Back to the topic of learning trad safely: there is lots of good advice on this thread. Trad is about more than just placing good gear though. The Trad Climbers’ Bible by John Long has a nifty take on decision-making, and I reckon it’s the heart of what makes the whole thing fun. It goes something like this:
Each move on a climb requires a mini decision: “Do I attempt the move or do I back off?”. The more info you have the better the decision. Once you make a decision, follow through with full commitment.
It sounds so simple, but it relies on a broad spectrum of technical and mental skills. By all means put a big effort into learning to place gear, but don’t neglect the other skills.
Here are a few scenarios:
• The move is easy, the gear is good and the fall is safe: do the move
• The move is hard, the gear is good and the fall is safe: do the move
• The move is easy, the gear is bad or the fall is unsafe: could go either way. Use all your experience to make a call, which may even differ from day to day.
• The move is hard, the gear is bad or the fall is unsafe: back off
In a nutshell you must know 1. Your physical abilities, 2. how good your gear is, 3. how safe a fall is, and 4. how to back off. Fortunately these can all be trained:
1. Your physical abilities. Climb loads and be brutally realistic about your abilities. Learn to know how much you have in the tank and whether you can downclimb. Visualise a move before doing it and compare how it felt to how you thought it would feel. Know how you’ll feel when you’ve done the move – will you have enough juice left to place the next piece or will your forearms explode? Sport climbing is great to train this.
2. Gear placements. This is the obvious core technical skill that everything else depends on. In addition to some of the previous suggestions a good option is to find a steep sport route and aid it on gear while clipping the bolts (or rig a toprope). Bounce test each placement before moving on. The advantage is you can literally see how the placement reacts under load. The punishment for a mistake is getting pinged in the face and a safe fall. It’s a good way to focus the mind and learn to trust gear. Removing the bounced pieces on the way down is also good practice.
3. Falling. Take lots of falls on sport routes to learn how your body flies through space in different scenarios, and how to react safely to a fall. Build up falling engrams so that on a trad pitch you can intuitively eyeball your trajectory and look for ledges, arêtes or roof lips that might injure you if you fall, and also so you know what to do if you do come off.
4. Backing off can take many forms. Options include building a stance and rapping, lowering and sending your mate up, downclimbing, traversing to an easier route, getting a mate to drop a rope to you (mortifying but it’s been done many-a-time), jumping off before the runout gets unhealthy (I’ve done this twice and both times it was the right call). In terms of skills practice downclimbing in the gym and then outside on a toprope. Know how to build an equalised rap anchor. You can almost always make a plan to go retrieve any bail-gear, so don’t be shy to leave kit behind.
Once you have all these skills you can make a fully informed mini-decision for each move on a climb. The last important step is to commit fully to whatever you decide. Dithering is dangerous and kills psyche. If you decide to climb make the move with confidence and commitment. Getting this right is probably the most satisfying aspect of trad – those days when you’re just able to shut out the irrational fear and execute moves at your limit knowing the consequences of a fall are ok. Other days you get it wrong and dither and prevaricate for ages and invariably sag on gear. When that happens don’t beat yourself up. Rather take the time to figure out what’s bugging you, rational or irrational, and add it to your experience arsenal. If you decide to bail do it calmly and safely and don’t second-guess the decision. A mate and I once made a leader downclimb to two cams and then lower off after he’d sent a new scary pitch in the berg. We weren’t prepared to follow the big, gearless traverse. The leader was pissed and there were words. Two hours later as we strolled back to camp the mother of all thunderstorms pulled in. If we’d carried on it would have been touch and go even if the traverse had been ok. My cams are still there – best money I ever spent.
For me the move-by-move decision making process is the heart of what I love about trad, and makes it different to sport and bouldering (which are awesome for other reasons). In trad you’re constantly using your experience to evaluate your situation and make the best compromise between safety and sending. When you’re starting out, a slow, deliberate, rational approach is best. Make an effort to train the various mental and technical skills in a controlled environment. Isolate each skill when training it. So if you’re learning to place gear don’t complicate things by trying to climb hard at the same time. When practicing falling focus only on that and don’t combine it with placing gear. Only step out of one of your comfort zones at a time. Get single pitches dialled before doing multi-pitches. Start with easy walk-ins so you’re not thrashed when you’re learning. Use whatever resources you can (guides, other climbers, books, interwebs, MCSA). But ultimately, be cautious, be healthily sceptical and take responsibility for your own skills journey.