Trad Climbing Basics
Trad, or traditional climbing gives you the freedom to climb outside of gyms and pre-defined routes. This makes it an incredibly exciting and rewarding experience. Rewarding in terms of like personal satisfaction… there aren't actual rewards or anything. Aaaaaand it makes it more difficult. The last thing I want to do is scare you, but I want to stress that trad climbing is a dangerous sport if not approached with the right mindset. This guide does not replace a trainer, but instead hopes to give you a good idea of what the sport entails and how to go about getting into it.
Overview is better than underview.
Knowing is half the battle.
In trad climbing, you carry with you all the gear required to climb a rock face. There are no permanent anchors along the way, like there are in sport climbing. So you have to place that stuff as you go. Fyi, “that stuff” is called “protection” and I'll touch on it in greater detail in a little bit. This means that trad climbers face more of a mental battle, in addition to a physical one, as they need to figure out the best way to set the route as they go. It also takes knowledge and experience with the gear to get everything set just right.
Are You Ready?
'Tis the season for some nature.
Traditional climbing, it's traditional.
Being that trad climbing is, generally speaking, all-around more difficult than sport climbing, you shouldn't jump into it without a little experience. Also, please don't count climbing ladders or climbing stairs as experience. I know, I know, some ladders can extend pretty high, and yes, you did a great job painting all the way up to the eaves on your two-story house last summer, but it doesn't compare. By starting at a climbing gym, you'll learn a lot about your abilities and some of the gear in a very safe, forgiving environment.
Once you're comfortable in the gym, you can branch out a bit. Go climb some real rock faces, preferable with an experienced friend who can show you the ropes (pun definitely not intended, or even wanted, but it was quite frankly the best way to describe the situation, so give me a break on this one). Start by practicing your protection placement. Place each piece of gear over and over until you could do it with your eyes closed BUT NEVER DO IT WITH YOUR EYES CLOSED. Practice by following a route and inspecting the protection placements along the way. Once you feel you have a good grasp on it, try "leading" a route while top-roped (with a fixed top anchor). Climb the top rope route, but carry a second rope and clip in as you go.
Now let's talk falls. Falls in trad climbing are often more unforgiving than in other types of climbing, as you climb up past your clip-in point. This extends the range of the fall. This can be a big mental hurdle, cause c'mon, who wants to fall? At some point, when you're feeling comfortable, you should practice some safe, intentional falls. It's good for both the climber and the belayer to become accustomed to the procedure and to learn that it isn't as much of a panicky situation as it might first seem. This is how my parents taught me to climb stairs as a kid. "Look Fletch, you’ll never be so good at stairs that you can climb them without falling. So practice those falls now."
Rack it up.
Here's the nuts and bolts of trad climbing (this pun was, sadly, very intended). The rack is the term used for the gear you're using to make your ascent. The amount you'll carry at any given time will depend on the route you have planned. You'll have protection (often called "pro"), slings, carabiners, quickdraws and a nut tool, and maybe even some other stuff
ACTIVE VS PASSIVE PROTECTION
Active protection refers to spring-loaded devices which expand inside cracks and crevices when triggered.
Cams - Cams convert downward force (such as the force of your body weight) into an outward force onto the rock opening, firmly locking it in place. It's about time gravity helped you out. The trigger slims down the max width of the cam lobes so it can be slid into tight spaces. When the trigger is released, the lobes engage on the rock.
Trango's Big Bros - This spring-loaded cylinder can be engaged in wider openings than most cams. They are perfect for crack climbing and expand to span gaps, and wedge themselves in tight. I remember when I first saw one of these things. I went around the Moosejaw warehouse wedging them all over the place. Didn't get much work done that day.
Passive protection refers to devices which are wedged into cracks and crevices, with no moving parts.
Nuts - These are tapered metal wedges that, well, wedge into rock cracks. They have a looped wire cable so they can be used as an anchor. Nuts come in various sizes to fit various sized cracks. Your rack will mostly likely have at least one full size run of these lil guys (depending on your climb, obviously). They also come in a micro variety which are so small that they're almost terrifying to think about.
Hexes - Hexes are bigger than nuts and have asymmetrical, six sided heads that fit medium to large cracks at varying angles. Maybe I'm being superstitious, but I've never understood why we've chosen to bring the word "hex" into such a potentially dangerous sport, but whatever.
Tricams - These guys technically don't have any moving parts, but their big benefit is that they themselves can move around to find the perfect placement. They can function like a nut or hex by wedging into an opening, or when placed in a way which utilizes their fulcrum design, they can span a non-constricting gap.
As I've stated before, and can't overstate, practice the placing of all this protection over and over and over before you lead your first climb. You need the confidence of knowing your anchors are secure, and don't want to fumble around too much when you're on lead, it'll hurt you physically and mentally. As for removing the protection, learn how to use a nut tool to remove all the different types from all kinds of different scenarios. It'll most likely need to come out the way it went in, but with a lot more force due to the wedging caused by body weight.
More Rack Gear
Gear, Gear, and more Gear.
Don't forget this gear!
Along with protection, your rack will also need the following pieces of gear.
SLINGS - Slings are very useful for a number of different tasks while trad climbing. They can wrap around a rock, can set up versatile anchors, can be utilized for rope management, or can be coupled with a couple carabiners to make long reach quickdraws. For this reason, most racks will have a good number of slings.
CARABINERS - Carabiners are used to secure your rope to the protection you place. They also hold all of your protection on your harness. Carabiners with locking gates are necessary to build your belay anchors. They're like the duct tape of trad climbing, they hold everything together.
QUICKDRAWS - Think of these as pre-extended carabiners. They give the rope more freedom of movement and reduce rope friction, while still keeping it in place. Again, the quantity of these that you’ll need, along with all pieces of gear on your rack (besides the nut tool) will depend on the length of your route.
ALPINE DRAWS - These puppies are more versatile than quickdraws, and can be utilized in a variety of situations. They are carabiners connected by a runner, so the length can be adjusted to fit ideally with your protection and your anchors. They can give you additional slack to keep upward force off of your protection when climbing above it.
Trust me you need these.
Check your gear before you climb.
HELMET - The falls in trad climbing can be kinda rough, given the fact that you're climbing above your protection. For this reason alone, you'll want a helmet. Also, rocks can fall. "Geological time includes now" was etched into a rock by Aron Ralston after being pinned down following a canyoneering accident. It should be a lesson to all of us. Rocks are never done moving. This is why both climber and belayer should be helmeted. Since you'll potentially be out in the sun for long periods of time, especially on multi-pitch routes, you'll want something light and well ventilated.
HARNESS - When looking for a good harness for trad climbing, you'll want to keep an eye on the amount and orientation of gear loops (positioned slightly towards the front) and padding if you're tackling longer routes.
SHOES - Your choice of trad climbing shoe will depend greatly on how long of routes you like to do, or how many pitches. Shoes with aggressively downturned toes put your feet in a strong climbing position, and the big toe is positioned in such a way that you can get exceptional purchase on small holds, little cracks and while smearing. However, this type of shoe is less comfortable and not ideal for extended wear. So for longer ventures, look for a shoe with a moderate downturn.
BELAY DEVICE - For belaying trad routes, you have a couple device options, namely tubular or assisted braking. Tubular devices are simple to use and you'll get tons of experience using one at a climbing gym. Some models have a ridged area on one side to provide a higher friction braking option. Assisted braking devices use a camming action to help the belayer brake, making them a bit safer (when used properly) and good for routes where there might be frequent heavy falls, but require more training and skill to use.
Leading Your First Route
There's a first for everything.
Steps, you know like stairs, but different.
Here are some basic steps that you'll go through when you lead your first trad route (and leading up to it). It's not like checklist that you have to go through, so relax, but just some general advice to ensure you have a safe climb.
Second some climbs - Let an experienced climber lead, and go through and inspect all their protection placement when you make your ascent. Make sure to take notice of the top anchor. Pick their brain as to why they built their rack the way they did.
Practice a "lead" with a top rope - I mentioned this before, but it is something you should do before you lead. Any surprises you run into while leading can cause mental or physical stress, so it's best to get used to every situation in a more controlled environment. Like what are you gonna do if a bird hits you and you drop your last hex? It could happen.
Visualize the route - Build up a mental image of what your climb will entail. This will help you build your rack. Keep track of how much gear you'll need to complete your visualized route.
Study guide books - If you found your route in a guidebook, study it. It could give you valuable information about how to climb the route or features that are up there that you can't pick up from the ground. Nobody likes studying books, but in this case it'll have some great immediate payoffs, unlike when I studied calculus in college, that hasn't paid off at all yet.
Build your rack - Using the guidebook and your visualization, you are ready to build your rack. When you're a beginner, it's good to bring some extra gear with you, just in case, until you get comfortable.
Pick our first few placements - Get some momentum going by having your first couple placements all ready to go in your head. This is great for your confidence, but also for your safety, as falls from short distances are tough catches for your belay.
Stay calm and collected - Remember to keep a level head. This is what your body and mind are used to and how they operate at their highest level. Take a breath, take a chalk break, and listen to your belayer.
Communication and constant awareness is key.
Lead belaying follows a lot of the same principles as other types of belaying. Always keep at least one hand on the rope. Always keep your eyes and ears on the climber. Communicate any advice or dangers. Give a good amount of rope slack. Remember though, with lead belaying, too little slack puts downward force on the climber when they're above their highest protection. Also, they'll need a bit of extra slack when they're going for a clip.
Terms to know
Here's a little rundown of some trad climbing terminology. A couple of these were mentioned above, some are terms you might just want to work into your vocabulary.
Anchor – An anchor is an attachment point between the rock and a rope. It is often used to describe the support you set up for a belay or top rope.
Beta – Beta refers to any tips or information on a climbing route. It's also the second letter of the Greek alphabet, but that's less relevant right now.
Clipping In – As the lead climber climbs, they clip into the protection they set up as they go. After signaling to their belayer, they'll run the rope up to the quickdraw and clip it into the gate.
Figure-eight knot – This is the knot the climber uses to attach the rope to the harness. It’s a lot safer than a figure-eleven knot where the ropes go parallel without touching (note: figure-eleven knots aren't a real thing, I just made it up).
Flash – Flashing a route means completing it on the first try with beta (prior knowledge).
Multi-pitch – Multi-pitch climbing refers to a climb which requires more than one belay, and is necessary on longer routes.
On-sight – Doing a route on-sight means climbing it on the first try without beta (prior knowledge).
Protection – It may take you a little time to wrap your brain around the fact that protection doesn't refer to your helmet or any pads. Protection, in this case, refers to equipment or anchors designed to stop a fall, such as stoppers, hexes, and cams.
Rack – This is the gear you carry with you on a climb.
Rappel – Rappelling is when a climber descends a rope, feet towards the rock face. A belay device is used to increase friction.
Send - To complete a route successfully.
Now get out there and climb already
Armed with this knowledge, you're ready to start feeling out the trad scene. I highly recommend working on your strength and technique and asking more experienced climbers about their trips. If they're anything like any climber ever, they'll love talking about all the best places to climb and their favorite routes.