Lead climbing and the wisdom of Mr. Iacocca

I grew up in the 80’s. It was a turbulent time.  The economy was in trouble, inflation was rampant and interest rates where in the double digits (can you say 18% on a car loan?).

All of this hit one of America’s giant auto makers especially hard.  Chrysler Corporation was on the verge of bankruptcy. Lee Iacocca, the creator of the Ford Mustang, had been hired by Chrysler in an effort to save the struggling car maker.  He down sized, talked the US government into an historic bale-out, and introduced minivans and front wheel drive vehicles to the Chrysler line.  Iacocca was so successful that he became an icon and household name during those days.

At one point, he did a television commercial that I still remember to this day.  He stated, ‘In the car business, you lead, follow, or get out of the way’.  (it’s hard to tell who’s original quote this is, many say George Patton, but for me, Lee is the one I remember it from).

That’s true for most things in life.  You always have to choose.  You can lead, you can follow, or you can just stay out of the game.

Back in the day of hemp ropes and swami belts, the rule in climbing was ‘the leader must not fall’.  And so, just as in life, leading was seen as something reserved just for the very bold. Falling on lead meant very likely your rope or your back would break.  (Either of which: me, you and Lee Iacocca would frown upon).

Ropes and climbing gear, in general, have come a long way and falling has become an expectation of lead climbing.  However, despite that, lead climbing is still recognized as a riskier discipline of climbing and definitely is not for everyone.

On the other hand, if you are one of those who are maybe getting just a bit bored with top-roping, well then it might be time to give lead climbing (or sport climbing as it’s also called) a try.

There are a few things you should know beforehand though.  

The first we have already touched on: be prepared for bigger falls.  You’ve probably seen videos or even witnessed individuals on our big lead wall take ‘whippers’.  As opposed to falling on top-rope where your fall is arrested sometimes after just a few inches (especially if your girlfriend is keeping the belay extra tight to give you that extra ‘pull’ up the wall — you do realize that is ‘cheating’ don’t you?), in lead climbing, one must climb above their last point of protection.  That, coupled with extra rope in the system and the inevitable panicked ‘high-clip’ (you’ll learn about those in lead class), can lead to some pretty impressive and scary falls. Of course, you can mitigate this some by climbing easier routes and learning correct clipping techniques, but you are still going to experience bigger falls than you have to date (unless you’re the one where your girlfriend was flirting with the other guy and completely forgot she was belaying on top rope. But that never happens, does it?🙄).

The next challenge is the need to clip the rope as you go.  That means that you will need to stop every few moves, hold your position with one hand, while your other hand grabs the rope and correctly clips it to the quickdraw (yes, there is a right and wrong way to clip, and if you do it wrong you increase your chances of the rope coming unclipped — frown #2 from you, me and Lee). Because of this extra effort needed, most find that they can only comfortably lead climb a couple of grades below their top-rope ability.  At Bliss, we suggest that you should be able to climb 5.9 on top-rope consistently with minimal to no falls before you start attempting lead climbing (as most lead routes start at the 5.7 range).

There is also a huge difference in the belaying skills required when lead climbing.  The belayer needs to learn to feed rope, take rope, move rope out of the climbers way, watch the climber for foot placement and correct clipping techniques, and  be ready to take a large fall that may actually pull the belayer quite a few feet off of the ground.  Add to that rope management (keeping all the extra cord next to you from becoming a tangled mess), constantly looking up at your climber, moving back and forth on the ground for the best rope position, and sucking up the angry words of your climber as you short-rope him for the umpteenth time; there just isn’t much time left for texting or bay watching!  

About now you’re thinking: so why would anyone want to lead climb?  Because it freakin’ rocks dude! That’s why.  There are few things as exciting and as mentally encompassing as climbing on the sharp end of a rope 40 feet above the ground.  Arms pumping out, legs shaking like an Elvis impersonator, hands dripping sweat despite that twenty-five dollar chalk; when you clip those chains at the very top, you know you have accomplished something that very few would even dream of.  It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.

Lee Iacocca also said that he always hires the very best and the brightest and then gets out of their way and lets them to their job.  So if you are ready to try lead climbing, please do the same.  Hire a qualified instructor.  There is just too much that can go wrong to leave your training to some guy that learned to climb from his big brother. 

Now, grab the keys to the minivan and get out and climb.   

And as you lead, remember it still a good idea to . . .

Follow your bliss,


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