Summits like Wyoming's Grand Teton are guarded by only a few easy trad pitches... and a whole lot of scrambling.
There are few things more satisfying than summiting a remote peak or topping out an obscure multi-pitch climb. The exposure, route finding, full body exertion, and connection with true wilderness offers a sense of adventure few people get to experience.
Sadly, most climbers are among the inexperienced majority. For one reason or another, most of us never get turned on to trad climbing. Some declare it lame. Some think it’s too expensive. Many are intrigued but intimidated.
Actually, trad climbing is the polar opposite of lame, and getting into it need not cost more than a few hundred dollars. It also doesn’t have to be overly intimidating.
You don’t need to be exceptionally strong to climb trad. You don’t have to send difficult sport routes or boulder problems, though you certainly need to be comfortable leading whatever grade you wish to tackle trad. Most of the funnest trad climbing I’ve done was in the 5.5-5.8 range: boring sport climbing but exhilarating in the midst of a big day on a big pile of rock… and also a lot friendlier on the fingers than most difficult climbing.
The intimidation many folks feel comes largely from uncertainty about placing and trusting gear. Many climbers capable of leading difficult sport routes are uncomfortable on much easier trad routes. Intuitively, many of us put more trust in old bolts placed by god-knows-who than we are capable of putting in our own gear placements. This is only natural. A little fear is healthy when dabbling in trad.
The trick to breaking into the boundless world of trad climbing is learning to place gear, to build anchors, and to trust that they will safely serve you. Also, of course, learning the appropriate skills to apply when things go wrong is crucial before venturing into the realm of more committing trad routes. There are three suggested methods for learning these day-to-day and emergency skills.
1. Take lessons from a professional mountain guide. Pay someone for their patient instruction and pearls of wisdom. This method certainly works, but learning through paid instruction alone would be very expensive. Also, many of the basic skills needed to climb trad are easily learned on your own. A little background knowledge goes a long way in getting the most for your money when paying for climbing instruction.
2. Apprentice under a “Trad Master”. Climb with someone reputed to really know what they’re doing and study their actions. Watch their technique from your belay stance, then clean their gear while following the pitch. Analyze the anchors they build, how they rack their gear, how they conduct themselves on the rock, what knots they use, how they treat their gear, what they do when things go wrong, etc. This method is obviously much cheaper than professional instruction but it’s by no means foolproof. Unfortunately, many “Trad Masters” actually aren’t that masterful. Many have just been lucky despite downright dangerous habits and a knowledge base lacking in important areas. Also, cleaning a pitch while following it is a very different experience than placing your own gear while leading. You can spend months following someone around and still lack the knowledge and confidence to safely lead trad on your own.
3. Buy your own gear and teach yourself the basics of trad climbing on your own. If you do this right, it’s safer than following most “Masters”, cheaper than hiring a guide, more gratifying, and you’ll probably learn faster too. How can this be? Simple! At first, you leave the rope at home and don’t climb higher than a few feet off the ground.
Get your hands on a few nuts, cams, slings, and ‘biners and head for the hills. You don’t even need to bring a harness but comfortable old climbing shoes are usually handy. Don’t forget to include a nut tool in your practice rack. A helmet is recommended in areas where rockfall is likely. Remember that the lightest, fanciest, most-reputable gear in the climbing world won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use it properly. More important than acquiring a lot of gear is having a strong grasp of how to best use what you’ve got.
Search out any old crag and traverse along the base while placing, weighting, studying and cleaning gear. Hike through boulder fields looking for cracks and flaws where you can build an anchor. Go for a mountain bike ride with a light rack in your CamelBack. If you see an interesting piece of rock, stop and practice your placements and anchors. Even if the rock turns out to be garbage, it’ll still prove a great learning experience. You’re not only learning how to place gear but how to read rock quality from a distance.
Place gear in Granite, Sandstone, Limestone, and in any other kind of rock you encounter. Learn the dimensions of each piece and study the rock looking for suitable flaws. Keep practicing until you rarely misjudge the proper piece for a placement. Practice placing cams but really focus on mastering passive protection placements. Active protection is much easier to place but mastering nut, hex, and tri cam placements will pay off. You will get gear stuck. Learning to calmly get it unstuck is an essential skill to develop. You only have to lose one piece to learn how important focusing and taking your time is when placing gear.
Once you’re comfortable placing gear and building trad anchors, consider leading sport routes with both your sport draws and trad rack. Though it will be redundant, clip bolts and place gear. This gives you great practice placing gear while leading with the added security of frequent bolts. Also, it provides a great opportunity to learn how to avoid rope drag between pieces of protection. The straighter and more freely your rope passes through protection, the better. Like your first time getting a piece hopelessly stuck, you’ll learn a major lesson when first dealing with extreme levels of rope drag.
Once you’re comfortable placing gear and building anchors while incorporating the rope, consider your first real trad lead. Make it an easy one and make sure you’ve got the gear you need to properly protect it. If you’re lacking confidence, this would be a good time to climb with a guide or “Trad Master”. With a strong foundation of knowledge from studying and practicing on your own, you’ll take a lot more out of the experience.
Once you’ve made a few trad leads you’ll be hooked for life and you’ll never look at climbing (or a mountain) in the same way ever again. Have fun and be safe. No matter how safe you are, however, eventually things will go wrong, and you’ll be glad you read up on…