The evil word. Pre-practice, top roping, working: all synonyms for that most diabolical of threats to stylistic purity. Even before Alastair Lee's aesthetic masterpiece Onsight, headpointing had got a bit of a dubious reputation for allowing Trad climbers to "cheat", bypassing the unknown, and using session after session to work moves on a hanging rope from above. After Lee's film, the last tatters of the headpoint culture stood like the war banner of a defeated clan.
The pervading and sometimes extreme anti-headpoint ideology that has dominated much of the start of this millennium has not just reduced the number of headpointed ascents of routes but has in some cases stopped lines being climbed at all. A decade of abandoned headpointing has left a vacuum now ripe for the plucking, with neglected and undiscovered lines littering the length of the UK, right at a time when training facilities and Trad protection are the most advanced they've ever been.
For most climbers, Trad tends to be about operating well within the physical comfort zone. You may encounter the odd hard move, but the majority of your time is spent shuffling on ledges, with the challenge primarily coming from deciphering unknown dangers. The very best onsight climbers learn to mitigate these risks, guessing and estimating their way through sequences and gear clusters to perform as close as they can to their natural limit. There is, however, another way.
Through the medium of pre-practice, any climber may visit the arena of climbs outside of their onsight comfort zone and discover for themselves whether they are capable of climbing them, before having to commit to a potentially dangerous lead. New lines can be explored and crags can be seen through a radically different prism, sometimes with much more safety. There is, of course, the myth that top roping a line removes so much of the mystery that it renders the eventual ascent a mere formality. If you feel like this is the case, you need to try something harder! A well-chosen headpoint project will chisel its way into your psyche, planting doubts and obsessions in layers so thick that it borders on madness.
At a basic level, the idea of headpointing is that you are able to ramp up the physical and mental elements of Trad, without having to worry so much about 'the unexpected' jumping out at you. This doesn't mean that you remove all doubt, but it does mean that you know better what the risks are. Because you are able to eliminate the majority of the freak variables associated with climbing, the main questions surrounding the likelihood of your success on a line become questions about yourself. It is self-centred, but it is also straightforward – to succeed is to get to the top.
An alternative to bouldering
There's a bit of a myth that's built up over the last few years that bouldering is the hassle-free and safest form of climbing. Many of us seem to have experiences that contradict this myth – slowly lugging sweaty pads into crags, stinking of dog, only to then fall off from one metre, land badly on a rock and injure our ankle. The Instagram collage might trick us into thinking the colourful world of the bouldering mat is somehow a straightforward game of Tetris, but the reality can prove quite different. Not to fear though – there is a way that you can climb right at your limit in almost total safety and not have to bother with cumbersome pads. With a 30m rope and couple of bits of gear, you can turn up to most outcrop crags with a light rucksack of inexpensive equipment and have a thoroughly great time, without the need even for a partner. The genius of practising a route is that you can squeeze it into a 90-minute session, at funny times of the day, when conditions are maybe not ideal and you can monitor your incremental progress between sessions. It's open-ended, easy on the joints, relaxed and a great way of getting a lot of moves done. You can break hard moves down into parts, experiment, and warm into tweaky moves, letting go if something doesn't feel right.
How it works
First off, you need to pick a project. Just like bouldering, you might not fall in love with the first route you try, so throw a few abseil ropes down a few different crags and see what takes your fancy. An inspiring line will make the process feel a lot more natural and might help motivate you when the time comes around to lead it. The style of route you'll want to try will depend largely on your own strengths and interests and where in the country you're located. One of the biggest decisions you'll be faced with, however, is whether to go for a dangerous or a safe route.
Despite headpointing often being first used by climbers when they encounter routes that they find too bold to climb ground up, it needn't be a tactic solely used on climbs with no protection. Because there are so many unpredictable variables to manage, it's advisable to learn your craft on something more towards the safe end of the scale. This will allow you to focus more on the moves and process of headpointing, rather than having to go too far into the spiritual existential-type questions that bold Trad brings to the fore.
Shunt or top rope?
'Working a line' is a broad term and people choose to do this in a variety of ways. Many of us may have quickly headpointed a route in a day or two that was just beyond our comfort zone, employing perhaps a quick top rope before a lead or solo ascent. At the other end of the scale is the protracted siege that may last years, or may in some cases never be completed. How you choose to work a line is dependent on how far beyond your onsight ability the line is and how much safety margin you're comfortable with. It's always worth erring on the side of over-working a line if you're unsure about this, as the consequences of mistakes can be so high, but as we've already covered, the real challenge with headpointing comes when operating right at your physical and mental limit. If you're wanting to get something done quite quickly then a top rope is the best way to move naturally and freely between holds. A slack top rope is probably close to how it's going to feel on lead. If you're trying something that you find really hard, then some kind of self-belay device is the best option. Devices like these can become cumbersome on steep terrain and take a lot of getting used to and trusting, which is another reason why a top rope might be a better option (it's also worth pointing out that most manufacturers advise against using these type of devices in this way, so use at your own discretion). If you can get past the first few terrifying sessions everyone has whilst shunting and learn to not miss a heartbeat as a carabiner moves or a harness buckle bends, it becomes a revolutionary bit of kit. If you're trying something really hard, you are unlikely to be linking loads of moves together and you can spend as much time as you like looking at the moves on one of these contraptions, as you don't have to worry about whether your belayer is bored, or fiddle about getting back into the right position. The shunt holds you exactly where you want to be, allowing you to make micro adjustments as you work out how to hold each hold. The other advantages of a device like a shunt over an assisted locking belay plate are that the shunt will follow you when you finally latch that move. It can also be used on double ropes, which is useful if you want to pull the rope afterwards, or if there is a risk of sharp edges damaging a single line.
Think of a climb as a maze that you can start working from any point. The task of 'projecting' a sequence is always going to involve an element of trial and error, but the number of errors (and thus the amount of time required on it) can be reduced by good tactics. When you set out on a route, the thing you can know with most certainty is where you're going to end up. Most of the time this is at the top of the crag, or at another big feature. If you know you want to end up there but follow random sequences from the ground, you are likely to hit a series of cul-de-sacs. These may be a move long, or twenty moves long – in each case, they will be a waste of time. By starting at the top, you are always working with the sequences that are going to lead you to a point that you know you want to get to. If you can't find a sequence to this point, then you will quickly know the route is impossible for you.
A further advantage of starting from the top is that it allows you to build a 'hold narrative' for each hold. This concept is based on the idea that you use a hold differently depending on whether you're latching it from below, pulling through on it, or moving off it. The ideal way to use and then leave a hold might be different from the easiest way to catch it from lower down. If a hold is too poor to readjust on, then it may be worthwhile to expend more energy in initially grabbing the hold in a way that won't inhibit onwards movement. This is particularly worth thinking about on sequences reliant on power endurance.
Problems with Headpointing
At this point, it's worth pointing out a few potential issues with headpointing. As you're focussing on one route for an extended period of time, it means that you're spending a lot more time in one place than you might normally do. At a basic level, you (or your partners) may decide that going to the same venue day-in-day-out is tiresome and that this approach misses the adventurous and varied aspects of climbing that are one of the main reasons you climb. If you get this wrong, working a line can quickly start to feel like a chore – or even a part-time job. The remedy for this is not always easy, as it requires a change in mindset.
You might be visiting new venues less, but you will get to see the same place change with the seasons, the water table rise and fall, the animals changing their habits, how the colours of the landscape change week-on-week. When you get it sussed, the crag and route start to feel like good friends, and things that originally seemed scary or unknown become quite the opposite. If anything is going to put you off headpointing it will probably be this aspect of it, but if you can make it work for you, it's a life-changer.
The other issue with concentrating so much of your time on one place is the potential environmental impact. If you go to any popular crag you'll see the destruction that a high footfall brings. The harm is wide-ranging and can be severe: path erosion; damage to the rock; destruction of animal and plant habitats; noise; car traffic; disturbance to local communities. All of these and more happen whenever you go climbing to some extent, but if you start to go to the same place regularly, the potential for this to become a bigger problem is obvious. To mitigate this, you can think of ways to reduce your impact. The obvious ones are the same with any crag visit: not dropping litter, not making loads of noise, parking considerately etc. On top of all this though, you need to ensure you're choosing a project that can take the extra traffic – avoid soft rock, delicate ecosystems and crags with potential for access issues. I've made mistakes with this kind of route choice before and the outcome is not satisfying.
With headpointing, you actually have a great opportunity to reverse some of this damage. If you pick a project that is at a less well-travelled crag, you may actually be helping to keep paths clear from vegetation, and routes in a clean-enough state for others to climb. If you add into this mix the inevitable tendency for you to visit other locations less, you may find that your environmental impact actually reduces. More to the point, once word gets out that the route you're trying is clean, you may even tempt other people away from the honeypots. This pattern of crags coming in and out of vogue, thereby getting a 'rest' when not climbed on, will eventually have to become the norm if we are to preserve the climbing in popular areas.
Placing gear is just as much a part of the climb as the moves. A common misconception in Trad is that if you can do the moves, you can lead the route. This is evidently untrue on routes with hard-fought protection, where the climbing is already physical and placing the pro can sometimes even be the crux of the route. As with an onsight approach, a true master of headpointing will know how to get gear in fast, accurately and then trust what's in. That last part's often hard. Sometimes, particularly if the gear isn't great, you may find that it is better to skip it, rather than get pumped placing it. It goes without saying that this is a dangerous game to start.
Before dismissing gear as 'too hard to place', try and work the line using as many tricks as you can. The first method of fast gear placement is simply to rack it well. You need to place the gear on your harness already on its quickdraws and in the order that you'll need it. Make sure that you have the correct quickdraw length for each runner, making allowances for bulges, roofs or traverses. When it's time for the lead, additional care should be taken to double check you have all of this gear before you leave the ground – this is one of the most common mistakes made on headpoints.
If you're finding it hard to place gear even when it is well-racked, have a play around with placing it from different positions. You may find you can poke a cam or nut in from slightly lower down at full stretch, which may reduce the pump factor of placing it, as well as allowing you to do all this whilst nearer to your last piece of gear. If this still isn't working and you're finding that there is a gear placement that is tiring you out disproportionately, try and have that runner pre-clipped to the rope, so that you only have to unclip it from your harness to place it, rather than having to additionally clip it into the rope. This has the added bonus that if you're getting tired on the lead, as soon as the runner is in the feature, it is offering you protection.
If you try all this and it's still not working, you need to try something a little jazzier. If the holds are really marginal, you may find that it is just too desperate to perform an unclipping action and instead you can climb with the runner taped to your leg, to rip off at the opportune moment. Have a good play around with the other ideas first mind, as this is a pretty extreme length to go to and there is, of course, the danger that the runner could fall off.
A far more fool-proof tactic is to downclimb sections of the route. On short routes, this may be to the ground; on longer routes, this may just be to a ledge. A lot of people dislike down-climbing, but it's a great skill that can get you out of a lot of messy situations and actually work to improve your upwards movement. For headpoints, you can use it as a tool to save energy. If you imagine a route with a sustained, but relatively easy first 8m, with some fiddly protection at the end of this and then a hard bouldery sequence thereafter, it will be much easier to tackle that bouldery sequence if you've just climbed the initial wall in an efficient top roping manner, rather than soloed up to the protection and then messed about placing awkward wires. Once you start to really push this tactic, you can make massive improvements in conserving your power endurance and as a result, climb much harder routes.
One of the positive side-effects of headpointing is really learning to trust your gear. When you climb onsight, you understandably ram pieces of protection in as quickly as possible, sometimes without properly checking or seating them. You may even miss an entire crucial placement. Because you're able to spend many hours checking for the perfect placements during the working process, you can gain a far higher level of confidence in your placements, even if they're relatively marginal. You may also get to play around with unusual methods of placing gear and bits of kit you don't often use – Skyhooks, Peckers, Sliders, Tricams & RPs. Having a bounce on any gear when next to the ground is a good way to build this confidence if the rock can take it.
The Big Day...
One of the greatest challenges to performing near your limit outdoors is how to warm up effectively. A lot of us find warming up in the warmth of indoor climbing walls an arduous task and often just do the bare minimum to try and avoid an injury. When you finally decide to go for the lead, you're likely to be picking a cool day, when conditions are likely to be better. Add into that mix the fact that the bottom of many crags are awkward places, covered in rocks or vegetation, and you can quickly see how warming up for a project may not be done properly. It is however hugely important and can easily make the difference between success and failure.
How to Climb
People climb in very different ways and you can improve massively by imitating the way someone else climbs. At different times, it pays to climb slightly differently. If you're attempting to lead a route that you've worked extensively, you should know it well enough to climb it pretty fast. This doesn't however necessarily mean that you should climb it fast. If you're on a big steep cliff with positive holds, your best bet is probably to spend as little time as possible on it, unless you manage to find some good rests. If on the other hand you're climbing sketchy sandstone or grit, a poorly placed foot or finger may result in a catastrophic fall to the ground. It is because of this difference that you need to analyse each movement and hold. There is no point slapping to a micro crimp and instantly moving off this, if you need to have that hold in a certain way in order to do the next move. You may find on a move like this that keeping contact with the last hold, experimenting with your hips and then adjusting, actually saves you energy in the long run – you're not just climbing a series of fingerboards. Do you get more tired with a single big step up, or does hanging around on multiple foot moves take more out of you? This understanding of the journey through holds takes us back to the 'hold narrative' and is an invaluable way of maximising output with limited use of energy and skin. When on the lead, don't be afraid to speed things up or slow them down if you feel yourself climbing at the wrong pace.
A part of your body worth particular consideration are your tendons. Tendons have a limit of resistance. If you work them too much, they give way and you can't pull as hard. This is the same reason why you might find that you're stronger in the morning and why you shouldn't do too much stretching before a climbing session (do some though). If you're working something with several similar moves close to your limit, have an experiment with different ways of doing the moves. For example, if you have three moves in a row that are dependent on right ring finger strength, see if you can do one of the easier moves with a middle finger so that when you get onto the very hardest move, your ring finger is fresh and raring to go. This is where static movement low down on a route pays dividends, with techniques like drop knees and flags reducing the need for using excessive levels of contact strength.
Something you can be certain of is the effect of belaying on the outcome of a fall. You only have to go down to the climbing wall to see how different belayers and belayer styles result in very different falls. The climbing wall, incidentally, is the best place to try some of the following techniques. Your default position with all belaying should be to give a soft 'catch', which means waiting for the falling climber's weight to come onto the rope and then moving into the wall to 'give a little bit' as the rope begins to stretch. If you're falling off of a roof, with your runners in the back of it, this is the method that is going to injure the climber least. You can do exactly the same thing if the gear is poor and likely to pull out.
Where belaying becomes very difficult is when the ground or a ledge is at risk of being hit. A climber not having a dynamic catch will result in a violent pendulum that may cause injury, but this may cause less injury than hitting something else. If this is the case, the belayer needs to either take a step back, run backwards, or jump off a ledge. If you're performing the latter, the jump needs to be practised and you need to know that when the time comes, the belayer is going to do this without hesitation – they won't have long to think about it! It's generally better to perform a smaller jump more quickly than mess about with grand gestures that are poorly executed.
Whichever method you go for, it's prudent to spend time thinking about the path of the rope. As with any Trad lead, if the lower runners pop out, this is going to put unwanted slack into the system, so try and use a cam early on to reduce this risk. It is also worth placing some very low bombproof runners, at the height of the belayer, which can act as a point to run back from. This will mean that every metre the belayer runs back is transferred into a metre taken out of the rope. If you don't do this, then the diagonal formed between the belayer and the first runner means that some of that backwards movement is wasted.
With the right approach, even routes with marginal gear or possible ground falls can become relatively safe. Without putting any of this thought into it, even routes with decent gear can become very dangerous."
Once you have a belayer that you know and trust and the time comes to start contemplating the lead, you need a sound plan as to what you're both going to do in case of a fall. With the right approach, even routes with marginal gear or possible ground falls can become relatively safe. Without putting any of this thought into it, even routes with decent gear can become very dangerous.
The first decision to make is whether the risk is greater from the gear ripping, or the climber hitting the ground. If the latter is the greater, then every decision you make needs to be about reducing the length of rope: reduce the length of slings and quickdraws on gear; if there is a risk of the belayer being pulled up, increase the friction between the rope and the gear placements; and improve the landing as much as possible. If you're more worried about the gear ripping, then the opposite is the case and every effort should be made to produce as slick and dynamic-a-catch as possible. Things, of course, aren't always as clear cut as this and it may be worth having two belayers doing different things on different runners.
Carabiners with a spinning part for the rope are most often used in order to reduce rope drag on long pitches. They may be very useful in this way for our second scenario above if you don't want a high level of friction (e.g below a bulge), where a shorter quickdraw may be used, without compromising on increased friction. They also have a use on routes where the gear is marginal, however, as the spinning part reduces friction on the carabiner, thus also reducing peak impact force on the gear placement. Obviously, most of both your and your belayer's weight is going to end up on the runner, but if you can minimise that initial shock-loading, the chances of your gear holding are much higher.
Once upon a time, screamers were popular on both sketchy Trad and ice routes. Their basic design was to use a sewn-up sling that gradually ripped out, with each snapping stitch absorbing a little bit of the force of the fall. They have been used to good effect in a few cases, with Dave Macleod using (although not falling on them) on routes like Die By The Drop (E10 7a). As the sling itself is static, there is a strange pay-off between the stitching absorbing the fall, but the sling then being floppy and then shock-loaded. Whether screamers would improve the chance of a runner holding needs some real-world testing, which for something with such complex forces going on, is never going to be easy. Their main use perhaps, as per spinning carabiners, is a bit of mental trickery – if you can trust that sketchy RP 15% more, it could make a big difference to your chances of success.
Visualising terror kind of goes against most sports science, but then again, the boldest Trad lines probably aren't a sport. When you're on the sharp end, you're inevitably going to face some pretty hefty doubts. These will likely be massive and pretty much all you are able to focus on. You don't want this moment to be the first time you encounter these thoughts.
Blocking out danger without ever seriously thinking about it is irresponsible and ultimately is likely to lead to poor decisions. Instead, spend time prior to an ascent focussing on what it is about the route that is so terrifying – dwell on this. Try and group the things that concern you into real risks and perceived risks. Perceived risks may be reasoned against and ultimately expelled from your mind. Actual risks need to be properly assessed, mitigated against and then there needs to be a decision as to whether you're willing to accept the dangers that remain. If you aren't willing to accept them, walk away. If the route means enough to you to take your chances with these risks, you have to accept that fully and be 100% confident in setting out on the route. The route is then climbed calmly and in a state of reverence.
If you're trying a route that is really at your limit, the process of justifying the lead to yourself is a long one. You may find that you experience a protracted series of sessions where you can't imagine ever leading the route. Whether you stick with it will depend strongly on what motivates you to climb, which is why this method of climbing is such a window into yourself. The experience of leading a truly bold line can be utterly liberating, but you have to know why you're doing it. The experience creates a paradoxical world of both unbridled transience, and confident permanence: you know the moment is fleeting, but the emotion and momentum inside you lasts forever. To operate at your very best, you need to induce a state that poses a massive risk to your physical being. This is the reason why the motivation has to be a pure one.