Traditional, or 'trad' climbing, is considered by many to be the purest form of climbing. Sport climbers climb by clipping the rope into pegs that are already fixed in the rock before they climb, boulderers push their technical limits close to the ground (tackling problems without a rope up to heights of around ten metres1 or so), and aid climbers hoist themselves into inaccessible places by mechanical means. Trad climbers, however, climb cliffs and crags in a way that has not changed in principle since the sport began in the 19th Century. A trad climber is not connected to a rope at the top of the route, does not use equipment which has already been placed in the rockface prior to climbing2 and climbs without stepping on, or holding onto, anything that is not part of the rockface. Any falls are held through use of (hopefully) ingenious placements of equipment, and the climber pits his or her wits solely against the rock. A mistake could be fatal.
In the UK, the majority of climbers are, or aspire to be, lead climbers. This is not the case in the rest of the world, where the main discipline is sport-climbing. Some routes in the UK that are trad climbing routes do have the odd sport climbing bolt in place, particularly very hard routes, but the most traditional of climbers eschew even these.
It is true that extraordinary progress has been made in the art of rock climbing, and that, consequently, any given rock climb is much easier now than thirty years since, but the essence of the sport lies, not in ascending a peak, but in struggling with and overcoming difficulties...early climbers attacked what we now call easy rock, we moderns attack formidable rock, the ideal climber of the future assaults cliffs we now regard as hopelessly inaccessible.
- Albert Mummery, 'The Pleasures and Penalties of Mountaineering', 1894.
Mummery was not the first person to climb an inaccessible face. However, along with contemporaries such as Geoffrey Winthrop Young, he was one of the first to popularise the sport. From the Corinthian spirit of 19th-Century public schools came great athletic goals. When these allied with the exploratory attitude of Victorians, the scene was set for early mountaineers to begin their exploits. People like Young and Mummery were major celebrities in their day, generally being men with wealth and time to spare, and they used the crags and mountains of Britain to hone their skills for climbing in the distant Alps. Their exploits attracted the interest of many who could not afford Alpine adventures and many hill-walkers, particularly in Yorkshire and the north-west of England, began climbing short routes as a leisure pursuit in its own right. By the 1930s, most major crags in Britain had been climbed in one way or another3.
Climbers at this time had limited equipment, generally wearing tweed suits to keep warm, tying knots in the rope and wedging them into cracks in the hope that they would be held in case of a fall and knocking nails into boots to provide grip on the rock. Technical books as late as the 1950s show the suggested patterns of nails, as they would appear while looking at the sole, for maximum benefit on different types of rock.
The real upsurge of interest in climbing and in its safety began in the 1950s and 1960s. Climbers like Joe Brown and Pat Littlejohn, among others, started looking for other ways to protect themselves:
There was lots of loose rock and vegetation; we used two 120-feet-long #3 nylon laid cables and had 7mm hemp waist bands, no harnesses. Protection was drilled out steel engineering nuts
- Pat Littlejohn describing pushing the boundaries on a 1967 climb, from High Mountain Sports magazine, 1992.
The development of these 'nuts' was key to climbers' progress. Brown in particular carried a selection of nuts, often from the wheels of articulated lorries, and climbing equipment began to be made more or less to order by engineering companies. Climbers were still going up faces in the same way, placing protective equipment as they went, but now with more sophisticated equipment for more extreme climbs.
The range of equipment now available to the trad climber is immense. It includes ropes with kernmantle cores, odd bits of metal with names like 'rocks' and 'hexes', custom-designed harnesses, strange spring mechanisms called 'cams' and the ubiquitous karabiner, all now regularly used by climbers worldwide. Mummery's 'inaccessible cliffs' are now being assaulted.
Trad climbers generally climb in pairs: the 'leader' (or 'lead climber') and the 'second'. The leader takes the majority of the risks, while the second is largely responsible for his safety. The non-climber (at different stages this can be either the leader or the second) runs the rope through a device appropriately called a 'belay device', which is designed to stop the rope tight in the event of a fall. The climb proceeds in three stages:
- The lead climber ascends the route, clipping the rope into hand-placed protection4, while the second pays out rope. If the climber falls, he will fall a little further than twice the distance between himself and his last runner for example, if he has climbed two feet above his last piece of protection, he will fall two feet down to it and two feet past it before the rope goes tight. Remembering that rope is slightly elastic, he will probably fall five or six feet altogether. The more protection that is placed, in theory, the safer the climber is - but, conversely, he must carry more gear and a rule of one runner every six feet or so is generally accepted.
- The leader reaches the top and attaches himself to the rock by means of 'anchor points'5. This is his 'belay point' from which he will secure the second, while the second climbs up to join him. He then pulls the excess rope through so that there is a tight line between himself and the second.
- The second climbs the rock while attached to the rope. If he falls, he will only fall as far as the elasticity of the rope will allow. On the way up, he collects the gear that the leader has placed.
If the climb is short enough that the top may be reached before the climbers run out of rope, this is termed a 'single pitch' climb. However, many climbs over 100 feet6 cannot be climbed in this way, and the leader must bring up his second to a stable point such as a ledge before continuing the climb. It is theoretically possible to climb any height in this way, and this type of climb where there is an interim belay point as well as the top one is called a 'multi-pitch'.
The majority of trad climbs proceed in this way, but solo climbs (whether with ropes or without) are also part of trad climbing.
The understanding between the two climbers is extremely important, and regular climbing with the same partner enhances this key relationship. However, climbers do not always have the luxury of familiarity, and a series of standard calls are used in different situations. The examples below are used in the UK; climbers in other parts of the world may use local variations.
- 'Take in' - Bring the rope in nice and tight.
- 'Slack' - The rope is too tight; I need you to loosen it off a bit.
- 'That's me' - The rope is just about right, thanks.
- 'Climbing' - Given after a period of inactivity to ensure that the belayer is aware that progress is imminent.
- 'Tight' - I'm feeling a bit wobbly and need the security of a tight rope; I might even fall.
- 'Safe' - Relax, I'm at the top and you no longer need to have me secured.
- 'Off belay' - (after a call of 'safe') I'm not securing you, so fall at your own risk.
- 'Falling' - I've lost my balance and am about to fall; please make sure the rope is tight, you are braced and the belay device is locked tight...oh God...
Other forms of communication are often appropriate, especially on windy days or when the climb is long and the climbers may not be able to hear each other. For example, the climbers may agree that the second does not start climbing under any circumstances unless he feels two sharp tugs on the rope. Signals such as this are entirely arbitrary and agreed upon by the participants on the day.
Why Is Trad Climbing So Special Then?
Many purists frown on other types of climbing. The bolts attached to the rock in sport climbing, for example, damage the rock. According to some, sport climbing itself lacks the adventurous spirit of the traditional leader. This debate is the source of much controversy within the climbing community - sport climbers cannot see why their version of the sport, commonplace on the continent, is treated so negatively in the UK. In any case, the golden rules for the trad climber are:
- The climber must place all protection himself on the way up the climb. For example, using an abseil rope to place key equipment in advance is not allowed.
- He must only use the rock itself to climb the route. Holding onto the rope on key moves, or standing on his protection for a better hold, are definite no-nos.
- The only rope used must be the rope between himself and his second. Using a line fixed in place, or being belayed from a top-rope7 don't fit the ethics.
- Nothing is to be left in the rock, vegetation should not be disturbed and the rock should not be unduly damaged.
Many trad climbers also avoid using chalk, which is used by many to improve their grip on the rock (a bag of chalk dust being carried to dip the hands into mid-climb). There was even a group of climbers in the 1960s called the 'Clean Hand Gang' who aimed to climb the hardest routes without chalk.
It is indisputable that trad climbing, in a historical and ethical context, is the classic way of climbing. While other styles of climbing have their followers, the somewhat heroic discipline of the leader is to be respected. Admittedly, trad climbers can be a tad sanctimonious in defence of 'their way' of doing things, but in this respect perhaps it is only fitting that the founder of modern Alpine climbing, Albert Mummery, has the final say:
The true mountaineer is a wanderer...who loves to be where no human being has been before, who delights in gripping rocks that have never felt the touch of human fingers, or in hewing his way up ice-filled gullies whose grim shadows have been sacred to the mists and avalanches since 'earth rose out of chaos'... The gaunt, bare slabs, the square, precipitous steps in the ridge, and the black, bulging ice of the gully, are the very breath of life to his being... It is potent to happiness and sends the blood tingling through the veins, destroying every trace of cynicism and striking at the very roots of pessimistic philosophy.