If You Don’t Lead, Are You Still A ‘Climber’?

My girlfriend is taking a break from leading right now. Sport climbs, trad climbs, no leading. No sharp end for her, for a while.

When we met, our first times hanging out were mutli-pitch trad climbs, with me leading all the pitches. She was a new, enthusiastic climber, and as we started to hit it off, I harbored some fantasies of swinging leads, even having her lead the hard pitches. We haven’t quite gotten there, and we might not ever get there. And that’s fine with me. I’m happy to have someone who even likes the same stuff I do, and likes hanging out with me a couple hundred feet off the ground on the weekends.

Over the past year, our climbing relationship had some emotional ups and downs — or, it might be more accurate to say, we were that couple you saw fighting over something stupid at the crag. Steph wanted to push her trad leading threshold higher, and I wanted to help her, and we didn’t know how to do it. By the end of last year, she was questioning whether or not she even liked climbing. At all. And I love climbing.

She ended the year telling people she was “taking a break from leading.” At some point, one of her friends introduced her to someone and said, “Steph’s a climber,” and Steph interjected, “No, no, I’m not, really.” When she got home that night, we talked, and she asked:

“If you don’t lead, are you still a climber?”

Well, that’s an interesting question. I told her that climbing means leading, for me. I feel like when I have a rope above me, I get lazy and make bad decisions. Toproping is bad practice for me. I’d rather have the heightened stakes of a lead fall, so I can really concentrate. It’s not that I climb hard routes — but I like to have the maximum experience when I go climbing: routefinding, technique, accountability, movement, and dealing with the fear of falling. The sharp end of the rope is one of the only places I literally think about nothing else, except climbing.

But it’s obviously not that way for everyone. Some climbers are on their way to learning to lead routes, some people never want to lead, and maybe some, like Steph, are just taking a break for a while. But unless you go to crags with walk-up top anchor access, it’s hard to go climbing with someone if neither one of you wants to lead any routes. I recently asked a friend if she was going to be organizing her annual sport climbing trip, where she and a handful of friends spend a weekend at a set of crags with no walk-up access, and she said, “I want to, but none of us lead.” Which is kind of a bummer, if you all like to climb. It’s almost like having 10 people who all want to play basketball, but no one owns a ball.

I suppose everyone’s answer is different, depending on what they get out of climbing. For sure, if you are a boulderer, you’re always on the sharp end. To me, the goal is some sort of competence that paves the way for adventure. I know that I can call a friend of similar climbing (leading) ability, and we can pick out a line of 4-10 pitches anywhere in the world, within our skill level, and we can have an adventure. And that’s what it’s all about for me: Discovering someplace new, in the mountains, and in myself and my friend when we get out there where there’s no safety net and no cell phone signal.

But I’m a pretty weak climber. Lots (maybe the majority?) of climbers love the gymnastic movements of hard climbs, overhanging sport routes, technical boulder problems, pushing their physical limits, racing against the pump clock, leaving the crag with arms that feel like spaghetti noodles. And lots of climbers who are in it for those reasons probably don’t give a shit whether or not they’re on the sharp end of the rope.

A couple weekends ago, Steph and I went climbing together for the first time in almost five months, along with a friend of mine. It was the first time we went anywhere with a rope and there were no expectations of her to do anything. She just tied into a top rope set up by myself or my friend, and climbed. After lowering off her first route of the day, she was beaming, saying,

“I love climbing!”

And that’s all I care about. I’ll lead all the hard pitches, or all the pitches.


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13 replies on “If You Don’t Lead, Are You Still A ‘Climber’?”
  1. says: Whitney

    Loved this! I’d say I’m in the same situation as your girlfriend right now. By the end of last Fall I was putting way to much pressure on myself to lead more and it was taking the fun out of climbing for me. Lately I’ve stuck to bouldering where that’s not an issue but this summer I am going to get back into sport with a lot of top roping. I do give myself a hard time for not leading more often but I don’t want to force myself to do it. I don’t see myself getting into trad anytime soon but I’m really thankful my boyfriend doesn’t mind leading because there are soo many amazing routes I’m happy to clean. 🙂

  2. says: Rick Olson

    Very apt post. I just returned from a week at Smith Rock with my girlfriend who’s just learning to climb along with her Mom and my buddy. I was the only one comfortable leading so it was a solid week of ropegunning for me. I love the mindset of the sharp end, when there’s a bigger fall at stake I’m motivated to examine the rock more and understand what features work best, which I don’t get from toproping, but I’ve also been climbing for a couple years. It’s a natural progression I think, my girlfriend is toproping and focusing on how to use the rock and her body the best she can without the overwhelming fear of climbing and she’s enjoying it. She’s already expressed interest in leading, but even if she doesn’t, she’s still climbing a rock face which counts in my book.

    1. says: brendan

      Right on, Rick. I’m mostly just thankful to have a lady who wants to go climbing at all. Any guy who has observed the high male-to-female ratio at a climbing gym will tell you, they can be tough to find. So we’re lucky.

  3. says: alan

    Great piece!

    In any endeavor there’s so much emphasis put on not being a “poser”, or “keeping it real” by those whom have appointed themselves the Keepers of (insert discipline). The enjoyment can be taken out of it if you let yourself get caught up in what other people think or are saying about how YOU choose to spend your leisure time.
    Do you need to shave your legs to be a “cyclist”, or can you just cruise around town with a radio in your basket?
    Can you have more fun climbing V16 with cameras, a cheering section, and sponsors than you can toproping 5.8 in 2003 Air Jordans?
    It’s all relative. As long as you’re out there having fun, let someone else worry about how “official” you unofficially are.

  4. says: Sarah

    That definitely hit home for me because I’ve gone through the same range of emotions as your girlfriend probably did. I put so much pressure on myself to lead that it took the fun out of climbing. The only problem is that between my husband and I, I’m the only one that leads. That doubles the pressure because not only did I feel hesitant about leading, it was either I suck it up or I don’t go period. This led to a lot of frustration and questioning why I was climbing at all. Lesson learned from this? Life is too short not to be psyched about what you’re doing in your spare time. I only lead what I feel comfortable doing, grades be damned – and I don’t feel bad about that anymore! If I don’t feel like leading, I ask around if any friends are going who don’t mind having a dedicated anchor cleaner 🙂

  5. says: Laurel

    I think it’s a privilege of experience to be able to choose to only lead. For example, I’m pretty solid on 5.10 so if I’m not feeling it I can go down to 5.8 or something and have an easy time. Someone who’s only led up to 5.8 and is at a crag where the easiest thing is 5.8 doesn’t have that much wiggle room.

    And it’s not just climbing ability either — there’s a big difference between being able to place a cam in 3 seconds and taking 30. If you’re getting tired can you throw in a piece and hang on it or are you going to fall while fumbling around and deciding if you want the red one or the blue one, etc.

    So I guess my point is that leading all the time is not necessarily the way to get comfortable on lead — sometimes you need to get more comfortable on lead first before doing it too much.

  6. says: Amy C

    Great post, Brendan.

    And great points by all the commenters here as well… I think Alan said it best when he states, “As long as you’re out there having fun, let someone else worry about how “official” you unofficially are.”

    I’m a beginning leader and at times feel guilty when my husband takes on the responsibility for our climbing routes. And at the same time, I know that if I’m not comfortable, neither one of us will have a great time if I’m feeling forced (by myself) to lead.

    I love that there is so much support and appreciation for just getting out there and doing it. Each person’s growth pace is different and the best, most effective way I’ve seen in helping others improve is respecting that pace—whatever it is.

    Happy climbing! 🙂

  7. says: Sara

    I find this article to be completely appropriate. I was climbing at HCR last week. I was called the bad ass rock climbing mama by one of the fellows climbing with us. I told him I wasn’t a real climber, was just learning to sport lead. I had previously lead only 5 sport routes, 3 in the Needles (SD) and 2 in Red Wing, MN. I love to climb and do not have many opportunities to get out with a family, school, job, etc…. I learned and agree, climbers are those who simply enjoy getting out to the local crag and getting on the rock, regardless of how it is done.

  8. says: Debby

    Do crew members on a sailboat, who are not captains, say they are not sailors? Hey, I have been climbing (no leading) for several decades. The idea is to get on the rock and have fun, and don’t harbor any guilt about not leading.

  9. says: Gary

    Good piece. As one who regularly “seconds” and occasionally leads (and had to overcome a paralyzing fear of heights to do so), I empathize with Steph. Unfortunately, too many climbers get wrapped up in the bravado of climbing, forgetting that enjoyment of the sport is all that matters. As the late, great climber Alex Lowe once said, the best climber in the world is the one having the most fun. Amen.

    1. says: Camilla

      I’ve definitely been struggling with reconciling my at-times crippling fear while leading, and with the enjoyment I get out of a beautiful line. Your quote from Alex Lowe struck home. Thanks for helping me remember what it’s all about!

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