key to some symbols or abbreviations. Routes are often listed from left to right or right to left depending on the access and nature of the crag so check which way you should be reading them. In the Magaliesberg kloofs they’re listed on the left and right sides separately and going downstream. It’s important to read the bit about descents before you start and know how you’re getting down afterwards. There are no bolts to indicate where the lines are so the author will use the features of the rock and surroundings to describe the start and the route. It’s good to know what they’re talking about. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_climbing_terms) Some good ones to look up are arete, bollard, break, bulge, buttress, chimney, chockstone, crag, dihedral, flake, groove, gully, open book, rail, recess, ridge and thread. The guide will also have the grade, star rating, first ascensionist with the date and some notes if needed, along with the description of where and how to climb the route.
Once you’ve found your line and you know where you’re going, it’s time to climb. Racking up is the process of putting all the gear in an accessible manner on your harness (and if you’re old school, a gear sling). There are a few different ways and which one you choose isn’t that important. What is important is knowing where the gear you need is and being able to reach the important things with either hand. I have my cams and nuts in the front, quickdraws behind and extra stuff like belay devices, prusiks, long slings, my shoes, jacket and water bottle way at the back. Some harnesses have small gear loops so it’s hard to fit all the gear neatly without it bunching up, this makes it hard to unclip a particular piece sometimes. For carrying lots of gear I use a system called Yosemite racking, where you clip a second cam of a certain size to the first one on your harness or clip a bunch of quickdraws on the first quickdraw on your harness. As long as you know where everything is, can access it easily and are happy with your racking system then you’re set.
A racked up harness with Yosemite racking.
When it comes to placing gear, practice makes perfect, so put some effort into getting comfortable with the sizes and shapes of your gear and selecting and placing pieces with one hand. Spending time following an experienced leader is a great way to learn how a well placed nut or cam looks and opens your eyes as to where gear can be placed. Solid rock is a key aspect for a strong piece of protection so look for cracks that have solid rock around them. Flakes have a distinct hollow sound when tapped and some rock might be fractured around the crack you want to place in. Your mentor should guide you through this as you go. Having a large amount of contact between the rock and your piece will make it more secure and placing it deeper in the crack is generally better. With trad it’s often important to extend pieces with a quickdraw or a sling to prevent rope drag higher on the route, to prevent the rope from walking a cam or lifting a nut out or to protect the rope from running over an edge in a fall. If the rope is running cleanly and your piece is well seated you can skip the long draw or sling and when you’re close to the ground (or above a ledge) it’s better to skip alpine draws or long slings and use a short draw so you don’t fall too far.
An overcammed Black Diamond X4
Because we often trad with two ropes it can get a little messy. A good rule of thumb is keep one rope on the left and one on the right. For straight routes you can clip alternate strands so that if a piece rips you have a fresh rope catching you on the piece below. Try not to cross the ropes over each other and you’ll be grand. At the belay you want to keep the ropes neat and organised. I tie long loops to each other on the anchor instead of laying them over my tether to help keep them tangle free and myself comfortable and unencumbered. On a big ledge it’s easiest to make a big pile like you would on the ground.
A two point anchor with clove hitch tether to the master point, DMM Pivot in guide mode on the shelf and rope stacked on one of the pieces and close up of rope stacking technique.
There are lots of ways to go about building the anchor at the top of the pitch or route. Try to learn a few different ways but a simple cordelette with a 240cm sling or 7mm cord is simple, effective and the one you’ll use most often. I clove hitch into the anchor using the rope because it’s (almost) infinitely adjustable, you can extend it a bit to reach the shade or to sit on the ledge comfortably.
Belaying off the anchor with a reverso.
A belay device that has a guide mode feature isn’t strictly necessary but it’s very nice and not much more expensive in addition to the increased safety you get from belaying off the anchor. Remember to keep a brake hand on the rope at all times. It’s easy to get sidetracked and pull the rope up with all your might as your second climbs but it’s much nicer to climb with a bit of slack, especially if you’re not worried about falling, so give your climber some slack and a nice attentive belay. I use two fingers to pull the rope up into the device to keep the tension at a good level. Once the climber is at the belay you can make them safe quickly by tying off the belay device with an overhand knot in the brake strand.
Being confident while placing is key to enjoying your trad experience. Cally Bishop placing a cam during the Black Diamond Tradathon, Waterval Boven.
I often see people who aren’t ready for it start leading. This results in scared climbers who push too far out of their comfort zone and write trad off as being terrifying and dangerous. Having faith in the gear you’ve placed on lead is paramount and knowing how to place it properly and evaluate it is important. For your first lead I recommend you go through three phases. Second the route after your mentor has lead it to see where they placed gear, how they managed the rope and what gear they used for the anchor and how they rigged it. Top rope it while placing gear and use a sling to hang from each piece you place as you go to build a bit of trust in the gear. Once you’re climbing it comfortably on top rope, which may take a few tries, you can consider hopping on the lead.
Climbing and falling on Two Dogs and Freedom in Upper Tonquani.
While it’s a good idea not to be challenged by the climbing on your first lead, it is good to progress out of the easy grades quite quickly. The steeper ground where the moderates live (think grades 17 to 21) is much better for trad due to the ability to fall off and have the rope catch you rather than a nice ledge. Despite this, most people spend a lot of time in the entry level bracket because they’re not ready to fall on trad and as such don’t get to enjoy all the aspects that trad has to offer. Imagine only trying boulders you can flash or sport routes you can onsight. Falling is part of climbing, falling on trad is safe (relatively) and the sooner you learn this the more fun you’ll have.