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Traditional leading... the first step.
by Heidi Haas
My first traditional lead seemed slightly anticlimatic. I had built up such fear and animosity about actually doing my first trad climb that by the time I actually did it, the climb went by without me thinking once of death and dismemberment.
The climb itself was easy enough, a classic 5.3-5.4 called Sentinal at the crag I frequented the most. I'd top-roped it many times before, so I was more than comfortable on it. But I still felt nervous. I think it's the whole trusting your own protection, having placed it yourself and not knowing what in the world you're doing or if you're doing it right. You keep going because if you stop you'll most likely have to test out your placements. Chances are they'll hold, but I personally didn't want to find out just yet. So I continue on and get to a bomber suitcase hold that is one of those 'Thank God' monster holds that is the easiest protection you can place. Slinging it, I subconsciously know I won't have a ground fall. I continue with no qualms, soon reaching the top. As I belay my second I realize that I am glowing, the pride of having done something I hadn't done before.
Why was this the day I finally took that step? Why now, and not on a previous trip? I decided it was a combination of 3 things: the environment, the climb, and the timing.
When I did my lead the environment was friendly, no pressures. I had been previously forced into sport leading above my level. Not a problem really, until I was DONE with the climb (though not at the top) and was not lowered down. So I tried 10 more times, tiring myself until I could no longer feel my hands and didn't want to. I try that crux move and fret for my life as my fingers peel away and I fall. I of course lived but sometimes I prefer to not have to seriously contemplate, will I make it? Some of my fears aren't rational, but I know that. Climbing is definately a psychological sport, leading is getting to the point of weighing out the fears with what you're willing to go for. I'm just starting to lead so I know when I'm done with a climb whether it be psychologically or physically. If my companions won't comply with my requests, what might happen if something serious was going down and they wouldn't listen? My only answer is know your climbing partners' ways or get the other belayers to understand the point of "I'm done". The only other thing I can ask for in a partner is that they be supportive in the way you prefer. If you don't want a cheerleader, let them know before before you get on a killer climb and become less than friendly. The day I led, my partner knew what I needed from him and didn't push me nor let me slack off, the perfect combination.
Having climbed Sentinal many times before I knew the route extremely well. That, coupled with its moderate level, gave me the confidence to lead it. To many, the excitement of leading is not knowing what's in store, the relief of finding the bomber holds or the perfect placements. But on that very first lead I preferred to know exactly what it took to get up and what kind of pro was necessary. That was all I needed to get myself off the ground.
Some people take to leading after only a few climbs or they even start out leading. However I started out as a gym rat, having learned to climb in the middle of Illinois. Top-roping and occasional sport climbing was good enough for me for more than a few years. But over the past year or two I'd gotton an itching to try traditional leading. Unfortunately the timing never seemed right, and I ended up chickening out during the first few trys. They were always too hard, too scary, too ... much for me to handle. Recently I'd gotton the courage to go for it, albeit on a "beginner" climb, but it was a beginning. My experience on top-ropes and sport climbs had led me up to this point where I finally felt like I was ready to go for it. So I did, and was happy I had.