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First trad fall and thoughts about the safety of easy routes


Original Post
Ziv I · · New York, NY · Joined Aug 2017 · Points: 0

Hi everyone,

I recently started trad climbing after ~3 years of climbing. After taking a two day course with a local guide, I followed up with a couple of successful multi-pitching easy routes days at the gunks and got super excited about trad. The Saturday before last me and a couple of friends were heading to the gunks again to climb High Exposure. I started leading the first pitch (5.5) and about 25ft into it (after my second piece of gear), I made a move without planning my next hold and ended up falling. Luckily the piece held (a #1 cam), but my foot hit a ledge on the way down and I sprained my ankle pretty bad.

For "entertainment" value, here's the GoPro video of my fall - youtube.com/watch?v=vJZti8H…

I am still recovering but the fall made me think about trad leading easy routes and I have a couple of questions I would love to get your opinions on:
1. Do you overprotect your first 30ft on the wall? After all if the cam didn't hold I would have probably hit the ground.
2. The whole experience made me highly doubt the safety of easy routes. Because easy routes are usually less steep, your chances of hitting a ledge and getting hurt at any fall are significantly higher. If that's the case, wouldn't you opt for harder routes as long as they are steep and you have good placements? I usually climb 5.11s at the gym and I opted for 5.5-6 (gunks sandbagged but still), but I'm starting to question my decision process.

NathanC · · Logan, UT · Joined Jul 2016 · Points: 10

Generally speaking, yes.

But that’s a bit of a simplification for a much more nuanced skill set.  Terrain dictates the amount & maximum quality of protection.  Your ability to evaluate pieces, place them, and climb the grade factor into how well you protect what’s available.

Part of trad climbing is also knowing when you absolutely cannot fall, and weighing the risk of continuing with your own calculus.  I dont know what gunks ethic is, but backing off & down-leading a route is a very useful skill to have. 

Rob Baumgartner · · Niwot · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 196

A few thoughts on your questions 

1) Sewing it up a bit low down, especially if your gear is marginal, isn't necessarily "overprotecting." It's generally a good idea to have two pieces that would keep you off the ground

2) You're by no means the first person to observe that falling on easier routes is more likely to involve ledges or low-angle falls that aren't clean. In a sense, you're right, it may be safer, other things being equal, to fall on steeper (generally harder) terrain. But keep in mind that when leading harder routes, you often have to place gear from much more strenuous positions, which increases the chance of falling (and of placing crappy gear, especially if you're new to it).

 It looks like you had a spot to place a medium-sized stopper or ~.3 cam about 6 feet past your #1 (crack on the left side just before a small roof formed by a block) and you climbed right past it. That piece would have kept you off the ledge. I'd say stick with easier routes for now, but be more deliberate about your gear placements. 

Señor Arroz · · LA, CA · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 10

1. Yes.
2. You'd be a fool to start trad leading overhanging routes right off the bat. Protect yourself through awareness of hazards below and setting your gear in ways that protects you. When a fall is likely to result in injury or death you need to climb accordingly.

Muscrat · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2011 · Points: 3,625

I'd rather fall on (most) 5.12's than on (most) 5.8's. But take into account i rarely (thanks Warren harding) fall on 5.8's, and have never onsighted a 5.12.
All that said.... New to trad? Protect the ledges. On something as easy as 5.6, you have time to analyze, do. Don't be afraid to put in a piece. I can't say yay or nay to 'overprotecting' the first 30', but protect (yourself) from ledges, and the ground is a really big ledge.
And just as an added bonus, sure to rankle some, i like to put a cam in as my first piece, MOST OF THE TIME. Nothing like getting up 20' and having your belayer shout that your only pro just popped. Nuts are more prone, in many cases, to popping from rope drag. And ya, cams walk.
¢2, fwiw.....and may i be the first to remind you
YGD

Eric Engberg · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2009 · Points: 0

You shouldn't really be falling on < 5.8's at the Gunks but conversely you should get a lot of mileage on them so that placing gear gets more efficient.

Gym climbing and grades aren't particularly relevant.

Using a GoPro.....

nathanael · · Riverside, CA · Joined May 2011 · Points: 431

Don't fall on easy routes

Kody Cox · · Camp Verde, AZ · Joined Jun 2016 · Points: 15

What Rob Baumgartner and Muscrat said.

Chuck Parks · · Atlanta, GA · Joined Jan 2008 · Points: 2,150

For what it's worth, the placement you fell onto looked great in the video. So kudos for placing good gear. Looks like it paid off!

Here are a few thoughts, in no particular order.

  • Place gear to protect you from the fall you don't want to take, not to protect yourself from the ground. If you take a 30ft. fall onto the GT Ledge at the Gunks, you're still 100ft. off the ground. But bones are still gonna break.
  • Hard to tell exactly where you were looking based on the GoPro footage, but you should have been looking down during the fall, adapting as best you could. When you first start falling on gear there's a tendency to either freeze up with fear or stare at the pro as you sail by it. Don't buy into that. It's what's below that'll hurt you.
  • Harder climbs frequently require you to place protection from harder stances. Often times there are fewer opportunities for bomber pro as well. Better to sprain your ankle falling off a 5.5 than to break your back zippering out 3 pieces of gear on a 5.9.
  • Accept that you're a noob. Fuck it, overprotect everything! Break High E into 5 pitches if you have to. You can always dial it back later once you're a stud. But underprotecting can lead to injuries, and injuries can set you way back. 

From what little information I can see, it looks like you have a good foundation and are doing your best to learn from your mistakes. Keep plugging along and you'll get there.
Allegra Davis · · Bishop, CA · Joined Oct 2016 · Points: 15

Pitch 1 of High E goes at 5.4, and if you are falling leading that grade, it might be a good idea to spend some time following so you get more of a feel for Gunks routes. It may help as you're starting out to follow a route first and then lead it yourself later. It is more dangerous to fall on "easy" routes in the gunks because they are blocky and ledgy. Falls in the Gunks can be very safe, but that generally comes upwards of 5.7/5.8 or so. 

Kevin MP · · Redmond, OR · Joined Nov 2013 · Points: 422
Ziv I wrote: 
2. The whole experience made me highly doubt the safety of easy routes. Because easy routes are usually less steep, your chances of hitting a ledge and getting hurt at any fall are significantly higher.

This is a good realization to have. Not falling on easy, low angle routes is important. If you become too focused on protecting the first 30 feet, you will find situations where you run out of gear higher on a pitch when you actually need it. The answer is not always bringing more gear, because if you progress to climbing long routes in the mountains, a light rack becomes increasingly beneficial. The key is to assess where the cruxes are which need protecting, and climbing in control on easier sections so you will not fall - this takes lots of mileage. 

I apologize for not watching the video but I would suggest analyzing why you fell. If you are climbing 5.11 in the gym and have three years experience, there is no way you should be falling on a 5.5 pitch. If you toproped that pitch 10 times, how many times would you fall? My guess is that the psychological aspect of being on lead caused you to be extremely tense instead of relaxing, using good footwork, and climbing from one secure stance to the next. The tendency when stressed becomes to stop in the middle of a difficult move or section, instead of moving through that to a rest. Think of how you would move when hiking steep, exposed 4th class terrain...

Gunkiemike · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 2,800
Allegra Davis wrote: Pitch 1 of High E goes at 5.4, and if you are falling leading that grade, it might be a good idea to spend some time following so you get more of a feel for Gunks routes. It may help as you're starting out to follow a route first and then lead it yourself later. It is more dangerous to fall on "easy" routes in the gunks because they are blocky and ledgy. Falls in the Gunks can be very safe, but that generally comes upwards of 5.7/5.8 or so. 

Hear hear. I've never bought into the idea that new leaders should be onsighting, regardless of the grade. Lead something you've followed before, even better if it's fresh in your memory. Your first 50 leads are about placing gear, not climbing the route.


OP - correct me if I'm mis-reading your post, but it sounds like you jumped on the sharp end after less than 5 days (maybe only 2) of trad climbing experience. I'm an old timer, and as conservative as they get, but that strikes me as WAY inadequate.  Follow and remove gear from 100+ pitches before leading.
abandon moderation · · Tahoe · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 138

1. Since no one else said it, aside from redundancy, placing more gear reduces the fall factor on your gear. The higher up you get, the more rope you have out, the lower the fall factor. So all other things being equal (a huge assumption) the pieces near the ground are the most likely to blow. Placing more helps keep the fall factor low.

As a general rule for hard climbing I like to keep 2 pieces between me and serious injury. This isn't just the ground, often ledges, pendulums, etc too.

2. Always be aware of what you'll hit when you fall, regardless of the grade. Even on hard routes you're often climbing above ledges. Sometimes giving a good push out away from the wall in the split second that you start to slip is the difference between a clean whip and a broken ankle, other times it's no help.

Nkane 1 · · Berkeley, CA · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 106

When climbing low-angle, ledgy terrain like P1 of High Exposure, your primary safety system is your ability not to fall.

The gear is there to keep you out of the morgue (hopefully); it may not keep you out of the hospital.

Heal up and go get some mileage. Practice downclimbing.

Practice not falling. Not falling is subtly different skill from doing hard moves. 

Matt Westlake · · Durham, NC · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 587

I've noticed that when some climbers take up trad they tend to treat it just like sport, in that they try to put in about the same amount of gear as there are bolts and with the same spacing. Don't do that, forces are higher on those first few due to fall factors, better to have a few in and share the load plus stack the odds in your favor. Place more at the bottom and throughout the whole route be sure to consider what might happen if the piece below you blew out and back it up if things would be bad. Accept that at the beginning some percentage of the placements you've made won't be great and know that as you dial in skills on slinging things the right amount and choosing the best placements to account for rope travel. Think of it as more gear placements = more practice. Easy obvious placements are only the beginning.  

And practice, practice, practice on easier routes. To me, your gym grade verses outdoor learning trad grade sounds appropriate, especially as you factor in all the extra stuff you have to account for on trad lead. You'll have plenty of time to work up the numbers. Think of it as a life goal to get your trad level as close to your onsight level as possible, although that should be tempered by knowing that some routes are dangerous enough that even below your limit you may still want to be very careful about jumping on them.  

Chad Hiatt · · Bozeman, Mt · Joined Oct 2015 · Points: 85

 As Gunkiemike said, your first leads are more about placing and trusting gear than climbing the route.  

Here's a fun game.  Gather as much gear as you can.  Think triple rack...cams, nuts, hexes, tricams, all of it.  Go out on top rope and try to place as many pieces in one pitch as you can.  Make it competitive with your partner if you can and hit several lines.  You'll find creative placements that you would normally overlook, get used to your less favored sizes/type of gear, and get more gear mileage than most people get in a month.  It's a great way to up your placement efficiency and confidence.  Bonus points if you bounce test any questionable placements (You're on top rope, so you might as well make sure they're good placements).

Serge Smirnov · · Seattle, WA · Joined Oct 2015 · Points: 262

#1 won't work in general - it may be a good strategy during practice, but many routes simply don't offer enough protection options.  You may already know to look for labels like PG13 to indicate protection shortages, but those labels (more specifically, their absence) are very unreliable.  Lots of routes have no decent protection for 20-30' but the community is reluctant to give them a safety rating either because (a) the section is much easier than the route's crux or (b) people claim to have found shallow TCU or offset nut placements, therefore it is presumed "protectable" until enough people get injured (which, on an easy enough section, may never happen due to lack of falls).

Señor Arroz · · LA, CA · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 10

You say "feels sketchy" and start climbing very erratically soon after placing your #1. What was going on there? The climbing looks easy. Makes me think your head game isn't quite developed and you simply panicked a bit. There appear to be plentiful stopper or small cam placements you could have placed before moving over that tiny roof. If it feels sketchy, stop and protect it. Or back off. 

Tradiban · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2004 · Points: 11,460
Ziv I wrote: Hi everyone,

I recently started trad climbing after ~3 years of climbing. After taking a two day course with a local guide, I followed up with a couple of successful multi-pitching easy routes days at the gunks and got super excited about trad. The Saturday before last me and a couple of friends were heading to the gunks again to climb High Exposure. I started leading the first pitch (5.5) and about 25ft into it (after my second piece of gear), I made a move without planning my next hold and ended up falling. Luckily the piece held (a #1 cam), but my foot hit a ledge on the way down and I sprained my ankle pretty bad.

For "entertainment" value, here's the GoPro video of my fall - youtube.com/watch?v=vJZti8H…

I am still recovering but the fall made me think about trad leading easy routes and I have a couple of questions I would love to get your opinions on:
1. Do you overprotect your first 30ft on the wall? After all if the cam didn't hold I would have probably hit the ground.
2. The whole experience made me highly doubt the safety of easy routes. Because easy routes are usually less steep, your chances of hitting a ledge and getting hurt at any fall are significantly higher. If that's the case, wouldn't you opt for harder routes as long as they are steep and you have good placements? I usually climb 5.11s at the gym and I opted for 5.5-6 (gunks sandbagged but still), but I'm starting to question my decision process.

The leader must not fall.

And ditch the GroPro.
baldclimber · · Ottawa, Ontario, Canada · Joined Jul 2015 · Points: 1
Gunkiemike wrote:
OP - correct me if I'm mis-reading your post, but it sounds like you jumped on the sharp end after less than 5 days (maybe only 2) of trad climbing experience. I'm an old timer, and as conservative as they get, but that strikes me as WAY inadequate.  Follow and remove gear from 100+ pitches before leading.

Yes, it is inadequate, but it is the new reality.  I fully agree with what you're suggesting. It's just not going to happen for the vast majority of strong climbers coming out of the gyms.

Marc801 C · · Sandy, Utah · Joined Feb 2014 · Points: 65
Ziv I wrote: Hi everyone,

I recently started trad climbing after ~3 years of climbing. After taking a two day course with a local guide, I followed up with a couple of successful multi-pitching easy routes days at the gunks and got super excited about trad. The Saturday before last me and a couple of friends were heading to the gunks again to climb High Exposure. I started leading the first pitch (5.5) and about 25ft into it (after my second piece of gear), I made a move without planning my next hold and ended up falling. Luckily the piece held (a #1 cam), but my foot hit a ledge on the way down and I sprained my ankle pretty bad.

For "entertainment" value, here's the GoPro video of my fall - youtube.com/watch?v=vJZti8H…

I am still recovering but the fall made me think about trad leading easy routes and I have a couple of questions I would love to get your opinions on:
1. Do you overprotect your first 30ft on the wall? After all if the cam didn't hold I would have probably hit the ground.
2. The whole experience made me highly doubt the safety of easy routes. Because easy routes are usually less steep, your chances of hitting a ledge and getting hurt at any fall are significantly higher. If that's the case, wouldn't you opt for harder routes as long as they are steep and you have good placements? I usually climb 5.11s at the gym and I opted for 5.5-6 (gunks sandbagged but still), but I'm starting to question my decision process.

Echoing lots of good advice in the thread......

1. Yes, gym ratings are often over-inflated, but falling on a 5.4 when you normally climb 5.11 suggests your head and mental approach needs a lot of work, so....
2. don't push your gear placing ability (including identifying placements) and your climbing ability at the same time
3. I really like the comment of treating these first 100 leads as training and not climbing outings.
4. Ignore any concerns about "over protecting" - there really is no such thing.
5. The comment about protecting for the fall you don't want to take and not the ground is really good, too.
Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Trad Climbing
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