Last weekend I took a two-day course offered by the German Alpine Club’s Potsdam Section on lead climbing. I have relatively little experience aside from top-roping with friends who do all the work for me, so the learning curve was very steep.
Our group of six students and one teacher talked about the theoretical aspects of lead climbing, with an emphasis on how much force each piece of protection can absorb in a fall. We learned that a figure 8, while great for rappelling, is not so great for securing a lead climber; an ATC is a good choice; and that a Munter Hitch in an HMS carabiner is the preferred method (at least according to the two teachers I’ve had). Fun fact: HMS stands for Halbmastwurfsicherung, which is the German word for a Munter Hitch belay. Although I preferred my trusty ATC Guide, the Munter Hitch definitely works very well, and it also has a softer fall dynamic than an ATC; if you want to belay without a specific piece of gear, this knot does the trick. (Here are the instructions; stop at step 6).
The course was held at the Kahleberg outdoor climbing facility in Potsdam, Germany. I don’t want to call it a ‘wall’ because I don’t think that does it justice. There’s no ladder to the top, meaning that you can’t just run a rope through a belay ring and start climbing; someone has to lead climb and set up the belay. The facility is over 12 m (about 40 feet) tall, with over 37 routes, 155 bolts, and 30 rings for belay stations. The routes are rated using the Saxon scale and are graded from III [UIAA III, YDS 5.3] to X [IX–, 5.12c]. We learned on routes rated III to V, which at my current abilities was enough of a challenge for me.
So we partnered up and started climbing. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to place quickdraws, and I managed to clip the rope in the right direction (if you don’t and you fall, the rope can slip out of the bent-gate carabiner – not good). Once I was at the top, though, I was glad to have our instructor up there to talk me through building the belay station. I clipped in with a sling, tied in with a Mastwurf (I think this is a Clove Hitch in English) to a second carabiner for secondary protection, and then set up a third carabiner with a Munter Hitch to belay my partner as he came up. It was a bit crowded when he got there, and I was really glad that I hadn’t shortened my sling so that I could get out of my partner’s way (more on this later). Then I rappelled down with a figure 8 (for the first time, incidentally). In fact, there were so many firsts that I had to concentrate super-hard on keeping my cool and executing everything properly, especially when I was responsible for my partner’s safety. After five hours of lead-climbing three different routes and performing variations on belay setup, teardown and rappelling, I was pretty frazzled – lots going on upstairs.
I cycled home, and after some coffee and cake I felt a bit more human. While Clair was putting our son to bed, I practiced my knots. Everyone else had been tying their knots right the first time, and I had had to re-tie my knots several times throughout the day. Clair gave me some good advice: learn to tie the knots with your eyes closed. I did that, and it helped to focus on how the movements felt, rather than how the rope looked. And then I closed my eyes for the night.
My body felt completely weird when I woke up, like someone had thwacked me about the torso. I was sore in completely weird places, and my hands were having trouble doing everyday tasks like unscrewing our Bialetti espresso maker. So I gritted my teeth and whispered to myself, “Outdoorsman!”
The weather was perfect, sunny and cool. Clair and Emil cycled with me to the Kahleberg, where my first task was to lead-climb and set up a belay station using my newly acquired PAW S rigging plate. One of the guys in the course works at the local outdoor shop and recommended it, and after having seen the crowded carabiner salad at the belay ring on day one, I was ready to give it a go. So I geared up, took a deep breath, and sincerely hoped that I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of my wife and son.
And it went great! I lead-climbed my route and set up everything on the rigging plate with our instructor’s help (and one of his carabiners – turns out that the rigging plate increases your carabiner requirements). I had some trouble with properly tying the Munter Hitch in the carabiner attached to the rigging plate – the knot was inverted from the way I had practiced it – but we got it all done, and my partner followed up. I relaxed for a minute and waved down to Clair and Emil.
Then we worked on setting up a belay station so that the seconding climber can climb through. My partner went up to the third bolt in our route and set up his station, and then called for me to follow. I climbed through all the way to the belay ring, set up a station, and then belayed him as he climbed up and then rappelled down. I was really getting the hang of it.
Then it was my turn to lead-climb to the third bolt and set up a pass-through station. Our instructor asked us to switch routes with some more experienced climbers, which increased my anxiety level a bit, but I thought to myself: how else are you going to get better at this? So I led the Russian Crack route (Saxon: IV) up to the third bolt and then set up my station. As I was setting up, though, I decided to shorten my sling so that I could sit in my harness while setting up the station. As soon as my partner started up, I knew that I had made a mistake – I couldn’t get out of the way enough, which meant that my partner would have to climb around me, and I was stuck in the route itself. Whoops! Luckily my partner had more experience that I did and was able to navigate some difficult moves, with me trying to stay out of the way (pulling myself to the right with my left hand, doing my level best to keep my right hand on the belay). I was so relieved when my partner clipped in to the next bolt, even though a fall would probably would have landed on my head. Let’s just say I kept that belay very tight until he topped out.
The last part of our day focused on falling. Our instructor was adamant that we get some experience with falling, both as the lead climber and as the belayer. I have to say that watching our instructor do the fall looked horrifying. He climbed up about six meters, clipping in quickdraws along the way, and then he climbed up to the fourth bolt and just dropped. The sound of the rope, the quickdraws jangling, and the collective intake of breath was all pretty sobering. He made a good point though – if you can trust the gear, then you can push yourself a bit harder while still feeling safe. I only managed to do one fall – my arms were pumped from a day of climbing, and I simply couldn’t get up – but my partner managed four falls, which was very instructive for me. On his first fall, I tried too hard to counteract his fall, which resulted in a hard landing for him in his harness; on the next three falls, though, I gave a lot more, coming off my feet, and that was much more humane for him.
The best part of the course – aside from completing it in one piece; I think I was in way over my head – was meeting new people to climb with. After the course was over, several of us exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet up soon. Climbing together is a great way to consolidate what we’ve learned, to learn more from each other’s experience and mistakes, and to continue developing our climbing skills.
I’m really happy to have learned how to lead climb, especially because the structure of all of the climbing facilities and walls in Potsdam and Berlin require that at least one person in the party knows how to lead. It’s also great because I finally have the skills and knowledge to climb with other people in a responsible way, not just as a spectator or a friend that has to be tied in by someone else. I’m on my way to more adventures.