Learning to lead – 11 ways to keep cool above your bolt

I’ve recently started to lead climb as much as I can to get confident to go out for a day’s rock climbing without needing my partner to climb and clean climbs for me. I’m finding a lot of climbs I’m smashing on top rope, but as soon as I’m on lead and above the bolt, I psych myself out.  Does anyone have any tips or advice?

This question was posted in a Facebook group that I am a part of.  The members are outdoor women who live in my local area.  It’s such a great question. It prompted a thread of thoughtful insights and helpful tips.  I’ve done my best to recreate the key points from our conversation here.

  1. Patience young padawan

The question suggests that if you can top rope a route, you should be able to lead it.

The reality is that top roping and lead climbing require different skills.

Top roping is a physical skill.  When you’re top roping, the big question is whether your body can do all the moves.

Leading is a mental skill. When you’re leading, the question is whether you can manage your thoughts, fear and energy effectively from the moment you leave the ground to the moment you clip the anchors.

Unless you’re some kind of climbing prodigy, you probably sucked at top roping for a while.  You gradually improved with practice.  You probably had an awesome beginner’s mind and celebrated each little marker of progress.

You have to suck at leading for a while before you can master it.  You will improve with practice. Try celebrating each little milestone the same way you did when were first introduced to climbing.  Try switching from “I should be able to do this, because I can top rope it” to “I am trying something new and I’m making progress”.  You’ll probably learn faster if you slow down and enjoy the ride.

Melina told us that “it just comes with time, the more you do it, the less scary it gets… But it’s more fun if it’s scary!”

  1. Be curious about the source of your anxiety… then tackle it head on.

Instead of beating yourself up for being scared, get curious about what is driving your fear.

  • Are you scared of falling?
  • Are you scared of failing?
  • Are you scared that a bolt is going to fail or your gear won’t hold?
  • Do you feel like your belayer is not paying attention?
  • Is the next bolt/gear placement too far away for your liking?
  • Do you feel like you’re too slow? Are people lining up to try your route?
  • Is the rock loose?
  • Is the weather turning bad?
  • Are you worried because everyone is watching you?

If you can accurately label your fears, it will be easier to find the right weapon to combat each one.

If you are in an objectively dangerous situation, you need to act accordingly. Fear can be a helpful signal that something is not right.

If your fear is not quite rational, then acknowledge that fact, and see if that helps to push the thought out of your mind.  If that doesn’t work, think about what you can do to build up your fear-fighting arsenal.

If you’re terrified of falling, you can practice falling safely.  If you’d be happier at a quieter crag or more beginner-friendly crag, then seek one out.

Taking steps to combat your fear is smart and proactive.  It will help you to enjoy your climbing and push your skills forwards.

  1. Practice falling.

Find an indoor gym or a nice vertical climb outdoors and practice falling.

Inch your belly button just above your bolt and let go.  Your belayer will catch you.   I promise.

Do it again. And again.

Then climb a tiny bit higher, or ask your belayer to leave more slack out.  If you’re comfortable, climb to the next bolt and fall from there. If you’re not comfortable… try shaking, swearing, squeaking and then letting go.

If you’re scared of falling on trad gear, try aiding for a while.  Aid climbing is a great way to prove to yourself that your gear actually works.

Falling teaches your body that it’s actually OK to fall.  It helps combat the ‘what if’ thoughts that swirl around when you’re starting to freak out.  It can be liberating to find out that your ‘worst-case scenario’ is actually not so bad.

  1. Project everything

I always thought that ‘projecting’ was only for super hard climbs and super human climbers.

It’s not.  Everyone can do it.

The more often you try a route, the more comfortable you will feel when you’re leading it. The moves will get easier. You’ll know where to find the right stance to clip from. You’ll know that you can lead sections of the climb, because you’ve done it before.

Repeating a route removes lots of tiresome uncertainty.  Repeating a route on lead helps teach you to find and use rests effectively.  On top rope, it’s tempting to climb at full frenzied speed, then sit on the rope when you need to recover.

It does not matter that the climb you are ‘projecting’ is the easiest climb at the crag. It’s totally new for you. You’re pushing your personal limits in the same way as the folks who are projecting grade 30/5.14/8b are pushing their limits.

If you turn climbing into a fun problem-solving game, you suddenly have permission to fail. You can try and fail a bunch of times. It will all be part of the game.

Eventually you’ll realise that you’re not failing at all, you’ve just learned to enjoy the process and set more realistic expectations for yourself.

Check out the tale of my first projecting experience here.

  1. Positive self-talk

Positive self-talk can block out doubts and worries you might have while you’re climbing.  Think of what you would say to encourage a friend… then say it to yourself.  Say it out loud if you have to. Write it across the back of your hand if it helps.

Once you find the words that work for you, you’ll have a little mantra up your sleeve that you can draw on during those scary moments.

I once read about a pro climber who just repeats the word “Yes” when she feels nervous on a climb. Yes, I can do this.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

For some other climber’s perspectives on self talk, click here or here.

  1. Develop a pre-climb ritual.

Find something that gets you in the zone and ready to climb.  It could be the order in which you put on your shoes, or the way you check your knot or chalk up. Bonus points if you choreograph your very own leading dance.

If you can’t think of anything straight up, try to notice when you’re having a really great day of leading.  Your ritual can be something that helps remind you of that day and takes you back to a similar head space.  One of my best climbing days was at the Bell Supercrag in the Blue Mountains.  Just visualizing the beautiful walk in to that crag helps to get me in the zone.

Once you find your own ritual, you can use it as a signal that tells your brain that it’s time to focus and climb hard. Click here for more on the psychology and physiology behind this idea.

  1. Just breathe man

Humans need oxygen to live… so breathing is pretty important.

Try to be aware of your breath when you climb.

Start by checking in when you reach a rest, or when you’ve just clipped a bolt above you.

Is your breathing slow and steady, or fast and shallow? If it’s out of control, try to slow it down before you move again. Check out the view. Notice how the rock feels under your fingers. See if you can make your next move line up with your breath. Breathe in, grab the crimp.  Breathe out, step up to the next foot hold.

Do you hold your breath when you’re doing a hard move? I dare you to try giving an Adam Ondra inspired power scream instead. It helps with body tension… and it’s kind of fun.

  1. Upskill

Learn to:

  • clean a route;
  • place trad gear;
  • stick clip your way past a crux move;
  • aid your your way though tough sections;
  • clip with both hands… with your eyes closed;
  • bail from a climb that you can’t finish; or
  • do anything that makes you feel more self-sufficient.

Practice this stuff at the crag. Practice it when you have a lazy day at home. I hereby give you permission to sit on the floor of your bedroom in your harness and dismantle a top rope anchor that you’ve set up off the door knob or the bedhead.

Learn by doing. Learn by making millions of mistakes. Really stupid mistakes.

It might not seem like the fastest way to improve your lead climbing, but the more skills you have up your sleeve, the more options you have and the more confident and competent you will feel when you’re out on the rock.

  1. WWLHD?

It stands for “What would Lynn Hill do?”

This tip was brought to us by Cat, who told us about a time when she went climbing just after reading Lynn Hill’s autobiography:

“I remember being on lead, on a dirty crack climb out at the Watagans… a sizeable rock fell onto my leg in the crack.  I had to figure out how to get it off me, without it hitting my belayer. Luckily, I wasn’t hurt, but I was rattled and I thought about backing off.  Then, as corny as it sounds, I actually thought about Lynn Hill and how badass she would be in the same situation and it helped me to push through and finish the climb”

If Lynn Hill doesn’t do it for you, find another role model. It could be a pro climber, or a friend you climb with regularly.

You could also try asking “What would Cat do?” It works for me.

  1. Fake it til you make it

Many moons ago, I took a friend on her first outdoor climbing trip. It was the first time that I had stepped out of the follower role and into the ‘competent-group-leader’ role.

I wanted her to think that I was cool, calm and confident.  I faked my confidence at first, but I found I was climbing better than ever before.  I moved calmly past each bolt. By the time I reached the top of the first route, I wasn’t faking it anymore.  I felt real confidence. For the rest of the day I sailed up routes that I had found tough on top rope when I had climbed them in follower mode.

No one was there to put up a top rope for me or clean up a climb that I couldn’t do.  I didn’t compare myself to others, I was just proud of what I had achieved. I didn’t worry about the grades, I just revelled in my new-found independence.   More on that day here.

If you have a chance to step into a ‘leading’ role, do it! You might surprise yourself.

Climbing with a new group of people can have the same effect. While it might be OK to throw tantrums and hurl obscenities in front of your significant other or your closest climbing friends, you usually have maintain a thin veneer of sanity when you’re climbing with folks you’ve only just met.

  1. Ask yourself why you want to lead.

Seriously, why do it?  Sometimes its hard. Sometimes is scary. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes it makes me cry. Sometimes it makes me smile so much that my face hurts.

If you know where your motivation comes from, it’s easier to draw on that motivation when the going gets tough.  It’s easier to push towards a goal that’s important to you, than it is to push towards something you kinda sorta feel like you should probably do someday.

Sometimes, my goal is simply to enjoy being in beautiful places with interesting people. I can achieve that goal without leading.  I have had lots of excellent days top roping, taking photos and enjoying the sunshine.

If I check in with myself and find a burning desire to climb an inspiring route, then I’ll take the sharp end and give it everything I’ve got.  It’s enormously rewarding to overcome your fears and achieve something you previously considered impossible.

So lead, or don’t lead. The best climber is the one having the most fun.

I’d love to hear your tips for overcoming fear above your bolt.  Let me know in the comments section below.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. keithnoback says:

    The inventory is most useful. ‘Cause sometimes the answer is that you are afraid something bad will happen because there’s a good chance something bad will happen.
    Then you have to decide if it’s all worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well put! I might update that section a bit. Sometimes fear can help stop you from doing really stupid stuff.


  3. keithnoback says:

    It’s tricky, isn’t it?
    That’s the allure of leading for me. It is taking control of, or at least taking upon yourself, a tricky situation.
    And I think it gives you all sorts of insights which are unavailable elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love that aspect of climbing too.

    The process of figuring out whether a fear is justified has been really useful for managing stress in my work life and elsewhere.

    Thanks again for your insights. I hope your next climbing adventure is not too far away.


  5. Tim says:

    I think practising clipping is a key skill for transitioning onto lead. I’m just getting into leading, and I spend way too much time fumbling around trying to clip the rope, which burns my much needed energy. “Agggh, backclip! Undo the clip and try again. Why won’t the rope go through the gate? Agggh!”
    I’ve set up a couple of draws inside my laundry door – one facing left and the other facing right. Whenever I walk past I hold a rope at my waist (pretending it’s tied to my harness) and practice clipping it to each draw a few times with my free hand. Then swap hands. It’s a great way to procrastinate when you should be doing laundry.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That’s such a great idea. I’ve added it to the list of skills to practice in the post.

    As soon as I’m scared I seem to develop big fumbly claw hands. I’ve actually yelled out loud at a draws in a high pitched whingey voice. “Y U NO CLIP!?” Taking some time to practice clipping might be more effective.


  7. allezgirl says:

    The confidence thing is key. If I’m super nervous on the ground, that almost always translates to me being nervous on the climb. I have to be able to visualize success and understand that falling is okay. Incredibly hard to do sometimes, but confidence really does help! And I agree with the above comment – practicing clipping among other lead climbing skills will help with confidence and calmness! 🙂 Great post!


  8. Zoe says:

    What a great post! Having just started leading I can identify with pretty much everything on here. Love WWLHD!


  9. Confidence is definitely key.

    The first time I projected a route, I struggled for weekend after weekend. Then one day all the factors lined up perfectly and I just knew that I could do it. There were no more doubts. I climbed confidently and it felt freaking amazing. I’d never felt like that when climbing before. It was like a super power.

    Sometimes if I visualise that particular climb, I can grab onto the echo of that same calm confidence.

    I haven’t had that feeling in a while… but maybe if I’ll get there again soon if I follow all the clever advice coming from this awesome climbing community.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. That’s part of the reason I wanted to write this post. It was awesome seeing my adventure buddies talking about the fear they feel and thinking, “oh good, it’s not just me!”

    Now I just need to take my own advice and keep fighting for that elusive confidence next time I’m out on the rock.

    Hope your next adventure is not too far away!

    Liked by 1 person

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