If all went well with last week’s blog, your interest is piqued and you’ve been thinking about trying trad climbing out. Like going sport climbing for the first time, there’s definitely no way you’ll ever be prepared enough so you’ve just got to take the plunge. To help you plunge more gracefully I’ve got some tips for you. Trad climbing is the best thing since sliced bread (read the first Nuts November blog if you haven’t yet for a few reasons it’s so cool) and you should definitely give it a try. So, what skills should you be comfortable with, how strong is a cam, do you really need a helmet and should you sanitise each time you touch the nut scratcher?
The Wild Country Pro Key with leash is one of the best nut scratchers around. These are used to get bits of gear out, especially nuts that have been jammed in too tight by a nervous leader.
To get the most out of your first few times trad climbing it’s best to go with a competent trad leader. Before the internet and climbing gyms made learning so accessible it was customary to find a mentor and learn from them for a while before leading a route yourself. Like with most things, hands-on practical experience and having someone who knows what’s going on show you some things and guide your progress is invaluable. You want someone that really knows what they’re doing because your life is literally in their hands. You wouldn’t want someone who just started climbing in the gym to take you sport climbing and the same applies for trad. Experience and competence don’t always go hand in hand but someone who’s been around the block a few times is a good bet. Watch how they belay and climb in the gym and, if they’re with a beginner, look at how the interaction is. You want someone that’s supportive and patient, someone that gives off a good vibe and is conscientious about safety. Once you think you’ve found your person, ask around and see what other people have to say about them, the community is pretty small and most trad climbers know each other.
Now you need to approach them and see if they’ll take you out so you can catch a taste. It’s hard work taking beginners out, often it’ll be a route your new mentor has done a few times and is below their fun bracket so you need to make it worth their while. Bribery does work, but being a good student who is keen to learn, pays attention and is willing to do some of the grunt work will build the foundation for a mentorship that can last a lifetime and grow into an amazing climbing partnership. Showing climbers what trad is about and watching them discover the beautiful areas I trad climb in is a reward in and of itself. As a mentor, having a partner who offers to carry the ropes, has taken the time to learn a bit by themselves and doesn’t complain if we end up climbing in the sun makes it even better.
Fayzan Adroos and Emma Williamsonn being mentored in the fine art of trad by Sonja Thomas from Redpoint Climbing Club and Allister Fenton on Hawk’s Eye (13), Upper Tonquani, Magaliesberg.
Once you’ve convinced them that it’s worth the investment in time and energy you need to learn some things. The more basics you know, the better time you’ll have, so hop online and do some reading. Some useful but not essential skills are knowing how to sport multi pitch and belaying with two ropes. The essentials are knowing how to abseil with a prusik as a third hand, be comfortable climbing and moving on rock, be fit and healthy and be comfortable in the outdoors (hike off-trail with a pack, know how to take a poop properly, be comfortable scrambling ie. soloing grade 7 routes etc). Once you’re out there make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and enjoy nature.
It’s important to have some of the basic gear already and it definitely makes things more comfortable. Starting with climbing shoes, trad takes a bit longer and you might be wearing your shoes for a few hours, if you’ve been climbing for a while DON’T take your new sending shoes, rather take your comfy training shoes and if you only have one pair, you’ll be alright. Add in a harness, belay device (not your grigri, you want one that can take two ropes), a few locking carabiners and a sling if you have, helmet (yes, this is very important), chalk bag, water bottle, lunch, rain jacket, headlamp and a sense of adventure and you’re ready for action. Remember to leave some space in your bag so you can help carry some of the gear.
Racking up at the start of Last Rites (19 R) in Upper Tonquani. Photo by @Wes Antonites
Once you’re at the crag it’s climbing time. Help sort out the gear, flake the ropes and ask if there’s anything you should be doing to help out. You’ll probably be on the belay so be comfortable belaying with an ATC and practice with two ropes beforehand. Knowing your climbing calls is important. Being loud and directing your voice is important too.
Once your mentor/leader is at the top they’ll build an anchor and you can get ready to climb. For now you’ll just be top roping and removing the gear from the rock as you go. Sometimes the gear is a little fiddly to get out, just be patient with it and don’t force it. For really stuck pieces it’s helpful to have both hands free so unclip the rope from the piece and sit on the rope (remember the rope stretches so go a meter or so above so you’ll sag into the right spot).
Like these little puzzles, getting stuck gear out is about patience, finding the right position and finding the right angle. If all else fails you can spit on it and hope the moisture helps it get free. If the gear is really stuck then and you’ve been working on it for more than ten minutes, let your mentor know it’s stuck so they can make a plan to get it out.
When you arrive at the belay you’ll swap everything over and they’ll start the next pitch (or you'll both be at the top if it’s a single pitch route) where you’ll repeat the process. Once you’re at the top it’s time to come down. Either you’ll walk down and around to the base or you’ll abseil down. This is where it’s good to have practiced abseiling as being confident will make it a lot more fun. That’s not all there is to it but it’s a pretty simple process and your mentor should guide you through the process on the day.
I wanted a newer trad climbers view on getting into trad so I asked Willem from the JHB gear shop to write a little about what he expected and how he found it. Here it is:
I had an extremely warped view of trad climbing until I embarked on my first mission to the majestic kloofs deep in the heart of the Magliesberg. Trad climbing is inherently dangerous and can be very difficult and uncertain, however under the guidance of a competent mentor you can climb safely and have fun well within your limits as you learn the ropes. I used to think trad climbing involved a bunch of crazy people, risking their lives by climbing up a wall with no obvious route or reliable protection. I soon realised it involved calculated risks and extremely strong and reliable gear (most of the gear can hold more than a ton). I expected the actual climbing and placing of gear to be the crux of the mission, however for me the crux was locating the climbs.
Pic of Willem on Golden Balls (15) in Cederberg Kloof. Photo by @Hennie Van Der Merwe
As I went up my first climb, a route called Golden Balls, I quickly learnt how and where to place gear. I am by no means a veteran trad climber, but I now know that placing gear is not as hard as I had anticipated. Something that quickly became clear to me which I didn’t expect, was that you have to trust and use your feet far more than you would with conventional sport climbing. I didn’t expect that completing a trad route would fill me with such a magnificent sense of accomplishment. I come from a sport climbing background where routes are bolted and clear to see from the ground. With trad routes on the other hand, one must suss out and determine the best course to the top for yourself. I believe finding your own way up the cliff while placing the gear that will save your own life allows you to really get in tune with the rock and enter a flow state rivalled by no other. In this state your fears dissipate, your thinking focuses and your movements become efficient. Honestly I did not expect trad climbing to be such an epic adventure. I am super psyched to go trad and I highly recommend it to any rock climbing enthusiasts!
Hopefully this has removed some of the fears you have and gotten you a little more excited to head out there and give it a try. Remember that as crazy as trad climbing seems, most people think leading in the gym is the craziest thing since Donald won in 2016 and leading is pretty safe so your ideas on trad climbing may need some adjusting. The stereotypical trad dad has a family to look after and he’s not keen on lots of risk so if it’s safe enough for him, odds are it’s pretty okay for you to try it once or twice.