The Case For Climbing With Less Experienced Partners

Amy at City of Rocks

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.

6 Responses to The Case For Climbing With Less Experienced Partners

  1. marshall moose says:

    Exactly! So who is strong and looking for a weak partner?

    On a serious note, you are right on. For those of us with brains wired in a way such that we get scared of heights, being on the sharp end is a totally different ball game than following; and it’s the greatest thing we could ever do for ourselves. There is SO much to be gained from figuring out how to overcome those fears and make safe decisions under stress. That’s why I love climbing.

    With that said, Brendan is also on to something on the other side of the spectrum… which brings me back to my original inquiry – who needs a weak climber to partner with?
    Call me.

    • marshall moose says:

      By the way, Hilary, congrats! I bet your climb felt amazing!

      The next step in your journey now might be the most difficult crux: avoiding the “climbing-is-all-I-want-to-do! mentality”. My mountain bike hates me.

  2. hootenannie says:

    Love this post – yay independence! Yay confidence! And I will gladly be your weaker climber any day. 🙂

  3. Amy says:

    What a great time we had. Good climbing and good travel times. Hope you’re getting lots of rock out there!

  4. Eric O'Rafferty says:

    What a great perspective… I’ve always followed the notion that following around people who were much better than you is a great way to learn and improve. That’s still valid, but the inverse also has a lot of merit as you note. Such has been the case with me on many occasions: the noob leading the noobier! 🙂

    Always appreciate your posts… incisive and on point while still having a sense of fun.

  5. lynne p says:

    i love this – i got into climbing through my husband (kinda) and because i’m still such a beginner, i’m still happy to go with someone more experienced. but as i gain confidence in my skill and ability, i’ll remember this – great insight.

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