Climbing as a Couple
So you’ve decided to start climbing together. Whether you are in a new relationship or have been married for 20 years you are in for a whole new experience with your significant other. The sport of climbing is so exhilarating and so emotional that couples who climb together are almost guaranteed to experience their share of intensity. There are many ways to ensure that the experience is positive. With the right attitude climbing together can strengthen your relationship and be heaps of fun. However, there are some common pitfalls that can easily lead to unhappy people and the end of your climbing partnership if not your relationship in general.
Climbers thrive off of pushing themselves to the extreme. Intense physical and mental strength is required to send a route and every time you don’t send it means you have succumbed to the physical and mental pressure. Climbing at your limits can reduce you to a puddle of nerve endings in an instant and it is common for people to take out their frustrations on their belay partner. This unfortunate pitfall can be the beginning of the end. It is important to understand that your partner is there for support and not as a punching bag. As a climber, recognizing your partner’s role can easily remedy this issue. As a belayer it is crucial to be supportive if your partner is flailing and also to understand your partner’s limitations. Whether that means urging them to face the crux again after a nasty fall or allowing them to admit defeat and lower down, it is your job to be there for your climber. For many couples exposing raw emotions while climbing helps bring them closer together. Unfortunately some couples come to the crag with baggage and resent this vulnerability, allowing other drama to infect their time on the rock. Not only does this lead to hurt egos it can also be dangerous. When locked into the roles of climber and belayer it is crucial to acknowledge the risk you are both taking and not to let outside emotion affect your ability to keep each other safe.
Ah, communication. What relationship problem doesn’t boil down to communication? Being successful climbing as a couple will require that both parties communicate clearly at all times. Here is where I admit one of my faults as a member of a climbing couple. When I am leading something and I am nervous I tend to let expletives fly if I get short-roped or believe Kyle isn’t being attentive. I know it is usually not his fault and as soon as I clip my bolt I always apologize and tell him how much I appreciate him keeping me safe. Kyle knows that I am in the heat of the moment and speaking from fear rather than disrespect. Because we understand each other, there are never any grudges on either end and the fear-induced potty mouth is usually followed by joy-induced gushing of appreciation for his support. So am I saying it’s ok to swear at your belayer? No, and that is something I am working to change. What is important is being able to communicate your needs under stress and to respect that scary situations draw forth strong emotions. Both parties know what it’s like to be in the other one’s place and respecting your partner is paramount in any relationship on or off the rock.
Overcoming Differences in Ability
Kyle and I are one side of the spectrum in that we began climbing at the same time. Neither of us had any experience which allowed us to start from scratch together as a team, sharing excitement for breakthroughs and learning as we progressed. For many couples the opposite is true. One partner is a veteran climber who convinces the other to try out their passion. In some ways the mentor-student relationship can work very well, often allowing the less-experienced climber to excel quickly and do things a beginner may not experience otherwise.
Climbing with a partner who is at a very different skill level is an exercise in extreme patience. The weaker climber will easily tire of being belay monkey on their partner’s newest project, especially when they can’t even get their feet on the route. Likewise, veteran climbers are often guilty of becoming impatient on the “kid’s wall” and pushing beginners before they are ready. In so many relationships this causes the weaker climber to retreat to a life of top rope or quit climbing altogether rather than allowing themselves to steadily improve and foster a real love for the sport.
If you and your significant other want to build a climbing relationship but are at very different skill levels you must plan your climbing to suit both parties. Planning to balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses by scheduling days at the crag so both parties can excel will ensure partners are happy and improvement abounds. Both partners should be able to choose the routes they want to do and achievements, however small, should not be diminished. If you want your weaker partner to get better have them to lead at their level rather than just top rope your routes. In some ways top roping difficult routes will make them stronger but leading is an entirely different game and requires a different style of climbing. If confidence is an issue see my earlier post on tips for facing lead climbing fears. Without practice challenging themselves on lead your partner will never reach your level. Be patient and they will improve. If your partner gets bitten by the climbing bug it shouldn’t be long before you are able to find climbs that are fun and challenging for both people.
One of the most appealing things about climbing is the creativity and individuality it fosters. No two people male or female have the same body and likewise no two people will climb a route the same way. When you climb together as a couple you will soon find yourself in awe of all the amazing things your partner is able to do. Support at the crag will lend itself well to support in daily life and you will both be better for opening your relationship up to the stress and the strength of climbing.