How to Win Friends and Influence at the Crag

Climbing partners can be poor substitutes for real friends, but they don't have to be.

Photo: Getty Images

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I’ve just returned from a self-imposed, seven-week climbing exile. I committed to the Rock Climber’s Training Manual plan and did nothing but hangboard. No rock. Not even plastic pulling beyond a warm up. Just 10 seconds on, 5 second off static hangs on the Rock Prodigy Training Board in Boulder Rock Club once every three days, for fifty days. I improved steadily, but the training had an unintended consequence: I barely saw my friends.

Most of my friends are climbing partners. We don’t hang out. Instead, we climb, or hike, or ski, or attempt absurd made-up challenges (“Do you think we could leave work in Boulder Friday, drive to Jackson, climb the Grand Teton, and get back in time for work Monday?”). These people are among my closest local friends—and make up the majority of my friends—and we only spend time together when it’s based around an activity. I prefer this. Sitting and talking is OK, but I’d rather talk while marching uphill, struggling to breathe. The conversations are better.

Unfortunately, this social system breaks down when your body does. While my recent hiatus was voluntary, I average one climbing injury per year that forces me to take time off against my will. In those months I have found myself in the company of only my girlfriend and my dog. It’s nobody’s fault. I don’t call my friends to get a beer because I’m not fond of bars, and they don’t call me because they’re busy doing the things that I wish I could be doing.

A couple of months of downtime isn’t a big deal, but when it drags on longer it can leave you feeling friendless. I moved to Boulder, Colorado from New York City in early 2014. My friend Eric followed in August of the same year.

“I made all of my new friends bouldering at the gym, and then working at the gym,” he said of his early days in the Front Range. “Climbers were the only people I was hanging out with at the time.”

In June of 2015, just ten months after he arrived, Eric found himself with a litany of issues in both of his shoulders and elbows: torn labrums, shredded tendons, nerves that needed to be relocated. He has had five surgeries in the past two years and has not climbed since it began. Beyond losing an activity he was passionate about, he also lost contact with a lot of people.

“Of the 15 people I hung out with regularly, I stopped hearing from 75 percent of them completely when I stopped climbing,” he said. “The rest I saw a few times to go to the movies or play boardgames. Then I slowly stopped hearing from them, too.”

To be fair, many people struggle to form new friendships in their adult years. Activities like climbing can be a shortcut to the process. But activity-based friendships are precarious, and losing all of them at once leaves you feeling frustrated and alone.

With my seven injuries in seven years (JEALOUS?), I have figured out a few strategies to combat these friend sloughs. Here are some ideas. They all require you to be proactive.

1. Go not climbing

Let your friends know that you’d still like to join them at the crag even though you can’t climb. Just getting outside and being with people can be nice, but your friends won’t think to invite you unless you express interest. Personally, I’ve found that I can have just as much fun by shooting photos of my friends climbing when my collateral ligament, elbow tendon, A2 pulley, shoulder labrum, or, most recently, levator scapulae says I can’t climb.

2. Attend post-climbing festivities

Some injuries, particularly those to the lower extremities, can make getting to the crag difficult, but they shouldn’t prevent you from joining your friends for their post-climb tacos and beer. Again, your friends will not think to invite you—which is ridiculous, who wouldn’t want tacos? Be proactive and invite yourself: “Hey Carl, I can’t make it to the crag because SAR had to break both of my legs to get them out of that offwidth, but let me know when y’all are getting tacos after and I’ll meet you because I am a human being and therefor like tacos.” Easy. After a couple of outings, your friends should catch on.

3. Turn climbing partners into friends

Prevention is the most effective way to continue having friends through an injury. I don’t mean preventing the injury (that’d be nice), I mean establishing solid friendships beyond climbing before you get injured. Sure, you’ll get a few pity hangouts from your climbing partners following the incident, but they’ll soon feel they’ve fulfilled their obligation and stop calling. Luckily, it’s not that hard to turn climbing partners into friends. It feels silly to explain to other adults how to make friends, but here are some suggestions anyway:

  • Start by learning about your climbing partner’s life outside of outdoor sports; it’s crazy how long you can climb with someone without learning about their personal life. Find some common non-climbing interests.
  • Start texting or Facebook messaging your prospective friend about non-climbing things. This shows them that you think about them outside of a climbing context, and gets them to do the same. For example, you could try “Did you see that Rick and Morty comes back at the end of the month? So stoked!” Other good options are: “Did you see that Game of Thrones comes back at the end of the week? So stoked!” or “We should start a band!”
  • Ask your prospective friend to hang out. There will be a lot riding on this first hang, so don’t phone it in and play Monopoly, which is boring. Find something your prospective friend will be excited to do.
  • Continue to talk and hang out. You are now friends.

4. Pay it forward

You won’t always be the one riding the injury train. When one of your climbing partners is hurt, make a point to find things you can continue doing together. Most likely, the person will remember the gesture and do the same for you next time you’re out of commission.

You don’t need to maintain all of your climbing partner relationships when things go south—and this article isn’t meant to imply that climbing partner relationships can’t run deep. But a few close friends will help you stay sane through an injury until you can get back to the things you love.

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