This column first appeared in August 2020.
Most of us know what makes a good climber (Czech heritage, a mop of curly hair, and a long neck). Good partners aren’t talked about as often. When they are, we’re usually praising how strong our partner is, how bold her climbing is, or how he’s always pushing us to do our best.
But being a strong, experienced climber and yelling “Come on! You got this!” isn’t all it takes.
When we’re learning to climb, we’re taught commands (“On belay…”), but after a few weeks many of us rarely utter them. We’re taught to double check our climbing partner’s knots and harness, but once we’ve climbed with someone for a while, many of us (myself included) assume they know what they’re doing and leave it at that.
Rock climbing is, by-and-large, a safe sport, regardless of what your aunt may have told you at Thanksgiving. That doesn’t mean we don’t have accidents. Quite the opposite. They happen all the time. It’s a strange paradox. “Climbing can be completely mathematically safe, but if you make a mistake, you die,” Mike Libecki said, while telling me about his solo first ascent of the Ship’s Prow, Baffin Island, in 1999.
There are outliers, of course. Things you can’t control. Avalanches, rockfall, weather. But the overwhelming majority of deadly accidents in our community occur as a result of basic blunders. Not tying a knot in the end of the rope, not wearing a helmet, not replacing worn out gear— the list goes on. Experienced climbers die all the time making errors we are cautioned against in basic climbing courses at gyms. Just read through any installment of Rock and Ice’s annual “Climbers We Lost” if you don’t believe me.
When we climb with someone for years we start to develop trust. Trust is a necessary factor in any climbing relationship. When you’re in a vertical space, you have to trust that the gal or guy holding your rope knows what they’re doing. If you don’t, you won’t get off the ground.
Some trust is important. Blind trust gets people killed.
No one wants to be a nitpicker or a nag. We want to be bold and have a good time and crush. But being a good climbing partner means being on your buddy’s ass. Double-checking them, calling them out when they’re being unsafe and letting them do the same to you without taking it personally. Being a good partner sometimes means being a bit of a pest, sticking to your guns when you know a decision isn’t a good one.
“Hey, are you sure this anchor is solid?” “If you’re going to belay me, I want you to wear a helmet.” “I don’t think we should be simuling this pitch.” All things that a good partner should feel comfortable saying.
Brad Gobright’s death last year is a good case in point. Gobright died in El Potrero Chico, on a fall from the classic El Sendero Luminoso (5.12+, 1,500 feet). He didn’t use the midpoint on the rope when simul-rappelling and rapped off the end to his death. His partner, Aidan Jacobson, fell 30 feet and barely managed to avoid rolling off a ledge.
Jacobson had contacted Gobright after the latter posted an Instagram request for a partner the previous day. Luminoso was their first route together, and even though he requested that Gobright pull more slack to his own side before they rapped, Jacbobson trusted Gobright’s decision-making. Who wouldn’t? Brad Gobright was the equivalent of an A-List celebrity in our insular climbing world. He made a mistake, though. It cost Gobright his life, and almost the life of his partner.
Oftentimes, it’s the most experienced among us who make these mistakes, not the rookies. When you’ve been climbing for years and years, the rock starts to feel like a vertical playground. Tying knots in the ends of your rope, for example, can start to feel like a waste of valuable time when you’ve rapped thousands of pitches. That doesn’t change the fact that a minor miscalculation like Gobright’s could put you in the hospital or worse.
Let me be clear: I’m not necessarily advocating against running it out or simuling or short-fixing. The risk each of us is comfortable taking varies. Some of us are fine free-soloing, others wouldn’t get on a trad route even if the COVID-19 vaccine was at the top. Some teams are comfortable with more risk, some less.
The important takeaway here is that you are only as safe as your partner, and your partner is only as safe as you. A team made up of a reckless climber and a safe climber isn’t much safer than two reckless climbers. Hold each other accountable. Keep each other aware and keep each other alive. That’s what being a good climbing partner is all about.
To my next climbing partner: If I’m making you feel unsafe, tell me. I won’t be though, because I am a wuss.
Owen Clarke is a climber and writer based in Alabama. He regularly contributes to Rock and Ice. He also authors a column for The Outdoor Journal, “Forgotten Adventures,” covering wild expeditions in the pre-social media era. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos. He is also afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.