The thought of taking a ground fall is scary, and for a very good reason.
It’s not so much that ground falls happen as a result of sloppy belaying or poor decision making, although it can definitely happen because of those things.
It’s more that you’re literally guaranteed to take a ground fall if you fall before the first bolt.
Now, that wouldn’t be a problem at all if it were for the fact that so many first bolts are so damn high up. I mean, you’re pretty much going to break your ankles for sure if you fall while clipping the first bolt on some of them.
Why First Bolts Are Often High
“Why don’t they just place the first bolt lower then?” you’re probably wondering.
Well, the reason is that it’s arguably more dangerous to place the first bolt too low.
You see, it’s because it gives the climber a false sense of security. When you fall, you actually fall twice the distance between yourself and the last bolt.
Think about it: the rope leading up to you from the last bolt will end up being extra slack during a fall. However much rope was pointing upward before the fall will be pointing downward after the fall, with the last bolt as as kind of pivot.
So, someone who knows what they’re doing when they place bolts on a climbing route will place the first and second bolts so that the distance between them is not as far as the first one is to the ground. That way, you’ll never take a ground fall due to poor bolt placement.
Naturally, that’ll mean that the first bolt is better off being placed somewhat high up, because otherwise the bolts would have to be so close together that you’d be clipping in more often than you’re climbing.
So, yeah, there is a case to be made for having a lower first bolts, and more frequent bolts around the lower part of the climb to prevent a ground fall, but really, it’s just a lot less hassle for the bolter to just place the first bolt higher up. Besides, you can just use a stick clip to solve the whole problem of “possibly breaking your ankles if you fall before the first bolt.”
Using a Stick Clip
With a stick clip, you can clip into the first bolt while still on the ground. There’s zero risk – as long as your belayer is awake, of course.
It’s interesting though. When you stick clip the first bolt, you’re basically top roping until you reach it, because the rope will be running from your belayer, up to the bolt, and then down to you again. It’s like doing a tiny top roping pitch until you switch back to lead climbing.
It feels strange at first to get into the habit of stick clipping the first bolt, but your ankles will be so glad you started doing it.
Now, stick clips are a little unusual as far as climbing gear goes, in that they’re basically two separate parts that combine together: the stick, and the clip.
The “stick” part is a long, telescoping extension pole, while the “clip” is the part that lets you clip or unclip quickdraws using that pole. With your rope already clipped in, you can lift a quickdraw up to the first bolt, clip it in, and release it within a couple seconds.
If you want an all-in-one stick clip that’s both an extension pole and a stick clip, there’s Kalias’ Clip-Up, which is also pretty much the most compact stick clip setup you can get.
However, if you’re looking for the best stick clip and extension pole combo, I wrote a guide to the clips here, and the sticks here.
I also reviewed the Kalias Clip-Up in that first article about the clips, but really, I do think that the one I recommended, the Superclip, is easily the best “stick clip clip” out there. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t come with a pole.
Though, to be fair, the Kalias Clip-Up only offers an 8′ extra reach for you, which might not be enough for some climbs. With the crags you climb at, if you’re thinking “yeah, I need more than 8 foot of extra reach to clip the first bolt,” then I guess another advantage to getting the Superclip is that you can use it with a pole like the Eversprout 6.5-18 foot one that I recommended in the extension pole buying guide.
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