Trad climbing (traditional climbing) has come a long, long way from the days of Don Whelan and Royal Robbins. Thankfully so has the equipment and protection we now use. That doesn't mean it's any less scary though! I've spend the last few years climbing indoors and out on sport leading routes (where there is a bolt fitted to the wall) and all I needed was a few quick draws to make it to the top safely. This month though, I took the plunge into the world of Trad by scaling the sea cliffs of Swanage with a good climbing buddy of mine - who thankfully knows a lot more about it than I did!
Here's what I learnt from my first ever trad climb...
It's harder than it looks
Trying to climb a wall is never an easy task - sport leading a route means you have more to think about - where will you're next clip be? Have you got enough quick draws? Are you going to take a big fall?
Well, trad climbing is those same thoughts but amplified. Not only are you worried whether you have enough draws, you're also thinking 'Have I got the right size cam? Or nut? Will a hex be better?' you'll find yourself questioning every piece of gear you place, wondering if it will hold if you fell on it.
All of these thoughts swirling around your head make focusing on the climb itself a lot harder. What was simply a step up on a foothold becomes a high foot and reach for the next hold because your mind is distracted, focusing on other worries. For me, trying to focus on the climb itself and the next move became much harder when I was so focused on placing the perfect piece of gear.
The kit weighs more than you expect
The amount of kit you’ll be carrying up on your harness when trad climbing came as a big surprise to me. As a newbie trad climber, it’s almost impossible to know what sort of gear you’ll need on the climb, or how much of it.
This meant I ended up clipping as much as I could to my gear loops and climbing with it. It meant that I had the right size nut or cam, but when you’re stood on tip toes on a sketchy crimp, the added weight of the cams that were clearly way too big, and the four sets of offset wallnuts which weren’t warranted meant the climb was a lot harder than it should have been.
On a side note, it’s deceiving how big the kit is as well – It always seems to get in the way.
The bottom half of my first climb was a chimney and having large, bulky gear hanging off me and dangling around made it a lot harder to bridge in the small chimney space.
Your grade will plummet
Bravado has no place in climbing – that’s how injuries occur. I’ve always lived by this, and soon realised it is even more true of trad climbing. Sure, it would be epic to send an E.9 straight away and look like the dogs doodahs at the crag, but if you don't send it? What then? What if you take a fall and haven’t placed decent protection on your way up?
Being a good indoor/gym climber doesn’t mean you’ll be able to climb the same grade outdoors straight away. Physically, the movements are the same, and you can probably make them no dramas. But I realised that the vulnerability of temporary protection (nuts, cams etc) makes for a much harder psychological fight as you climb. As I mentioned earlier, its hard enough to stay focused on your movement among the gear and weather. Some people are bold enough to make that gnarly dyno move on a sketchy hex that would probably walk out – but I am not one of these people!
I climb a 6c+ / 7a indoors with relative comfort on top rope, and around a 6b on lead. When it came to trad though, I found my grade dropped drastically. It’s not a perfect science translating trad grades over to sport and visa versa, but I found myself climbing at best a VDIFF (3+) with some challenge.
My best advice is leave you’re ego at home, don’t expect to carry the same grade, and just enjoy climbing the easier routes while you work your head around the gear placement.
You're better at climbing than you think
This sounds like a bit of a contradiction of the above point, but when you start trad climbing you’ll realise that you’re probably a better climber than you realised. Most people will stand at the bottom of a trad route staring up to the top thinking ‘I can’t make that! I have no idea what I’m doing!’ - at least I did...
It doesn't take long for you to find your rhythm though. Once you're on the wall you find yourself. When you've placed a piece of bomber gear that you know is going to hold, you realise you can do this, and you feel that calm confidence grow from deep inside you. You place a second piece and you feel happier. You make a few more moves, place another piece and before you know it you're topping out! Trad climbing is a scary feat and so it should be, if you're not a little apprehensive before starting the climb then you risk becoming too egotistical. But as you climb, quiet confidence can be the driver to get you to the top.
All of your indoor climbing knowledge goes out of the window
It's amazing how quickly your basic training disappears when you need it the most. For me, the simple concept of climbing with feet first disappeared, and I found myself scrambling upwards with my hands, reaching for anything I could find to feel secure.
As any climber knows, climbing hands first will tire you out a lot quicker - dangerous if you're needing to hang on while placing a piece of gear in a fiddly crack. I found that I almost has to re-learn the basics of climbing while on a trad climb. Of course preparation indoors is invaluable, but just remember not to beat yourself up if you find you're climbing a trad route and making rookie mistakes! It happens to us all!
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