TRADITIONAL CLIMBING, ALSO CALLED TRAD CLIMBING OR JUST “TRAD,” is a particular style of roped climbing that involves placing your own protective equipment as you move up a climb, then removing it when you’re done. This equipment is also called protection, or “pro,” because it protects you from hitting the ground in a fall. This is in contrast to sport climbing, where you rely on permanent protection like bolts, which stay in the rock after you’re done. While sport and trad both offer a multitude of physical and mental challenges, placing your own pro adds the cognitive task of finding puzzle pieces that fit in the rock while also performing complex and rigorous body movement. But like most things, the added difficulty often results in greater reward. Instead of being restricted to bolted sport crags, as a trad climber, you can explore the great mountain ranges of the world and get way off the ground on classic formations. Trad climbing opens the door to the adventure of starting a climb well before the sun comes up and stumbling back to the car way after the sun goes down. Sending a hard sport climb is satisfying, but trad climbing offers a feeling of accomplishment unmatched by clipping bolts.Probably the most confusing part of trad climbing is how such seemingly simple pro can be put in the rock quickly and easily removed, while also being strong enough to hold a big fall. The secret is in the smart design of these pieces of metal, which has progressed and evolved over the last 50-plus years. Using advice and expertise from top trad climbers Miranda Oakley, Tim Emmett, and climbing guide Paul Rachele, we created an overview of the different types of pro, the basics of how to place trad gear, and some tips on getting ready for your first trad lead.
There’s one basic difference between active and passive protection. Active pro has moving parts that expand or contract to fit into a crack. Passive pro has no moving parts and relies completely on the shape of the metal and how it fits into the crack. In the history of climbing, passive protection came first, several decades before active protection. Cams entered the scene in the late 1970s with Ray Jardine’s invention of the spring-loaded camming device. While there are several different types of passive pro, including hexes, chocks, and Tricams, the most common type is the nut, also called a stopper. Active pro refers mainly to cams, unless you are climbing a wide crack (called an offwidth), which might require the active pro known as a Big Bro. Both active and passive pro comes in a variety of sizes, with different numbers or colors corresponding to the size of crack each piece might fit.One of the big advantages of active protection is that it’s multidirectional, meaning it will stay in place even when pulled upward. Passive pro is unidirectional and usually protects a downward pull only, meaning it can come out when it’s pulled upward. While strong upward forces on trad protection aren’t super common, sometimes the force of the rope moving up through a nut is enough to jiggle it out of place. One way to lessen this force is by extending the gear, meaning clipping a sling or quickdraw between the pro and the rope to extend the distance between them. There are many other reasons to extend gear that are beyond the scope of this article, so make sure to get proper instruction.
WITH PAUL RACHELERachele has been climbing since 2005 and became an IFMGA-certified guide in 2016. He’s taught hundreds of clients and students the basics of gear placement using the simple acronym—ROCK STARS. Each letter represents one element you should consider every time you place a piece of gear. Since placement possibilities in rock are infinite, it’s rare to find perfect circumstances for each of these categories. However, you should be thinking about this checklist each time you go to place a cam or slot a nut, and then making micro-adjustments to maximize each one. The list might seem overwhelming at first, but the more you practice, the more it will become second nature to evaluate all these factors in an instant as you quickly slam in a solid piece of gear.
- Get comfortable leading sport climbs. This will build confidence and a good “lead head,” meaning your ability to deal with fear and the mental challenge of climbing above gear.
- Memorize the ROCK STARS acronym, and read up on how to place gear using educational books and reliable internet sources.
- Practice by placing gear at the base of a crag, and then get a more experienced trad climber to rate your placements and discuss why each piece is good or bad.
- Follow a multi-pitch route to see how the leader places gear, inspecting the placement as you take it out. If you have time, try to re-place it in the same spot the leader did.
- Have a more experienced friend lead a trad climb and leave the gear in, then you can lead the route on their pre-placed gear.
- Toprope single pitches and place as much gear as possible on each pitch. Practice finding good stances to place from and placing gear quickly. Bounce-test cams by clipping them directly to your belay loop and dropping your weight onto the cam. (While on toprope belay of course!)
- Do the same as #6, but use a second rope to tie into the sharp end, also known as mock-leading. Place pieces and clip them with the lead rope, just make sure that your belayer is belaying you on toprope.
- “You’re ready when you feel ready. No one else can tell you when. Start on climbs you would feel comfortable free soloing so that your movement skills are your primary protection and the gear is literally just a backup. The more experience you get, the further you can push your limits.” —Miranda Oakley
- Try bouldering by yourself.
- “Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Live by this maxim: You can challenge your ability to place gear or your movement, but never both on the same climb.” —Paul Rachele