This technique is fundamentally different from top rope climbing. Lead climbers start with the entire rope from the bottom compared to having a fixed top rope anchor already fixed on the top of the climb. A lead climber clips the rope to a series of intermediate pieces of protection. The distance between each piece can vary from route to route and ideally is no longer than 10-12 feet.
In sport climbing (where bolts are the only protection), the next bolt dictates the distance between each intermediate anchor point. In trad climbing it depends on the availability of natural features combined with the climber’s choice. Lead climbing comes with a much greater risk since it involves climbing above anchor points and thus creating a potential fall. With every added inch above the last piece of protection, the potential fall length increases (see lead climbing fall distance formula).
Falling is an intense feeling for most of us. Consequences of a fall can be very different from fun to fatal, depending on rock terrain and both climber’s experience and route choice. It is essential to have an attentive belayer who maintains communication and is ready to adjust slack or tension at any given point (see lead belaying article).
As a lead climber, it is important to know how to fall in the best possible way. This can be very tricky and usually imposes a huge mental challenge on us. When falling, the climber has to adopt a “cat-like” style in order to have the least impact on the body. Cat-like means that feet (and sometimes hands) are the first points of rock contact after falling. All limbs have to be spread apart rather than close to each other. When impacting on rock, it is crucial to cushion the impact by bending knees (and elbows if needed). In theory, the steeper the rock, the “cleaner” = safer, the fall is. For example, when falling on an overhanging climb, a leader fall is often a clean drop into open space. On the other hand, a fall on a low angle slab has more potential to be harmful.
In our course we will only practice ‘mock leading’, which allows us to practice all the lead climbing related skills in the safest possible way.