Top-Roping to Lead Climbing: How to Make the Transition in Style

You’ve been top-roping for several months now, perhaps even a year or more, and you’re ready to take your climbing to the next level. In sport climbing, starting to lead is the next logical step not only because it allows you more freedom but also because it is more mentally and physically challenging.  However, this transition can be scary to say the least. Instead of sinking back mere inches when you “fall” on top rope, lead falls can range anywhere between 10-30plus feet depending on the situation. Not to mention, they can hurt like hell. Luckily, there are some simple and effective practices that will ensure your safety while making this transition and will help you to feel more comfortable with the entire process, including taking a massive whipper.

Find Your Sensei
First and foremost, you’re going to want to make sure that you enlist a climbing friend who is adept at lead climbing, belaying, cleaning routes, building anchors, and rappelling. Lead climbing isn’t just a whole other ball game because you could take a bigger fall; there are many more steps involved with the process of leading than with top-roping.

Recommendations for Your Climbing Partner
-Enlist someone who has been lead climbing and lead belaying for 1-2 years at least. This will, hopefully, ensure that they have the technique and safety precautions down.
-Make sure your climbing partner is patient. When you start to lead climb, it can be a little nerve racking so having someone below you who is encouraging, calm, communicative, and understanding is a must.

Go Below and Beyond
So you’ve been top-roping 12bs? Good for you! You’re the next Chris Sharma. However, you’re not gonna wanna start leading on 12bs unless you’re prepared to most definitely take some very dramatic falls. Going two grades below your top-roping skill is a standard practice among new lead climbers, meaning that if you’re top-roping 11as you should try leading 10bs or 10cs (Perhaps consider going even lower your first few tries so you can get down the mechanics of leading). In the end, it boils down to what you and your belay partner are most comfortable with, so just be smart and safe.

Back-clipping, Biting the Rope, and Other No-Nos
Speaking of safety, there are a few lead climbing “No-Nos” that should be mentioned. First, back-clipping is an error that occurs when the lead climber is clipping the rope into the quickdraw and, essentially, clips it backwards or twists the draw. The danger here is that, should the climber take a fall, the rope could now fall on the gate of the carabiner and slip out of the quickdraw, resulting in a much farther and more gnarley fall. Yikes! Check out this youtube video which details how to properly clip in on a climb.

A few other issues to be aware of are Z clipping (detailed in the video above) and biting or bringing the rope up with your teeth. You’ll often seen seasoned climbers put the rope in their teeth a few moves before clipping on a lead climb. For most, this is to save time and energy, however, if you’re climbing with the rope in your mouth for too many concecutive moves, you run the risk of taking a fall with the rope still clenched between your teeth. The problem? Bye-bye, chompers. This “No-No” can rip your teeth right out of your head or, at the very least, hurt like hell. That being said, when you’re making the transition from top-roping to leading, it’s best to leave the rope OUT of your mouth.

Indoor vs. Outdoor
Needless to say, lead climbing outdoors is a whole other ballgame. Often times, it hurts more to take a fall because, instead of falling on a smooth, artificial wall, you’re falling on hard, jagged, textured rock. How does one overcome this natural fear? Well, we’re not quite sure anyone ever does COMPLETELY overcome the fear of falling ( Except maybe fore free-soloists like Alex Honnald) but you can certainly learn to control your fear through practice…which means intentionally taking falls…

How to Fall Like a Boss
Taking a lead fall is an art, to say the least, and can only be mastered with practice. Bummer, right? Luckily, there are plenty of videos out there that can show you the basic dynamics of a lead fall. Also, its recommended to take some practice lead falls in the gym before falling outside. This will mentally prepare you so that you won’t get in your head on a sick route outdoors.

A Few Safety Tips:
-Always wear a helmet when lead climbing outdoors

-Communicate with your belay partner

-Pushing yourself is great but being safe is better. If something doesn’t feel right and you’re concerned for your safety, come down off the route. It will still be there tomorrow. We promise.