With spring coming, it'll soon be time to dust off the trad rack and get out on some real rock. This year could be the year you lead Severe! Whether you’ve been stuck at VDiff for a while, you’re keen to push on after last year’s development or you’re preparing for Mountain Training’s Rock Climbing Instructor qualification, let's find out how to progress to that grade:
As with all grades, Severes come in many shapes and sizes and the thing that sets them apart from V Diffs is the noticeable crux moves that may not be obvious at first. On steeper crags, the moves may push you away from the rock which can feel intimidating if you’re used to being in balance on every move. You need to believe that good holds will be there, even if you can’t see them easily from below. The opportunities to place gear will probably be more spaced than you’re used to and the moves in between placements will require attention and commitment.
“Moving onto your first Severe undoubtedly presents more of a psychological challenge than a physical one and if you can keep this in mind it’ll help you no end.” – Libby Peter, climber and Mountain Guide based in North Wales.
Here’s some advice to help you lead your first Severe.
There are a number of ways you can prepare to lead Severe before you step off the ground at the base of the route.
Lead a range of V Diff routes of different styles to develop your route reading ability before pushing on to Severe. Lower grade trad routes nearly always follow an obvious feature such as a corner, a crack or a chimney and this is true of most Severes as well. A good bank of experience at V Diff should mean that the style of the climbing on a Severe is familiar; it’s just the challenge of particular moves that you need to overcome.
Second someone on some Severe or even Hard Severe routes to further increase the breadth of your experience. Try to climb the routes using really good technique and try to remove the gear from as comfortable and balanced a position as you can manage. You can even climb the route again after all the gear has been taken out, to allow you to focus on the quality of your movement.
Consider making a route you’ve recently seconded your first Severe lead, while the moves, and gear placements are still fresh in your mind.
Get some feedback on your gear placements. The protection you place is part of the safety chain so it needs to be good. Whilst few people intend to fall off a trad climb at this grade, it does happen and it’s worth getting some feedback from a qualified instructor or an experienced climber to confirm that your gear placements are solid.
Ask people to recommend some friendly Severes with plenty of gear. UK trad grades flow from one to the next and some Severes will be more like V Diffs, others closer to Hard Severe. See Niall Grimes’ explanation of UK trad climbing grades for more info.
Look at the route from below and try to identify where the crux might be and where your gear is likely to go. If most of the gear will go into a crack, have you got enough of the right sized cams/nuts/hexes? You should be able to point out where your first few pieces of gear will go and where your hands and feet will be when you’re placing them.
Mentally prepare yourself by doing an on the spot risk assessment. Consider the route, the weather, your physical and mental state; identify the risks, likelihood and consequences. What steps will you put in place to minimise the likelihood and reduce the consequences of those risks? Most experienced trad climbers do this as a matter of course, sometimes subconsciously, so if you’re relatively new to trad climbing, it’s worth deliberately going through the process before you start.
WATCH: The BMC's trad climbing skills playlist on YouTube
On the route
Once you’ve committed to the route and left the ground, it’s time to move well and continue managing your mind.
Take time to place good protection and lots of it. Speed is not of the essence when single pitch trad climbing, especially if you’re pushing your grade, so choose a patient belayer and take your time.
On single pitch routes, it’s really important that the gear you place is very close together at the start of the route so that you don’t hit the ground if you slip or fall off.
Use good technique to stay in balance as much as possible. This will involve looking at your feet regularly rather than dragging them up behind you and using your legs to push you up rather than your arms to pull. This efficient style will give you more time and energy to fiddle about with the gear, place it well and clip it before you get pumped or the Elvis leg kicks in.
Before you move away from a piece of gear, look ahead and plan where the next piece will go in – it should be easy to see.
Narrow your focus so that you are totally absorbed in climbing the route, placing good gear and clipping your rope into each piece of gear. This mindful experience is the reason many people enjoy climbing.
The opportunities for climbing across the UK increase enormously if routes graded Severe are within your reach, so it’s well worth the effort it might take to get there.
One step further
If you enjoy the challenge of developing your own climbing, have you ever thought about teaching others? Mountain Training’s Rock Climbing Instructor qualification is all about supervising safe climbing and abseiling sessions. Whether you're a parent, a volunteer or an outdoor centre instructor, the Rock Climbing Instructor qualification trains and assesses experienced rock climbers to instruct climbing.
Severe is the grade all prospective Rock Climbing Instructors are required to lead at assessment.
What is Mountain Training?
Mountain Training is the awarding body network for qualifications and skills training in walking, climbing and mountaineering for the UK and Ireland. They develop and administer nationally and internationally recognised courses to achieve their vision: a diverse and active outdoor society, supported by inspirational leaders, instructors and coaches.
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