Lead climbing (or leading) is a technique in rock climbing where the lead climber clips their rope to the climbing protection as they ascend a pitch of the climbing route, while their second (or belayer) remains at the base of the route belaying the rope to protect the lead climber in the event that they fall. The term is used to distinguish between the two roles, and the greater effort and increased risk, of the role of the lead climber.

Leading a climb is in contrast with top roping a climb, where even though there is still a second belaying the rope, the lead climber faces little or no risk in the event of a fall and does not need to clip into any protection as the rope is already anchored to the top of the route (i.e. if they fall off, they just hang from the rope).

Lead climbing can be performed as free climbing in a traditional climbing or a sport climbing format — leading a traditional climb is a much riskier and physically demanding exercise for the climber. Competition lead climbing is a sport climbing format that is part of the Olympic sport of competition climbing. Lead climbing can also be performed as aid climbing. The term is not generally applied to free solo climbing, as the free solo climber is already alone and thus there is no need to distinguish the role of leader from the second.


Leader (top) belayed by the second (below)

When leading a route, the lead climber clips their rope into the climbing protection as they progress up a pitch on a given climbing route. If they are leading a traditional climbing route, the lead climber must arrange and insert 'temporary climbing protection' as they climb. If they are leading a sport climbing route, the climbing protection is already installed via pre-drilled bolts, into which the lead climber only needs to attach quickdraws.[1][2][3] Leading a traditional route is, therefore, a much riskier and physically demanding undertaking than leading a sport climbing route of the same grade.[4]

Leader (top) belaying the second (below)

Aside from the specific additional risks of traditional climbing, every lead climber faces the specific risk of falling twice the distance to their last point of climbing protection — i.e. if the lead climber was 3-metres above their last point of protection, then in a fall, they will fall over 6-metres, thus the rope starts to brake 3-metres below their last point of protection.[4] This aspect makes leading a more physically demanding activity than top roping where the lead climber is immediately held by the top-rope upon falling.[1][2]

Leading a climb also requires good communication between the lead climber and the second who is belaying. In particular, the lead climber will want to avoid the second holding the rope too tightly, which creates "rope drag" that acts as a downward force on the lead climber. However, where the lead climber feels that a fall is imminent, they will want the second to quickly "take in" any slack in the rope to minimize the length of any fall. Once the lead climber has reached the top of the route (or pitch on a multi-pitch climbing route), they can then belay the second from above as the second climbs up, removing any temporary climbing protection that the leader had inserted earlier.[1][2]

First ascent

The act, and drive, to lead a climb is related to the definition of what is a first ascent (FA), or first free ascent (FFA) in the traditional and sport climbing formats. The grades assigned to traditional and sport climbing routes are based on the climber leading the route, and not top roping it. If a climber wants to test themselves at a specific technical grade or set a new grade milestone, then they must lead the route.[1][2]

Before the arrival of sport climbing in the early-1980s, traditional climbers frowned upon FFAs where the lead climber had practiced the route beforehand on a top rope (called headpointing), or worse still, practiced the crux moves from a hanging fixed rope (called hangdogging). The arrival of sport climbing led to the development of the redpoint as the accepted definition of an FFA, which includes the practices of headpointing and hangdogging. Where a lead climber can complete a route first-time and without any prior knowledge, it is called an onsight (or a flash if they had prior knowledge) and this is still considered the most desirable form of ascent, and is separately recorded in grade milestones and climbing guidebooks.[5][6]


Lead climber falling with a modest runout; the belayer is not visible but has clearly gripped the rope.

Aside from the specific risks involved in placing the temporary protection equipment while leading traditional climbing routes (i.e. and making sure that it won't fall out in the event of a fall), the lead climber needs to manage several other general risks when they are leading a climbing route, such as:[1][2][4]


See also: Rock-climbing equipment

Lead climbers on traditional climbing routes carrying their climbing protection on their climbing harness whilst being belayed by their Second who is standing below.

Regardless of the particular type of format that the lead climber is undertaking (i.e. traditional, sport, or aid), they will require a harness attached to one end of a dynamic kernmantle rope (usually via a figure-eight knot). Their second—who will be belaying—will use a mechanical belay device that is clipped into the climbing rope and which 'pays-out' the rope as needed as the lead climber ascends the route, but which can immediately grip the rope tightly in the event that the lead climber falls.[1][2]

Where the lead climber is following a traditional climbing format, they will need to carry an extensive range of protective equipment (often referred to as a 'climbing rack' and is usually worn around the waist being attached to the climbing harness) such as nuts, hexcentrics and tricams (known as "passive" protection), and/or spring-loaded camming devices (or "friends", and known as "active protection").

Where the lead climber is following a sport climbing format, they only need to carry quickdraws (which they will also attach to their climbing harness) that they will clip into the pre-drilled bolts along the sport route.[1][2][9]

Some indoor climbing walls provide in-situ mechanical lead auto belay devices that enable the climber to lead the route but belayed by the device. The most common versions belay the lead climber from above and thus the lead climber is essentially top roping the route, and does not need to carry any climbing protection.[10][11]

Multi-pitch leading

See also: Multi-pitch climbing

Longer climbing routes (e.g as in big wall climbing), are usually led in series of multiple pitches of circa 35–50 metres (115–164 ft) in length. In multi-pitch leading, the two climbers can swap the roles of lead climber and second on successive pitches. The second needs to be comfortable working from a hanging belay, and both need to be familiar with the process for swapping between roles safely and efficiently.[12] Given that average pitch length will be longer, and that the weather potentially poorer, both climbers need to be clear in how they communicate with each other, and the climbing commands.[13]

On long but easier routes, the climbing pair may use simul climbing, whereby both climbers simultaneously ascend the route. The lead climber acts like on a normal lead climb, however, the second does not remain belaying in a static position, but instead also climbs, removing/unclipping the protection equipment of the lead climber. Both climbers are tied to the rope at all times, and both make sure that there are several points of protection in situ between them. Simul climbing is performed on terrain both climbers are comfortable on, as any fall is serious; often the stronger climber goes second.[14]

Competition lead climbing

Main article: Competition lead climbing

Janja Garnbret in the 2018 IFSC Climbing World Championships

The development of the safer format of sport climbing in the early 1980s led to rapid development in the sport of competition lead climbing.[15] The first major international lead climbing competition was held in Italy at Sportroccia in 1985.[15] By the late 1990s, competitive lead climbing was joined by competition bouldering, and competition speed climbing in what was to become the annual IFSC Climbing World Cup and biennial IFSC Climbing World Championships.[15] Competition lead climbing first appeared in the 2020 Summer Olympics for men's and women's medal events; it was structured in a format consisting of a single "combined" event of lead, bouldering and speed climbing.[16][17]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Potter, Stephen (23 August 2022). "A Beginner's Guide to Lead Climbing". Climbing. Retrieved 3 March 2023.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "What Is Lead Climbing?". Climber. 17 June 2021. Retrieved 3 March 2023.
  3. ^ Climbing Staff (4 May 2022). "What's A Redpoint And What Do Other Climbing Terms Mean? Our Climbing Dictionary Has The Answers". Climbing. Retrieved 3 March 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "How to Lead Climb". Rock & Ice. 12 September 2016. Retrieved 3 March 2023.
  5. ^ Pardy, Aaron (5 November 2022). "Redpoint, Pinkpoint, and Headpoint – What Do They Mean?". Gripped Magazine. Retrieved 21 December 2022.
  6. ^ Huttom, Mike (3 November 2022). "How the World's Boldest Climbing Area Got that Way: How headpointing became a legitimate, go-to tactic on Peak District gritstone". Climbing. Retrieved 13 February 2023.
  7. ^ a b "The Noob's Guide to Rock Climbing". Outside. Archived from the original on May 5, 2019.
  8. ^ a b c "Three Common Lead Climbing Mistakes to Avoid". Grippped Magazine. 1 March 2021. Retrieved 3 March 2023.
  9. ^ "Trad Climbing Basics". rei.com. Archived from the original on Apr 27, 2019.
  10. ^ Miller, Delaney (30 November 2021). "Caught by the Machine: Lead Autobelays to Hit the Market". Climbing. Retrieved 1 October 2023.
  11. ^ Anderson, Sam (2 December 2021). "Arrested by Machines: Europe's Lead Climbing Auto-Belay Targets US Gyms". GearJunkie. Retrieved 1 October 2023.
  12. ^ Garlick, Sara (20 May 2022). "How to Multi-pitch Lead Climb Efficiently". Climbing. Retrieved 3 March 2023.
  13. ^ Ellison, Julie (16 November 2016). "Learn to Climb Trad: Leading and Following". Climbing.
  14. ^ Oakley, Miranda (23 December 2022). "Advanced Climbing Techniques: Simul-Climbing and Short-Fixing". Climbing. Retrieved 3 March 2023.
  15. ^ a b c "A History of Climbing Competitions Since 1985". Gripped Magazine. 15 July 2019. Retrieved 24 February 2023.
  16. ^ "What Is Sport Climbing? – Everything You Need To Know". Climber. 6 April 2021. Retrieved 2 March 2023.
  17. ^ Walker, Noah (26 July 2021). "Olympic Competition Climbing: Explained". Gripped Magazine. Retrieved 26 February 2023.