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Learning trad without a mentor?

Original Post
Timothy Carlson · · Flagstaff, AZ · Joined Jul 2015 · Points: 0

Are there any effective methods to safely learn to lead trad on your own? Finding an experienced mentor to show you the ropes (pun intended) is always stressed as the best and safest way to learn trad leading, which makes sense. Truth be told, I am not the most social person, and I find it hard to approach trad climbers and ask them to lend their time to teach me the necessary skills.

I lieu of this, is there a way to teach myself the necessary skills to learn trad? I am tired of being relegated to sport climbing and bouldering, when there are so many cool and interesting trad crags in my area. Not that I have anything against sport or bouldering, but I want to expand my horizons.

I have heard of placing gear at the base of cliffs as a way to familiarize yourself with placements. Is this an effective method? Or is it lacking an important piece of the trad process?


ollieon · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 40

You could always practice aid climbing while top rope soloing.

Ellis L · · Chico, CA · Joined Apr 2016 · Points: 63

Im a new trad leader, i'll share some of what I've learned.
To learn the basics, check out pictures of how gear looks when its properly placed, and good gear placing technique. Im sure you could find info by searching here on MP, or pick up one of the Jong Long "How to Rock Climb" books. Tons of good info.

Practicing placement at the base of a cliff is a good idea. Weight your placements too, see how they act, feel. Practice your eye for placements as well. Once your leading, you want to have a good idea what size piece to place in what crack so your spending less time fiddling with your nuts. Once you get on harder climbs it saves a lot of energy to have the gear placement process streamlined.

Having an "experienced" mentor isnt totally necessary. Maybe show up at your local trad crag looking for a partner or a group you could jump in with. Do you know another sport climber that wants to learn trad climbing? For me its important to have another person to evaluate your placements, and give feedback. Either way, start on some easy stuff when doing your first leads, and log in the mileage. You'll get the feel for it, and find out what placements work, and others that could be better.

Have fun and be safe!

Fehim Hasecic · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 85

I'm self thought. Been placing gear for 7 years now. It's not space science. There's so much literature and how to videos, you would have to be really ignorant to f-yourself or your partner up. Just start gradually, get really familiar with the theoretical aspects of it, get to know your gear as much as you can and start leading way way below your limit. Mistakes are costly in climbing and if you don't trust yourself then you should get some hands on classes to break the ice.

r m · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2015 · Points: 0
ollieon wrote:You could always practice aid climbing while top rope soloing.

I'll go as far as I think it's the best way and I'm glad that's how I learnt.

The key question is "will shit hold", bounce testing seems the most practical method to me. Practice falls on gear that you're not sure will hold is much harder to do safely, though admittedly is the ultimate test.
Matt Himmelstein · · Orange, California · Joined Jun 2014 · Points: 125

Depending on who you are and how hard you push yourself, you will fall anywhere from "sounds like a great plan, have fun," to "yeah, you're gonna die."

You can read books, watch videos, and practice mock trad lead on routes you can TR, but until you get on the sharp end and have to make decisions on lead, and can recognize a good placement form a poor one, it is all just a guessing game as to how safe you will be. I am an engineer, and I automatically think about how pieces fit, how they are going to get pulled, what is good vs bad... I have had good, competent climbing friends who can't feel comfortable unless they were instructed on a technique.

But there is a way to get around the whole social awkwardness thing. Post here looking for a trad partner. There are plenty of trad leaders who would be happy to have someone follow and clean, and that is the best way to really get into examining how placement works. Just post for a partner here. You don't have to approach a stranger, you can lay out exactly your level of experience and what you want to do, and you may even make a new friend or two.

BoulderCharles · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Sep 2011 · Points: 80

My's a really dangerous idea. This is a sport where the consequences for mistakes are very high and many of the dangers are difficult to spot from reading a book (e.g., mitigating the danger of loose rock; properly protecting wandering routes; tricky cam placements; building bomber anchors in sub-par situations; etc.). The real value of a mentor (or guide) is not to teach you the basics of trad placements in ideal situations but, rather, help you identify the little dangers that you don't even see.

Hans Schenk · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2013 · Points: 20

20 years ago in college, my friends and I learned trad by reading as much as we could about gear placement, practicing placing in rocks at the base of cliffs, setting up mock anchors in my living room and at the cliffs, and then practicing leading while on top-rope at a local crag. We would evaluate one another, and ask other lead climbers nearby for feedback. Of course, it all got put to the test when we actually went out on the sharp end for real. I'll be honest, we made some mistakes early on. For example, there was at least one climb I wound-up running out because the gear placements were complicated and beyond my ability. Thankfully we didn't injure ourselves. After I learned more, we went back and I did the same climb with solid placement every 15 feet. That clued me in to how naive I was. I highly recommend finding a mentor or taking a class from qualified climbers to make sure you understand what the books are saying. It is possible to teach yourself, but there are some things it is helpful to have a live person for. Cheers!

Kirtis Courkamp · · Golden · Joined Mar 2011 · Points: 384

The way I learned is I read a bunch. Then I place some gear at the base of cliffs. Then I took my brother up a 6 pitch trad route.... Also my first multi pitch.

Just go for it man but stay off the classics / crowded climbs as you will most likely be a junk show.... just like all of us on our first trad leads.

slim · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2004 · Points: 1,088

hmmm, top rope soloing to learn trad...

i don't really think this is the best way to go, for several reasons. if you don't know how to lead gear protected routes, then you will likely not be technically competent to TR solo a route. this isn't a black and white sort of thing, it is possible, but very unlikely.

second - this is a good way to learn about the strength of your placements, but you aren't going to learn a lot of the equally important things. some of these include where to position your belay so that the belayer is protected from rockfall, or so the belayer doesn't contribute to bottom up zippering, or that the belayer isn't your crash pad if you come off early in the pitch.

you also won't really learn how to use multi-directional pieces to protect non-multi-directional pieces from zippering. this is mega important, and i see soooo many new (and experienced, unfortunately) climbers who don't have any realization of this.

other problems that you won't learn about include proper slinging to optimize rope drag versus longer falls, how to route the rope to keep it from getting stuck in roof cracks or behind loose blocks and flakes. another one that really gives beginners problems is how to build a belay when you don't have 2 or 3 good placements in a reasonably close proximity.

there is a lot more to trad climbing than just placing a piece that you can rest on. i was pretty much self taught, but had a few folks that i could go out with once in a while. luckily these guys were very harsh about my screw ups. a lot of the things i learned i had to learn the hard way. i think you would be a lot better off finding a good partner.

Tom Powell · · Ogden, Utah · Joined Nov 2007 · Points: 60

I am mostly self taught when it comes to trad. When I was working on my undergrad I took a climbing class that taught leading with trad gear. After that I climbed every 5.5 - 5.7 that I could find on the little gear that I had. I also would build tr anchors whenever possible. As this was 10 years ago and I am still alive and climbing today I will say it works. Having a mentor or mentors would have saved some headaches but it's not really necessary. I would say get some gear, read a book or two and practice placing it and then find an easy climb and do it. As others have said trad is not rocket science.

I did climb with some experienced trad climbers during those first years. Having a variety of partners is also good as you will be less likely to pick up the bad habits/practices of any one single climber.

Politically Correct Ball · · From WA to AZ · Joined Dec 2016 · Points: 5

This thread: The blind leading the blind.

If you're only climbing moderates, your gear placements are besides the point as you're not going to fall anyway. This isn't learning how to trad climb; this is dicking around on scrambles. You start to get confident in your placements without realizing the anchor you just made is in shit rock or pulling in the wrong direction and we end up reading about you in the next Alpine Club's accident report issue.

The only thing that keeps people safe is better judgement and the experience which develops it. The more you can glean from someone who has done it for decades the better.

Good luck

Everett · · Chicago, IL · Joined Jul 2016 · Points: 10

I don't have a mentor so much as some experienced friends who will occasionally take some time to point things out. So, I've been using TR aid (solo and belayed) to get mileage in as I'm learning. Perfect for the cold months, too!

It's got downsides, and it's not everything you need. I'd say it's a handy tool, though.

One of the big gotchas: a placement can hold your hardest bounce testing while still being really crappy. I've wedged a cliffhanger hook in a thin vertical crack, but that's not exactly appropriate for normal trad.

Politically Correct Ball · · From WA to AZ · Joined Dec 2016 · Points: 5
slim wrote: i was pretty much self taught, but had a few folks that i could go out with once in a while. luckily these guys were very harsh about my screw ups. a lot of the things i learned i had to learn the hard way. i think you would be a lot better off finding a good partner.
QFT. No substitute for experience.
Phil Sakievich · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2014 · Points: 118
Timothy Carlson wrote: Truth be told, I am not the most social person, and I find it hard to approach trad climbers and ask them to lend their time to teach me the necessary skills. I lieu of this, is there a way to teach myself the necessary skills to learn trad?
Timmy, you live in an awesome place for Trad climbing. If approaching others feels awkward then why don't you just put a post up in the AZ forum and ask to tag a-long and/or belay? Place the good 'ol internet between you and the initial awkwardness.

I'm sure there are plenty of people willing to take you out. You'll probably make some friends and expand your list of partners to climb with. After you teach yourself, you're still going to need people to climb, so000oo... two birds one stone....

You can definitely learn yourself by reading and experimenting; the basics aren't that complicated. However, learning to climb on gear involves more than just placing gear and there are many nuances. As stated previously, the consequences are pretty significant if you screw up for you AND your climbing partner.
Andrew G · · Silver Spring, MD · Joined Feb 2013 · Points: 308
ollieon wrote:You could always practice aid climbing while top rope soloing.
While this is an excellent way to learn about gear placements, there's a huge caveat that you either need to know or learn top rope soloing techniques first. If someone doesn't know how to place gear, chances are pretty high that they also aren't familiar with more advanced rope tactics. So before you can even start with figuring out trad, you need to invest some time learning how to top rope solo safely. Trying to learn both gear placements and solo rope techniques simultaneously is a recipe for disaster.

But if you have the time, it's definitely a great way to learn.
Jason Kim · · Encinitas, CA · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 255

One of the problems with finding/following a mentor, is that you place yourself at the mercy of the quality of your mentor. As a beginner, it's hard to know whether that person actually knows what he or she is doing.

Some get lucky and pair up with a truly qualified coach. Others, not so much.

One of the ways to mitigate that issue to climb with a few different people, so you can get a sense of their styles, risk tolerance, etc. Early on, I climbed with a guy who had a ton of experience and was so utterly solid on anything below 11's, he would barely protect his leads. He was always encouraging me to lighten my rack and run it out. I think I hero-worshiped him for a while, but looking back, it was pretty shitty mentor-ship because I learned nothing about the art of placing protection.

I think much of the art can be self-taught, if you're the right kind of person for that sort of learning. If you work your way up through the grades, you have a bit of a built-in safety net, since you won't be pushing your ability to climb at the same time as your ability to protect. That being said, someone else made the point that if you're not pushing yourself and falling on your gear, it's hard to say whether you're actually placing good pro.

Finding good placements is certainly important, but for me it really clicked when I started visualizing the entire pitch/route as a system of protection, from top to bottom and vice versa. I think that climbing with other people who are more experienced than yourself will speed that process along, especially if they are taking falls and testing that system right there before your eyes. So, ultimately, I think that the answer is no, it is not "safe" to learn the art completely on your own. At least not for the vast majority of new climbers. But let's face it, there are many of us who are mostly self-taught, and if we are being honest, luck plays a factor if we made it through the early years without getting hurt.

Mike Slavens · · Houston, TX · Joined Jan 2009 · Points: 35

The thing most people forget about trad climbing is it is so much more than just placing a nut or cam instead of clipping a bolt. There is rope management, route finding, where to stop and belay, when to extend slings, managing rope drag, how to communicate when you can't hear or see your partner, how to protect the second, what to do when there are multiple parties at a belay, what to do you when you are low on gear and don't have the right size piece, finding the walk off, when to run doubles, when to bail, how to bail, how to place gear so it can quickly be removed and avoid getting it stuck, how to move fast and manage your systems, etc., etc., etc. And remember that you are going to be thrown into this while there is constant voice in your head of "how good is my last piece?", "Is my gear good enough to protect someone else?". It never hurts to go practice placing gear on your own but as mentioned before there is NO substitution for experience. And when, not if, you get freaked out they can confidently remind you that you're not going to die and you got this, just get to the belay.

I can certainly appreciate being introverted and struggling to put yourself out there as I struggle with it myself. However most climbers are friendly and realize someone had to mentor them and so they are happy to pay it forward. Being a mentor is very rewarding and so there are plenty of people out there that are happy to do it. Put yourself out there and I bet you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Joe Garibay · · Ventura, Ca · Joined Apr 2014 · Points: 98

New trad leader here with my recent experience:
I headed up a slab dihedral with no real idea where the belay was exactly. I got to a rest area that I could belay from but was uncertain if I was at the correct location to start my second pitch. Prior to getting to this point I spent 20 min wedged in the crack trying to free a hex that would wiggle easily but just wouldn't come out.
Above me looked like a crux that I was hesitant to continue up, I was unsure about my belay options after that and I was running low on gear. After some time I brought my partner up still unsure what was going to happen next. Eventually I decided we would traverse off route to some distant anchors.
We would've been able to get down on one rope but it looked too far to do in one rap. I'm glad we decided to bring two ropes with us and did it all in one big rap with just enough room to spare at the ends to get us on the ground.
One point of this story, be prepared to figure it out on your own to get to safety and that time is not always what you expect it to be.

michael voth · · Ft. Collins, CO · Joined Feb 2012 · Points: 75

the only thing is:


Ivan LaBianca · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2015 · Points: 50

As many others are saying, "mentors" can vary in quality greatly. Even if they have miles of pitches under their belt a lot of trad climbers rarely place more than body weight on their anchors or gear because they never take real falls.

Climbing, especially trad, is about managing risk, you should take responsibility to learn the best practices in gear placement, anchor building etc from books, videos so you will recognize bad advice when it's given. Don't expect that just because someone's survived a lot of pitches that they actually know the best way to do things.

Take a class if you can afford it, if not, make sure the people you learn from are good at the technical side of climbing and not just great climbers who plug gear for psychological protection.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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