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Becoming a Trad Climber: A Rite of Passage

Traditional rock climbing is a quickly evolving art in a modern world. Sadly, a growing demographic of climbers don’t think it’s worth the risk involved. But is it really that dangerous?  Or are people just becoming too accustomed to the safe environment provided to us by gyms and sport climbing?  Regardless, that’s not what this post is about.

This is about how you can evolve as a trad climber. 

It’s about how you can stand atop more mountains and gaze upon more of this grand earth’s beauty.

Author, Justin Wallace, taping up for Heart of Darkness (11a, Joshua Tree)

Learning to become a crusher of crack

There are a few different ways you can go about sinking your hands into some cracks. Some safer than others. I surely did not start the safest of ways. I read books on gear placement and got an afternoon’s worth of “instruction” from a guy I met in Joshua Tree.  After that, I purchased some used protection from another guy I met at climbers coffee and decided to test my grit on the flaring cracks of the orange desert. Needless to say, not smart. Trad climbing is a lot more than just owning a rack!  I wasn’t even aware of how different the grading system was. I assumed since I climbed 5.10 in the gyms, I would start on a 5.8 crack. A 5.8 crack in Joshua Tree… If you are unaware of how trad grades differ from sport please read Climbing Season in Joshua Tree.  With that knowledge, you can understand how absolutely dumb that was.

Justin Wallace following pitch 3 of Dark Shadows (5.8, Red Rocks)

In the end, though, I’m alive.  Not only am I alive, but I now have thousands of feet of safe trad leading beneath my belt.  Trad leading that has had gear placements scrutinized and inspected the whole way up.  Which leads me to the right way to start trad leading.

You should find yourself a Trad Daddy

Yeah, sounds kinky.  But really, for the blossoming trad climber, nothing could be better than finding an old trad head.  Someone that has been doing it for longer than you’ve been walking. Find this man or woman and latch yourselves to them.  

Casey Vitek; Boldest man on the sharp end.

Why would an old trad head want to take any interest in you?  That‘s one of the greatest things about rock climbing. Nobody wants to see anyone get hurt and we all love to teach. The more people I can teach to safely lead, the more people I can rely on to take the sketchy run-out slab pitches for me.  Now, I wouldn’t refer to myself as an old trad head (yet) but I have still taught my fair share of people. One of them (Casey Vitek) just recently swapped leads with me up an eight-pitch classic 5.9 called Whodunnit in Tahquitz.  He never took, he never fell, and (most importantly) all of his placements were bomber. I couldn’t have been more proud. After that climb, I really understood why a climbing mentor does what he what he does.

A climbing mentor isn’t the only way

I understand we can’t all just walk to the local crag or gym and find a wizened old man that used to trade leads with Fred Becky to show us the secrets of gear placement.  And that’s understandable. There are other ways to learn, of course! Clinics are probably the next best thing. Not only do clinics have amazing instructors that are there to teach you, but they also get you involved in the climbing community.  Getting involved in the community will open a lot of doors. Through clinics, my climbing partners and I have found cheap resoles, free gear, places to crash and, of course, people to climb with. I recently had an amazing clinic with Shingo Ohkawa that single-handedly took 2-3 minutes off of every anchor I’ve built since.

Casey Vitek, Justin Wallace, and William Nicewonger in Red Rock, NV

The last safe path to becoming a trad crusher is to hire a guide.  Hiring a guide definitely isn’t the cheapest method, but is by far one of the most instructive.  You can get one on one knowledge from a certified safe crusher. I know some guides for Golden State Guiding that have done just this for friends.  They can teach you not only the required skills for placing gear and climbing rocks but other necessary skills such as rescues and escapes.

Some extra trad beta

My hands after swapping leads on Headache (10c, Zion NP)

Trad climbing is a lot more than technical crack climbing skills and placing protection.  One of the biggest aspects that’s constantly overlooked is critical thinking in emergencies. When you’re doing multiple pitches up a large face or an alpine style ascent with weather to fight, it’s making hard choices and keeping your head on straight that will not only get you the send but keep you alive.  It’s important to know when to bail and when to push.

You would also be surprised about how much planning can make a difference.  Unlike sport climbing where you just snag some draws, a rope and climb at the shiny things, there is a good amount of planning in a large trad ascent.  You need to figure the gear, the rope (or ropes), the approach, the descent, the right amount of food and water, layers, etc… Good planning and a motivating partner are what makes a solid day in the mountains.  And if you’re anything like me, there is nothing better than a solid day in the mountains.

As always, if you have questions, need some beta, or even just a climbing partner.  My email is just a click away!

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