I remember our first belay like it was yesterday: he, a more experienced climber well-versed in safety and knot-tying yet new to the area, and me, a relative newbie to the climbing scene. We stood together at the bottom of the lead climbing wall at the local gym. Our girlfriends had just met at a women’s lead climbing course and thought it would be a good idea if their respective partners got certified to lead climb indoors as well.
The ladies, as giddy as two matchmakers watching their work come together, introduced us and we shook hands just as the gym employee came to watch us climb and belay for certification. He took the sharp end first and I fumbled with the GriGri just enough for him to give a bit of a disconcerting look. “Ready?” he asked. While he climbed, I got tips from the gym employee on how to give a proper belay; while I climbed, he gave tips to the gym employee on more efficient rope management, but in the end we each had successfully belayed and lead climbed well enough to gain gym certification. We were certified partners. “Good job CP,” he smiled. From there, our new partnership moved us beyond the plastic and into the outdoors, creating a relationship that would add immense depth to my climbing.
Like any new belaytionship, ours started out with fire, passion, gusto. We climbed every weekend, exploring new places, sending new routes, identifying new projects, sharing training plans, meeting at the gym twice a week, and going all in with wild abandon. From that immersion, a trust developed, based on friendship and chemistry—that inexplicable force that draws people together. That trust that allows climbers to grow together. We made plenty of mistakes, had misfit adventures, climbed a ton, and rode that wave of bliss for all it was worth.
A good climbing duo can anticipate each other’s falls, recognize when the other is scared just because of nerves or a truly dangerous situation. Climbing-partner relationships are forged through experience and the intense situations that come with an adrenaline-adventure based sport. A true climbing partner is that person you trust fully – not just to make a soft catch – but someone to experience some of the most intimate and intimidating moments of life with. A person who will hold your hand while you poop into a Pringles Chip container a thousand feet off the deck, who you can hug in a makeshift poncho during a shiver-bivy when you are benighted by an unexpected rainstorm, who will bushwhack through hours of thick brush because you found a secret epic crag no one knows about, which is not that epic after all.
The true trust of a climbing partner also stems from the openness of being able to admit that you’re scared during a runout section of 5.6 in light wind, or not being judged because you tied your Munter knot wrong, or that you got off route …again. The climbing partner shares training workouts, beta, and future objectives. He or she appreciates the dozens of links to climbing woodies, photos, camper vans, gear, and appreciates that you too have a Pinterest account full of climbing pins.
While some partners are able to ride that wave of blissful glory indefinitely, most of us eventually succumb to the realities of life. For me and my CP, it started with jobs. He took him overseas on deployment, and I would take my family to spend summer vacations in the mountains. While there were lulls in our time apart, we would pick up again with climbing goals and setting new objectives once reunited. We would eventually marry our respective girlfriends and have children with that. We tried to bring them and maintain our climbing fervor, but eventually the grind of finding a kid-friendly crag, hauling gear (both climbing and kids’ supplies), and cutting days short for naps and tantrums – from us and the kids – would taper the reality of our climbing lifestyle. The obsession would continue and our partnership endure, even through a slipped disk and neck injury one night while trying to keep the dream alive by sending a few pitches in the dark after work. For five years our climbing agreement had its ups and downs, trials and tribulations, successes and failures, and we endured.
Then at the beginning of the year I was offered a job and with that I had to tell my CP the news, “I’m moving…to another state.”
Relocating to a new place is never easy. Getting into the climbing scene and finding new partners is even harder. Even though he said we could belay other people, a connection that has such history and trust is hard to replicate. I feel awkward walking up to a group asking if anyone needs a belay, and I feel rejection when I ask the guy on the autobelay if he wants to climb but, no, he’s “just getting an ARC workout in, bro.”
Climbing partners are often established and people enter the climbing scene with a partner. Or, if established in a local climbing scene then it’s easier to meet others. But the outsider, new to the area is challenged by trying to enter the pack as an unknown – and it can feel like a long, lonely process.
I find myself bouldering a lot now and I send my CP photos of my V3 projects that I know only he will appreciate. I take the family out, but my wife doesn’t appreciate my beta spray; my kids don’t appreciate the grandeur of a hard approach hike to an exposed, loose belay area; and my new rental townhome doesn’t fit the woody I deconstructed and dragged along with me.
As with anything, time will tell. One day I’ll likely meet someone on the street who says, “Hey, you like to climb? Hit me up,” and maybe we’ll find that sync. It’ll be awkward at first. I may call him by the wrong name in an intense situation; I may find myself comparing his gear placements to my past CP; I may feel shy at first about the size of my stick clip because I like to clip the highest bolt possible; or that awkward moment on our first summit, unsure if we high-five or hug or chest bump. Yet, even as I try to move on, I will always have a place in my emotional rack for my true climbing partner.
Photo: Balu Gáspár/Unsplash