“Do it sooner rather than later” is something I’ve been told a lot. So I decided to take the plunge and try my hand at lead climbing… before it becomes my monster in the attic.
The plan was four weeks solid prep before attempting lead climbing, but with the twists and turns of everyday life, this turned into a mere two sessions. So with enough butterflies in my stomach to fly me up the wall, I donned my harness, chalk bag and shoes that felt three sizes too small and gave my first lead climb a go. Surprisingly I didn’t die and even enjoyed it.
Climbing is often viewed as an extreme sport reserved for adrenalin junkies and there’s no denying it can be dangerous; the sport has after all seen some pretty horrendous accidents in its history. Just last summer an experienced 32-year-old climber died after falling 50 feet from Dancing Ledge, near Swanage, Dorset.
But these are very isolated incidents and those involved tend to be climbers really pushing the limits. But taking the right precautions, climbing can be fun, safe and exhilarating, even if your heart still skips a beat at the thought of falling.
So why am I so keen to jump headfirst into a sport where falling is as much a part of the fun as the actual climbing? Am I an adrenalin seeker? Not really. I’ll avoid falling at any cost. Even roller coasters scare the living daylights out of me. I’m much more at home in the spinning teacups.
I started climbing last September and wasn’t planning on falling in love with it, but I did. I thrive on the sense of achievement upon completing a route you thought impossible and conquering a lead climb should give me even greater satisfaction.
Sport leading can be just as safe as top-roping, but with the added technicalities and increased scare-factor, senior climbing instructor, Tym Miller-White, recommends spending two to five months getting comfortable with top-roping before attempting to lead.
There are a number of challenges when starting out. Of course there’s the fear, but you also have to take in some additional fiddly bits like ensuring you have a firm hold before clipping in, making sure you don’t Z-clip or back-clip or place your foot behind the rope. I’ve been told, should I fall having placed my foot incorrectly, I could end up upside down. Gulp!
So after six months of bouldering and top-roping it was finally time. Having managed to ‘rope in’ the help of some friendly volunteers including Josh – a senior outdoor instructor and keen lead climber – and a friend who’s a dab hand with a camera, we trundle down to my local climbing centre, Boulders.
Leading tends to be done at a lower grade than top-roping, and as I’m currently top-roping at 5+, Josh sets up a 4+, informing me it’s “a nice one” after nimbly mountain goating to the top in a matter of seconds. One slight problem – I’m a head smaller than him, so a nice climb for him turns out to be rather a stretch for me. But I relish a challenge.
A few preparations and I’m ready. The moves to the first carabiner are fairly straightforward, so I clip in no problem. I find it amazing how much more I have to think about my moves, despite it being a relatively easy climb. But at the second clip I make my first mistake.
“You Z-clipped Margaux!” Josh exclaims. Basically I’d taken the rope from beneath the last carabiner to clip into the next, so had I climbed another metre and fallen, I’d have fallen four metres instead of two.
First attempt foiled, I try again. First clip. Second clip. The third clip gets a little tricker, as I have to squeeze the hold with my left hand, reaching over it with the right to clip in. Cramp, cramp, cramp and release; phew! This climb reminds me how flexible I used to be. I really ought to work on my flexibility again – I’m sure it would do wonders for my climbing.
A couple more tricky manoeuvres up past the fourth clip, more huffing and puffing, and I’d made it – elated, joyful and proud. But it wasn’t over yet. I still had the hardest part ahead of me – the fall. Oh why had I agreed to voluntarily throw myself off a climbing wall?
The fear of falling in a lead climb is one of the biggest discouragements from trying it out in the first place, and can become a huge hindrance to your climbing development if not dealt with. Tym has the perfect solution, “When inside I try and fall off in every session, just to remind myself that falling is completely safe. It’s the unknown that people are scared of, so you need to get rid of the unknown and fall off a lot.”
I’d practiced a few falls with a loose top-rope, so I knew it would be scary, but I hadn’t anticipated just how frightening it would be. So heart thumping, hands sweating, I put all my trust in my belayer Josh, and jump. My involuntary scream attracts a few inquisitive glances. The fall has surprised everyone, because instead of falling two meters, I fall more like four.
Having anticipated a somewhat shorter fall, my Scottish cameraman had zoomed in too far, meaning I fell off screen. Now for the sake of some video footage I had to do the whole thing again. The second fall was just as inelegant, landing pretty much face first into the wall. I’m sure with time, I’ll learn to bring my feet up.
Although not entirely thrilled at having to go through two pretty big falls in one session, it’s certainly given me confidence in the equipment and although overcoming the fear of falling will be a battle I face every time I climb, I’m starting to win the head battle.
“Lead climbing gives you a lot of freedom, the freedom to go and climb anywhere really. With indoor climbing you have the freedom to climb on any route, in Boulders, that’s 60% more choice than if you were just top-roping,” Tym shares.
I think if I was like Tym, who basically lives and dreams climbing, then I like him might also be booking three lovely climbing holidays this year. But I think I’ll settle for some nice climbing in Dorset or my local quarries when the weather warms up a little.
Margaux Smale is a trainee journalist studying for a masters degree at Cardiff university, who blogs about all kinds of adventures. You can follow her on Twitter @outdoorgirl_UK and check out her original blog post here.