I have a friend who climbs with another group. She recently had her first couple of experiences as lead climber (sport climbing).

I'm concerned that she doesn't have the required theory for lead climbing, and whenever possible I lecture her on , or whatever I can come up with.

For example, she was unaware that the rope-carabiner in a quickdraw should face away from the direction of travel. And for all I know, her group uses a very small subset of common rope calls.

Fortunately, she's eager to learn, and she's an avid reader.

However, being mostly a self-taught climber, I find it hard to sum up all the basics you need to know.

Other than lending her my books, what are the essential key-points she should be taught?

Edited to add that this is for sport climbing.

  • 1
    Good question. Worth making into a community wiki?
    – Nisan.H
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 7:22

3 Answers 3


WARNING: Climbing is considered a dangerous activity. No written material can substitute proper teaching. The following is a just a list of topics, but you should seek a professional instructor.

There are quite a few important things, assuming you mean sport-leading (trad climbing involves more):

  1. Quickdraws: understand about gate directions, z-clipping, reverse-clipping, rope-travel, and rope-drag. Practice clipping techniques.
  2. Belay device: auto-locking (grigri) vs. standard friction device. Rope feeding technique, assessing slack in the system, when to feed out more slack and when to "listen" to the rope (e.g. be ready to catch a fall.)
  3. Lead belaying: feeding out rope, amount of rope to feed (slack), how to do it (see belay device,) belayer position and stance (safe location, ready to be yanked/jerked by sudden tension/pull due to a big fall), catching falls (work on soft/dynamic catch, possibly jumping), never letting go of the brake hand (PBUS), spotting until first bolt is clipped.
  4. Communication: "Clipping!", "Clipped!", "Falling!" in addition to standard climbing phrases.
  5. Lead Climbing: clipping bolts (at waist height unless there's a good reason to do otherwise, clipping rope without putting finger through gate (lots of practice), quickdraw orientation (biner gate facing away from rock,) rope management (with respect to feet in particular,) falling (being ready to land, watch your ankles, wrists, head, etc.)
  6. Anchors: full top-rope anchor vs. double-quickdraw vs. cordellete, in addition: standard anchor stuff (SERENE, understanding direction and distribution of load, etc,) cleaning anchors (safely, personal anchor system, how to transition from belay to PAS and back safely)
  7. Multi-pitching, belaying from the top (using grigri, using auto-blocking (reverso, atc guide)), belaying from an anchor (as a second), cleaning as a second
  8. Understand dynamic ropes, fall factors, stretch, etc.
  9. Explain foam helmets (protection in fall, not just from rockfall from above), belay gloves
  10. Knots: clove/full hitch (for use as personal safety using the rope attached to your harness), munter/half hitch (emergency belay, say, if you dropped your belay device...), right-hand bowline (useful for anchoring trees, for example), rethreaded bowline (safe for ring-loading, non-capsizing), understanding behaviour of knots under pressure: ring-loading, capsizing, blocking knots, passing knots (to pull knots through rings/biners), etc.

Should already know: rappelling, setting and cleaning anchors, using a prussik as third-hand belay in rappel, ascending on a prussik,

Personal note:, I can forgive new climbers most things, except for the severe lack of practice in belaying. This is a serious issue, where a lot of self-taught and non-indoor climbing climbers often lack until very far in their climbing careers, due to a reasonable unwillingness to practice on shoddy outdoor anchors and on their own ropes. It's absolutely worthwhile to go to an indoor gym every now and then and spend a few hours practising leading, falling, and catching falls.

  • 2
    +1 - esp the note about obstinate "outdoor only" climbers. Indoor climbing may feel like a phony substitute to some, but its a great place to sharpen basic skills, especially belay and lead belay skills. Its shameful whenever you meet an "experienced" trad climber who doesn't understand how to give a soft catch for a lead fall.
    – DavidR
    Commented Jun 2, 2013 at 14:26

Entire books and multi-day training classes are built around thus topic. Climbers spend months either following a more experienced leader, or taking risks and learning stuff the hard way. Lead rock climbing is a complex skill, and I feel like reducing it to a simple Q&A would give people a false sense security.

If you want to help your friend become a leader your best bet would be to encourage her to climb with other experienced leaders, get a book, and / or take a class from a climbing gym or guide service.

Why it matters

It doesn't happen often, but I have seen "self taught" beginners with a shiny new rack of gear, that lack even a basic understanding of what they're doing. Often these people are trying to climb a 150' sheer cliff "for practice" before attempting a mountain.

  • 1
    Yes, we should be careful to make this a "list of things to know" and not a proper way lo learn them.
    – Roflo
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 16:41
  • 1
    :) And that list could have some value. I guess I just wanted the record to state that this stuff is actually hard, and best approached with some humility... it doesn't happen often, but I have seen "self taught" beginners with a shiny new rack of gear, that lack even a basic understanding of what they're doing. Often these people are going trad climbing once "for practice" before attempting a mountain.
    – DavidR
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 13:03
  • @DavidR followed by being rescued by the local SAR (loss for the community, but practice for SAR), after which they abandon the sport, sell their rack for a quarter of the price (profit for the community?), and never try it again...
    – Nisan.H
    Commented Apr 15, 2013 at 17:50

Separate answer because I feel it addresses a different point than the other answers

As stated in the other answers, you should of course teach basic clipping and leading techniques, making sure to emphasize the stuff that will get you killed (whenever teaching beginners I don't dance around this issue, "don't do this or you will die" ) basic anchoring and the like.

However, I like to stress, besides just teaching the technical details, is the proper APPROACH to outdoor climbing vs indoor climbing. Just because you can clip a dozen draws and lower off an anchor does not make you a good outdoor climber.

Things to stress

  • COMMUNICATION I religiously read ANAM and other accident reports on supertopo/climbing.com/mountainproject. There is a significant portion of them that are caused by improper communication. Let your belayer know EXACTLY what you are doing and what you are planing to do. Make sure your belayer lets YOU know what they are going to do if its outside basic belaying duties. There are multiple ANAM reports of people dying or getting seriously injured when the belayer assumes they are rapelling and the climber assumes they are being lowered off. Make sure to discuss communication strategies before committing to a climb, avoid the "oh fuck" moment when you've crossed over an exposed arrete, gone off route, and realize you are out of earshot and desperately need your belayer to take so you can back off

  • SYSTEMS before committing to a new belay system (whether going off belay and on your PAS at the anchor or switching to rappelling), check, double check, test, and double test the new system before going off the secure system to the new one. Always communicate any system changes with your partner(s). Always understand how the system works, especially if you are the one rigging. When taking newbies climbing I always make sure to describe what every component of the new system does before asking them to commit to my system.

  • EQUIPMENT Know how your equipment works inside and out before using it. Learn all the failure modes, features, how to properly rig it and its peculiarities. For example you would be surprised how many people do not know how to properly lower a climber on a top anchor system with a standard top-anchor ready friction belay device like an atc guide (Do you?). Do not trust that a device is intuitive, know it as well as the designer. Never use another persons equipment without examining it yourself (A well known youth climber recently died after all of his draws failed, the draws were a gift from his girlfriend and were improperly assembled). Never trust fixed gear without examining it, even on established and well used routes (There have been several high profile accidents where fixed draws on popular routes cut ropes during a leader fall). Know how to evaluate bolts and fixed anchors, always back-up fixed soft gear.

  • FALL DYNAMICS Know how a fall will load your anchors and your belayer, know the basic physics behind how the rope arrests your fall and what can cause that system to fail (z clipping is dangerous precisely because you shorten the dynamic length of the rope and significantly increase the fall factor). Half of all climbing fatalities are due to leader falls, and the majority of these do not have aggravating circumstances like gear failure or belayer error, falls are dangerous, knowing how to fall is important, knowing how to climb and place gear so your fall risk is minimized is even more important.

  • RETREAT Know how and when to bail off a climb, know how to deal with emergency situations, this includes basic knowledge of rescue systems (knots, tools, and techniques) and how to execute the. Too many people get stranded and call for SAR when they are more than capable, physically, of helping themselves had they practiced some basic rescue systems. This also includes planning a retreat strategy on longer multi pitch climbs and knowing how to descend once you get to the top. In many, many places the descent is significantly more sketchy and dangerous than the climb itself. Rappelling alone is probably the most dangerous thing you can do climbing besides leading.

There are far, far too many people that get profficient at clipping up indoor gym routes and then decide to try it outside thinking that cragging is just an outdoor gym. It's not, and make sure to stress that to any new person you take outside climbing. Just because you are strong enough to climb 5.12 doesn't mean you are a good climber outside, this applies triply so for trad climbing.


Spontaneous gear explosion/failure is responsible for a tiny fraction of climbing incidents, of which the majority are related to fixed gear failures. The rest of the non-act-of-god (read:rockfall) accidents are due user error, your number one risk in climbing is you or your partner making a mistake (or several) so do everything to minimize the risk of mistakes, including your choice of partner. If you partner objects or is offended by you checking their systems, their gear, their rigging, or their belaying, DO NOT CLIMB WITH THEM.

  • 2
    Thanks for your input @crasic. Do note that the accepted answer is a community wiki. Could you include your recommendations to that answer?
    – Roflo
    Commented Jul 19, 2013 at 22:04
  • Either way, these are very good points. +1.
    – Nisan.H
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 7:52
  • I think the quickdraws you're talking about were the ones that killed Tito Traversa, they were assembled by the non-climbing mother of someone in the party he was climbing with. climbing.com/news/…
    – stib
    Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 5:52

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