My buddy Sameer and I took a two-day Learn to Lead Course with Seneca Rocks Climbing School this past weekend. We both have done a little bit of leading on some of the easiest routes at Seneca, so we already had some understanding of the fundamentals and basic systems for multi-pitch rock.
We wanted to get out there and practice some of these basic leading skills before taking any class with a guide so that we could maximize our time, spending less time on the basic concepts we already had a good understanding of, come to the course with an idea of what questions or problems have already arisen, and hopefully delve a little deeper and push our understanding further during the limited time we had.
I feel like our decision to do some leading prior to the course greatly increased the value we received from our Learn to Lead course.
We drove out Friday night after work to Seneca Rocks, WV (about a three hour drive from Washington DC) and made camp at Yokum’s Stables, located just a short drive from town and the crag. Saturday morning we were up early, hoping to grab some breakfast before meeting up at 8am…
Our hunt for food sent us all over—Yokum’s Restaurant was closed because the cook called in for some reason, the back deli at the general store wasn’t open until 8am, the little coffee shop / breakfast burrito place at Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides is no longer open because their climbing cook moved to another crag, but we finally found some awesome breakfast sandwiches from Macksville Mart out past Seneca Shadows.
Soon thereafter we met up with our guide, Massey Teel, from Seneca Rocks Climbing School. We had climbed with Massey last spring and found him to be both an excellent instructor and fun to be around. He’s the head guide with SRCS and will be taking his AMGA Rock Guide Exam at the end of the year.
We ran through a few basic things, checked over gear, grabbed some ropes and hiked up to the base of Ecstasy Junior to start things off. We began at the corner system near Sunshine, which was a different start from the other three or so times I’ve done the route.
Basically Massey broke the first pitch into two, and led the pitch talking about each gear placement, his logic for using which piece where and why, when and why to extend alpine draws, what to do arriving at a belay, and so forth. After our second pitch (the top of the first pitch, typically), Massey showed us how to rig up a tandem rappel from a cordelette, add extra friction with an additional biner, and then we rapped off the EJ ledge with me playing the victim.
Gear Placement and Anchor Building Clinic
Back on terra firma, we discussed the possible rain predicted at around noon and whether we should head to the cave where we’d be covered but have less gear placement opportunities, or head to the Southern Pillar where we had more cracks to place gear but would probably be rained on.
We chose the Southern Pillar, and we did get some light rain as predicted. We did a gear placement clinic where we went around placing as many pieces of protection at ground level as possible, and afterward we went through and evaluated all the pieces and talked about what made each respective placement strong or weak.
This exercise in and of itself was extremely valuable—it gave me a much better understanding of how to place gear and evaluate it in the future, and while I have read books on the topic, obviously nothing compares to having an experienced eye critiquing gear you have personally placed.
From there we explored building belay anchors, equalizing pieces through different methods, and discussing the direction of pull. Massey had all sorts of little tips and tricks like clove hitching the knot from your cordelette on the high piece to keep it out of the way when tying your master point, adapting your anchor to changing directions of pull/travel with little biner twists or clove hitches, and much more.
We then went on to exploring ways to equalize highly spaced out gear and four or five piece anchors with extra slings or by turning your cordelette into a webolette—very good to know—and then took a look at building anchors by using your rope and some of the disadvantages of doing so.
Mock Leading Roy Gap Chimney
After our ground clinic we were set to do some mock leads on the adjacent Roy Gap Chimney and put some of our newfound insight into practice.
Massey led the first pitch and then set up a top rope anchor for us to be backed up on. This allowed us to practice as if on lead and break up the pitch into two, so we could swing leads, and Massey would follow up after each lead in order to evaluate our gear placements, anchors, and general technique on lead.
Sameer ended up taking the first half of pitch one, which was the more difficult section, and thankfully so because I ended up struggling toward the end of this pitch on the short crux and fell a couple times on it. I guess I was missing some crucial footholds that I just wasn’t seeing.
After a short rest to recover from my floundering below, I set off to lead the second half of the pitch which started off directly into a squeeze chimney. It wasn’t terribly long, but the chimney wasn’t very deep and was quite tight—I could take my hands off and nearly my feet and still be wedged in.
I squirmed inelegantly through the narrow chimney and eventually was able to turn up and out to easier ground. My gear placements were okay—there were a few marginal nut places, but I did get bonus points for finding the chockstone that I slung for protection.
I built a decent belay anchor, but we quickly realized that a downpour was imminent, so I didn’t get a chance to belay Sameer up. We bailed off the route in the rain and quickly packed up gear for the hike out in the rain.
Late Night Clinic
We were back down in the shop by about 4:30, and after hanging up some of our wet gear, we decided to take a short break to decompress before rendezvousing at 5:30 for a clinic in the SRCS back room. They are actually converting an old storage room into a pretty cool looking clinic room complete with various anchors, and (what will soon be) an actual rock wall composed of many, many rocks in order to practice gear placements.
We utilized the anchor wall to review and reiterate concepts relating to belay anchors from earlier in the day and we also added a new anchor that I hadn’t really heard of called the quad. The quad is essentially a doubled over cordelette, clipped into two pieces, with extension limiting knots on either side of the master point.
This creates a nice little shelf in the center that allows for shifts in the direction of pull while remaining nicely equalized (a la the Magic X). You must, of course, only clip three of the four strands in the center, lest you lose the redundancy if an anchor blows.
At 6:30 we took a break because Sameer was scheduled to lead a yoga for climbers session at the Gendarme (the shop attached to SRCS). It turned out to only be SRCS staff and myself who participated (it was the first one he’s offered, but also the crag was empty due to the weather report).
After yoga we had pizza from the Front Porch in the shop with Massey and Simone and just hung out and socialized with other climbers for a bit. And then we decided to head to the back room for a little more clinic action before calling it a night—it was after 8:30 by this point.
We then went over concepts relating to pulley systems and helping a second through a crux. This was all pretty much review from crevasse rescue session, but good to review concepts and apply them in a different context.
I got a demonstration of the Spanish Burton pulley system, which I found informative, since I’ve never seen it demonstrated in person—though I doubt I could replicate it at this point without some coaching or reference material.
I also got a rundown and practice of the alpine extension, whereby you clip a munter hitch into an anchor, belay yourself back down to the ledge, tie an overhand knot in both strands to create a master point for belaying, and when the second arrives you can then belay the team back up to the anchor using the munter. Very slick!
By 9:30 we called it quits—more than 13 hours after we met up with Massey that morning! He truly is a dedicated and awesome instructor and I greatly appreciate his willingness to put in the extra hours and make sure his clients get as much out of a weekend as they desire.
Saturday night was a wet night. There was a strong downpour along with thunder and lightning, and unfortunately Sameer’s Black Diamond Ahwahnee tent had sprung a leak or two. There were a few puddles of water throughout and everything just seemed to be wet.
My sleeping bag was quite wet and soaked through a little bit, and I’m not even sure how that occurred. Despite that, I got a pretty decent night of sleep.
Mock Leading Ecstasy, a Seneca Classic
We met up with Massey again at SRCS at 8am. We gathered the gear that we left there overnight to dry by the fan and picked up another set of (dry) ropes. There was not a single car in the parking lot at the crag as we passed by that morning—something that I’ve never seen before.
And we had first dibs on one of Seneca’s classic multi-pitch climbs, Ecstasy.
The plan for the day was to get in a good dose of mock leading and lots of gear placement. Same format as the day before, Massey leads, sets up a top rope back up, and we mock lead the first pitch by splitting it in half and swapping leads. We did the corner start on Ecstasy, which was the shorter, more difficult (but with good placements) half of the climb, while the second half was easier, but longer, more sustained, and had fewer gear placements.
Sameer wanted to do the more sustained pitch, so I ended up mock leading the harder little pitch with the cruxy beginning. Even though we’re on a back up top rope, I still get nervous about these sorts of things. I mean, especially given the length of our top rope and rope stretch, I would still probably go to the ground if I had fallen on the crux. But happily I made it through the tough bit at the beginning.
Got in a good cam placement and made it to easier ground. The next piece was certainly my worst placement of the pitch, a marginal nut on a small protrusion. I just didn’t see anything else, though Massey insisted there was and I spent a lot of time looking, but just went with it in the end.
Overall, Massey gave me props on my gear placements and showed me a few ways to improve them and to better manage the rope, thinking about transitions, and those sorts of things.
Sameer led the second half of the pitch, which was a beautiful climb, with some cool moves. He also purposefully took a lead fall on a set of opposed nuts just to experience it (again, he was backed up on top rope). At the top of the first pitch of Ecstasy we lowered off the other side in order to place ourselves right below the Burn with a top rope ready to go.
Why You Should Always Wear a Helmet
Back on the ground, we decided to break for lunch at this point and got a demonstration of ways to go about lowering a second while using an auto-block device. We also had a clear demonstration of the reason to ALWAYS wear a helmet at the crag when a baseball sized rock smashed into the ground only about a foot from Massey.
There was no yelling of “ROCK!” or warning from above, nor was there any ricochet off the cliff, just silence and a half second sound of “zmmph!” before it smashed into the ground at his feet.
There was a party rappelling down on the line next to us, but it didn’t seem likely to have come from them—the rappeller was already halfway down—but there was apparently a party further up on the second half of Ecstasy Junior that must have knocked something down. So yes, always wear a helmet, even if you can’t see a party above.
Mock Leading the Burn
After lunch I was first up to try my hand at mock leading the first portion of the Burn. Surprisingly, I handled it pretty well, given that I was still quite nervous (even with the top rope backup). I got a good cam placement off the bat, some decent nuts, and a great placement for my pink tricam off to the side, and put in two cams before tackling a slightly overhanging, bulgy chockstone.
Once past that block it was all easy ground to the belay ledge. I had a challenging time building the anchor with what pieces I had left. I ended up building it off of four pieces (a bomber little nut, two decent tricams, and a #3 Camalot). I belayed Sameer up to the large block, but we stopped him there so he couldn’t get any beta on the belay anchor and so I could lower him off the route.
At first I just took a sling and used the box and tackle method of releasing the auto-block in order to lower him a few feet. Got him to a good ledge where I then was walked through the process of turning the auto-block into a full on lowering, which was very cool and good to know.
Sameer then mock led the Burn and I climbed it again, he used a few of the same placements but he found a couple much better ones, including one that was right under the overhang which I completely missed (I was quite high above my last piece after I passed the overhang).
Sameer then lowered me off the route entirely using the box and tackle method to release. By this point was about 3:30, and while we intended to hop back onto Ecstasy to switch leads, there wasn’t really time by now.
Instead we headed around the corner so we could practice a few more things, Sameer got in more practice and evaluation of his gear placement techniques, and I wanted to recreate the auto-block to lowering sequence.
On the hike out Massey gave us his general assessment of where we were at individually, where our strengths and weaknesses currently are.
I was happy with his assessment that I have a lot of the big picture technical systems down for multi-pitch rock climbing (I geek out over that stuff), which I believe to be true, and that in general my gear placements were pretty strong, although of course I should practice, practice, practice getting better at identifying placement opportunities, sizes to use, and striving for the best possible placements.
Overall, I still feel like I need to work on general climbing strength and technique, and becoming more comfortable with cracks, laybacks, etc. I feel fine leading ledgy, easy routes, but definitely don’t yet have the confidence to get out on the more vertical stuff.
Overall this course was extremely beneficial and provided me a much better picture of what it means to be a trad leader. It was invaluable having such a competent and knowledgeable guide to critique my work and identify areas to improve.
I really enjoyed the mock leading portions of the course, which allowed me to try my hand at “leading” more challenging and vertical climbs that I definitely would not have been on without the top rope, and it was also really cool that each of the mock climbs were on routes that I had never done before, and Massey provided no beta other than general direction of travel, so he was really allowing us to explore the rock, identify placements, and choose protection.
In other words, he was able to provide a more challenging and otherwise robust learning experience than if we were just mock leading some pitch that we’ve climbed 2 or 3 times previously. There was a lot to learn, digest, and incorporate into my climbing, and in part, that was I wrote this lengthy trip report, simply to help me better remember some of the most significant or A-Ha moments in the course.
I would personally recommend that aspiring climbers take some time seconding a few competent trad leaders and analyzing all that they do, supplement it with some of the numerous books on trad climbing, anchors, etc. (like the Mountaineers’ series of books), and then put together a passive trad rack and venture forth onto the easiest climbs and ones that you are already familiar with in order to get a few pitches under your belt over the course of a few trips, and then set up some private guiding or instruction on learning to lead.
Guides can definitely short cut the learning process and are able to pass along insight and knowledge that will accelerate your growth as a climber, mountaineer, and alpinist.
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