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Rock Climbing Relationships

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
4 min read

There has been a lot of chatter over on lately about relationships and marriage, and since we just got back from an extended climbing trip ourselves, the topic has been on my mind quite a bit. Chris and I climb with a lot of partners, but probably climb with each other as partners just over half the time, I’d estimate. We are more successful in our daily partnership than we are as climbing partners, which I think might be par for the course in this particular hobby. So, while our relationship outside of climbing is pretty wash-and-wear, our relationship as climbing partners does require some work.

According to the way Chris sees things, I’m the stronger climber out of the two of us, so some days he can get frustrated when I get scared or twitched out by a particular route or task if he’s relying on my leading in order to meet one of his objectives. He sees me as a stronger, capable climber, and doesn’t understand why I can’t set aside my lack of confidence and just do what needs doing. During a recent episode of this conflict, I realized — I may be a slightly stronger climber physically, but mentally I’m a mess. I’m making progress in that regard, but if I were to rate my mental skills and thought processing on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best, I’d give myself about a three. I am easily intimidated, and I am more influenced by conditions (cold, discomfort) than I should be. And, once I’m cold, tired and scared, my skills for pulling myself together to move upward seem to evaporate. My attention turns toward getting down safely. Chris is by far the stronger climber where mental competency is concerned — he’s better at accurately assessing risks (I’m incredibly risk averse).

Chris and I both have noticed that we climb harder, with less whining, and less wimping out, when we climb with other partners. As climbing partners together, we tend to wuss out easier. We have had some picture perfect climbing days together, just us, without any other friends or climbing partners around… but some of our not so fun days have been together, as well.

The more successful days, I think, are days where we both have the same objectives, which we’ve agreed upon in advance, and which are well within our skills (both mentally and physically). If hiccups arise, we’re mentally prepared to work together to deal with them, and the crisis is generally averted in favor of a fun story for around the campfire. The less successful days are when we’re pushing our limits, we don’t have objectives that are in line with each other, and when conditions play an issue because of our different tolerances for cold and discomfort.

We had, what I think was a success and Chris initially saw as a failure, during our Oak Creek day in Red Rocks. We found our route, we did a little bit of climbing, we stuck to our turnaround time, we found our way out, and we reached our car by our agreed meeting time. This was our first trad multipitch attempt together. We had a few communication errors during the climbing, and we could have moved faster and gotten in more climbing. I could have tried harder to put my fear aside and sucked it up and somehow become a more confident leader, to achieve Chris’s objective of getting in more pitches. By the time we retreated, Chris was upset with me because of my lack of confidence. I took many deep breaths, and tried to get him to vent, reminding myself during the venting that as far as I was concerned we had met our objectives for the day, and that perhaps we need to work on aligning our objectives and communicating more productively in the future. I reiterated a goal for myself of working on my mental calm and confidence, so that I can more reasonably assess risks and try to keep my fear in check.

Even with the dynamic’s complexity, I can’t imagine being partners with a non-climber… I have dear friends whose partners don’t climb, and with how impossible I’ve found it to try to be a “recreational climber” without climbing dictating major life decisions and planning, I don’t think that would work for me. But, climbing with your romantic partner certainly isn’t easy. Although learning to be better climbing partners for each other is a work in progress, some of the things we’ve learned are that the shorthand you develop for interacting with each other in “normal life” doesn’t apply to time spent climbing together. In climbing, we need to try to treat each other the way we would treat any other partner and we need to communicate clearly, using commands and limiting chatter. Climbing is what it is, and it’s supposed to be fun. For some reason, anger isn’t an emotion that comes up while climbing with other partners, but it seems to be an emotion that comes up when climbing with your romantic partner. Figuring out why, and then working to eliminate that sensation, will go a long way toward making the romantic climbing partnership a more productive one.

I think it’s also difficult to know/develop/respect your roles as climbing partners when you are so invested in each others’ lives — climbing partners rely on each other for safety. You climb with a partner so that someone has you on belay, and catches you if you fall. That’s pretty simple physics — the emotions associated with the relationship outside of climbing making the romantic climbing partnership so much more complicated, and expectation-ridden. Romantic partners rely on each other for needs to be met that you wouldn’t expect from another climbing partner. I think our challenge will be to change this dynamic, and figure out a way to ask and expect of each other exactly what we would ask and expect of our other climbing partners — that we find a way to work together to have a good, fun, climbing day that involves catches if we fall.

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.