Raging against redpoints? Just frightened of falling? Stop right here – expert climbing coach Adrian Berry shares his top ten tips for trad climbers venturing onto sport.
Us Brits are often viewed with a certain comic fascination by the Euros when we descend on their crags, tangled up in a weird assortment of double ropes, helmets, and industrial strength karabiners.
But let’s not forget that we’ve produced some of the best sport climbers in the world - pretty amazing considering our limited range of sport crags and unreliable weather. Perhaps it’s because that as competent trad climbers, we come armed with a huge range of skills and a good base level of fitness to do well in sport climbing.
But don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. Equally we often shoot ourselves in the foot by approaching things in a less-than-ideal manner. Sport climbing isn’t like battling up a HVS crack at Stanage, a different mindset is needed. But with a bit of planning you can be soaring up the limestone with ease, and reaping the benefits back in your trad climbing to boot.
1. It’s a different sport
Johnny Dawes once shared with me his frustration over the very existence of the differing terms for sport and trad climbing, and he had a point, at the end of the day it’s all just climbing. But it does help to see sport and trad as discrete games with their own set of ‘rules’. You wouldn’t dream of walking up to a trad route, aiding it to place all the gear before working it on a top-rope with a view to returning the next day and climbing it with all the gear in place would you? Well, I hope not, but in sport climbing this is de-rigueur. In sport climbing all that matters is getting the route done - how you actually do it is by-the-way.
Don’t feel dejected if you find yourself hanging off a bolt on your onsight attempt - change your game plan and work the route with a view to redpointing it.
Sport climbing needs different gear. A single rope is an absolute must-have (60m at the very least). Sport climbing quick-draws are also different to trad quick-draws; avoid ultra-thin slings which are hard to pull up on when you’re working towards a redpoint. Attach your chalk-bag with a waist belt rather than a clip, and use loose chalk rather than chalk-balls. Buying extra gear may seem pricey, but it will save wear on other gear.
Save the double ropes for trad and go single.
3. Pick the right crags
If you want to climb F6a then go to a crag where this is the average grade. Avoid crags where there are a few F6as and everything else is much harder – you’ll just be climbing on the polished warm-ups.
Pay close attention to the aspect of any crag. Climbing in the heat may look nice for photos, but it will tire you out, slow you down, and tear through your skin.
4. Pick the right routes
Tempting as they may seem, avoid micro-routes as they’ll be far more bouldery for the grade. If you’re a seasoned trad-climber, you will probably have better endurance than power, so opt for long routes. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is vital – usually the best people to ask are your climbing partners, who have a rather more objective view of your climbing. Then choose to apply your strengths to feel good or work your weaknesses to get better.
On a short trip, you’re much better off playing to your strengths and choosing routes that suit you - you are on holiday after all!
5. Warm up
How well you climb on any given day is largely down to how well you warm up. Your first couple of routes shouldn’t be at all physically taxing. If your partner is warming up on harder routes, it can be very tempting to try to follow suit when the rope and the quick-draws are in place, but stick to your guns and warm up on the right grade for you.
If you will be climbing at one crag for several days don’t climb all the easy routes straight away. Save some different routes well within your grade to warm up on each day and so keep the interest.
6. Don’t get pumped, get down
Sport routes can be unforgiving of even a moment’s procrastination. Try to work out roughly what you’re going to do before you leave the ground, and if you find yourself on the crux holds with no idea what to do next and your arms turning to wood, then down climb to a rest - there’s always one, even if it’s the ground.
Next time you get stuck, tell yourself “one, two, three, four, what am I waiting for?”, then make a decision to either move up, or back down. If you want to press on, look to the area of rock around knee level, and step up onto any holds you find - it gives a whole new perspective.
7. Clip late
Clipping can be strenuous and stressful. But bolts are usually placed next to good holds, so there should be no need to clip from the middle of a hard move, try to wait until the bolt is at waist level. Clipping too early may feel like the safer option, but you’ll actually go further if you fall off with a great big loop of slack in your hands - or mouth. Ouch.
When indoors, avoid top-roping: making clips makes the climbing more realistic, and it’s always good to practise your technique.
The entire point of sport climbing is that falling off is made as safe as possible, and falling really is a part of the sport. Coming from a trad climbing perspective, this will always feel alien to begin with. Getting on hard routes makes falling much easier, and taking a few practice falls will go a long way to building your confidence in the hardware, and your partner.
A popular myth is that it’s beneficial to jump outwards before taking a fall - this only makes you slam in harder when you swing back in. Of course if you’re above a ledge, slamming in may be a price worth paying.
9. Go for a redpoint
Just as onsight is the usual style for climbing trad routes in Britain, redpoint is the norm for sport climbing. Redpointing is the style of climbing a route where extensive work has gone into learning each move, but of course any ascent that isn’t a pure onsight (or flash if you have prior information) ends up as a redpoint. Redpointing is nothing less than a wonder-drug for your climbing; it improves your technique, your confidence, and your fitness.
Aim to redpoint around three grades harder than your best ever onsight.
10. Redpoint smart
Right. If you’re going to try a route that’s several grades above your best ever onsight, don’t be a hero and go for the onsight - you’ll just tire yourself out and probably waste the day. The single biggest mistake made when redpointing is to give 100% effort for the onsight, fail, then either lower-off and try again, or rest on the rope and climb to the top before trying again. In all likelihood you’ll only manage the same or even worse on your second go since you’ll be expecting to find it easier, yet still be making mistakes.
Don’t go for a redpoint until you know all the moves.
11. Climb safe
In sport climbing, it’s usual to descend by lowering from the belay. Fatal accidents have happened when climbers, unfamiliar with sport climbing practice, have taken their partners off belay, expecting them to abseil. A climber should be on belay from the moment they leave the ground, until the moment they return to it. Take care when tying-in, it’s so easy to be complacent when you’re having fun in the sun but the bolts don’t make the ground any softer. And when you’re tying a knot in one end of the rope, make a point of tying another knot in the other end. Lowering off a 30m route with a 50m rope is sadly commonplace, and very unpleasant.
Bolts may make falling safer, but the sport climbing game is heavily reliant on good, basic rope-skills. Complacency is your greatest enemy.
Adrian Berry might not be able to count, but he’s one of the UK’s most experienced climbing coaches.