Topher Donahue, one of the world’s most experienced trad climbers, is running a new trad coaching program in collaboration with the Colorado Mountain School for beginner through advanced leaders. He volunteered to help SCARPA readers make it to their next level in trad climbing.
Do you ever think, “What do I need to do to be a better trad climber?”
It’s a good question. If you want to be a better sport climber, the answer is in training and practice. With trad climbing, training and practice help, but I know a number of people who have been trad climbing for over 20 years, who climb 5.12 sport, but are still pressed to get up a five-pitch 5.9 trad climb. Then there are the climbers who go trad climbing for a few seasons and just start crushing 5.12 and 5.13 trad. So what’s the difference?
Think of trad climbing like driving a car. Guiding programs don’t typically give you full control of the steering wheel. Climbing film and images show professionals driving at a world-class level and could almost come with a “closed course and professional driver” disclaimer. Climbing instruction media shows you how to use the clutch, change lanes in traffic, and parallel park, but not how to drive on an icy road or make decisions on route-finding, timing or strategy. That’s not to say that guiding programs, films, and technique media aren’t great – they’re fantastic – but for the most part they don’t teach trad climbing proficiency.
One crux of learning to trad climb is that every level requires a different set of skills, and some of them seem to contradict each other. This makes it difficult to distill trad climbing instruction into an easy-to-convey format.
In many ways, the automobile analogy is a good one, and in order to trad climb well you have to learn how to shift gears. As a beginner trad climber, you are overwhelmed with the gear and the seemingly complex rope tricks. Then, as you learn the basics, you put more and more effort into the gear and the ropework to the point where you have little bandwidth left for the gymnastic aspect of the climbing. To improve beyond the intermediate level, it becomes essential that you learn to shift gears from tools and technique to full-throttle, rock-monkey mode. The hard part is knowing when and how to make the shift.
Let’s break down the gears.
First gear is about placing bomber gear and nothing else. Forget about grades, footwork, cordelettes, weather, partners, and route finding. Once you have a bomber piece, then consider how to clip into it, where to go next and how to do the next move. Beginner climbers often worry too much about how to equalize a belay or where the climb goes, that they forget to stay in first gear until they are absolutely certain they have placed protection that will hold a fall. It may take several pieces of gear before you feel good about having a web of protection.
Second gear is about letting out your inner monkey and getting it done. Once you have gear placed and you can look down and see that the fall is safe, pop it into second, drop the clutch, and let it rip. Don’t think about anything else except the gymnastics of climbing. Try hard and don’t give up. Once you get to the point where your potential fall is getting long or approaching a bad landing, you’ll need to shift back to first gear again.
Third gear is about tricks and rope technique, such as learning to clip pieces long to avoid rope drag or short to minimize the fall, back leaning safely to preserve gear for later on the lead, equalizing anchors efficiently, and protecting the second on traverses. Spend time in third gear on rest stances, easy sections, and even while belaying.
Fourth gear is about conserving energy and strategic planning – resting when you can, placing gear close together when you need to, but running it out when it’s better not to stop for gear. For example, sometimes if you place a mediocre piece, and pull the rope up to clip it, you are adding slack to the system and risking a longer fall than simply climbing another move or two to a bomber placement. To use fourth gear effectively you need to be able to distinguish real risk from perceived risk so you can make decisions based on consequences rather than feelings.
Fifth gear is about big picture strategy. Can you link two pitches together to save time? Or should you belay short in order to best set up the next lead. This is when you think about starting early (or late) to avoid crowds or assessing the descent before you start the climb. Fifth gear is also about your personal approach to climbing. Are you willing to leave some gear and back off or are you more of a “summit or plummet” climber?
Of course, the tricky part is knowing when to shift gears. Remember that climbers were playing this game safely long before cams, ultralight ropes or detailed topos. The shifting gear analogy is worth considering next time you’re tying in for a trad lead, but it is really just an analogy. More importantly, you’ll want to remember that you are really playing two games. One is the sport of climbing – the challenge, the thrill, the achievement, the adventure and the camaraderie. The other is much more basic – you’re trying to stay alive.