My first traditional climb

It was less that one year ago that I did my first lead climb, indoors at Salveo Gym. Since then, I have gotten quite good at lead climbing on indoor and outdoor bolted routes (those with bolts permanently attached to the wall or rock). Last year, I bought a bunch of traditional climbing equipment while in the U.S. on trips to Texas and Massachusetts. My climbing bag is now well-stocked with climbing equipment, including nuts, cams, and an assortment of other devices. However, until this past weekend, I had not actually done any actual “trad” climbing—that is, climbing wherein one secures oneself against a fall by placing protective devices in cracks in the rock. I thought I should give it a try, put my expensive gear to use, and see if I liked it.

So this past weekend I did my first trad climbing. I took a two-day course arranged by Solna Klätterklubb. The instructor, Andreas Bengtsson, was knowledgeable and friendly. On Saturday we went to Vårdberget near Fituna. The other students who had originally signed up for the course had cancelled, so Andreas had told me I was welcome to bring a friend. I invited Linda and she joined us for the first day. It was a beautiful, sunny day; the temperature was well above 25° C, and probably closer to 30°. Once at the cliff, we got some basic practice building anchors and placing protection. In the afternoon, we sought refuge from the sun by retreating into the shaded crevice at the left end of the wall. After a long and sweaty day, we cooled off with a refreshing dip in the sea.

On the second day, Andreas took me to Grönbrinksberget, another cliff in the Fituna area. I had never been to this cliff before, because almost all of the routes there require trad climbing. We started off by rigging an anchor from a big pine tree at the top of the cliff and rappelling down. Next, I climbed an easy 4+ route on a top-rope, but placing protection and clipping in another rope as I ascended, just as though I were leading the route. Once I had reached the top, I rappelled back down. Having familiarized myself with the route already, I felt confident enough to do my first traditional lead climb on the same route. A route with a Swedish grade of 4+ is quite an easy route for me, but it was a completely different experience leading it and placing protection along the way. It felt like a 5 or even a 6 because of the added work of placing protection. It's psychologically more demanding as well, because the protection one places is the only thing one relies upon to stop a fall in the event that one looses one’s grip! I completed the route without any problems though, and it was actually easier and less scary than I had expected. I attribute this to the work done leading up to that point, getting comfortable with the trad gear and learning how to place it properly. In addition, the route was very easy to protect, with excellent places for nuts and cams all the way up the route. I must also give Andreas credit for his patient tutelage.

After my first trad lead climb, I secured Andreas as he climbed up and reviewed the pieces of protection I had placed. He pointed out potential problems but in general there were none. He told me that I had an eye for good placement of “pro.” Once he reached the top, we took a break for lunch. As a place to have lunch, it's hard to beat the sunny and windy top of 30-meter cliff overlooking the Swedish countryside. By coincidence, we ran into Matt & Lisa at the cliff. They were also there for a day of climbing, along with Johan and Maria, two other climbers from Klättercentret. They joined us at the top for a while and we all had a bite to eat.

After lunch, we moved the top-rope to another route and constructed an anchor using a rope around a pine tree and a cam placed in a crack in the rock on the top of the cliff. We rappelled down one by one and then I repeated the same procedure as in the first ascent: climbing secured by the top rope, but placing protection as though I were leading. This route was quite a bit more difficult than the first one, and I reached the top only after resting on the top-rope a few times along the way. If I had been leading the route, I would have had to down-climb or fall at the points where I had run out of strength. That scary prospect convinced me that I wasn't quite ready to lead this particular route.

Instead, we moved back to the first route we had climbed in the morning and I practiced falling. This was perhaps the most scary part of the day, but also the most rewarding. With me belaying him, Andreas climbed up and placed a few pieces of protection. He then fell on the top piece a couple of times to confirm that it would catch a fall. Then he came down and I climbed up to just above where his pro was, placing a large nut in the same crack. I climbed up a bit more and then, after a moment of hesitation, convinced myself to let go of the rock. I was probably a good 10 meters up the wall at this point, so letting go was not really easy. But I did it, and of course I was alright. The nut didn't budge, and I fell twice the distance from the point to which I had climbed and the nut. I actually fell a bit more than that, there being a bit of slack in the system. Next, I climbed up a bit higher and did the same thing. No problem: scary to fall, but so reassuring to experience first-hand that the protection does work. I then repeated the same procedure a bit higher up on the wall with a cam. I placed my green Camalot in a lovely crack in the rock, clipped in the rope, climbed up a bit, and then let go. The cams are a bit more complicated devices than the nuts, so until I actually took a fall on one, I wasn't really sure it would work. But I'll be darned if the thing moved a millimeter. I climbed up a bit more and took what was probably the longest fall of the day, 3-4 meters. Again, the cam held. I wasn't completely prepared for the length of that fall though, and I ended up bumping into the rock face with my hip and shoulder. I was a bit shaken, but otherwise unscathed. I have much more confidence in my equipment now that I have fallen on it a few times. The falling exercise was a good way to end the course.

I look forward to doing some more traditional climbing soon. But one thing I have learned is that some traditional climbing can be risky. If there aren't any good places to put protection, it could be tempting to some climbers to satisfy themselves with a poor placement and to just continue climbing. However, I prefer to avoid this kind of risk. Yes, there is some risk involved. And yes, part of the excitement comes from imagined risk, and from overcoming the fear associated with that feeling. However, the way I climb, I do not do anything that is actually very risky. I have no intention of climbing routes that cannot be well protected.

Over and out from sunny Stockholm.

Oh yeah, one more thing: Lisa took a few photos of me when I was preparing to my falling exercise. I will post these photos and more soon.

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