Lucho Rivera 3,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, jugs out the final pitch of the Muir on El Capitan, after a long day.
There is nothing I can say that will fast track you to climbing El Cap this season. I hate to give the game away right here at the beginning, but nothing can make up for experience.There is a lot I could say to complicate matters, but, instead of adding to the mystery of trad climbing, I will try to make a few of the basics clear. I have put together seven tips that will get you on the right track to learning how to trad climb and hopefully expedite the process of becoming a seasoned monkey.
Planet Granite route setter, Danny Harris, following one of the many spectacular pitches of the North East Buttress on Higher Cathedral 5.9+. Be wary of the older climbs; the 50’s thru 70’s were rough times to be a climber.
Find a Mentor
By far, the best way to become a trad climber is to find a mentor, someone who will take you outside with them and teach you everything they know. Troubleshooting on your own is like hammering steel into a square and then trying to roll it down the street. Offer beer in exchange! Ask yourself, how hard can I climb? Then aim for a route about three or four number grades easier. Top-roping behind a friend will eliminate part of the challenge of learning trad climbing. The added stress of placing gear that must hold in the event of a fall while learning to move on a different style of rock is truly a daunting proposition. After a few outings with a knowledgeable partner and, if you feel comfortable with protection placements, route finding, and anchor building, it’s time to find a partner with similar or slightly more advanced know-how of this whole trad climbing business. The enjoyment of succeeding together and epicing together is the most rewarding experience to be had. But be very careful, there is a lot you don’t know, and the learning curve is steep.
Matthes Crest viewed from Cathedral Peak, Tuolumne Meadows, during an early spring day. Both excellent beginner routes.
Purchase a comfortable pair of climbing shoes, stiff rubber and not downturned. Make sure they are a loose fit. Muiras, TC Pros, 5.10 Blancos or Pinks, and Mythos, are popular for trad climbing. You will be wearing them all day, and you will need them to retain their rigidness. Easier climbs generally follow larger crack systems. The importance of a shoe that covers your ankles will become apparent quickly. Take off your shoes at the belay. Let your feet breath; they and you will be much happier.
Planet Granite’s Amy Verret enjoys her 5.10 Pinks on the Squamish Chief.
Lose the weight
You are going to bring too much stuff. Ditch the sunscreen, jackets, lip balm, ipod, camera, wallet, thermos, etc. Bring only the essentials. Weight is very important. Everything you bring adds up. Try picking up the rack with one hand. Pretty heavy, no? Combined with a water bottle, a few bars, and a rope out-stretched below you, climbing becomes difficult quickly. A small backpack for the follower can be useful, but being able to use your entire body is essential. Distributing yourself on the rock, pressing your back into the wall behind you, or scumming your hip into a corner for support, all becomes much more awkward with extra things like a backpack. For a lighter option, equip a disposable water bottle (not a Nalgene) with cordelette, duct tape, and a small carabiner, and clip it to your harness. For food, use a mesh bag – the one your harness came with will be perfect – and clip that to your harness as well. That being said, I do recommend you bring a light synthetic layer, temperatures and wind will fluctuate throughout the day.
Water bottles ready for action, with code names to boot!
Back to Basics
You have a partner, you have shoes, you have a water bottle and food, on your harness, you are ready! Well not quite. You really have no idea what you’re getting into. Trad climbing will be like starting all over again. You might as well be learning how to surf. Accept that it will take time, nothing can make up for experience. Get out every weekend, and keeping pushing it, a little bit. Climb something bigger, harder, less familiar, keep with it. Soon you will be surprised with the amount of pleasure you get from not necessarily sending, but just getting to the top of a huge rock. We are creatures who love to explore, and nothing will engage you more than an adventure into the unknown.
Communication is Key
Out of the many things that can make or break a climbing experience, your behavior trumps all. Make sure you are communicating with fellow climbers. Chances are, they will be more than happy to comply. Be frank with your intentions, but be willing to back down if they clearly are in the right. A civil conversation goes a long way. The harder the climb, the more likely the other climbers have had experience with passing parties. The stress of being beginner in an unfamiliar environment can be too much, and then having a party want to pass, can be overwhelming. Be respectful and be direct.
Ethan Pringle enjoying a crowded anchor. With some well orchestrated maneuvers, we were on our way.
Climb and Place Gear on Durable Surfaces
One of the main considerations when climbing cracks and large exposed faces is these large rocks are constantly exposed to the elements. Freezing and thawing, rain, and wind, exfoliates the faces of the climbs. Once solid rock can become loose and a hazard to you and your partner as well as the parties below. Make sure to pull down, not out, on suspect rock. Do not place gear in loose rock. Look to see if the structure of the rock, on a larger scale is sound. A quick rap on the rock with the bottom of your fist will tell you if the rock is solid or not. If you hear a hollow sound or reverberation, find another placement. Sometimes it’s best to just keep moving.
Exfoliated rock due to freeze thaw, wind, and rain, at Shuteye Ridge.
The Brain Game
There are many things to learn before you are a seasoned monkey. Climbing is an ever evolving process, from placing gear to reading sequences. The technique takes time. Walk around your apartment with your harness and rack on, and try and find gear placements. Being able to grab the correct piece the first time will keep you moving. Be aware of what is ahead on the pitch. You must constantly analyze the situation. Think to yourself, does the crack get wider? How many cams do I have left? Do I need to save a certain size? Can I afford to place more gear? Do I need to extend this piece? You will find great joy in having these systems dialed.
Walker Emerson taking it all in on the Squamish classic Flight of the Challenger 5.12c. Photo by James Lucas
Hopefully I have encouraged you to call up that old trad-climbing friend and ask them to take you up a few routes this spring. California has some of the best traditional climbing in the world, get after it!
Walker Emerson is a contributing writer for the Planet Granite Blog. He also sets routes at Planet Granite under the alias ‘Smash’. When he’s not plugging grips and jugging lines, he can be found on weekends clipping bolts at Jailhouse or sailing the granite seas of Yosemite.