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Start Trad Climbing Early

Increasingly, new climbers are entering the sport of climbing by starting off indoors or at a local sport climbing crags. Usually climbers first climb on a top-rope then over time they may have the courage and skill to try their hands at leading a pitch. The vast and ever-growing availability of these types of climbing venues is terrific for the growth and recognition of the sport as a whole but it seems many climbers are left unprepared for a transition to traditional climbing, if they so choose, that may not otherwise have been so harsh had they been introduced to the sport from a slightly different angle.

Sport climbing is all about the movement and that is what makes it unique. The only thing one really needs to worry about is how to position ones self on the holds and whether they have the strength to hang on long enough. Route finding or the overall boldness of an ascent is usually not a consideration. Historically, climbers put up routes from the ground upward. Climbers followed natural features that could accept protection points every so often. If the climbing was hard protection points were more sought after and if there was a small section where protection opportunities were vacant then perhaps a bolt would be placed. Bolts were placed sparingly due to the time and difficulty of placement and the effective scaring of the landscape. Moreover, route finding was an essential art form to be able to safely complete a climb. With the advancement in the technology of equipment climbers began being able to push onto steeper rock and rock more scant of holds. To protect these more exposed climbs some climbers reached for drills and sport climbing was ultimately born, a movement in climbing that wasn’t without some push back due to ethical and stylistic differences to the sport.

One large determining factor in the style of a route; and what many would deem the largest difference between traditional routes vs. sport climbs is whether a route was established from the ground up, or paradoxically, from the top down while on rappel. Instead of a lead climber selectively placing bolts in the sporting art of crafting a traditional line, new sport climbing crags became rap-bolting parties and the ethic of ground up ascents became far removed. There was no reason to intentionally have bold, run-out sport climbs the vast majority of the time and this has changed the way many view and approach climbing as a whole today.

Sport climbing has perhaps unintentionally led many climbers to believe that you wont get hurt if you take a climbing fall; a problematic idea when taken to climbing in a traditional venue. Sometimes traditional climbs may not protect well allowing for longer or potentially dangerous falls. Some routes bear an annotation in their rating such as ‘PG’ or ‘R’ indicating that the possibility for gear on the climb isn’t ideal, but often these annotated ratings are only given if just the crux moves do not protect well, least the rest of the climb. Sometimes, and particularly on easier grades, routes may just simply be rut-out. Consequently, those climbing a traditional route should feel comfortable with exposure and the idea that falling is just optional when the climbing is easy or below the advertised grade on a particular route.

Another issue, particularly in the case of those starting to climb outside after starting indoors, is that commonly fewer sport climbs are available at easier grades than more difficult ones. For one, this is commonly due to the fact that climbs with fixed gear are often established by strong climbers who just can’t be bothered to invest in easy climbs and two, often due to the fact that when climbs are easier in grade more natural protection opportunities also exist and these lines lend themselves to being traditional climbs from the start and remain unbolted. As a consequence to the availability of climbs new climbers often are drawn to traditional routes and many climbers are left unprepared and terrified of fall potential because climbing gyms and sport climbing in general have done a great job at teaching new climbers that routes are normally well protected. Add in the new techniques at play for many on trad routes: placing gear, route finding, managing ropes, etc. and climbers are often left far in over their heads.

There is not a perfect solution to the consequences of the evolution of the sport of climbing. I can say that getting outside early on as a climber has certainly helped me see a greater picture of what is and what is not a good idea to try more easily. If anything, I think it is important to remember what climbing is and what your goals are. Are you climbing to get to the top because you like the adventure of mountaineering or are you climbing for fitness? Skills do not come if you do not seek them out and practice them. No one becomes a good climber overnight and certainly not a mountaineer that sees and breathes mountains. If one wants to climb traditional routes they should start small and easy and work their way into the discipline, well realizing that what they are doing is a far cry from their time in the gym.

If you would like to learn to trad climb The Backcountry Pros is here to help!

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