Rock Secrets: Tricks For Advanced Trad Climbing

Article by Dave Pickford
Monday 8th June 2009

The first article in this three-part series discussed some of the core non-technique skills and essential knowledge required for successful advanced sport climbing (read it here). In this article, we extend this discussion to traditional climbing.

Traditional climbing at its best: the author climbing fast and light on a perfect autumn day on the Royal Arches in Yosemite Valley, California.

Trad climbing is different to sport climbing in a number of fundamental respects: you will not generally be climbing as physically hard as you would be when sport climbing, although the total amount of energy  you expend during the day could be far greater (particularly if you’re climbing on a mountain crag or sea cliff with long approaches). A large number of skills are required for advanced trad climbing that are either not required - or very seldom required - for sport climbing.

These skills include complex route finding (and this refers to finding where the route starts as much as which way it goes up the cliff); making the correct choice and selection of appropriate protection for the climb; making the correct choice of pitches between you and your partner if you are climbing a multi-pitch route; choosing the right clothes and shoes to climb in if the route is long and may be colder higher up; understanding the dramatic effects of atmospheric conditions on certain cliffs; knowing when a climb is a realistic on-sight possibility; and making the right choice about whether to go for the lead or not when trying to ‘headpoint’ a route that is harder than your on-sight trad limit.


1) Route Finding

One of the most important things to bear in mind here are the consequences of starting out up the wrong route, or straying way off the line of the climb you are on. At best such errors can result in you getting stuck, having a minor epic, then having to lower off and escape. At worst, they could result in a serious accident. There was a case in Pembroke recently where a climber set off up what he thought was a classic E1, only to stray off on to the bold E4 wall adjacent to it. The climber fell off and hit the ground.

Amy Colson and Laura Jones taking care to establish the exact line of the route 'B-Team Buttress' (a classic E1 at Crickmail Point, Pembroke) before the leader sets off. 

The key point here is to make every effort to establish the line you are setting off on is the one you think it is before you start climbing. At popular crags, it is often a good idea to ask another team the name of the route they are climbing – this can provide a very useful point of reference and quickly lead you to the base of your chosen route.  Don’t be afraid of asking – climbers are on the whole always willing to help someone less familiar with the crag. Another very important point is to look for signs from the rock that might indicate you are off-route. On popular classics in frequently-climbed areas such as the Peak District, North Wales, or Pembroke, it is usually extremely easy to tell if you are off-route. Even if there is no chalk on the rock, you should be able to tell where the line goes simply from the holds: the most used holds will be normally slightly darker and / or duller than the rest of the rock from polish and boot rubber. If you climb into an area of friable or vegetated rock whilst on a classic UK trad climb, it is highly likely that you are off-route. The best solution to this is always to climb back to the point where you were sure of the line, and then re-evaluate the situation.

On multipitch climbs, it is very important to make sure you belay in the correct place, since finding the wrong belay could mean getting the right line on the next pitch becomes very problematic. A solution to this is to always make a mental note of the whereabouts of the next belay before you set off, and not when ¾ of the way up the pitch! A cluster of in-situ gear such as pegs or threads is often a sign of the belay stance on many popular routes, as is an obvious, clean ledge with equally obvious gear placements.

2) Get Your Gear Right

Taking the right gear for a trad pitch is arguably as important as finding the right line: without it, you’ll be scuppered. A key point here to take the correct size and type of protection for the pitch you about to climb. It is very important to read the rock in order to get this right.  If you are setting off on a big fissure or corner pitch with large cracks, then you’ll need to take some large cams and big wires, and possibly some larger hexcentric or rockcentric type nuts. Conversely, if you’re setting off up a pitch of face climbing seamed with thin cracks, but no obvious large cracks or features, then it’s unlikely you’ll need any big gear – taking a large selection of small and medium wires, plus cams up to size 2. I personally find it astonishing that many climbers set off up a pitch with a completely inappropriate protection for the type of rock and route. I have seen climbers with off-width crack sized cams and hexes on routes that require only small wire and cam protection. I have also seen climbers on overhanging routes featuring wide cracks carrying RP’s (tiny brass nuts) and microcams, which will be completely useless for such a pitch.

Charlie Woodburn climbing with an appropriate rack of small cams and wires for the classic E4 'Soft Touch' on Long Rock Slab, Baggy Point. To take anything larger than a no. 2 cam or a no. 10 wire on such a pitch would be ludicrous: you might as well wear a weight-belt, for all the use it would be! 

Another key point (for single pitch trad climbs) is to take only as much gear as you’ll need to protect the pitch. I am also frequently astonished to see climbers setting off up 15 or 20 metre pitches with racks that would be better used for big-wall aid climbing! If you are sport climbing, you would never dream of setting off up a ten-bolt route with thirty quick draws, would you? Of course not. As such, I find it amazing that so many climbers set off on quite short pitches with ridiculously super-sized racks of gear. The extra weight burden an over-large rack creates will only make the climb exponentially harder. I personally try to set off with only the amount of gear I believe I will need to protect the pitch sufficiently, and no more. I have reached the top of some of my best onsight trad climbs with nothing but a belay device and a couple of karabiners on my harness, having judged the gear perfectly - it is a hugely satisfying to know you have climbed with only what you have needed to protect your ascent. Remember you can reduce the weight of your rack on an outcrop by pre-placing the belay at the top; equally, on a sea cliff, you can often place a belay at the top of your chosen route before you abseil down. The only climbs you need to take extra gear for the belay are multipitch routes or routes on mountain crags where it may be impossible to reach the top of the pitch from the ground.

3) Climb In The Right Conditions

We dealt with the major points regarding problems caused by excessive heat in Part I of this series.  However, there are certain unique considerations in relation to conditions for particular styles of trad climbing. For inland, outcrop trad climbing, the rules for climbing in the right conditions are virtually identical to the points raised for sport climbing in Part I. However, things change dramatically when we start to think about sea cliff or mountain crags, and I will deal with these separately.

Sea Cliff Conditions

The influence of the sea on the condition of the rock should never be overlooked

On a sea cliff, conditions on the rock can be completely different to conditions on the cliff-top: a route can be wet on a dry, sunny day, and conversely could be dry in the rain! This is because humidity on sea cliffs is generally the largest factor affecting the condition of the rock. The fact that you won’t be able to see the base of the route or check it before ebbing in also complicates matters. A very useful indicator to how the rock might feel at the base of the crag, where it is most exposed to the sea and therefore could be very wet, is your own skin. If you hold your hand up to the prevailing wind for five or ten seconds, then rub your fingers together, does your skin feel dry or wet? If it’s dry, then the chances are that the humidity is low and conditions will be good. If your skin feels greasy and tastes salty, then it’s likely that there has been a large amount of recent evaporation and condensation of sea water, and the air is therefore laden with it and very humid. If so, it’s likely that the base of the climb and possibly the entire route could be damp. This may not matter on a route with an easy start, or one that starts quite high above the sea. But if the route starts up and overhanging crack from low tide level, then it will probably be horrendous if it’s humid.

A separate although also crucial point with sea cliffs is the state of the sea itself. If there has been a recent swell or big storm, a climb could stay wet at the base from sea spray even in good weather. There is also a major safety consideration here, since belaying at the base of a big cliff with a big swell running can be extremely dangerous. Climbers have died at most major sea cliff areas in Britain simply from being swept out to sea by freak waves.

Mountain Crags

Cloggy on a perfect summer's evening: but remember a cliff as high and exposed as this normally takes at least 3 days of fine weather to dry out 

Mountain crags are very different to sea cliffs in the sense that humidity is not usually much of a problem, but seepage and lingering dampness from precipitation is a major factor in the climbability of the routes. Many of Britain’s best mountain cliffs, such as Cloggy in Wales or Scafell’s East Buttress in the Lake District can take up to four days of completely dry summer weather to come into condition, and possibly even longer if there has been a prolonged wet spell. As a rule, it is usually only worth going to high and shady mountain cliffs after several days of settled, anticyclonic weather.

4) Onsighting – Choosing The Right Route

Onsight trad climbing is what most of us who climb regularly on natural gear do most often, and (other than free soloing) is the purest and one of the most satisfying forms of climbing I know. The factors involved in choosing the right climb to go for at your on-sight trad limit are similar to those in sport climbing. As we discussed in Part I:

“you should choose a hard onsight challenge according to the style of climbing you most enjoy. If you most enjoy technical face climbing, don’t choose an off-width crack as your hard lead.”

Jed Macdonald battles with the crux off-width of 'The Rostrum', a classic Yosemite 5.11 / E4.  If pushing your grade, don't choose a pitch like this if you've never climbed a wide crack before!

Another factor here is the protectability of the route: if you really enjoy bold slab climbing and climb at your best when running it out above gear, then go for a run-out (but safe) slab pitch for that hard onsight. Conversely, if you love physically challenging trad routes with lots of gear, but can’t stand bold or run-out climbing, then find a hard but very well protected route to try as your big onsight lead. The key point to remember here is that you’ll only climb well, be fully focused, and find flow on a route that you really enjoy climbing. Try to make this decision before you set off by looking at the climb carefully from the ground: if it looks like an attractive challenge to you, then go for it! If it doesn’t and gives you a knarly, awkward vibe (is that an off-width roof crack at 45 metres?) then have a look for something more positive-looking and suited to what you enjoy climbing.

5) Headpointing – The Big Decision

Headpoint climbing means practising a trad route on a top rope or abseil rope before leading it. This allows you to climb a trad pitch that is harder than your on-sight limit. Headpointing can be an intensely thrilling and rewarding experience, which ironically can give you much greater confidence for trad onsighting. However, it’s not for everyone, since you will often be trying as physically hard on a difficult headpoint as you would on a sport redpoint, but with the added factors of having to place gear and possibly taking a long fall.

The author taking advantage of a brief weather-window to go for the lead on the first ascent of 'Point Blank' (E8 6c) in Stennis Ford, Pembroke. Knowing when to go for it and when to walk away is crucial for successful headpointing.

In my experience, the key factor to successful headpointing is knowing when to go for the lead, and knowing when to leave the route for another time. If you feel you have a totally solid sequence, are comfortable about placing the gear and know which holds to place it from, and feel generally positive about climbing the route and not intimidated by it or negative about your ability to climb it, then it’s very likely you’ll succeed if you go for the lead. However, if you are feeling daunted by the route, are unsure about your sequence, and are very nervous about the thought of leading it, then it’s probably better to leave it for another time. In this case, the chances are that nerves will get the better of you and you’ll mess up a move and take a fall, which make damage confidence further.   

6) Know The Tricks Of The Trade

In advanced trad climbing there are a great many tricks that are used constantly, but rarely spoken about in the public domain. Many of these tricks are crucial for efficient, safe, and successful trad climbing. The list below is not comprehensive, but merely a selection of the most obvious and useful of these tricks.

1)    Sometimes it can be impractical to do a warm-up route when trad climbing as you would when sport climbing: an appropriate climb may not exist, or may be too time consuming. Instead, you can warm up using these two cunning methods before going for the lead: a) find an easy (but not too easy) traverse at the base of the crag, ideally on quite a steep section, and do that a few times to get your blood flowing. You should aim to get your heart rate up and a light pump on. Then wait ten to twenty minutes before getting on the lead. If there is no traverse available, then you can produce the same result by just climbing up the initial five to ten metre section of the route, placing some gear, then reversing back to the ground to rest. Obviously, this method only works ion routes where the start is relatively easy and the crux is higher up.

2)    Chalk your feet. This is more important for trad than sport climbing, as trad pitches take longer and your feet can get pretty sweaty! It is particularly important to do this on hard slabs. There is nothing worse than getting half way up a big trad pitch to feel your feet sliding inside your rock shoes due to excessive sweating. A good chalking up should prevent this – pay attention to the toes and heel as this is where your shoes will start to slip if your feet are sweating.

3)    Ask someone whose climbed the route already for some ‘general’ gear beta. Gear beta can be very useful, although specific gear beta such as “there’s a bomber rock 4 in the little hole on the right after the crux” is worse than useless – it can slow you down, confuse you, and make you nervous if you don’t find the said placement. The really useful beta is the kind than can instruct your choice of rack in terms of what not to take. So if you ask someone who has climbed the route “how many big cams did you use” and they say “oh, I think I only placed a single number 1” then you probably won’t need to take a full set of cams. It’s also important to put such questions to someone you trust, and not a space-cadet or sandbag bandit.

4)    Don’t go for a big lead if you feel tired, stressed, or unsure of the condition of the climb. This sounds obvious, but it’s much more important for trad climbing than sport climbing – if you fail on a sport pitch it’s no big deal, you can lower off or your partner can give it a go. However, failure on a big trad pitch can be problematic and sometimes will prove frustrating for you and your partner, and time consuming since gear will have to be retrieved by abseil. Regular failure on trad pitches is a very bad thing for your confidence: I know a very talented and proficient sport climber who has sadly given up trad climbing due to repeated failures on routes. The key thing is to listen to your ‘inner voice’ and go for that hard lead when the signs are good and conditions seem excellent, and sack it off and climb something when they’re not.

5)    Take very good care to avoid rope drag on long trad pitches. Rope drag can be a killer on a really long pitch weaving through steep ground, so take lots of long draws and slings, and perhaps some DMM revolver karabiners for those ‘drag-crucial’ runners under overhangs or at the point where the line changes direction.

Jack Geldard taking good care to avoid rope drag on the outrageously steep pitch of 'Pre Cambrian Wrestler' (E7 6b) at Penlas Rock, Gogarth. Geldard and the author made the second ascent of this impressive George Smith route in August 2007. 

6)     Choose the right clothes and shoes for the route. Choice of clothes and footwear is more important for trad climbing than sport climbing. On a sport pitch, any well-fitting shoe will suffice and since you can lower back to the ground, clothing isn’t a big issue – you just climb in what feels right at the base. However, on a trad pitch you must consider the following:

•    How long is the route? If it’s several pitches, wearing your tightest pair of shoes is not a good idea, since you feet will become painful by the end of pitch 4 or 5, particularly if it’s hot.

•    Do you have to walk off? Again, if you do, you should ideally choose a pair of rock shoes that you can walk in reasonable comfort. This saves the weight and hassle of having to carry trainers or approach shoes with you on the climb. Click here to browse the rock shoes available from planetFear.

•    What will the weather be like at the top of the route? On sea cliffs, this is not an issue since you’ll usually be arriving back at your sack and so can fetch an extra layer at the top if necessary. However, on mountain routes or long, multipitch climbs requiring a big walk off or abseil back down, it is very important to take a light shell as an extra layer to keep you warm high on the route. There will almost always be some wind on a mountain crag or a large cliff, even on a calm day: big cliffs create their own convective wind activity. PlanetFear recommends a light softshell or ultralight hardshell for this type of route: you can visit our softshell climbing clothing department here or click here for hardshells.

7) Buy the lightest climbing gear you can afford. Quickdraws are the area of your rack on which you can save the most weight. The lightest full strength quickdraw currently available is the DMM Phantom - click here to find out more. You should also choose the ropes and protection you buy carefully. For advanced trad climbing I would very strongly recommend climbing on the best quality ultralight half ropes currently available, such as the Beal Iceline or, for a slightly heavier but more hard wearing option, the Mammut Genesis.

If your current sent of wires is more than five years old, you will be able to make a dramatic weight saving (particularly on the larger sizes) if you invest in some new wires. Modern wires contain far less spare alloy than older ones and you can save around 300 grams off a double set compared to a 1990's set. Click here to browse the wires available from planetFear.

Modern cams are also dramatically lighter (not to mention better) than older model versions. PlanetFear stocks a full range of the best camming devices from DMM, Black Diamond and Wild Country. Click here to find out more.

8)  Take plenty of water – dehydration can be very unpleasant at a remote crag a long way from the car or a water source. I find I need an absolute minimum of 2 litres of water for a long day’s trad climbing in the British summer. Make sure you are fully hydrated before you set off. (Click here to browse the hydration products available from planetFear). Bear the hydration issue in mind in relation to the points about hot weather and high performance sport climbing in Part I: never set off on a hard trad pitch if it’s very hot or the route is being frazzled by direct sunlight – find a climb in the shade instead, it will be a lot more enjoyable!

9)   Have a really good breakfast if you’re going to a crag that has a long approach. Trad climbing can use up a lot more calories that sport climbing, even though the actual moves may be easy, the walk in is often longer, your pack is heavier, and the routes take longer to climb than sport pitches, so make sure you have stocked up on energy before you start your climbing day. And remember you’ll need some slow release energy from protein and fat as well as carbs to keep you going.

PlanetFear media is funded by our online store. If you enjoyed this article, consider shopping with us for your latest climbing and outdoor gear: visit the planetFear shop here.


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