The second time I ever climbed outdoors was on a sea cliff in Devon. I fearfully abseiled off the edge of the cliff and then stood precariously at the bottom belaying my boyfriend, Harvey, as waves crashed against my feet and I tried not to let the rope fall into a puddle. When it was my turn to climb, I struggled my way up a thin crack in the wall, pulling out tiny pieces of metal on wire cocktail sticks that I couldn’t quite believe would hold a fall. A few months later, on another sea cliff in Cornwall, I did my first multi-pitch. I have a very clear memory of getting to the first belay and Harvey clipping me in and telling me to lean back on the anchor as I’d be more comfortable. No way! I thought in my head, as I looked at the two tiny nuts and one large cam that were supposed to hold a combined 140kg if Harvey fell. So when he left, I did as best I could to put as little weight as possible onto the anchor, for fear of one of those little nuts popping out.
Last summer was my first summer of climbing, and I seconded trad routes from granite walls in Devon and Cornwall to gritstone in the Peak District; and then we went to Chamonix and I fell in love with Alpine climbing. The sense of adventure, the thrilling exposure and the breathtaking views. I suppose, in a way, that is when I decided I wanted to learn to lead trad — so Harvey and I could be more efficient in the mountains; move quicker and be safer by sharing leads. I developed long-term aspirations to climb the Matterhorn, Denali, and big-wall in Patagonia, and I probably can’t do that without knowing how to place gear and build belays… So, we called in the knowledge and resources of Tim Harrop, an IML and MIA qualified Mountain Instructor based in North Wales, and I finally got to lead my first trad routes.
Bluebird skies settled over the Ogwen Valley, as we walked into Little Tryfan one Monday morning in late April. I had a few butterflies in my stomach, but mostly I just felt excited and strangely confident — I wanted to feel the understanding, courage, and control that comes with leading, and I finally felt like I was ready to learn. My first task for the day was to rack my harness in a way I felt would suit me while climbing. I loved laying out each shiny, colourful set of nuts, cams, offsets or hexes and clipping them onto my harness, already feeling buzzed by the control I had and eagerly anticipating getting to climb up the wall with the heavy weight of the trad gear gently clanging like bells. I can see why a lot of trad climbers have come to love that sound.
My first trad pitch was probably only around 10 metres, but I practised placing at least six pieces of gear in that time. I felt safe under Tim’s guidance, as he swung around on a rope next to me checking my placements while I climbed, all the while with chatter and jokes that made me feel completely at ease. I admitted semi-jokingly to Tim that I didn’t really trust nuts, choosing cams wherever I could and practising placing them correctly, with their butterfly wings splaying 50% out and at a downward angle. But I enjoyed trying different pieces of gear in each tiny crack or crevice, and the satisfaction that came when a small nut fit so snugly and perfectly as I climbed on upwards with surprising confidence. I often get scared when seconding, so I couldn’t quite believe how relaxed I felt at this point.
When I got to my first belay point, Tim guided me through the process of deciding from where to belay, placing gear, and using the rope and clove hitches to make an anchor. Some of the rope technique felt confusing at first, but after doing it over and over again with Tim’s clear teaching techniques, I soon got the hang of building belays and loved the process of doing it. I realised just how comfortable I felt with my placements when I managed to build a hanging belay with two nuts and a cam, and lean onto it while I belayed Harvey upwards — something I would never have done before. Having placed the gear myself and knowing how ‘bomber’ it felt gave me the confidence to trust my gear and my own intuition. By 5pm, I was mentally exhausted, so we called it a day and ate fish and chips on the way home, fuelling my brain for another day of learning.
The next day, Harvey, Tim and I headed to Milestone Buttress, a multi-pitch crag in the Ogwen Valley that felt more ‘mountainous’ than Little Tryfan due to the features. I learned how to build belays with slings rather than with the rope, and I went on to lead every pitch of a five-pitch route called Rowan. The first pitch was probably the scariest for me, as I climbed higher and higher up a slab until a crux move that (to me, at least!) felt committing and much harder than the ‘Diff’ grade it was given. It took a lot of courage to finally trust my feet and my gear, stepping off the ground to reach a sloping jug at the top, and pull myself over the edge. After that, the route was plain-sailing all the way to the top. I was happy with all of my belays and protection, and felt thrilled to be leading a multi-pitch route. Not having to be reliant on someone else to lead was such a good feeling.
To end the day and my time learning how to lead trad with Tim, we decided to do the classic route, Ordinary Route (V Diff); with me and Harvey swinging leads as we will hopefully go on to do with all our multi-pitch routes. I was gifted with pitch two and the infamous leg-jam that had me exclaiming, ‘trad is so weird!’, as I wiggled my leg into the crack and shuffled my body up to reach a good ledge at the top. Getting to share leads on a multi-pitch route felt brilliant, and I was already anticipating how many more routes I could lead that summer — I realised that there was a whole world of Diffs and V Diffs for me to gain confidence on, before one day entering into the harder grades. Slowly but surely, I might get to climb Denali one day.
I’m still not quite sure why - when I often consider myself to be a bit of a scaredy cat - I have chosen to fall in love with a sport that requires hanging off cliff faces on tiny pieces of metal, or trusting a fabric sling to hold your weight, or clinging on by your fingertips as your forearms start burning, all the while smearing your feet up a wall, 100 metres from the ground. But I have undoubtedly fallen in love with climbing, and there is definitely no turning back. Learning to lead trad feels like I’ve opened up a whole new branch of adventure that I can’t wait to explore.
I would highly recommend learning to lead trad climbing with a qualified mountain instructor. Having Tim to check my placements and belays gave me so much more confidence as I progressed over the two days, and the ability to ask questions to someone who knows how to teach was invaluable. If you’re in North Wales, you can find Tim at timharropmountainactivities.com.