Inspired by a chapter in Extreme Alpinism I thought it important to touch on three important factors when choosing a climbing partner. This topic seems especially important in the discipline of alpinism. Where you will (by the very nature of the sport) be travelling far from easily accessible medical care, cars, cell reception. Opposed to mountaineering with big siege teams often consisting of doctors and a large support network, and regular craging with relatively short approaches in often more high traffic regions. Fast and light alpinism offers the remoteness with none of the support.
Everything you opt to bring on your expeditions is critical to your success / survival. Every piece of gear must be thoroughly vetted. Fast and light means just that – the lighter you are the faster you are, the faster you are the less time spent in the danger zone and your probability of catastrophe decreases. Useless gear, extraneous nick knacks, and the skill / tolerability of your partner becomes vitally important. There are many things to consider when selecting a partner – be sure to consider the following:
1 – Great Expectations
Are your goals aligned? Does one of you opt for speed at any cost and the other for a clean ascent? Does one of you strive for “Leave no trace” and the other OK with hammering pitons? Are you equally comfortable with bivying? Do you have similar levels of risk tolerance? It is incredibly hard to find two people with the same goals and expectations for how a climb will unfold and also have the time and resources to attempt a project at the same time. You will have to compromise on certain things. Prioritize what is important to you and clarify your expectations early.
2 – O’hare test
The O’hare test is simple – if you were stuck on a 6 hour layover at Chicago O’hare with this person would you go insane. Climbing is a hugely personal experience – one shared by an intimate partnership. We will spend many consecutive hours with whomever we climb with, through the commute, approach, ascent, trials and tribulations, it’ll be a better experience if you enjoy your partners company. We spend a great deal of time thinking or just doing as the case may be, meeting up at belays for a few minutes then only communicating only through the rope. Going into the wilderness to push ourselves to our limits is trying. Trying on our bodies and minds. Stress can cause skin to wear thin – it is best if the only person around is able to diffuse and enable us to channel our energy into success (Success being defined as getting back home safely).
3 – Trust
In my eyes trust is the most important aspect of a climbing partner. The same way you would replace a rope that you don’t trust even if it would last another year, you should replace a partner you don’t trust. This game is not at all a game. Your life is literally in this persons and your hands, if you cannot commit yourself 100% to the task at hand you are limiting your chances at success (See above for definition of success). If something were to go wrong do you trust in your partners ability to get you off the mountain / stabilize and go for help / flag down a rescue? Alpine environments are no joke. Trust in your most important safety line – yourself and your partner – or do not venture forward.
We certainly haven’t covered everything to consider in this post. What do you look for in a partner? Have you had a bad experience that was partner related? When has a good partner gotten you out of a bind?