Learn to Lead, Or Self Rescue? (And Gear Giveaway!)

EMS offers two courses in regards to the subject, a 3-Day Learn to Lead Course, and a 2-Day Self Rescue Course. However I most commonly provide this type of material in a one-day Private Course format. Yesterday, it was with three EMS Manchester Retail Store employees taking advantage of the excellent employee benefit of a few free lessons every year!

Today it was with a father of 2 young girls who had some experience taking them top-roping in Pawtuckaway State Park, but has yet to actually start leading. The truth is, most guide services offer this type of program, but the contents can vary from guide service to guide service, and even from guide to guide within a particular service. In this post I plan to “free flow spew” in detail how I approach this topic, and if you can stay with me to the end I’ll let you know how you can be the proud owner of a sweet new knife from Colonial Knives!

The first thing I’ll say about “Learn to Lead” curriculum as the topic is massive in scope, and for most aspiring lead climbers there is quite a bit of ground work that should be laid before tying into the “sharp end” and taking responsibility for someone else’s security. In fact there are skills that one should be moderately proficient at even if one only intends to set up top-ropes for family & friends. Without further ado I’ll start prescribing how I typically approach a day like this…

After traveling to Cathedral Ledge we drive to the top of the cliff. A short hike brings us to the scenic “Classroom”, where we review the basics of placing traditional gear in cracks.

We systematically cover;

Passive Protection: Nuts, Tri-Cams, Natural Protection

Active Protection: Tri-Cams (actively placed), Cams

Then we cover anchoring strategies. Single point anchors. Dual point anchors. Tri-point anchors. Joining methods;

Magic-X “aka Sliding X”. Limiting knots. Pre-equalized. Combination anchors. The still popular pre-equalized cordelette method. The newer and sweet “Quad” method.

At this point it’s time to demonstrate a great method for extending a top-rope anchor 40 feet out over the edge to get the rope hanging perfect. Scene safety strategies are discussed. Easy ways to use your static rope with a clove-hitch, belay device, Gri-Gri, or just a friction hitch, to safe guard you near the cliff edge.

Then the “BHK“, or Big Honking Knot, is introduced as we extend our “Master Point” out over the edge and make it redundant while never having to get close to the edge. Tips & tricks of the trade here are abundant.

Now that we have a sweet TR over the 40 foot Classroom Ledge we hike down to the base to cover:

Bottom top-rope site considerations. Belayer position/anchoring strategies. Direct belay off ground anchors, the “how’s & why’s”.

At this point it is important to introduce some real life motivation as to why one should be able to “Escape the Belay“. Skills introduced and practiced:

“Muleing” off a plate style belay device to go “hands free” (Black Diamond ATC, Petzl Reverso)

Transferring the load to a ground anchor via a friction hitch & Munter-Mule.

After practice getting proficient at that I introduce “Ascending a loaded line” and “plucking” a climber off the wall via a Counter-Balance Rappel.

At this point some readers, especially some with vast amounts of climbing experience, might question why are these skills necessary? When would I need to do this?

This type of training is preparing for quite a few “worst case” scenarios. A climber on top-rope gets their <insert body part> completely stuck in a crack. You can’t lower them, and you must go up the rope in order to assist.

Perhaps more likely, especially for more experience climbers who wish to be competent “seconds” on multi-pitch traditional rock climbs… what if that experienced climber who is taking you up Moby Grape whips, catches the rope behind his leg, and knocks himself out? Can you escape the belay and ascend the loaded rope quickly to provide potentially life saving first aid? Can you get that injured climber down 4 pitches?

This type of skill self-improvement is not over the top. The annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering publication has quite a fair amount of accidents where the belayer was left feeling helpless while they could do nothing more than hold the brake strand and call 911…. then…. wait.

As climbers who choose to put themselves in a high-risk environment we owe it to our families and friends to learn basic skills to get ourselves off a cliff after an unfortunate event.

Ok, off my soap box and back to our day…

After another belay escape & leader rescue we hike back up to the anchors. A little time is spent looking at ways one can “anchor in” on a multi-pitch climb;

A girth-hitched sling, a Metolius PAS, using the climbing rope; Overhand on a bight, Figure-8, Clove Hitch.

Throughout we discuss the advantages & disadvantages of each strategy. An example of how to “thread to lower”, a great method of cleaning & lowering off of a sport climb is demonstrated.

Then we go over techniques for belaying a second; Direct off the harness. Re-directs through the anchor. Direct off the anchor; munter-hitch, BD ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso. Then the all important “How to lower a climber off an auto-locking plate device“.

By now, it is time for lunch, so we retreat to the scenic Airation Buttress for some grub and less techno-bauble chat.

For the afternoon I wanted to demonstrate some multi-pitch efficiency, but first a look a rappelling efficiency is in order. We hike down to the top of the Barber Wall. Here we discuss the inspection of rappel anchors. Systematically; tree, slingage, linkage, middle-points, rope-management “back-stacking”, etiquette in tossing ropes, pre-rigging, back-ups, all discussed, demo’d, and practiced… and down the wall we go.

At the base of the Barber Wall we review the difference between 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th class climbing… “Oh, so that’s why it is a 5.8″! We then short-rope ourselves over to Upper Refuse, happy to have a rope on for the short 4th class step just before our destination climb.

Now, at 1pm, we actually start to climb. Discussion on the when & why of placing gear, the mental components, and efficiency in cleaning gear is covered. We arrive at the first belay ledge, and the first photo of the day is finally taken:

Echo Lake in the background, and Ken was eyeing Black Crack as a cool feature to climb!
Echo Lake in the background, and Ken was eyeing Black Crack as a cool feature to climb!

Here we look at using “fixed” protection to anchor in with. Two pitons, and a cam I placed, form a perfect “combination anchor” employing the use of both the “Magic-X” and the pre-equalized double length sling.

Belay transitions slow more climbers down than almost any other skill so we talk about what can happen to make these transitions smoother, and then I’m off on the next two pitches. The required great shot at the top of the Upper Refuse ramp:

I know I have a lot of these shots on my blog! I need to put a college together at some point!
I know I have a lot of these shots on my blog! I need to put a college together at some point!

After topping out Ken had plenty of energy to burn so we took a run up The Lookout Crack (5.9), a short but fun & technical finger crack. We had about a half-hour left to squeeze something more out of our day, and since Ken was up for a burn I decided to lower him down the last pitch of The Prow (5.10a).

Classic climbing + outlandish exposure = FUN
Classic climbing + outlandish exposure = FUN

It goes without saying we covered a tremendous amount of technical material today. It was clear within our first hour on the cliff Ken was picking up information that would help him take his daughters rock climbing in a more efficient, and possibly even safer, manner after our day together. I had the feeling at the end of the day, back at the shop, while I helped Ken pick out a few pieces here & there to flush out “his kit”, that I’d see him again. He has the desire to improve, the determination to gain confidence, and an all around easy-going nature that would see him do well in anything he strives to do. I’m looking forward to climbing with him again, whether on the rock, or this winter for a taste of ice.

Now that that recap is over lets look at potentially winning a sweet new knife to hang off the back of your harness!


We will keep this competition super simple! No Facebook likes needed, (though you can still like NEAlpineStart here if you want). All you need to do to get an entry for this $70 MRSP knife I reviewed here is comment below on how you “learned to lead”. If you haven’t learned to lead yet comment on why you haven’t. Or just comment. One comment = one entry. One entry per person. Comment by 11:59PM on 7/24/15. Drawing held on 7/25/15 and announced on this blog and via email.

Up next, a review on the Petzl Men’s Cordex Belay Gloves! Preview, they are pretty damn sweet (as far as belay gloves can be)!

PETZL Men's Cordex Belay Gloves
PETZL Men’s Cordex Belay Gloves

Thanks for reading! See you in the mountains!


2 thoughts on “Learn to Lead, Or Self Rescue? (And Gear Giveaway!)

  1. I learned how to lead by taking classes through the gym I go to. It started doing indoor leads to outdoors and I kept taking more for trad climbing and multipitch climbing.


  2. What a great day! My day of climbing with Dave was Incredible. After a morning of upgrading my competency, Dave took me on a climbing tour of some great features of Cathedral Ledge. The day was fun, challenging and educational. I am grateful for everything Dave taught me and I’m looking forward to another lesson this winter so I can try my hand at ice climbing.


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