Adam and Eve, Laurel and Hardy, Bonnie and Clyde, Rock and Ice … there is no shortage of famous duos that come together to enrich our lives like coconut milk and curry paste. When it comes to teaming up, however, nothing is full of more watery bullshit than the supposedly sacred Climbing Partnership.
What is a “good climbing partner?” That’s like asking what is good sex. Everyone will have a different answer, all of them touching upon largely fictionalized standards: that women should be having multiple orgasms or that your climbing partner always makes the right decisions. We forget, however, that all these romanticized notions of human connection contain an element of solely wanting to increase personal pleasure. Ooh, baby, belay me.
Being good at sex and being a good climbing partner both take years of practice. Just because you know how to tie a figure-8 doesn’t mean that you should be allowed to do anything. Japanese culture recognizes that people must progress methodically, attaining new and higher levels slowly. Apprentice sushi chefs are only allowed to touch rice at first, and spend anywhere from two to five years learning to make it before they are given their sword to start chopping off fish heads.
And even then, they are only allowed to chop the sea’s most derisory creatures, like scallops and shrimp. Preparing delicacies like tuna and shark-face are saved for the next level in the great video game called Japanese culture.
Perhaps that’s why most Japanese climbers are big-wall aid soloists—it’s the ultimate preparation for the next level: climbing with another human being. Westerners are different. They dive into egregious acts of copulation and belaying strangers without any thought. This is due to an intrinsic flaw called instant gratification, and it has caused me more debt and shame than I care to admit.
By themselves, shame and debt aren’t big problems, especially if you have a good lawyer. The issue I am trying to get at is the common idea that just because you know how to swap belays, you have some sort of sacred bond with your partner. We all know that in most instances, your partners can fall, send their project or even drop dead right in front of your face, for all you care. Just so long as they don’t cheat, like covertly pulling on draws or using unapproved beta sequences, then why bother paying attention to them with communication or eye contact?
Just take climbing’s most famous partnership, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. Imagine what climbing would be like if every time your harness became slightly uncomfortable because your partner was taking too long to move—even if you had good reason to assume he was dead—it was acceptable to cut the cord? Touching The Void is a shocking story, if only because it’s what we secretly want to do to each other every time we go climbing and our partners take an hour to hangdog some stupid route they don’t have a chance in hell of sending. Fortunately, this never happens because everyone is afraid of a little murder. As a result, our maddening inadequacies as climbers are tolerated, and we all get to live a little longer.
In the mainstream, climbing partnerships have suffered, like every other aspect of climbing, from being wholesomely simplified. The biggest problem is the rope. This corporeal connection between two rock climbers has taken on metaphorical meaning. The cord has somehow become a symbol of trust, connection, commitment, perseverance and beauty. I’m sick of reading about how two people that are persevering up a rock face are somehow on some kind of journey of connection that is simultaneously figurative and literal just because they are tied in together. Sausage links are tied together, but there’s no higher meaning to be found in meat-packed intestines, so why make an exception with humans?
Sure, we have Messner and Habeler, Boardman and Tasker and Mallory and Irvine. But do these simple pairings of climbers—two-thirds of whom happened to die as a team—have as great an effect on our collective psyches as, say, Hall and Oates or the rap duo OutKast. These musical duos could cure ear cancer. You could argue the Huberbaum is the OutKast of the climbing world, but only in terms of their mono-name (which, for the record, is a winning argument).
Some climbing partners have gained fame simply by putting up a route in the 1970s or 80s and naming it after themselves: Bachar-Yerian, Beckey-Chouinard, Steck-Salathé, Stump-Logan, Dick-Cheesmond. And so on. But these pairings—especially Dick-Cheese, which is what you get on a four-day alpine route wearing synthetic underwear—aren’t really as epic or exalted in the Homerian sense as we’d like to think. Instead, these couplings are merely a product of time, place, circumstance and weather conditions.
For example, on the morning John Bachar put up his famous 5.11 testpiece on Medlicott Dome in Tuolumne, he just needed a partner. Because Dave Yerian lucked out in being the only person awake in the campground that day, he essentially stumbled into scribing his own John Hancock on one of America’s most famous rock climbs. Bachar threw him in the car and deposited him beneath a steep, knobby face with nearly no chance for protection. In a testament to the boundlessness of human potential, Yerian surpassed all preconceived notions of possibility by giving the most famous belay in modern rock climbing. It would be like looking for a breakfast burrito joint and accidentally stumbling into Independence Hall on the morning our Founding Fathers were signing the Constitution—and being offered the pen.
Yerian and Bachar parted ways (only in terms of putting up new routes; they remain friends to this day), and nothing really changed for climbing or climbers. As a comparison, when Hall and Oates broke up, people cried. The world plummeted into temporary darkness (the 1990s), and for a brief period cannibalism became popular (again) in tribute to the song “Maneater.”
While toddlers and dogs glean deeper understanding by placing objects in their mouths and chewing on them, cannibalism, intimate as it may be, is seriously not good for you. Eating other people gives you health problems like kuru, a fatal neurological disease meaning “trembling with fear,” as well as a 5.14c link-up at Rifle of The Crew (5.14b) and Zulu (5.14a).
And if understanding another person through climbing is even more difficult than eating them, what hope is there?
The greatest climbing partnership I know of, at least in a personal way, is that of my friends Mitch Brown and Ryan McKeon. You won’t be climbing any Brown-McKeon routes, unless you have a penchant for the obscure, but that’s because the Brown-McKeon relationship extends beyond the permanence of a singular rock route and into an unsavory realm that is traditionally reserved for campfire stories and now, this column.
If Mitch and Ryan were on TV, they’d follow in the same tradition as Abbott and Costello. This “double act” derives comedy by the uneven nature of the two partners. It could be physical (Mitch is 6’ 3” and Ryan is 5’ 2”, though he insists that he is actually 5’ 4”), emotional (when Mitch is blissful, Ryan is miserable, and vice versa) or both.
“Mitch, I can’t do this move, it’s too big,” Ryan once said, hanging, desperately trying to second a pitch Mitch had just led.
“Lynn Hill could do it,” Mitch said, both literally and figuratively talking down to Ryan. “Lynn Hill could onsight that move.”
Mitch and Ryan are polar opposites in more ways than just their height. Mitch exudes oneness with the world, and speaks—even about things as mundane as grocery shopping—like he’s in a philosophy class. A Southerner from Atlanta, Mitch has a touch of redneck hippie to him that reveals itself in his penchant for drinking binges and live shows. Ryan is from New Hampshire, has embedded Northeastern ideas of right and wrong that starkly contrast Mitch’s unabashed hedonism and, to the delight of all listening, Ryan takes an hour to tell a 10-minute story. They are completely opposite, but in a way the same.
One of my favorite Mitch and Ryan stories involves a route called Crime and Punishment, a perfect 5.11 arete that stands right on the southern beaches of New Zealand, the phantasmagoria that blithely exists in the penetralia of my best memories. The climb is spicy—blind cam placements on pumpy terrain lead to dicey moves over well-spaced bolts. At the time, leading it seemed doable, but just far enough out of their reach that the redpoint would be an achievement for both the mind and body.
Mitch and Ryan had both considered the finer points of how to lead it. Ryan decided that he’d need to bring up his Kong Frog, a specialized draw that helps short people clip bolts and that, I think, Mitch had given him in one of those ultimate male gestures that is simultaneously thoughtful and sweet, but also says “you suck.”
Later that week, the boys were at a big party. As usual, they started arguing. Mitch told Ryan he had led Crime and Punishment that day, and Ryan was upset that his good friend had beaten him to the finish. Ryan let a caustic comment fly. Mitch thought about it for 20 minutes, and decided the most appropriate reaction would be to pour a cup of beer on the little Scotsman’s head.
Standing amid the partygoers like a wet puppy, Ryan regained his composure and went over to Mitch and poured his beer onto him. By all basic tenets of modern justice, they were even, but Ryan took it further. He threw a right hook at Mitch’s waist.
“Ryan, bud. This is beat. You’re being beat, bud!” Mitch said with classic passive-aggression. Mitch liked to use hippie words like “beat” when something was lame or uncool.
Mitch tried to ignore Ryan, in order to continue an ongoing lecture to the party about how Chairman Mao was the world’s most ruthless leader ever, responsible for the death of 20 million. He seemed to be only mildly bothered by Ryan’s histrionics, sort of like how a big sleeping dog can tolerate a cat batting at its ears. But that kind of thing can only live for so long before it dies by action, and sure enough, when Mitch had enough, he walked over to Ryan and punched him square in the chest, sending him onto his ass.
By the next morning, they were best friends again … forever. The sun, rainbows, hobbits and unicorns were out, as always in New Zealand, and it was time to go climbing. Ryan, armed with his Kong Frog, fired Crime and Punishment with Mitch belaying him and an audience of sea lions flopping around the beach like oversized slugs. It was truthfully one of the greatest moments in climbing history.
Mitch and Ryan continued to climb together … until Mitch found the love of his life, who swept him off his feet and on to an around-the-world voyage filled with kimono wearing. Ryan went to grad school for geology in Bozeman, where he telemark skis like a maniac.
Mitch and Ryan’s partnership was dysfunctional in every way—they argued and fought, but also, enjoyed a brief period where they were able to accomplish more together than they would have alone. These two opposites attracted for a moment in time, and like everything else in the world, came to an end on a beautiful, if perfectly off-key, note.
I think the sacred climbing partnership is, to some degree, bullshit, just like the way marriage was portrayed in sitcoms from the 1950s as perfect and wholesome. And now look at marriage—ruined by the baby boomers who had to rebel against the strictures of man and wife, together forever.
Maybe the climbing partnership is the same. We have these ideas that it should be some sort of sacred bond, about what it should or shouldn’t look like, and we’re disappointed when we don’t get what we want. Society contains all kinds of presumptions about what people can and can’t do with each other. Gays can’t get married, people of different races don’t get along. But time and again, we learn that total opposites can have connection and find meaning in one another.
Recently, I saw the appearance of this universal truth in my own life again, when some heinous piece of Eurotrash with a mullet and purple grape smugglers (tights) belayed me with a figure-8. Ew.
If I had to think of what my perfect climbing partner would be … well, he or she would at least have a Grigri and a modicum of decency when it comes to grape smuggling and stem corners.
But I withheld judgement, and interacted freely with this bizarre creature with mangled English. We got along just fine, maybe because we had to. We were, after all, both tied into the same piece of rope.
When you tie in with Andrew Bisharat, you’re in for the ride of your life.