Lead Climbing: How To Lead Climb

'How To Lead Climb' is part of the book - Rock Climbing Basics: The Beginner's Guide.

VDiff learn to climb e-book book

Before you lead climb, there are 3 other things you need to do which you wouldn't do if top roping:
1) Stack the rope
2) Close the system
3) Attach quickdraws to your harness

How To Stack a Climbing Rope

You'll need to 'stack' the rope before every lead climb so that it will feed out without tangles while you're climbing.

Beginning at one end, simply feed the rope into a pile on top of your rope bag, or a clean area of the ground. The climber ties into the top end of the rope.

Stacking a climbing rope

Top Tip
If you are storing your rope for a while, or carrying it somewhere, it can be best to coil it instead.

Coiling a climbing rope

Closing the System

Tie a knot in the end of the rope. This ‘closes the system’, so it is impossible to accidentally lower your partner off the end of the rope.

The rope which the gym provides should be long enough anyway, but it’s a good habit to get into if using your own rope.

close the system rock climbing

How To Attach Quickdraws To Your Harness

Some indoor walls have quickdraws already attached to the wall, but if yours doesn't, you'll need to bring your own.

Clip half of them to the gear loops on the left side of your harness and the other half on the right side. Clipping them to your gear loops with the bolt-end carabiner will make it easier when you come to use them.

Make sure you bring enough quickdraws with you. You'll need one for each bolt, plus a couple of spares in case you drop one half way up or if a mystery bolt appears that you couldn't see from the ground.

Quickdraws on climbing harness quick draws

While you lead climb, there are 4 other things you'll need to do that you wouldn't do if top roping:
1) Clip quickdraws to bolts
2) Clip the rope into the quickdraws
3) Clip the rope into the top anchor
4) Pull the rope back down when you finish

How To Lead Climb: Clipping Quickdraws To Bolts

If the quickdraws are not already attached to the wall, you'll need to clip one on first. Simply clip the bolt end of your quickdraw to the bolt in the wall. It doesn't matter which way it faces.

Obviously, if you fall before clipping the first quickdraw, you'll land back on the ground.

Climbing quickdraw carabiners

How To Lead Climb: Clipping The Rope Into Quickdraws

The easiest way to clip a quickdraw is to place your fingers around the back bar of the carabiner, then use your thumb to flick the rope through the gate. The pressure of you pushing the rope on to it will open the gate; you don't need to open it with your fingers.

How to clip climbing rope to quickdraw

If you're clipping with your other hand, you'll need to hold the back bar with your thumb and use your fingers to flick the rope through instead.

How to clip climbing rope to quickdraw

Another way is to steady the carabiner with your middle finger and then flick the rope through with your thumb.

How to clip climbing rope to quickdraw

Warning! Back Clipping Quickdraws

The rope needs to be clipped through the quickdraw so that the end of the rope attached to you comes out of the front side of the quickdraw. If you fall, the rope will stay clipped through the carabiner.

How to back clip climbing rope to quickdraw

If you clip it the wrong way round, the rope could snap through the carabiner's gate if you fall. This would unclip the rope from the carabiner. This is known as 'back clipping'.

If you're belaying a leader, keep an eye out for them accidentally back clipping, and let them know if they have!

How to back clip climbing rope to quickdraw


Warning! Cross-Loading Carabiners

Make sure your carabiners do not become 'cross loaded' when you climb (loaded sideways). Also make sure the carabiner's gate has snapped shut after you've clipped the rope through it. Either of these will make your carabiner much weaker.

Cross loaded carabiners

Warning! Skipping Quickdraws

You need to clip every quickdraw to stay safe.

Never miss any out.

how to clip quickdraws

Warning! Z-Clipping

You’ll end up with a z-clip if you take the rope from the beneath the last quickdraw and clip it to the one above.

Make sure to clip them all in order.

z-clip quickdraws rock climbing

How To Lead Climb: Clipping The Top Anchor

Once you get to the top of the wall, you'll need to clip the rope through the top anchor. Different walls have different systems for this – some have two snapgate carabiners, some have one or two screwgate carabiners that you'll need to unscrew first. Ask one of the staff before leading if in doubt.

Once you've clipped your rope through the top anchor, you can be lowered down in the same way as if you were top roping.

Bolted climbing anchor

Incorrect Top Anchor Setups

Clipping your rope through the same carabiners as another rope will cause the ropes to rub together when you lower down.

This will damage the ropes, making them less safe for future use.

Bolted rock climbing anchor

Only clipping half of the anchor is dangerous because you will be risking your life to a single carabiner.

Clip them both.

bad climbing anchor

Lowering Down

If you've attached your own quickdraws on the way up, you'll need to collect them on the way down.

Simply lower down, unclipping them from both the bolt and rope, and then clip them back to your gear loops. The belayer will need to stop lowering you at each bolt so you have time to do this.

Many gyms have quickdraws permanently installed, especially on overhangs. In this case, just lower down the same as for a top rope.

lower down from rock climb

Pulling the Rope Down

When you're pulling a lead rope down, shout 'rope' before it falls, so that everyone around you is expecting it – a falling rope in the head hurts!

Make sure to pull the rope through so that the falling end drops down through the clipped quickdraws – this will slow it down and make it safer.

Pulling down a climbing rope

Lead Climbing: Understanding Fall Potential

Leading for the first time can be pretty scary. Suddenly you're exposed to a much greater fall potential than on a top rope. The consequence of a fall while leading is more serious than when top roping, as you can fall much further. This increases your chances of hitting something (such as a large hold) as you fall.

If you fall while below a quickdraw you've just clipped, the fall will be similar to falling on top rope, as the rope is running through the carabiner above you.

Rock climbing fall

But if you fall when above the last quickdraw you've clipped, you'll fall below it, about the same distance as you were above it, or a little bit further (as the rope stretches to absorb the force of the fall).

Rock climbing fall

It's important not to clip quickdraws too soon. It can be tempting to pull through meters of rope to clip way above your head. But doing this means there's a lot of slack rope in the system so you'll fall a lot further if you slip while clipping.

Instead, wait until the quickdraw is between your shoulders and waist, then clip it. Not only will you not fall as far if you slip, it's also less strenuous and quicker.

Rock climbing fall

Top Tip
Try to clip from a resting position. It's much easier to clip a quickdraw while you're hanging from a big hold on a straight arm than from a tiny hold on a bent arm.



Lead Climbing: Where To Position the Rope

When lead climbing above a quickdraw, make sure the rope is running over the side of your leg. If you fall with the rope between your legs, it can flip you upside down, causing you to hit your head on the wall and get 'rope burn' behind your knees.

Rock climbing technique lead climbing

Lead Climbing: How To Lead Belay

This article about lead belaying is part of the book - Rock Climbing Basics: The Beginner's Guide.

VDiff learn to climb e-book book

Step 1
Attach your belay device so there is just a few meters of rope between it and the climber's knot.

How to lead climb

Step 2
When the climber is moving up the wall, you'll need to feed rope out to them instead of taking it in.

Place one hand on the rope above the belay device and the other on the brake rope below. Use both hands to shuffle rope upwards through the belay device.

Then slide your hands one at a time back down the rope so you are ready to give more slack. Make sure not to let go of the brake rope!

Lead belaying and Climbing

Step 3
Once the climber has clipped the quickdraw but is still below it, they're effectively on a mini top rope, so you'll need to take in a small amount of rope until they're level with the quickdraw.

This ensures that slack rope is kept to a minimum. Remember that the climber will need enough slack to make the next move, but not so much that you create unnecessary fall potential for them.

Continue to give slack as the climber moves up, and take in rope as required.

Lead belaying

Step 4
To catch a lead fall, hold the rope downwards in the lock off position.

If the leader takes a big fall from above a bolt, the force will be much greater than a simple top rope fall, so it will be much harder to hold – keep a tight grip on the brake rope and pay attention!

How to lead climb and belay a climber

Lead Belaying: Belay Position

Before the First Bolt
Before the leader reaches the first bolt, you'll need to 'spot' them, just the same as if they were bouldering.

Make sure to have just enough slack in the rope so they can reach the bolt.

How to spot a climber when bouldering

After the First Bolt
Stand close to the wall, and in-line with the leader. Maintain a good stance in a position where you can see them.

The rope should go up and out from your belay device to the climber with minimal slack in the system.

How to lead belay correctly


Lead Belaying: Common Mistakes

Leaving too much slack in the rope.

How not to lead belay correctly

Standing too far back from the wall.

How not to lead belay correctly

Lead Belaying: Learning Tips

For your first few times belaying (for either top rope or lead), it can be useful to ask a qualified member of staff to hold the brake rope too.

This acts as a back-up so the climber will still be safe if you fail to hold the rope correctly.

How to lead climb and belay on top rope

It's also possible to have a top rope set up in addition to the lead rope. This means you can practise the techniques of leading, with the increased safety of a top rope.

Ask a qualified member of staff for help with this.


Once you've learnt these basics, you can progress to being a better belayer.

How to lead climb belay

Sport Climbing – Lead Skills

This 'Lead Climbing' article is part of the book - Sport Climbing Basics.

VDiff learn to sport climb free e-book ebook

Lead climbing a sport route is similar to lead climbing at the indoor wall, but with a few more factors to consider.

Quickdraw Ends

Quickdraws have a bolt-end carabiner and a rope-end carabiner.

The rope-end carabiner usually has a curved gate and is 'held in' with an elastic or rubber loop.

It's important not to get these two carabiners mixed up. The sharp edges of bolts can notch the bolt-end carabiner, which will damage your rope if you swap them over.

We recommend using quickdraws with different coloured carabiners so it is easy to identify them.

Leading climbing a sport route quickdraws

Clipping the Rope into Quickdraws

The easiest way to clip a quickdraw is to place your fingers around the back bar of the carabiner, then use your thumb to flick the rope through the gate.

The pressure of you pushing the rope on to it will open the gate; you don't need to open it with your fingers.

Clipping rope to quickdraw carabiner

If you're clipping with your other hand, you'll need to hold the back bar with your thumb and use your fingers to flick the rope through instead.

Clipping rope to quickdraw lead climbing

Another way is to steady the carabiner with your middle finger and then flick the rope through with your thumb.

Make sure you're comfortable clipping quickdraws with both hands, in either direction.

Clipping rope to carabiner

Reducing Rope Drag when Lead Climbing

You should use the correct length of quickdraw on each bolt so your rope runs as straight as possible without creating unnecessary fall potential.

If the bolts are in a fairly straight line, use short draws to limit your fall potential.

Leading a sport climb

If the route wanders a little, use longer draws on the bolts which are furthest from the center line. This keeps your rope running straight and therefore reduces rope drag.

Leading a sport climb

If a bolt is far to one side or underneath a roof, use an extendable quickdraw.

Leading a sport climb

When To Clip

Try to clip from a resting position. It's much easier to clip a quickdraw while you're hanging from a big hold on a straight arm than hanging from a tiny hold on a bent arm.

It can be tempting to pull through meters of rope to clip way above your head. But doing this means there's a lot of slack rope in the system- you'll fall a lot further if you slip while clipping.

It is often safer to do one more move and then make the clip.

Leading a sport climb

Rope Position

When lead climbing above a quickdraw, make sure the rope is running to the side of your legs.

Sport climbing rope around leg

If you fall with the rope around your leg, it can flip you upside down, causing you to hit your head on the wall and get 'rope burn' behind your knee.

Climbing rope around leg


Quickdraw Orientation

If you will be traversing far to the left after clipping a draw, it’s better to orientate it so the rope-end gate faces right, and vice versa.

If the gate faces in the same direction as you, there is a greater (but still very small) chance of the gate opening in a fall.

Sport climbing quickdraw direction

Back Clipping

The rope needs to be clipped through the quickdraw so that the end of the rope attached to you comes out of the front side of the quickdraw. If you fall, the rope will stay clipped through the carabiner.

Sport climbing quickdraw backclip

If you clip it the wrong way round, the rope could snap through the carabiner's gate if you fall when lead climbing. This would unclip the rope from the carabiner. This is known as 'back clipping'.

If you're belaying a leader, keep an eye out for them accidentally back clipping, and let them know if they have!

Back clip climbing quickdraw backclip

Cross-Loading

A carabiner is ‘cross-loaded’ when it is loaded sideways. This makes the carabiner much weaker, meaning that it could break during a fall.

A common cross-loading situation is when the rope-end carabiner moves out of position. The rubber attachment is designed to stop this – check your draws to make sure the rubber is still intact.

Cross-Loading carabiners

Carabiners can also be cross-loaded over an edge of rock. Use a longer quickdraw to avoid this.

Cross-Loading carabiners over rock

Hooking Up

Hooking-up is when the square edge of a bolt hanger gets caught in the hook of a carabiner’s nose or the recess between the gate and the nose.

A hooked-up carabiner is extremely weak and could break during a fall.

hooked up carabiners

A carabiner with a hooked nose design, a shallow angled top bar or a recess between the gate and nose is more likely to get stuck in this orientation.

sport climbing carabiners

Check you have clipped each bolt correctly and avoid using carabiners with these features.

carabiners for sport climbing

Sticky Gates

Make sure the carabiner's gate has snapped shut after you've clipped the rope through it. If it stays open, the carabiner is just as weak as if it was cross-loaded.

This can happen if the gate is resting against a rock edge. Use a longer quickdraw.

Open carabiner

Stick Clipping

If there are hard moves with a bad landing before the first bolt, consider using a ‘stick clip’ to clip the first bolt.

Stick clipping climbing

Double Up

If clipping a critical bolt (e.g: when accidental unclipping would result in serious injury), it’s a good idea to clip two draws into the bolt, if they’ll fit.

Clip the longer draw on top so it won’t be loaded unless something goes wrong with the other one.

Alternatively, you could have a dedicated ‘critical’ quickdraw which has screwgates on either end.

Two quickdraws one bolt

Lead Climbing Runout Routes

Sport climbs are not always bolted as well as gym routes. Outside, bolts tend to be less evenly spaced, and further apart.

Unfortunately for the beginner, the easier routes at a crag are sometimes sparsely bolted. This is because they are considered as ‘warm ups’ and therefore the leader is unlikely to fall off. Try to stay away from runout routes when you’re starting out.

Be aware that some bolted routes are designed to be supplemented with trad gear to make them safe. You may also need trad gear to build an anchor at the top of these routes. These are not ‘sport’ routes. Make sure you know what you’re climbing before you leave the ground.

Nylon on Nylon

Never clip the lead rope through a carabiner which has a sling, cordelette or other nylon item attached.

If you fall, the rope will rub over the sling. This will damage the sling and also your rope.

nylon on nylon

Retreating

If a climb is too difficult or dangerous, and you can’t reach the top, the easiest and safest way to bail is to leave carabiners on the top two bolts.

Simply replace your quickdraws on the highest two bolts with single carabiners. If a bolt is dubious, clip a third too.

Lower down and remove the rest of your quickdraws. It’ll cost you a couple of carabiners but it is far safer than lowering from a single bolt.

how to bail from sport climb

Trad Climbing Gear > What Do You Need?

This article is part of the book - Trad Climbing Basics.

VDiff learn to trad climb e-book book

Helmet

A climbing helmet is the first thing you should buy when you start trad climbing. They protect your head from things falling on you (rocks, equipment, etc..) and also from your head hitting the rock if you fall. Learn more about climbing helmets.

Trad Protection
The leader places trad gear (protection) in cracks and fissures as they climb up. It is then removed by their partner when they follow, so all that is left on the rock are a few chalk prints.

Cams, nuts and slings are used at most climbing areas. Hexes, tricams, ball nuts and big bros could be either essential or useless depending on the area. Each of these are described below. Check which types are most commonly used at your chosen climbing area before you commit to buying a full set.

Tailor your rack to suit each climb. Carrying too much gear will make the climbing harder. Carrying too little will force you into dangerous runouts or constructing poor anchors. Consult the guide book to determine what sizes of gear may be needed for your chosen route.

Rope
While single ropes are most suitable for indoor and sport climbing, they can also be the best choice for trad climbing. However, depending on where you climb, using half ropes could be safer. Not sure which rope is right for you? Learn all about climbing ropes.

Quickdraws
Most trad climbers carry extendable quickdraws in addition to regular draws. These can be used either as a short draw or fully extended, meaning it's quick and easy to extend your gear without carrying extra slings.

Shoes
You probably already know that climbing shoes make standing on small bits of rock a lot easier. Learn how to get the best fitting shoes here.

trad climbing gear

Harness
You can use any climbing harness to trad climb, but you'll benefit from having a comfortable harness with at least 5 gear loops.

trad climbing harness

Belay Device
If you're reading this, you probably already know how to belay. If you don't, you can learn here.

The best belay device for trad climbing is an ATC with a guide mode function. Getting one without guide mode limits your options for belaying and rescue situations.

trad climbing belay device

Cordelette
A common way to equalize gear at the belay is to use either a cordelette or a long (240cm) sling.

trad climbing anchor

Prusik Cord
A prusik cord is used to make abseiling safer and more controlled. Keep it on the back of your harness with your belay gear as you climb.

trad climbing prusik cord


Trad Climbing Protection

Nut and Hexes

Ranging in size from the thickness of a matchstick to the size of your clenched fist, nuts (also called chocks, wires or stoppers) and hexes are inexpensive pieces of trad protection.

A typical trad rack will contain 10-12 nuts and maybe one or two mid-size hexes.

Learn how to use nuts and hexes.

Climbing nuts and hexes on carabiner

Slings

Slings are simply strongly-sewn loops of nylon or dyneema tape. They're available in a range of lengths - your typical trad rack will have a few 60cm and 120cm slings on it and maybe a 240cm, but bigger and smaller ones are also available.

The length is given as the end to end distance, so the actual length of fabric will be double this. They are incredibly useful for extending gear and equalizing belays.

When buying slings, try to get a different colour for each size. This makes it much quicker to grab the right size when you need it.

Learn how to use slings.

Climbing slings

Tricams

Tricams are designed to work the same as a nut, but can also be placed to 'cam' into cracks.

They are most useful at crags which have many horizontal cracks for placing protection. A typical trad rack will contain one or two mid-size tricams.

Learn how to use tricams.

Climbing tricams

Ball Nuts

Ball nuts are specialist pieces of gear which you are unlikely to need when starting out.

They offer protection in thin cracks, filling the void where even the smallest cams are too big to fit.

Learn how to use ball nuts.

ball nuts climbing

Big Bros

Big Bros are expandable tubes which protect wide cracks. They are lighter and more compact than large cams but are harder to place, cannot be shuffled up the crack and do not work as well in flares.

They are only worth buying if you plan to climb a lot of off-width cracks and squeeze chimneys.

Learn how to use big bros.

big bro climbing

Nut Tool

Nut tools are used to remove gear while following or cleaning dirt from gear placements when leading obscure routes.

They are also useful for leading when you get the wrong sized nut stuck and need to remove it in order to get the right one in.

They are easily dropped, so it’s worth attaching a short loop of thin cord to it. This can be clipped to the rope or gear while you use the tool.

Climbing nut tool for removing nuts trad climbing