A Simple Question that Made a Difference While Lead Climbing

I was out climbing at Shelf Road just outside Cannon City, Colorado with my wife and favorite climbing partner Sylvia, when I came upon an interesting technique that I thought I’d share because it really helped her get unstuck when trying to break back into leading after a long break from leading. We were climbing at a crag called The Vault and on a route that I think is 5.8, but which is not in my older guidebook. I had led it and really liked it. I did not imagine that Sylvia would want to lead it, since she has not been feeling strong and confident enough to start leading, having not led anything for a few years. I started to pull the rope through so that she could top-rope the climb, when much to my surprise, she asked if I thought that she should lead the route. I was thrilled because I felt that she had been climbing strong enough to start leading 5.8, and I also know that there is no better way to get back to leading than to start leading routes you are very capable of.

I happily pulled the rope, assuring Sylvia that she only needed to lead as far as she felt comfortable and that I would be very happy to lead the route again, so that she could top rope the route. This was a good plan in that it created a very safe situation for her. Sylvia and I went on to complete our pre-climb routine and safety check, and she started up to the first bolt on the wonderful grey scalloped rock.

Sylvia made her way to the 2nd bolt cautiously, getting her sea legs back again. Bolt by bolt I saw her posture relax as she began feeling more relaxed. I was super psyched when she made it through the mid-height crux with a little coaching. I could hear the excitement in her voice as she reached the last bolt, the anchor just a few moves away. Getting past the last bolt was very cruxy, with some crimpy finger pockets and a high step to a thigh height overlap. After trying a few different approaches, Sylvia asked me to take, so she could rest. She tried a few times to do the move off the dog and I made some suggestions from what I recalled, but she couldn’t seem to find a way to do the move that she was comfortable with.

Sylvia called down to me that I should just lower her, since she didn’t think she could do the move. I asked her, as I usually do, “You sure?” She yelled down to me that she knew what she would do if she was on a top rope. I yelled up to her, “what would you do?” She said that she would high step up with her left foot onto a flat spot at the overlap lip and lay back off the best pocket she had found. This was a perfectly safe situation with the last bolt at her waist level when she would have reached the anchors. Even a fall above that would be clean and safe. I yelled back, “Do that.” And much to my surprise, she did it, and then stood up and clipped the anchors.

Back on the ground, smiling ear to ear, she said, “what a great question you asked. That really helped me.”

So, what’s the tip or lesson here? Next time you are stuck at a move on lead and in a safe-fall situation yet still having trouble making progress, ask yourself what you would do if you were on top rope. If you know what to do, try it.

If your partner is stuck at a move at a bolt or piece of pro in a safe situation, ask them, “what would you do if you were on top rope?” It just may help them.

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