Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Now, lead-climbing different from top-roping in that while the rope is securely fastened through an anchor at the top of the route for the latter, the lead climber has to clip the safety rope to quickdraws spaced several feet apart along the route as he goes. It is a lot more dangerous, and definitely not for beginners.

Here's why: in top-roping, as I'd written earlier, the rope is secured to the climber, goes all the way up through the anchor at the rop of the route, and down again to the belayer. As the climber ascends, the belayer keeps the rope taut (or tight, as the term is) by pulling it through the belay device. If the climber slips and falls, he doesn't really fall much, unless the rope is very slack, or if the belayer lets go. For lead-climbing, however, the rope usually is quite slack - for the belayer needs to feed the climber rope as he goes up, and if the climber falls, he falls the length of the rope measured from his current position to the last quickdraw anchor, times two, plus the stretch of the rope. That's quite a long way to fall.

When some buddies at the place we climb suggested I try lead, I laugh it off without thinking twice. I was not nearly good nor experienced enough for it. Mr Expert once said it is best to start lead-climbing only after a year or two of consistent climbing/training, and I've not taken up this sport for much more than 6 months now. I've just starting doing some top-roping recently, and am still getting past my issue with heights by not looking down. No, I think I might be ready in another half a year, perhaps.

No, that's rubbish, she said. She insisted I make myself ready by next month! Again, I laughed it off. I wouldn't have dismissed her that lightly had I known that she and another friend were well-equipped, prepared and willing to show us the basic stuff - on that day itself. I guess Mr Guitarist Extraordinaire's charm did play a part in securing this very kind and generous offer, but climbers are generally a very friendly and extremely gracious lot. It is not uncommon that when solving a bouldering problem, strangers just get together to discuss strategies, suggest moves and help each other. Of course, after the first encounter, we'd no longer be strangers to each other (even if we might not know everyone's name). The community there is that great.

So, back to our very first lead-climbing lesson. We had to learn the right way to clip the rope onto the quickdraws. We had to learn to do it steadily, swiftly and to avoid back-clipping. I also had to learn to clip just the rope, not my finger along with it. Well, yes, that was embarrassing.

That wasn't so hard, I thought.

Now, let's see you try an easy route on an actual lead wall, they said, presently. Is this actually happening? They must mean the Guitarist, I thought. He's the one who lifts weights, studies climbing theory and practices climbing moves even when he's not on a wall; he's the one in good shape, has excellent endurance and obviously - balls. I'm just a scared, little (physically, that is) girl. They must mean him. Or so I thought.

It was a non-intimidating 5a route, with mostly nice-to-hold jugs. As a safety measure, our Teacher/Belayer clipped the rope to the first quickdraw for him, so it would be like top-roping until he climbed past that point. And up he went. The climbing was like a piece of cake for him, really, though the clipping not so much. It would take some getting used to - clipping while hanging on for dear life on just one pumped-out, tired, aching hand. For a first-timer, he did very well - totally deserved the cheers and applause he got when he got back down.

Then, they turned to me. My turn, they said excitingly. I did not respond immediately. It didn't look too difficult, and I was more than eager to try it for myself, but I was scared (yea, what's new?). I glanced at the bleeding graze on the back of my left hand - got that conquering the speed-wall earlier - and... I was scared.

Teacher/Belayer announced he'd clip the first 3 quickdraws for me (it means if I were to fall before that, I'd be perfectly fine; if I were to fall after that, I'd be far enough from the ground to not be seriously hurt). A part of me was very glad for the added safety measure; another part was a little indignant - what, he needed only one to ensure he wouldn't kill himself, and I needed three? Fine, that thought was totally irrational, I know.

So there I was - properly fastened to the rope, ready to go.

Like I mentioned earlier, the route was an easy 5a, so climbing wasn't that big a problem, even for me. There was only this one stupid hold that was 3 inches out of my reach. Tip-toeing on 1 foot brought me an inch short of it. Bending my knees and then hurling myself upwards to it got my fingers around the edge, which was effectively like a tiny pincher. There was no way I could haul myself up, clinging on only that "pincher" edge. Several attempts, an accidental fall and two scraped hands later, I changed strategy. Dynamic moves are not for the vertically-challenged and always-scared like me. I locked my hands on the hold I was clinging to, smeared on the wall with one foot just enough to get the other one to high-step onto the other hold (that was at chest-level, mind you!) and got to the stubborn one. My entire hand on the entire rock - not just the edge!

Finally! I felt the need to scold it while I was at it - silly, but so satisfying! So, apart from the little drama there, the climbing wasn't that hard.

I didn't feel the clipping was that hard either. I don't remember having to be reminded about not back-clipping, though I probably can't trust my memory to be accurate, being there at the time, feeling anxious, excited and thrilled at the same time. The Guitarist said that for my first (the route's 4th) clip, I attempted to pull the wrong end of the rope; they were calling out to me to correct me, and I simply appeared confused. I don't deny to be often in the confused state when I'm in the middle of getting to the next hold, or thinking about how to get there. There was once, while I was struggling to traverse the expert bouldering wall, he tried to help by suggesting "Right hand on the brown rock!" and I responded with "Which right hand?" when I really meant to ask him which brown rock. Anyhow, even if I didn't ask the wrong question, it would have been a stupid one all the same, for there was only one rock within the reach of my hand that was brown. Anyway, I digressed - so, I managed to complete that 5a lead route.

And I finally understood why people do lead-climbing although they might not be technically sound enough for it. Being more challenging and risky than the regular top-rope also meant that was way more fulfilling when successfully completed. I believe it was reckless of me to have done it knowing I am not quite ready - but gosh, I would so do it again! Of course, that, only if I have experienced, expert supervision and guidance, like we did this time. I am sometimes insane, but I do not have a death wish.

To end this long post:
Anyone who finds it hard to believe that climbing is addictive should just try it. Don't worry, for unless you're doing it professionally, your personal accident insurance will cover you in case anything, erm... happens. I know - I've inquired.

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