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Zen and the art of trad leading

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
3 min read

I was surprised by the reaction that some folks had to the recent Huffington Post article that mentioned my development as a climber… titled “Risk vs. Fear” by Joe Robinson.  I received a number of comments from folks who were surprised to learn that fear has been such a part of my development as a climber.  Obviously, these are not people who’ve climbed with me regularly… the patient few who see me through my ridiculous episodes of lack of confidence and continue climbing with me anyway.

While I have made great strides when it comes to management of fear in sport climbing, and even, to some degree, in bouldering — the Zen of trad climbing eludes me.

I’ve had some stellar experiences in my three-ish years of trad climbing.  Leading a headwall 5.7 pitch on Outer Space in Leavenworth, and leading a friend up Johnny Vegas and Solar Slab in Red Rock are just two.  But aside from those great days, I’ve had a whole lot of trad climbing failure.  I’ve topped out a number of pitches, but can’t seem to find that natural flow for trad climbing as often as I’d like.  This weekend in Squamish — an unexpected October weather window — proved more of the same.

Yesterday — I’ll give myself a pass.  Friends and I assembled at the Smoke Bluffs and hiked as far as Octopus’s Garden before actually harnessing up.  Shawn put up a fun (on toprope, I can’t speak for the lead) offwidth, and as our group took our turns on it, I took a break to sit back and have a snack.  I heard a loud:


from off to climber’s left, and turned toward what sounded like a groundfall, in time to see the belayer moving toward the fallen climber — hands off belay, which confirmed my fear that it was a groundfall.  (If the belayer had caught a fall, he wouldn’t be running… he’d be holding the fall).

A member of our group was a Wilderness First Responder, and others hurried over to help.  The climber was awake and alert, and injured.  His belayer and others called 911 and tended to his care while most of the folks at the crag kept climbing.  Everyone remained calm.  After a time (I lost track, actually) SAR arrived, and arranged an airlift out.

One of our party retrieved the injured climber’s gear.  The climber had placed pieces on the route, and fell.  His high piece popped, and enough rope was out to allow a ground fall when that piece popped.

The rest of the crag, ultimately, was cleared for the airlift out.  We headed to another crag and Shawn and Randy hopped right back on lead and we got in a few fun pitches.

This morning, I drew first lead on a mellow 5.7, low angle, beautiful crack.  Despite the low angle, and despite my enthusiasm and light heart as I racked up, about fifteen feet off the deck, the fear kicked in.  I tried to breathe through it.  I reminded myself that my gear was good, that I’ve safely taken falls on gear before, and that I had a competent belayer.  I also reminded myself that odds are, I’m not going to fall on a bomber crack with perfect jams and solid feet.

Despite that, I couldn’t get myself to climb higher.

I plugged in two more good pieces from my stance-of-paralysis, and then took and lowered.

I’ve done this before.

I know better.

I know that, once the extra pieces are in, I SHOULD just keep climbing.  If I’m afraid of falling, then the extra pieces would help assure that my gear would catch me if I should fall.  But no… it’s not actually the fear of falling.

My gremlin with gear climbing is so firmly the fear of the unknown, that I actually don’t know how to even work on it.  Today, I feared running out of gear (ridiculous, given the height of the pitch and the big-wall-worthy assortment I took up with me).  That’s my common fear… running out of gear.  So, taking a ton up should help me feel more confident, right?  I worry about not having the gear to build the anchor that I’ll need at the top (not an issue today, since I was heading for easy to find bolts).

Tonight, I’m home safe and sound… we all had a fun weekend, despite everything, and are thinking positive thoughts for the injured climber we got to know briefly while waiting for the evac.

On the drive home, while texting with friends, one gave the advice to place nuts like your life depends on them… because it does.  Good advice.  When I bailed off my climb today, I had in two solid cams, and I still added a high point nut just to be on the safe side before I lowered off.

I’m pulling out my copy of “Maximum Climbing” to read up on fear.  I’ll let you know what I learn.  For you experienced trad leaders who struggled with fear starting out…  do you have any advice? Because I’m pretty sure I’m going to wind up out gear climbing again next weekend, and I’m not sure I can figure it out on my own this week.

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.