My friend and I were climbing on the Greek island of Telendos. On the route next to us was a couple. The man climbed first, hanging the draws. He took halfway up the route before finishing it. When the woman climbed it, he offered beta through the harder sections. She found a rest below where he fell and managed to send it.
He lowered her. “7a flash, huh babe?” he said. “Must be soft.”
I probably gasped out loud. I know I glared. How could someone say that to his climbing partner? I couldn’t help but wonder: would he have said that to a guy friend who climbed at the same level as the woman?
It’s hard to know for sure, but this person’s response to his partner’s send of a route spurred the idea for an article.
Initially I thought to write this piece with the subtitle, “Five Ways to Save Your Romance as Climbers.” Because frankly, I’ve witnessed dozens of arguments between couples, (all heterosexual thus far), and the majority of the fights look something like this: Guy wants girl to “try harder.” Girl gets scared/insecure/angry and lashes back at guy.
From my understanding, the guy views himself as helping the girl by coaching her. He views his behavior as altruistic. The intention may be altruistic, but the effect has proven detrimental. The girl either curses at him, starts crying, and/or demands to be lowered—not all the time, but I’d venture to guess many arguments between couples on the rock end in this fashion.
I have yet to see this dynamic happen between two women or two men. It may happen, but I haven’t witnessed it yet and thus my empirical observations lead me to believe the man/woman dynamic lends itself to this clash more easily than other partnership configurations.
This may be because women are believed to have a greater survival instinct than men: back in the day, we needed to survive to ensure the baby’s survival. Men, in general, had more practice in death-defying activities like, say, war. The female climbers in my life are just as brave the guys. But I think overcoming fear for a new climber can sometimes be harder for a woman than a man because of this biological difference.
The belayer is saying, “Don’t take—go for it!” From his point of view the climbing is not scary. The rational part of the climber’s mind agrees. And yet there’s that little voice, spoken by some primordial part of her body, that says, “I’m in mortal peril.” Of course this happens to climbers of all genders, as the will to survive is a basic part of being animal, but I think the voice tends to be louder for women, and thus takes longer to negotiate.
Learning to climb with the fear requires as much practice as learning to drop knee or flag. Unless the climber specifically asks to be verbally encouraged to “push it,” the feedback, “Don’t take!” can prolong learning the process of conversing with the fear. The arguments between couples I’ve witnessed seem to arise when the woman feels insecure. She is trying to learn how to listen to the fear, rationalize it, and then continue climbing, while the guy is rushing this process. This is, again, because the guy thinks he is helping. The intentions are good, the result—a loved one in tears.
Instead of any subtitle directed at romantic couples, though, I think the belay etiquette I explore below can potentially help all climbing relationships. The subtitle, thus, is “Five ways to create rock-solid climbing relationships.” I know in my marriage and friendships, climbing has helped me gain a greater understanding and respect for loved ones—but I first had to learn what each person needed in terms of communication and attitude. Below I’m offering five things I’ve learned (and continue to learn and practice) thus far.
Don’t Downgrade Your Partner
If a friend/SO climbs a route, offer congratulations and compliments, not belittling comments spoken from an injured ego. Duh, right?
Don’t Box A Climber
On a similar note, when I climb with someone, I find it best to assume the climber is capable of adaptability. I try not to say, “Oh, you won’t like that one because it’s dynamic.” Or, “You’ll crush this one because you have little fingers.” I sometimes find myself saying such things, but I try to stop and instead assume one thing only: the climber is smart and adaptable and not stuck in a box. She may have more experience with crimps, but she can learn to use slopers. She may prefer to climb static, but she’s capable of being dynamic.
Our self-image can be largely affected by what people tell us. If our partner says, “You won’t like this one. It’s too [insert box parameters here],” we may end up climbing with damaged confidence. When a friend asks me if she should climb something, I try to give an honest description of the route through my body’s experience, (without ruining an onsight attempt, of course).
We can acknowledge our experiences of a climb without projecting them on our partners. It takes a mindful use of language, being aware of when we might be shutting our partners down before they’ve even tied in. I’m still practicing it, trying to make empowerment of both myself and my partner the guiding force in how I talk about climbs.
Establish Wants and Needs
The woman who flashed the 7a on Telendos seemed to enjoy receiving the stream of beta her belayer fed. I’ve seen other climbers also benefit from extensive beta before and during a climb. I personally don’t climb well with too much beta. It tends to cloud my body’s ability to think creatively. I’ve made this clear to my partners.
Here are some questions I like to ask my climbing partners: Do you want beta? Do you like encouragement when you climb or do you prefer quiet? If I’m giving a top rope belay, I always ask if the climber prefers a tight or loose belay. (A lot of the arguments I’ve seen between couples comes from a woman, top roping, feeling like there’s too much slack in the rope. If she wants a tight belay, she wants a tight belay. What difference does it make?)
And finally, if my climber says take, I take. I assume she knows what she’s doing and my priority, plain and simple, is to make sure she is safe and feels heard. If she specifically asked for encouragement through fear, then I may ask, “Would you like to practice falling?” Like the top-rope belay situation, I don’t mind giving a tight belay or taking up when it’s ask of me. Again, what difference does it make to me, the belayer? The climber is the one who needs to figure out if she took because she was scared or because she was genuinely about to fall and didn’t want to yard back up the rope.
I think the dynamic between couples becomes sticky if one of the partners feels the need to coach the other. The climber being coached might begin to feel she/he isn’t good enough for his/her partner. He/she may feel like his/her performance is being critiqued or judged. This kind of dynamic can turn a fun activity into a weird and stressful one real quick. Again, I think unless the climber specifically asks to be coached, unsolicited “pushing” can cause more harm than good.
Be Attentive, Not Distracting
This is another one I’m constantly working on! When my climber’s warming up, I tend to be a little less strict with this etiquette. I talk to the people at the crag while belaying. But when my partner’s going for a project burn, I try to tune out other people’s conversations and focus only on the climbing. I know if I’m cruxing out on a climb, the last thing I want to be thinking about is my safety because I can hear my belayer talking to other people.
Don’t Assume You’re Going First
This may seem like a no-brainer, but when I get to the crag, I think it’s necessary to ask who is going to hang draws. Even if I’ve climbed with someone a zillion times and know she prefers to top-rope or climb with draws hung, I ask. For two climbers eager for the onsight, rock-paper-scissors establishes a mutual respect. And it’s fun.
‘Cause for most of us, that’s all climbing is—fun. There can be stress, of course, with either wanting to send a route or managing fear. I know having a solid and respectful belayer can be the difference between a great time and, well, an all-out blowout at the crag.