Lead climbing

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Lead climbing (or leading) is a technique in rock climbing where the lead climber clips their rope to the climbing protection as they ascend a pitch of the climbing route, while their second (or belayer) remains at the base of the route belaying the rope to protect the lead climber in the event that they fall. The term is used to distinguish between the two roles, and the greater effort and increased risk, of the role of the lead climber.


Leading a climb is in contrast with top roping a climb, where even though there is still a second belaying the rope, the lead climber faces little or no risk in the event of a fall and does not need to clip into any protection as the rope is already anchored to the top of the route (i.e. if they fall off, they just hang from the rope).

Lead climbing can be performed as free climbing in a traditional climbing or a sport climbing format — leading a traditional climb is a much riskier and physically demanding exercise for the climber. Competition lead climbing is a sport climbing format that is part of the Olympic sport of competition climbing. Lead climbing can also be performed as aid climbing. The term is not generally applied to free solo climbing, as the free solo climber is already alone and thus there is no need to distinguish the role of leader from the second.


Leader (top) belayed by the second (below) Vorstieg Zeichnung.jpg
Leader (top) belayed by the second (below)

When leading a route, the lead climber clips their rope into the climbing protection as they progress up a pitch on a given climbing route. If they are leading a traditional climbing route, the lead climber must arrange and insert 'temporary climbing protection' as they climb. If they are leading a sport climbing route, the climbing protection is already installed via pre-drilled bolts, into which the lead climber only needs to attach quickdraws. [1] [2] [3] Leading a traditional route is, therefore, a much riskier and physically demanding undertaking than leading a sport climbing route of the same grade. [4]

Leader (top) belaying the second (below) Nachstieg Zeichnung.jpg
Leader (top) belaying the second (below)

Aside from the specific additional risks of traditional climbing, every lead climber faces the specific risk of falling twice the distance to their last point of climbing protection — i.e. if the lead climber was 3-metres above their last point of protection, then in a fall, they will fall over 6-metres, thus the rope starts to brake 3-metres below their last point of protection. [4] This aspect makes leading a more physically demanding activity than top roping where the lead climber is immediately held by the top-rope upon falling. [1] [2]

Leading a climb also requires good communication between the lead climber and the second who is belaying. In particular, the lead climber will want to avoid the second holding the rope too tightly, which creates "rope drag" that acts as a downward force on the lead climber. However, where the lead climber feels that a fall is imminent, they will want the second to quickly "take in" any slack in the rope to minimize the length of any fall. Once the lead climber has reached the top of the route (or pitch on a multi-pitch climbing route), they can then belay the second from above as the second climbs up, removing any temporary climbing protection that the leader had inserted earlier. [1] [2]

First ascent

The act, and drive, to lead a climb is related to the definition of what is a first ascent (FA), or first free ascent (FFA) in the traditional and sport climbing formats. The grades assigned to traditional and sport climbing routes are based on the climber leading the route, and not top roping it. If a climber wants to test themselves at a specific technical grade or set a new grade milestone, then they must lead the route. [1] [2]

Before the arrival of sport climbing in the early-1980s, traditional climbers frowned upon FFAs where the lead climber had practiced the route beforehand on a top rope (called headpointing), or worse still, practiced the crux moves from a hanging fixed rope (called hangdogging). The arrival of sport climbing led to the development of the redpoint as the accepted definition of an FFA, which includes the practices of headpointing and hangdogging. Where a lead climber can complete a route first-time and without any prior knowledge, it is called an onsight (or a flash if they had prior knowledge) and this is still considered the most desirable form of ascent, and is separately recorded in grade milestones and climbing guidebooks. [5] [6]


Lead climber falling with a modest runout; the belayer is not visible but has clearly gripped the rope. Falling lead climber.jpg
Lead climber falling with a modest runout; the belayer is not visible but has clearly gripped the rope.

Aside from the specific risks involved in placing the temporary protection equipment while leading traditional climbing routes (i.e. and making sure that it won't fall out in the event of a fall), the lead climber needs to manage several other general risks when they are leading a climbing route, such as: [1] [2] [4]


Creeks Giving - Climbing in Indian Creek, Utah - 3.jpg
Rock Climbing Orkney Islands.jpg
Lead climbers on traditional climbing routes carrying their climbing protection on their climbing harness whilst being belayed by their Second who is standing below.

Regardless of the particular type of format that the lead climber is undertaking (i.e. traditional, sport, or aid), they will require a harness attached to one end of a dynamic kernmantle rope (usually via a figure-eight knot). Their second—who will be belaying—will use a mechanical belay device that is clipped into the climbing rope and which 'pays-out' the rope as needed as the lead climber ascends the route, but which can immediately grip the rope tightly in the event that the lead climber falls. [1] [2]

Where the lead climber is following a traditional climbing format, they will need to carry an extensive range of protective equipment (often referred to as a 'climbing rack' and is usually worn around the waist being attached to the climbing harness) such as nuts, hexcentrics and tricams (known as "passive" protection), and/or spring-loaded camming devices (or "friends", and known as "active protection").

Where the lead climber is following a sport climbing format, they only need to carry quickdraws (which they will also attach to their climbing harness) that they will clip into the pre-drilled bolts along the sport route. [1] [2] [9]

Some indoor climbing walls provide in-situ mechanical lead auto belay devices that enable the climber to lead the route but belayed by the device. The most common versions belay the lead climber from above and thus the lead climber is essentially top roping the route, and does not need to carry any climbing protection. [10] [11]

Multi-pitch leading

Longer climbing routes (e.g as in big wall climbing), are usually led in series of multiple pitches of circa 35–50 metres (115–164 ft) in length. In multi-pitch leading, the two climbers can swap the roles of lead climber and second on successive pitches. The second needs to be comfortable working from a hanging belay, and both need to be familiar with the process for swapping between roles safely and efficiently. [12] Given that average pitch length will be longer, and that the weather potentially poorer, both climbers need to be clear in how they communicate with each other, and the climbing commands. [13]

On long but easier routes, the climbing pair may use simul climbing, whereby both climbers simultaneously ascend the route. The lead climber acts like on a normal lead climb, however, the second does not remain belaying in a static position, but instead also climbs, removing/unclipping the protection equipment of the lead climber. Both climbers are tied to the rope at all times, and both make sure that there are several points of protection in situ between them. Simul climbing is performed on terrain both climbers are comfortable on, as any fall is serious; often the stronger climber goes second. [14]

Competition lead climbing

Janja Garnbret in the 2018 IFSC Climbing World Championships Climbing World Championships 2018 Lead Final Garnbret 04.jpg
Janja Garnbret in the 2018 IFSC Climbing World Championships

The development of the safer format of sport climbing in the early 1980s led to rapid development in the sport of competition lead climbing. [15] The first major international lead climbing competition was held in Italy at Sportroccia in 1985. [15] By the late 1990s, competitive lead climbing was joined by competition bouldering, and competition speed climbing in what was to become the annual IFSC Climbing World Cup and biennial IFSC Climbing World Championships. [15] Competition lead climbing first appeared in the 2020 Summer Olympics for men's and women's medal events; it was structured in a format consisting of a single "combined" event of lead, bouldering and speed climbing. [16] [17]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing</span> Activity to ascend a steep object

Climbing is the activity of using one's hands, feet, or other parts of the body to ascend a steep topographical object that can range from the world's tallest mountains to small boulders. Climbing is done for locomotion, sporting recreation, for competition, and is also done in trades that rely on ascension, such as rescue and military operations. Climbing is done indoors and outdoors, on natural surfaces, and on artificial surfaces

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Traditional climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Traditional climbing is a type of free climbing in rock climbing where the lead climber places the protection equipment while ascending the route; when the lead climber has completed the route, the second climber then removes the protection equipment as they climb the route. Traditional climbing differs from sport climbing where the protection equipment is pre-drilled into the rock in the form of bolts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of climbing terms</span> For rock climbing and mountaineering

Glossary of climbing terms relates to rock climbing, mountaineering, and to ice climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">First ascent</span> Mountaineering and climbing term

In mountaineering and climbing, a first ascent, is the first successful documented climb to the top of a mountain or the top of a particular climbing route. Early 20th-century mountaineers and climbers focused on reaching the tops of iconic mountains and climbing routes by whatever means possible, often using considerable amounts of aid climbing, and/or with large expedition style support teams that laid "siege" to the climb.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ice climbing</span> Type of climbing with ice tools

Ice climbing is a climbing discipline that involves ascending routes consisting of frozen water. To ascend, the ice climber uses specialist equipment, particularly double ice axes and rigid crampons. To protect the route, the ice climber uses steel ice screws that require skill to employ safely and rely on the ice holding firm in any fall. Ice climbing routes can vary significantly by type, and include seasonally frozen waterfalls, high permanently frozen alpine couloirs, and large hanging icicles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock-climbing equipment</span> List of manmade gear

Rock-climbing equipment varies with the type of climbing undertaken. Bouldering needs the least equipment outside of shoes and chalk and optional crash pads. Sport climbing adds ropes, harnesses, belay devices, and quickdraws to clip into pre-drilled bolts. Traditional climbing adds the need for carrying a "rack" of temporary passive and active protection devices. Multi-pitch climbing adds devices to assist in ascending and descending fixed ropes. Finally, aid climbing uses unique equipment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Free climbing</span> Climbing without using aid climbing

Free climbing is a form of rock climbing in which the climber can only use climbing equipment for climbing protection, but not as an aid to help in their progression in ascending the route. Free climbing, therefore, cannot use any of the tools that are used in aid climbing to help overcome the obstacles encountered while ascending a route. The development of free climbing was an important moment in the history of rock climbing, including the concept and definition of what determined a first free ascent of a route by a climber.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Solo climbing</span> Style of climbing performed alone

Solo climbing, or soloing, is a style of climbing in which the climber climbs a route alone, without the assistance of a belayer. By its very nature, it presents a higher degree of risk to the climber, and in some cases, is considered extremely high risk. Note that the use of the term "solo climbing" is generally separate from the action of bouldering, which is itself a form of solo climbing, but with less serious consequences in the case of a fall. The most dangerous form of solo climbing is free solo climbing, which means both climbing alone and without any form of climbing protection.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aid climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Aid climbing is a form of rock climbing that uses mechanical devices and equipment, such as aiders, for upward momentum. Aid climbing is different than free climbing, which only uses mechanical equipment for protection, but not to assist in upward momentum. Aid climbing sometimes involves hammering in permanent pitons and bolts, into which the aiders are clipped, but there is also 'clean aid climbing' which avoids any hammering, and only uses removable placements.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sport climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Sport climbing is a type of free climbing in rock climbing where the lead climber clips into pre-drilled permanent bolts for their protection while ascending a route. Sport climbing differs from the riskier traditional climbing where the lead climber has to insert temporary protection equipment while ascending.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Top rope climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Top rope climbing is a form of rock climbing where the climber is securely attached to a climbing rope that runs through a fixed anchor at the top of the climbing route, and back down to the belayer at the base of the climb. A climber who falls will just hang from the rope at the point of the fall, and can then either resume their climb or have the belayer lower them down in a controlled manner to the base of the climb. Climbers on indoor climbing walls can use mechanical auto belay devices to top rope alone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pitch (climbing)</span> Steep section of a climbing route requiring a rope

In climbing, a pitch is a section of a climbing route between two belay points, and is most commonly related to the task of lead climbing, but is also related to abseiling. Climbing on routes that require only one pitch is known as single-pitch climbing, and climbing on routes with more than one pitch is known as multi-pitch climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock climbing</span> Type of sport

Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, across, or down natural rock formations or indoor climbing walls. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a usually pre-defined route without falling. Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. Knowledge of proper climbing techniques and the use of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Multi-pitch climbing</span> Type of climbing

Multi-pitch climbing is a type of climbing that typically takes place on routes that are more than a single rope length in height, and thus where the lead climber cannot complete the climb as a single pitch. Where the number of pitches exceeds 6–10, it can become big wall climbing, or where the pitches are in a mixed rock and ice mountain environment, it can become alpine climbing. Multi-pitch rock climbs can come in traditional, sport, and aid formats. Some have free soloed multi-pitch routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Redpoint (climbing)</span> Type of free climbing

In rock climbing, redpointing means to free-climb a climbing route from the ground to the top while lead climbing, after having practiced the route or after having failed first attempt. Climbers will try to redpoint a route after having failed to onsight it, or flash it. The first successful redpoint of a route, in the absence of any prior onsight or flash, is recorded as the first free ascent (FFA) of that route.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Competition climbing</span> Competitive rock climbing

Competition climbing is a form of regulated rock climbing competition held indoors on purpose-built artificial climbing walls. The three competition climbing disciplines are lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing. The result of multiple disciplines can be used in a "combined" format to determine an all-round winner. Competition climbing is sometimes called "sport climbing", which is the name given to pre-bolted lead climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rope solo climbing</span> Type of solo climbing with protection

Rope-solo climbing or rope-soloing is a form of solo climbing, but unlike with free solo climbing, which is also performed alone and with no climbing protection whatsoever, the rope-solo climber uses a mechanical self-belay device and rope system, which enables them to use the standard climbing protection to protect themselves in the event of a fall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Big wall climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Big wall climbing is a form of rock climbing that takes place on long multi-pitch routes that normally require a full day, if not several days, to ascend. In addition, big wall routes are typically sustained and exposed, where the climbers remain suspended from the rock face, even sleeping hanging from the face, with limited options to sit down or escape unless they abseil back down the whole route. It is therefore a physically and mentally demanding form of climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Simul climbing</span> Technique in climbing

Simul climbing, also known as climbing with a running belay, is a climbing method or style where all the climbers climb at the same time while tied into the same rope. Protection is placed by the first member of the rope team and the last member removes the pieces of gear. The length of rope used during simul climbing varies but is often between 15–30 metres (50–100 ft). In most cases, the climbing team maintains multiple pieces of protection between them to prevent a system failure if one of the pieces was to fail. Usually, a belay device is not used. However, the first climber may be belayed by the second until enough rope is out for the leader to avoid a ground fall. Similarly, the leader may use a belay device as the second approaches a belay station to avoid the potential for a large fall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Auto belay</span> Mechanical belay device

An auto belay is a mechanical device used for belaying in indoor climbing walls, in both training and competition climbing formats. The device enables a climber to ascend indoor routes on a top rope but without the need for a human belaying partner. The device, which is permanently mounted in a fixed position at the top of the route, winds up a tape or steel wire to which the ascending climber is attached. When the ascending climber sits back, or falls, the auto belay automatically brakes and smoothly lowers the climber to the ground.


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