It’s early February in Joshua Tree National Park. A light breeze whips my shirttail around and causes my already aching legs to tighten a bit more. There is nothing but the slight friction between rubber and rock that is keeping me in place. I hyperfocus on my breathing, desperately moving my hands from bump to ditch looking for some type of purchase. There is nothing. Nothing but an expanse of cheese grater-like orange granite below me, and a silver metal bolt two feet out of my reach. “Breathe, Justin,” I tell myself. “Breathe.”

This here is the moment; the moment that makes or breaks a rock climber.

This is where we decide to either overcome our fears and focus our intent, or succumb to panic and inevitably fall. This feeling right here, this is the feeling that defines me as a climber.

Climbing rocks is a mental battle

Justin in Lander
Author, Justin Wallace, caught in an introspective moment

Rock climbing is becoming exceedingly popular and it’s starting to grab a lot of mainstream attention. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s a great way to bring attention to the sport, attain greater funding, and give us a medium to advocate environmentalism to the masses. I’m not complaining.

There is a skewed perspective of climbing though. Everyone likes to think that it is a great physical feat and you’ll be hanging one handed and jumping from hold to hold like a spider monkey. And sure, if you’re Chris Sharma, you probably will be.

For the rest of us though, climbing is more of an ongoing mental battle rather than physical.

I was equally as ignorant when I started climbing. I started in a gym like the majority of my generation, and I knew from the first toprope gym climb that this was going to take over my life. I owned my own rope within the first week. And after a couple weeks of gym climbing and internet researching, I was outside rigging up my own topropes and learning to climb actual rock. In my head, I was a “real rock climber” now. I had no idea how different lead climbing (let alone trad climbing) was and what kind of new challenges it would represent.

The Sound of One Shoe Tapping

the sound of one shoe tapping
“The Sound of One shoe tapping” courtesy of Mountain Project

Trust the rubber. Keep breathing. You’re safe. Breathe with your diaphragm. Position your weight over the foot. Push down. Trust the rubber… I repeated all of this, out loud, almost as a mantra, as I found my way, ever so slowly, through those two feet to the next bolt. If I wasn’t too scared to move quickly, I would have slammed a draw onto the bolt, but I couldn’t. I gingerly pushed the draw onto the bolt and gently inched the rope up and through the other side. Safety. For now.

I was only halfway up “The Sound of One Shoe Tapping,” a 100’ 5.8 slab climb with a total of 3 bolts and one optional piece at the bottom, and I was literally shaking. This was my first lead climb, and to this day, the most frightened I have ever been on the wall. It was the defining moment in my climbing “career.” If I didn’t embrace the fear, understand I was safe-ish, and push through, I most likely would have quit forever.

Helmets are cool

black diamond helmet
My Black Diamond Vector sporting a Crimpin’ Ain’t Easy sticker

The reason I said safe-ish instead of safe is because, as I mentioned before, I was pretty ignorant when I started climbing. I knew from internet research how to lead climb, kind of. I never truly understood the concept of backstepping. I just shook my head and figured it would be alright. Speaking of heads, I also didn’t think helmets were too cool, so I simply opted out.

Think about this: I am about 20’ from my last bolt on a slab climb. I am backstepped up to my knee and shaking from fear while debating if I should move on or just let go. Did I mention that this is my belayers first lead belay? Yeah, that too.

With the lack of helmet, I could have EASILY used my head to create a stain on the side of a beautiful rock face.

Luckily though, I pushed through. And with even greater luck, I never slipped.

Why we do it

The last two bolts were equally as frightening. Not a single move let up. I can’t really remember any of the individual moves, to be honest with you. I was in a different state of mind. I simply breathed, moved, breathed, moved, freaked out a bit, then breathed and moved some more.  

Yelling from the summit of tahquitz
Yelling from the summit of Tahquitz

What I do remember though, and will never forget, is topping the climb. The moment I pulled my shaking legs onto the top and clipped the chains, my body released. The last 10-20 minutes of pure terror and anxiety manifested itself in a throat scratching roar. I yelled my triumph into the air at the top of my lungs. I yelled like I’ve never yelled before. I was in pure ecstasy. 

Appreciating the whole journey

I’ve advanced a lot as a climber from that day.  I have yelled from plenty of mountains, cliff faces, and boulders. I have summited significantly harder and more dangerous climbs. I used what I learned from that day and applied it to push myself over and over again. But I have yet to ever repeat that feeling of fear. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. Maybe I’m not pushing my mental limits like I did when I started. But maybe I shouldn’t be either.

Limestone Climbing
Justin Wallace climbing Zorro (11c, sport) in Wild Iris, WY

Physically, my first lead wasn’t all that difficult. I mean, an Elvis-legged gumby (like me) was able to onsight it and (if SuperTopo can be trusted) it was put up by a homeless man with a single shoe in 1988. Mentally, however, I was redlined. I was pushed to my limit and then some. As much as I like to push my limits, I think my ignorance put me a little over my head on this one. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was an experience that pushed me to pursue climbing for the rest of my life.

There is no reason to climb every climb at your peak physical or mental limitations. But there is every reason in the world to climb every climb like it’s your last. To give 100% of your focus to the wall and enjoy every second on it. Rock climbing isn’t just sipping scotch on summits with your best friends. Its that painstaking day in and day out battle against yourself and the elements. Rock climbing is a journey, and summits are just a place to relax between one journey and the next.

8 thoughts on “My First Lead Climb: Ignorance and Triumph

  1. all the yelling seems unnecessary to me. Yeah, i’m a quiet guy, but… it’s just climbing. I’ve done a fair amount-alpine, a bit of ice, run out slab, big peaks, and i never felt like yelling. Release, yes. Yelling, no. Good job on the sharp end.

    1. Yelling isn’t for everyone. That’s for sure. It’s not just climbing though, I love yelling in all kinds of situations. Including sticking my head out of window and howling at the moon. Yelling, howling, and over expressing just feels good to me.
      My girlfriend and one another one of my climbing partners are both the silent type. I get it.

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