If you want to get faster at running, it’s good to run with people who are faster. If you want to build your mountain biking or skiing skills, it helps to follow and watch people who go harder. But if you really want to make progress in your climbing, it might actually be smart to pass up a trip with an uber crusher in favor of climbing with someone less experienced.
When I interviewed Ines Papert, one of the strongest female climbers around, she said one of the keys to her success as a climber has been her willingness to partner with weaker climbers. “I always climbed with female friends who were less experienced than me because I noticed that as soon as I have a little more experience, I have the responsibility, and I have to lead when it gets hard,” she says. “As soon as I was climbing with someone stronger than I was, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s too hard, you’d better lead.’ It’s too easy to give up.”
My boyfriend likes to say: Constantly climbing with people who are weaker or less experienced is a surefire way to ensure your climbing life is eternally filled with fear. That’s not necessarily ideal. But if you always partner with someone who’s stronger and more seasoned, you never get pushed to really face your fears, to take the responsibility, to be the decision maker. To really get into the things that make climbing what it is: an assay of your ability to push through physical and mental boundaries, keep cool and make safe decisions under pressure.
I’ve been lucky to usually have stronger partners around willing to take me out and let me follow, but I see how Brendan’s constant willingness to take the sharp end—even if it’s only been out of necessity—has built his confidence and opened possibilities to him.
It seems a lot of women get into climbing through a boyfriend, partner or male friend. That’s how I got into it. But that’s only part of the story. What we do with that intro is up to us. If we don’t take proactive steps to push our climbing boundaries outside the relationship, it’s likely that we’ll end up always being the second, following along in someone else’s adventure.
If we continue to climb with those stronger partners, we might still eventually grow, improve and start taking the lead once in a while. But, like Ines said, if there’s always someone stronger and more experienced on the other end of the rope, our metal is never truly tried. We never stand the full psychological test of leading and responsibility.
Of course, there are lots of techniques—and important safety lessons—to be learned from a mentor. But can we ever really feel the thrilling satisfaction of independence in the mountains if we always go with someone more experienced?
Last summer, I met up with another semi-beginner climber friend at City of Rocks in Idaho. Both of us were accustomed to climbing with stronger partners, but happened to be traveling solo. Our more experienced friends had left the day before, but our appetites were whet. So we set our sights on a moderate multipitch up Flaming Rock. It was a slabby, if slightly runout, easy romp of a climb that neither of us would have thought twice about following with someone else. But roping up at the bottom, both of us were a little nervous.
As I pulled up rope belaying Amy to the top, both of us broke out in goofy grins and smacked high-fives over our little victory. It was the first multi-pitch I’d led from car to car. Untying after the rappel, a new chapter of independence in our lives was opening. Would we ever have plotted our own adventure, researched the beta and committed to the moves on our own if there had been a more veteran climber around to take charge? I’m not sure. But I’m really glad we did.