just go for it: xandra climbs trad

Mysterious knee bruises. Squished blistered feet. Evidence of blood sacrifice on fingers. Hot water like knives at my sunburned back. This all adds up to an epic three days of climbing in the Peak District!

Battle wounds aside, successful seconding and tricky starts aside, the highlight of the trip for me was learning how to lead trad. I’ve been top roping outdoors for about six years now, but didn’t even know trad and sport existed until less than a year ago…So let me enlighten you to the difference here, in case you don’t know, with some lovely diagrams from this page.

This is top-roping:

This is lead climbing:

In trad climbing, the leader places gear like this shiny things into the rock (photo):

Gear placing adds a unique creative aspect to the climbing game, which is already kind of a puzzle. It requires constant attention to the reality of how you could fall by making you responsible for protecting yourself. To be successful you have to be intuitive and deliberate, as there is no “correct” placement for each route just as there is no “correct” way to climb it, although of course some are better than others.

The novelty of this new climbing component made it unappealing to me at first, and for a bit I  seconded other lead climbers happily, retrieving gear rather than placing it. But I decided that I Need To Learn Trad no matter how badly I feel for taking up time from my awesome climbing friends’ valuable climbing time at the crag.

I’ve been shown how to place gear a couple of times. People have explained to me the various purposes of the various pieces of gear. I’ve practiced that stuff. But nothing compares to actually trying it. I was tentative to get off the ground and start climbing, even on routes on which there was no way I would fall and need the gear I would be setting anyway.

As I stood at the bottom of my first trad lead I felt a rush of helplessness, much like performing a song for an audience – even though I’d practiced, there are parts you can’t anticipate on opening night. While explanations of all the gear and the important parts I committed to memory did help, I found that the most effective way to learn and improve is to just go for it.

This is because:

a. Actually trying results in a sense of satisfaction and completion.

b. The knowledge you have acquired through studying is put into context.

And the context is the point here, isn’t it? I’m not learning to place gear to know how to place gear – I’m learning to place gear so that I can be protected when I climb.

This is the same problem I have with preparing for standardized tests or in writing my weekly essays. I feel obliged to be completely finished studying and researching before taking a practice test or diving into an essay. To a certain extent, yes, these early stages are necessary, but they are only valuable in the context of the final product.

So there’s that thing, that you want to do, but can’t quite get started on – there must be, since I encounter this in my daily life to various extents. Study up, pay attention, and just try it out. You’ll probably make a mistake or several, but these mistakes might have happened with or without the preparation.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to learn something new. It’s tough to be bad at something at first, but it’s that end result that’s satisfying, and, in the case of my trad skillz, opens up a new realm of possibility.


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