Trad climbing is a form of climbing, as unique and different as most types of climbing are from the rest. Sport and gym climbing lack a bit in the adventure department and mountaineering lacks the technical rock climbing that we love. Trad is somewhere in the middle, which I think is fantastic because it provides the perfect blend of adventure, physical challenge, interesting climbing and requires a sound knowledge of gear and systems. I’ll be honest, it’s not for everyone. It’s more effort, you need to do more homework and just know more stuff, you need more (expensive) equipment and it’s pretty hard to figure it out for yourself or learn from a book or Youtube. So why bother, why not just hit the gym on a Saturday afternoon? Because you can only talk about that purple 23 so many times...
Ben and I sat on a ledge the size of a park bench seat, our backs resting against the cliff behind and our legs dangling out over 200m of air. As we gazed over the Limpopo bushveld and into Zimbabwe we had a snack and a rest. We’d climbed 8 pitches of Eight Miles High already and up next was the crux pitch, a grade 24 traverse. The sun was starting to set as Ben racked up and looked for some gear on the ledge, he found a space for two tiny nuts (smaller than your pinky nail in size), slotted them in and off he went. He styled the thin, unprotected face climbing and let out a little whoop as he made it to the rest. By the time he’d finished the pitch it was almost dark and I clicked on my headlamp before I started climbing. This particular trip up Blouberg was tough, I wasn't as fit as I’d have liked, the climbing was hard and sometimes dangerous and I was the weakest amongst all the people there. It was also one of my favourites.
This is my idea of fun. For more on fun, check this blog.
Trad climbing is awesome, it’s just different to climbing at CityROCK or a day sport climbing. Pack your gear, a headlamp and a sense of adventure and you’re all set!
Trad (or just climbing as it was called before bolted sport climbing arrived in the 80’s and 90’s) is where you place your own protection in the rock as you go. Pieces of equipment, sometimes called protection or pro, are placed into cracks, holes or other features in the rock as you lead up the route. Like sport climbing, trad climbing today has the ethics of free climbing as its base, ie. the gear is only there to catch you if you fall off, not assist in the ascent.
From left to right: micro nuts for small cracks, hexes for big and parallel cracks and a standard set of nuts. The DMM Wallnuts are a perennial favourite among experienced trad climbers. These are all available here.
A Wild Country Friend and Rock well placed and ready for action.
The most common pieces of trad specific gear are nuts and cams. Nuts are aluminium wedges on the end of a short cable that are wedged into tapering cracks and don’t have any moving parts so they form the base of the passive pro category. Cams have three or four moving cam lobes that can retract and expand to fit the shape of the rock and can be placed in parallel cracks, they’re the main part of the active pro category. Hexes, tricams, sliders and Big Bro’s are some other examples of trad gear but aren’t as common as nuts and cams. Most trad climbers will have a selection of nuts and cams (commonly 9 to 15 nuts and 5 to 15 cams) depending on the route they plan on climbing. No need for 20 cams if your route is only 8m high, but if you’re doing 50m pitches you might want 25 nuts and 15 cams so you can place gear every few meters and have enough left over to build an anchor at the top. In addition to protection, you’ll need the usual climbing gear like a harness, helmet, climbing shoes, belay device, rope and quickdraws
Because you take out all the gear afterwards, you leave very little trace of your passage up the wall, sometimes just a few chalk marks. Because you’re not following bolts, you can decide where to go. This really adds to the adventure aspect and it’s cool to look at a section of rock and know you can climb up there safely, even if there isn’t a bolt or top rope in sight. If you’re trying an established route then you’ll follow the route description (RD) which explains where to go.
An example of a topo and RD from the Blouberg guide.
Now for the part that will keep your mother up at night. How safe is all of this? It’s pretty dangerous. But so is checking your phone while driving so let's get into the details. Trad climbing is actually pretty safe, the gear is well designed, the techniques are established and the rock is, for the most part, solid. Paradoxically, the harder you climb the safer it becomes because there are less things to hit on the way down. A grade 15 trad route often has lots of ledges on it which are great when you’re going up but not so great when you’re going down. A gently overhanging 22 is the perfect route to fall off of (much like learning to lead in the gym) because there’s only nice soft air beneath you. Pieces of pro have been known to come out, but often it just means a little fright for the climber (and belayer) as the next piece catches. Like with most climbing related activities, the most common injuries sustained while trad climbing result from user error. This could be from something simple like not doing belay checks to something complex like running it out (not placing gear regularly, think clipping every second or third bolt) in a rush to the top when a hold breaks, causing the climber to take a too big fall and get hurt. If you take it slow, invest the time in learning to place gear well and build solid anchors, trad climbing is safe and rewarding.
Trad climbing combines so many interesting elements, can you find and follow the route, can you climb with all the gear hanging off your harness, can you place good gear and manage the rope and can you manage your fear?
So there you have it, a brief look at trad climbing. There is so much to go into, so we’ve dedicated the month of November to it. Stay tuned for next week’s blog, we’ll chat about how to go about giving it a try, what to look out for and what to expect.