How to lead climb, sport climb, build basic anchors, and belay safely:
This article is intended to help climbers prepare for their first sport climbs. If you are reading this article, you are probably familiar with climbing in your gym, or top-roping at your local crags. Sport climbing is now your next step. There are unique sets of skills, training, and equipment required to sport climb outdoors safely.
Let's start with the basics. For bolted sport climbing, you will need:
- A reliable climbing harness.
- A reliable climbing rope with a middle marker.
- Comfortable climbing shoes. Your tight gym bouldering shoes will likely cause you agony on the big walls of Yosemite. I like the La Sportiva Mythos for multi-pitch crack climbing and smearing on slab.
- A chalk bag on a chord that allows you to move your chalk bag separately from your harness.
- A belay device that can also be used to rappel. I like to carry both the Petzl Reverso for rappelling and the Trango Cinch, which is an auto-locking belay device similar to the Petzl GriGri.
- A personal anchor system or daisy chain. I like the Metolius PAS (personal anchor system).
- A variety of locking carabiners.
- Long slings (also known as runners) with 2 non-locking carabiners on each.
- A set of quick draws.
- A cordette for setting up anchors.
- A helmet for both the belayer and the climber.
It is very helpful to arrive with a route book that describes the climbs and their locations in the area that you are going to climb.
When choosing your first climb, it is wise to warm up on something easier than you are used to climbing. Real rock feels very different from the plastic holds you find in gyms. The physical techniques and the mental strain will unduly feel different, even if you are a hero in your local climbing gym. Also, many rock parks are rated differently than gyms. Even if you climb 5.12 in the gym, you may have trouble on a 5.8 climb. Yosemite and Joshua Tree and notorious for being sandbagged, or rated easier than they feel.
Once you chose a route, you must find it. Read your book for instructions, and try to match the rock shapes at the top to the photo. Start looking for bolts. Once you have found the route, count or read about how many bolts it has. Attach enough quick draws to your harness. Also bring your personal anchor, your cordlette, chalk, five locking carabiners, and whatever other protection pieces the route might call for. See if you can spot where the top anchor will be. Usually you will see two or three three bolts, and / or a ledge or other obvious end of the pitch.
You can attach your personal anchor to your belay loop on your harness with a girth hitch. Attach a locking carabiner to the other end, and attach that to your harness gear loops. Flake the rope onto a tarp or rope back, to make sure there are no tangles or compromises in the rope. Tie in to one end of the rope with a standard figure-8 knot going through both loops in your harness. Make sure the knot is close to your harness, and you have a tail safely tied off. Double check that both your harness and your belayer's harness are doubled backed. Your belayer will tie into the other end of the rope.
Make sure your belayer is confidant in lead belaying techniques. They should secure you with their belay device even before you leave the ground. As you climb to the first bolt, they should spot you in case of a fall.
When you reach the first bolt, make sure it is not far above or below you. Often the first bolt on a climb is high up. This is to discourage people who are not committed from starting the climb. Hopefully the bolt looks solid in the rock, without rust or obviously aging, and it's not moving at all. You should get as comfortable as possible, and then grab a quick draw or alpine draw (two carabiners with a runner between them). Climb one carabiner through the bolt, with the gate away from the rock. Alert your belayer that you are clipping, and grab the dangling rope below your figure-8 knot, and put it into the other carabiner.
Make sure that you do not back-clip. The best way I have found to remember that the rope goes from: belayer, to the rock, to the carabiner, to you. That means that if the rope is touching the rock before it enters the carabiner. If the rope is over the carabiner when it is placed, it is back clipped. You can imagine a fall from above is likely to open the gate of the carabiner when it is back clipped.
Once the first bolt is clipped, ask your belayer if you are on belay. Immediately, they should grab their belay device and keep you protected. The belayer should stand to the side of the line of fall, and they should be close to the rock, so that they do not get whipped into the rock in the event of a fall. If the belayer is much smaller than the climber, they should anchor themselves to a nearby tree or other stationary object. The belayer feeds slack to the climber as they progress. The should be some slack in the line, so that the climber does not feel restrained by the pull of the belay. Belayers who are used to top roping are likely to short rope a lead climber. Of course, there should not be too much slack. If the line is bending in a U shape, there is too much slack. The belayer should keep an eye on the climber at all times. If they are struggling, the belayer should be ready to take slack and catch a fall.
The climber continues to climb up the wall towards the second bolt. Once the second bolt is secure, there is a much smaller chance of hitting the deck. It is a good idea to tell your belayer when you are clipping, so that they can give you extra slack, and then take it back in when you are secure. Be sure to watch where your feet are when you climb. If your legs are in danger of becoming tangled in the rope, a fall could whip you upside-down. Your belayer should watch the position of your feet and the rope as well.
After clipping, if you are tired and not feeling confidant on the next part of the climb, is okay to tell your belayer to take, and you can rest. A few minutes of rest can help calm your mind and restore your strength. Shake out your hands and remember to breathe.
When you reach the anchor at the top of the pitch, you are ready to build an anchor. If there are bolts, start by putting two locking carabiners in them. Clip your personal anchor system or daisy chain into both carabiners. Once you are secure, you can tell your belayer that you are off belay. Lean back and relax, letting your personal anchor hold you. Tie off the rope by grabbing the line close to your figure-8 and tieing a clove hitch. Then, secure the clove hitch to one of the carabiners, and adjust it accordingly.
You can now use your cordette, or trustworthy webbing or slings, to build a sliding-x or a magic-x. Google how this is done. You basically clip the two locking carabiners into opposite ends of the cordette. Then grab the middle strands and pull them down. Take one of the strands and twist it once, forming a loop. This is now your power point. Now clip two locking carabiners into the loop and the other strand. If you wish, you can double up with two sliding-x slings. Put the rope in through the two locking carabiners that are in the power point. If you did this correctly, the anchor will be equalized from multiple angles. It will slide even along the angle.
Begin taking rope. You can try to organize it in a pile on the ledge, or you can butterfly it on the rope that is between your figure-8 and the clove hitch. You are going to belay from the top. Attach your belay device to the power point, or you can keep it on your harness. Once you have taken all of the rope, your partner should yell "that's me!" when there is no more slack in the line. Once you have your partner on belay, let them know. It is advisable to use the names of your partner when shouting commands, just in case there are other climbers around who might mistake you for their partner.
Now your partner, the follower, climbs. As the follower climbs, he takes off the quick drawings and slings attached to the bolts. First undo the carabiner that is in the bolt. Then attach that carabiner to your gear loops, then they undo the other carabiner from the rope. This prevails any chance of dropping the gear.
Once the follower gets to the anchor, they attach their personal anchor to the bolt locking carabiners. Once they are secure, the belayer can take the follower off belay. Or, if you are doing a multi-pitch climb, the follower can now become the leader. They then belayed from this anchor as they progress up the second pitch.
If you are ready to rappel, secure yourself, and then untie the rope ends. Take down the anchor while making sure that you are still securely attached to both bolts by your personal anchor system. If the anchor has rappel rings, feed the rope through both of the rings until you reach the middle marker. Make sure you tie knots in both ends of the rope to make sure that you do not accidently rappel off the end of the line. Once the rope's middle marker is even with the rings, yell "Rope!" and throw the ends down to the ground. Make sure that both ends of the rope are touching the ground.
Now you are ready to rappel. Attach your ATC to your main harness loop with a locking carabiner. Grab both strands of the rope that are coming down from the rapple rings, and slide them into your atc. Make sure the rope and the ATC are in the locking carabiner. Make sure the carabiner's gate is locked. Grab the brake strands that are going down and out of your ATC. Feel your weight behind held by the anchor. When you are ready, remove your personal anchor system, and begin your rappel. You control the friction as you slowly slide your hands down the brake rope. Look below you to make sure you are rappelling safely to the ground. Simply lean back and walk down as you rappel.
Once you are back safely on the ground, yell "Off rappel" to your partner. Now they do the same process, and they rappel. Now that you are both on the ground with all of your gear, pull one end of the rope, and yell "Rope!" when it is about to come crashing down. If you follow these instructions, you should be sporting climbing safely in no time.