Stop Being a Jerk to Your Partner!

This article originally appeared on Climbing

My whole perspective on belaying changed when a friend referred to the task as a "sacred duty." It's common to view our turn on the ground as nothing more than filler time between pitches, or worse: a burden that we must bear in exchange for the joys of climbing. But belaying is more than just a necessary evil. The special relationship between belay partners is what elevates climbing from a myopic pursuit of personal excellence to a reciprocal experience. Supporting someone else on their journey toward the send can feel just as powerful as making that journey ourselves.

The best "belaytionships" have respect for both sides of the equation. Not only that, both parties put in the effort to learn and implement what their partner needs from a belayer to feel safe and secure while climbing. That's no easy feat, considering how vulnerable the act of pushing limits high off the deck can leave a climber. The barrage of emotion often amplifies our fears and needs far beyond what they would be on the ground. A strong belaytionship takes all the havoc in stride.

But it doesn't happen overnight. Just like in any other relationship, climbing partners have to go through their fair share of struggles in order to reach a state of mutual respect and support. Learn from some of the most long-standing belaytionships in the sport about how to weather the storms that plague even the most dynamic of duos in the sport, and foster the kind of partnership that will last as long as your love for climbing.

(Photo: Lucie Hanes)
(Photo: Lucie Hanes)

1. Prioritize the Person

Yes, your project is important. It's what motivates you to crawl out of your cozy bed in time to catch the cool morning temps, stay out late until the sun sets over the cliff, and dedicate every spare hour to deciphering its coded messages. But we'd all do well to remember one thing: it's still just a rock.

"At the end of the day," says climber Andy Salo, "you're going home with your partner--not your project. Whatever emotions and stresses you're dealing with as a result of your project bounces off on your partner, and they have to carry that."

Salo and his partner Whitney Boland have been climbing together for over a decade. They're able to support each other best when the one on the wall exercises enough restraint to keep their worst wobblers in check. A charged reaction to what happens on your project may not be a personal attack on your belayer, but it sure can feel that way to them. Taking their presence for granted will inevitably push them away. Rocks are great and all, but they've got nothing on real live human beings. No project is worth losing your partner over.

2. Let It Go

That being said, wobblers will happen. Even the most restrained among us isn't immune to the frustrations involved in climbing. When your partner's feelings come out in a big way, stay grounded. Maggie and Chuck Odette, Maple Canyon legends who have been steadfast partners in all things climbing and life for the past 14 years, suggest "putting up a force-field" when emotions run high.

"It's not about ignoring the other person's feelings," Maggie clarifies, "but more about protecting your own emotional state. It's basically an agreement that just because I'm having a low-confidence or less-than-optimal day, I don't expect you to join in!"

In that sense, belayers might have to take one for the team sometimes. Pick your battles. Some things are worth addressing with your climbing partner for the sake of improving your dynamic. Other gripes might be better kept silent if they're more likely to cause trouble than good once they're out in the open. In the wise words of good ol' Dr. Phil: Do you want to be right, or do you want to be together?

3. Trust Their Tactics

It's not just the climber that experiences heightened emotions. Belayers often go through their own emotional rollercoasters, especially when they're in charge of protecting someone they care deeply about. You want to support them in their efforts...but you also want to get them back down to the ground safely. And in a sport like climbing, where there are very real risks involved, the two don't always mix.

Salo and Boland emphasize the importance of trusting your partner's instincts. "Whitney learned that if I felt confident enough for a scary lead, she could trust that I was going to be as safe as possible doing it--even though that was nerve-wracking for her," says Salo. "Any fear she felt for me was best kept to herself," he explains, because the expression of it would throw off the focus and confidence he needed to climb safely.

Trust is the foundation of any stable relationship, belaytionships included. Talk to your climber ahead of time about their expectations for the route and affirm your belief in their ability to make sound decisions. Address any concerns before they ever leave the ground. Then, when they're off, follow through with that trust. It's key to ensuring their safety.

4. Plan Ahead

Just because you're climbing together doesn't mean that your agendas will always align. Be careful not to assume that you and your partner have the exact same plan in mind. The Odette's learned early on that they don't tend to wake up at the same pace in the morning. Rather than let that turn into a chronic disagreement, they make sure to make a game plan for what the next day will look like before going to bed the night before.

Do your best to line up your ideal day with your partner’s. If possible, find climbs that are close enough to each other at the crag so that you can both have equal time on your projects. "If it's impossible to hit both in the same day," adds Salo, "give up one weekend day to your partner and trade off the next day. You might not send as quick, but you'll keep from burning out your belaytionship."

5. Fail Together, Send Together

"Always remember that even though you and your partner are in the same place, at the same time, doing the same thing, it’s not very likely that you’re experiencing it exactly the same way," says Odette.

To find common ground, treat climbing as a team effort. "Most of climbing is failing," Odette reminds us. "If you're going to fail in front of anyone, your person is the best choice. And when one of you sends, it's a win for the team!"

Put yourself in their shoes. Take on their failures and celebrate their sends. You might not know exactly how they're feeling, but the effort goes a long way. Ask them about their experience and absorb every nitty-gritty detail. The better you understand their emotional state while climbing, the better you can share in their journey and tackle each pitch in harmony.

6. Nurture the Relationship

...not just the belaytionship. Salo firmly believes that "climbing will expose any shortcomings in the relationship between belay partners as a whole." Whether you climb with your life partner or a close friend, your connection extends beyond the crag. Even if you only see your belay partner during climbing sessions, I'm willing to bet that your conversations between pitches go much deeper than "belay on, climb on."

With that in mind, problems in a belaytionship often stem from elsewhere in the relationship. "If you haven't figured out how to support your partner in other avenues of life, it likely will not happen in climbing either," warns Salo. Dissect the conflicts that crop up with your partner while climbing. Are they really about the amount of slack in the rope or what your partner said while they were cruxing? Or do they have more to do with something going on at home? Try as you might, you can't separate the two completely.

In the short-term, aim to resolve any outside disputes before you get to the crag--or at least press pause. The physical and emotional demands of climbing will only escalate those struggles until they're worse than they were before. In the long-term, pick up on the patterns that dictate your crag conflicts. What do they say about more serious insecurities or disagreements plaguing your relationship? Get to the root of the issue. Nurture the relationship to save the belaytionship.

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