The Method behind the TradnessWhat is so great about trad climbing and where can I learn to do it?
When I tried to justify trad climbing to a French climber, he thought I was absolutely barmy.
In this modern age, with all this equipment at our disposal, why anyone would choose the most risky and expensive form of rock climbing was completely beyond him. And when you put it like that, it does seem a little odd…
Jokes aside, on this side of the channel trad climbing is the way to rock climb. It's high risk high reward and leaders automatically earn kudos at the crag. Problem was, with my limited leading experience I couldn't quite explain why this was.
A month or so later I was working on some wordsmithery when I came across the Building Blocks of Leading course on the Big Shakeout ticket page. Feeling tempted by the prospect of learning to place gear, manage ropes, and earn me some leading kudos in the best trad classroom going, I put the question to the AK Customer Support Heroes to see what they came up with.
Dave's immediate response that was if you want to climb in the UK, you have to trad climb. This may be a bit of an exaggeration - I've enjoyed my fair share of days out on Peak limestone, not to mention bouldering - but it's hard to deny that learning to lead opens up a whole world of possibilities. Peak grit to say the least. Once you can place your own gear, you can climb anywhere.
Factory Manager Ben doing something particularly gnarly - brownie points for whoever can guess the route | Photo: Eric Andrews
It's rare that you engage in a sport/trad debate without the word 'adventure' coming up. Today was no exception. Fresh from a trip to the Isle of Skye, Rowan suggested that, aside from all the shiny gear he gets to buy, it’s the sense of adventure that makes trad climbing so addictive. Climbing a bare, bolt-free face makes him feel like a pioneer, as if he's the first person to climb on the rock face. It’s a pure relationship between the climber and the rock. Each ascent leaves no traces behind, meaning that even the most popular, high-traffic routes can feel like exploring new ground.
For Rowan it's adventure, but for AlpKenny it's self-sufficiency that makes trad climbing what it is. Not just because knowing you can do things for yourself is empowering, but because it enables you to go to more wild places. Trad climbing in the rolling hills of the Peak District is the gateway to the mountains and to longer multi pitch routes: whether it be the Northern Scottish Highlands, the Welsh sea cliffs, or somewhere further afield.
On a more strategic level, learning to lead can also do wonders for your all-round climbing. Apparently it's not until you make the transition to trad that you can fully understand the concept of getting lost on a route. And I mean really getting lost. For this reason leading quite often involves a lot of reflection: think first, climb second is definitely a principle we could all do with practising!
For me the greatest attraction of learning to lead is improving my headgame. Primarily a boulderer, any sequence longer than a few moves makes my forearms burn, my legs wobble, and my head dizzy. I like the convenience of bolts but favour the control that you gain by placing your own gear. I want to take the sense of adventure and liberty that I get from sport climbing and multiply it by a hundred. Problem is, I have absolutely no idea how to do it.
Customer Service Hero Dave hanging around on some nice Welsh rock | Photo: Ben Kelsey
In the UK, trad is where climbing begins to get a that bit less accessible. There's a bit more to it than rocking up at the crag with a bouldering mat and rubber shoes. There's cams, friends, bolts and nuts. There's twin ropes, anchors, and all sorts of knots. There's a lot to learn before you lead your first trad route, and leading courses can be expensive.
This brings me back to the Building Blocks of Leading course at the Big Shakeout Festival at Thornbridge Outdoors on the 22nd - 24th September.
Taking place in the heart of the Peak District, the course will focus on the practical side of traditional climbing, equipping you with skills such as placing gear, managing ropes and belaying. It'll also help you to develop confidence and take a look at the psychology of trad climbing, and let all the trad enthusiasts on the AK team share their passion for this liberating and adventurous discipline - a veritable win-win!
I’ll be popping along to this course in the hopes of gaining the knowledge and the courage to the take those first steps in leading - hopefully I'll see you there!
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