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George Fisher Learning To Lead by Athena Mellor

Written by George Fisher

Image for article Learning To Lead by Athena Mellor

Only the second time I ever climbed outdoors was on a sea cliff in Devon. I Fearfully abseiled off the edge and then stood precariously at the bottom playing my boyfriend, Harvey, as waves splashed onto my ankles.

When it was my turn to climb I struggled up a thin crack, pulling out tiny pieces of metal on wire cocktail sticks that I couldn’t quite believe would hold a fall. Then a few months later, on another sea cliff, I did my first multi-pitch route. I have a clear memory of getting to the first belay, Harvey clipping me in, and telling me to lean back on the anchor as I’d be more comfortable. “No way!” I thought as I studied the two tiny nuts and one large cam that was supposed to hold us both.

Last summer was my first season of climbing, and I seconded (followed people)up routes from granite walls in Devon and Cornwall to gritstone in the peak district, and then we went to Chamonix and I fell in love with Alpine climbing. The sense of adventure, the thrilling exposure, the breathtaking views. I suppose that's when I decided I wanted to learn to lead on trad routes; in other words to be on the ‘sharp end’ of the rope on routes where you place your own gear, rather than clipping pre-placed bolts in the rock. Harvey and I would then be more efficient, move quicker and be safer by sharing leads. So we called on the knowledge and resources of Tim Harrop, a qualified mountain instructor based in north Wales, and I finally got to lead my first trad routes.

Athena Mellor George Fisher


Bluebird skies settled over the Ogwen Valley as we walked into Little Tryfanlate April. I had a few butterflies in my stomach, but mostly I felt excited and strangely confident. My first task was to rack my harness in a way I felt would suit me while climbing. I loved laying out each shiny, colourful set of nuts, cams, offsets or hexes and clipping them onto my harness, eagerly anticipating getting to climb up the wall with my gear gently clanging like bells. My first pitch was probably only around ten metres, but I practised placing at least six pieces of gear in that time. I felt safe under Tim’s guidance, as he swung around on a rope checking my placements while I climbed, all the while with chatter and jokes that made me feel at ease.

"I enjoyed trying different pieces of gear in each tiny crack or crevice, and the satisfaction that came when a small nut fits snugly and perfectly as I climbed upwards with surprising confidence."

I often get scared when seconding, so I couldn’t quite believe how relaxed I felt. When I got to my first belay point, Tim guided me through the process of deciding where to belay, placing gear, and using the rope and the correct knots to make an anchor. Some of the techniques felt confusing at first, but after doing it over and over again with Tim’s clear teaching, I soon got the hang of building belays. I realised just how comfortable I felt with my placements when I managed to build a hanging belay with two nuts and a cam and leant back onto it while I belayed Harvey - something I would never have done before.

The next day Harvey, Tim and I headed to Milestone Buttress, a multi-pitch crag in the Ogwen Valley that felt more ‘mountainous’ than Little Tryfan. I learned how to build belays with slings rather than with the rope, and went on to lead every pitch of a five-pitch route called Rowan Route. The first pitch was probably the scariest for me, as I climbed higher and higher up a slab until a crux move that (to me, at least!) felt committing and much harder than the ‘Difficult’ grade it was given. I was happy with my belays and protection and felt thrilled to be leading a multi-pitch route. Not having to be reliant on someone else to lead was such a good feeling. To end the day, we decided to do the classic Ordinary Route with me and Harvey singing leads

Getting to share leads on a multi-pitch route felt brilliant, and I was already anticipating how many more routes I could lead that summer. I realised that there was a whole world of Diffs and V Diffs for me to gain confidence on, before one day entering into the harder grades. I’m still not quite sure why, when I often consider myself to be a bit of a scaredy-cat, I have chosen to fall in love with a sport that involves hanging off cliff faces on tiny pieces of metal, or trusting a fabric sling to hold your weight, or clinging on by your fingertips as your forearms start burning, all the while smearing your feet up a wall, 100 metres from the ground. But I have undoubtedly fallen in love with climbing, and there is definitely no turning back.

Learning to lead trad feels like I’ve opened up a whole new branch of adventure that I can’t wait to explore.I would highly recommend learning with a qualified mountain instructor. having time to check my placements and belays gave me so much more confidence as I progressed, and being able to ask questions was invaluable.

If you’re in North Wales, you can find Tim at, or join one of George Fisher ambassador Esther Foster’s courses in the Lake District

Esther Foster George Fisher