My first time leading sport was memorable, a long 5.8 at Rumney with plenty of jugs and rope drag. There were solid hand and foot holds, something I rarely encountered bouldering at P-way, so I really was more focused on not back-clipping than being scared of falling. Leading trad for the first time was not quite as carefree.
Most of my gear-placement knowledge came from cleaning, as I’d followed my friends and random acquaintances up Cannon, Cathedral, Whitehorse and several single-pitch trad routes at Sundown. I had once messed around with some hexes and cams with both hiking-boot-clad feet firmly planted on the ground at the bottom of Sundown’s upper cliff and knew the basic principals of constriction for nuts and that over-camming was bad, but that was about it. Now, months after my seven-minute cliff-bottom practice session, I was going to try it out.
Skyler had invited me to join him and Kevin for a weekend at Cathedral and Whitehorse. I was overtired and had a Monday exam, so naturally I told Skyler I couldn’t go Thursday night, got up at 6 a.m. Friday morning, woke Skyler up calling to see if they’d left yet, and still managed to be allowed to join. I was psyched.
I followed a few pitches on Cathedral, getting a taste of 5.9 crack climbing and laybacking like a classic sport-climber newbie. I was perfectly happy with my stress-free cleaning on toprope, but Skyler promised he’d get me leading after Kevin worked on his projects. He kept his promise.
Late in the afternoon, we left the Barber Wall and headed to the North End, where I was shown Child’s Play, a 5.5, and Skyler’s method of racking. Luckily, the crux was in the first seven feet, which was followed by a stand-up rest to place my first piece. The route even boasted a piton two-thirds of the way up, so taking a grounder after that point was unlikely (assuming you trust ancient pitons). I was decently confident with my placements, though each one required at least two minutes of unclipping, testing, and reclipping several cams—sometimes the same two cams repeatedly—before I could move on. The first few placements were easy no-hands, stand-up rests, but after the piton there was a longer section of easy crack that I immediately began to run out to get to the next easy placement.
“Liz, we know you can climb 5.5, but the point is to practice placing gear,” Skyler called from below.
Darn, I couldn’t just start off my trad career running out 5.5s. I stopped half-way up the crack and began my usual fiddling, but this time with only one hand, the other jamming. It was the third crack I’d ever climbed and the first one I’d really had to jam my feet into; the situation became stressful. After several gear placement attempts, I realized I had already used the cam I wanted. My hands were sweating, my foot felt like it was slipping, and I was struggling. I kept trying pieces while simultaneously attempting to jam my foot farther into the crack. I considered giving up and just running it out, but I didn’t want to fail at my first real placement attempt either. Plus it was a 5.5: Child’s Play! I’d sent several grades higher my first day sport climbing. I took a few overemphasized breaths, picked the best piece I could, stuffed it in, and hoped it would pass the Skyler check when he followed.
Then I went to continue up the crack, only to realize that my foot had most certainly not been slipping out like I thought. Instead, it was so well wedged in that I was stuck and now in pain. I switched to fist-jamming with both hands as I tried to slowly work my foot out of the crack without ejecting myself from the wall.
I was relieved and exhausted when I reached the next no-hands, stand-up rest and casual stroll over to the anchors. I hadn’t fallen, and, when Skyler and I simul-rappelled down to clean and check my pieces, he said all of them were bomber except the one I’d struggled on, which, according to him, would have held. Despite Skyler’s encouragement, I hadn’t crush it. I was humbled and better understood why leading trad took so long and why my partners were always exhausted after leading five pitches of 5.7 when I could go for a run at home after following them. The climbing itself wasn’t the crux; it was knowing that I was fully in charge of saving my own life with some pieces of gear placed correctly in locations I would have to spot along the way. I wasn’t just searching for the clipping jug at the next bolt.
I can push my sport climbing limit without too much terror, but trad is where I’m faced with how much fear comes with great responsibility.
Originally published January 27, 2015, on coffeetapeibuprofenclimb.blogspot.com.