When to Learn How to Lead Climb
Updated: Sep 21
“When should I start leading?”
We get this question in the gym often. And the truth is, there is no right time to start leading, and sometimes the decision isn’t entirely yours.
I had been climbing for just over two years when I first learned how to lead climb. I was in an area called Manchester Wall outside of Richmond, VA. For those of you that have never had the pleasure of climbing at Manchester Wall, they left the pylons of the old railroad bridge up. These pylons are made of enormous, ancient stones that we climbers soon discovered were climbable. Years later, we now have a dedicated climbing area that is a strange Frankenstein of indoor and outdoor climbing. The holds and perfectly flat walls say indoor, but the river behind you and icy sleet in your face scream outdoors. It’s all very confusing. But it makes for a nice transitional location when learning to lead climb.
Skywalkers. Courtesy of Vertical Archaeology.
Some friends and I had met at Manchester to top rope for a bit when, from around the corner, the single most retro, old-school climber we had ever seen emerged. We had seen him around, and he was quite the sight in all his gear pieces. He had the janky, 1970’s harness, the timeless quickdraws (which consisted of purple, frayed slings with an ancient carabiner on each end), and a sweet pair of Montelliana Skywalkers. Skywalkers are one of the many vintage shoes that modern climbing brands have begun modeling their “retro high tops” after. These were originals.
We had been discussing where to set up when he sauntered up to us, his harness jingling like old wind chimes left on the porch, “What’s up, guys! Can I snag a catch?”
We all looked around, our eyes darting from his harness to his leathery skin to each other and back to his harness.
Feeling brave, I spoke first, “Uhm, I’ve never lead belayed before, but….”
He cut me off, “I’ve seen you out here a handful of times now. You’ve got this!” He began to tie in on our rope, and so naturally, I loaded my ATC and waited. “Just feed me slack and catch me if I fall! Ready?” His voice was gruff like sandpaper on calluses, but he spoke with unwavering confidence. He didn’t wait for a response and simply grinned and stepped up to the wall.
As he began to climb, it was then that a couple of things occurred to me: My hands knew what to do, probably because I had watched about a thousand videos on how to lead. Lead belaying wasn’t so hard! Also, my climber was well into his 60s.
Gotta keep it together, Gray. Don’t want to be known as the guy that dropped the old-timer.
In the meantime, he’d scampered up 2 or 3 bolts and, so far, appeared to be alive. Alive as he was, I noticed him start to slow down somewhere around the 4th bolt.
A voice came from over my right shoulder, my climbing guru angel or maybe the climber set up next to us, “Give him a little more slack. And take a step closer to the wall. If he falls here, you’ll get sucked in.”
I did as the voice said. Sure enough, my kooky, cocky, decrepit climber slipped off of a hold. I knew enough to keep my hand on the brake line, but I still hadn’t been close enough to the wall. So the rope sucked me in, and my knee slammed into the stone. Then I went up. Feet scraping up the wall, my ascent slowed to a stop 8 feet off the ground, just underneath my climber. Eyes wide, I lowered myself and then him.
“Oh yeah!” he shouted with his bloody knuckles extended for a fist bump, “Nice catch, man!”
I suppose the takeaway here is that sometimes you may not think you’re ready. Sometimes you might not even make the decision for yourself! But as I think back, I was pretty equipped to handle the situation. I knew myself well enough to understand my limits. And while I was nervous, my climber trusted me, and I ultimately had the tools to handle myself.
There is no right time to start leading.
But tons of resources are available to you through your gym, the web, and your local climbing community that will leave you feeling equipped to start leading. If I had to throw together a couple of quick tips?
Take a lead class! Lots of gyms, including Sportrock, offer lead classes for members. These classes will teach you the basics; by the end, I guarantee you will feel ready to lead.
Classes aren’t your thing? Find a mentor! While I didn’t exactly have a mentor, I climbed with experienced climbers until they pretty much decided for me that I was ready to lead. Ask around the gym. Lots of climbers have no problem taking you outside to learn to lead! Just remember, don’t try to get another climber to teach you indoors. This is against pretty much every gym’s policy.
Make sure you have your own gear. Having your own gear means a couple of things: a) You’re committed to climbing. B) You plan to continue climbing. And C) You now have a physical foundation to feel more comfortable climbing. There is something about having your own harness that makes taking the leap into lead climbing easier
Learn with your partner. If you progress at the same rate that your partner does, you will feel more comfortable learning to lead, making mistakes, and correcting one another. I cannot stress how crucial this is. While my first lead belay wasn’t with my partner, my first lead climb was, and he short-roped me on every clip. We learned to lead together without judgment and in an environment where we had no problem correcting one another to maintain safety.
While you don’t have to go through what I did to learn to lead climb, these tips that I picked up along the way serve as strong guidelines to figure out if you’re ready to lead. If you’re asking when you can start leading and follow these guidelines, you’re probably ready to start clipping!
When it comes to belaying, it's crucial to know what you're doing. That's why we created this Ultimate Guide to Belaying.