It’s been nearly three years since I decided to start actively pursuing rock climbing. I’ve been building my skills and knowledge while acquiring experience in the various disciplines. I began with basic toproping and bouldering, then moved into leading moderate sport climbs. Last year I tried ice climbing and began following on multi-pitch trad routes. This has all been part of a process building to trad leading. I finally took that precipitous step this weekend and became a trad leader.
Most of you reading this aren’t climbers and may have no idea what I am talking about. Trad is “traditional” climbing. It’s what most of us think of when we picture rock climbing. Two people standing at the base of a route tie themselves together with a rope. The leader begins scaling the wall, the rope trailing beneath him. The follower stands at the base belaying him—feeding him rope and preparing to soften his fall if one occurs. Periodically the leader places gear (protection – pro for short) into cracks and features on the wall and clips the rope to it. The climbing and pro placement continues until the route is ascended. He builds an anchor, attaches himself and the rope to it, and belays the follower up the wall. The follower removes the pro placed by the leader as he climbs so they may reuse it (on a future climb or the next successive pitch). Leading trad takes more skill and knowledge than toproping and the potential for injury can be much greater. Knowing this, I had no intention to begin leading until positive I could handle the risk and responsibility. It also meant buying a lot of pricey gear to build a rack (a collection of the pro and assorted accessories used to trad climb). As of a few days ago, I had finally built that rack and felt confident I could successfully lead some low-grade routes.
There are many places to climb traditionally. Two hours away from L.A is an enormous park full of great trad climbing—Joshua Tree. My friends Al-Insan and Steve were foolish enough to put their confidence in me and agreed to share a JTree weekend where they would aid me in attempting to lead trad (and brave a 24 degree night in a frigid tent). Saturday afternoon, Al-Insan and I found ourselves at the base of a route named False Lieback in a shady and cold grove next to Cap Rock. It seemed like a good choice. It is rated well below the grade I am comfortable climbing (although JTree grades tend to feel much harder than at other climbing areas). We tied in and up I went. The first several feet were easy. I placed a small nut in a tiny flaring crack, attached a quickdraw, and clipped the rope. My first piece of protection was set. I continued up, placed a second piece and found myself in a dilemma. When you are leading, every move matters. You don’t want to slip or commit to something you aren’t positive you can pull off. I had reached a corner that jutted out ahead of me. I would need to traverse over and around this bulge. A mistake would potentially pitch me down onto a boulder and make for a really bad day. When building my rack, I opted to wait on the large size 3 and 4 cams thinking there would be many routes I could climb that wouldn’t need them. Here I was staring at a flaring corner with a size 4 crack above it yet no size 4 cam to place in it. At least twenty minutes passed as I wrestled with committing to this move without that piece of protection (Meanwhile, Al-Insan patiently stood below in the growing cold as his fingers grew numb). I looked for every solution to climb around it and place pro elsewhere—to no avail. I knew it was a move I could do, but I also knew the consequences were bad if I flummoxed it. I considered bailing—quitting. I reached around the rock, stepped onto the face, and chanced it. I stepped up and there was no longer an escape. I was either going immediately up or immediately down.
I had thoughts of an experience I had after moving into sport climbing (lead climbing on walls with pre-placed protection—bolts drilled into the face) on a beachside crag called Point Dume. I once made the mistake to lead a route on that rock when it was wet. I assumed only the base would be damp. I sadly learned that nearly the entire 90 foot face was dripping wet, so damp it would turn the chalk on my hands into milky riverlets. That wall was 90 feet tall with only 4 widely-spaced (somewhat suspect) bolts. It was a slow frightening ascent, but through persistence and precaution I reached the top that day safe and shaken. Now, I was in a similar predicament on a measly 5.4 climb (half the grade of the aforementioned wet climb when dry) called False Lieback.
With my hands wedged in the crack, I worked my feet around the corner, and moved into a body-sized ascent gully. I was focused and frightened, the crack still seemed too wide for any of my gear and I wasn’t in a position where I felt comfortable pausing to place pro anyway. A toe briefly slipped off a nub. Terror shot through my body. I needed to keep moving! Now! I fought to keep my cool, but also fought to make my way up that incline as quickly and efficiently as possible. Huffing and puffing like an asthmatic, I worked my hands up the crack and my feet up the face gunning for a promising feature I could see ahead. I grabbed a firm hold, slid a cam into a bomber crack, clipped in, and released a triumphant yell. One day school teachers will replay recordings of that yell when teaching students the definition of catharsis. I looked back and saw the previous piece of pro I had placed— 20 feet below me.
I continued on, worked past a less-intimidating bulge, placed a couple more pieces of pro, and stepped onto the summit. An immense sense of accomplishment and relief washed over me. I grinned like a moron and jubilantly waved hello to strangers also atop the rock. Years from now this ascent will likely seem comical and unimpressive. At that moment, it was a victory unlike any I’d had before. Small steps can be immense. As if on cue, Steve walked past and saw us. He had arrived just in time to share in the celebration and take photos. I built an anchor and belayed Al-Insan. I would lead two more less stressful routes on Sunday. Hopefully I will lead many more in the future. Yet, the words “False Lieback” will always hold a special place no others can in my stupid little sentimental heart.