I’m six feet above my last bolt and four inches too short to reach the only crimp that will get me to my next clip. I feel myself slipping, and as I yell, “Take!” I fall. Sure, I’ve taken whippers before, no problem. But this time I don’t stop falling when I pass the 15-foot mark, which is about where my partner should be bringing me to a slow, soft halt. I keep running backward down the face until I’m two bolts from the ground. By the time the rope catches me, I’ve fallen 50 feet. Confused, I ask my partner what the hell just happened.
“I didn’t know you were falling,” he replies, a little dazed. After taking a moment hanging on the rope to let the adrenaline settle, I hear him mutter quietly to himself, “I probably shouldn’t have smoked that much.”
In climbing, partner relationships are unique; you’re entrusting someone to hold your life in their hands. Moreover, many climbers in their early years, like myself, will hand that trust over to complete strangers, often without question, as we seek to build out our roster of reliable partners. I’ve had my fair share of partners who were either just acquaintances or literal strangers in gyms or at busy crags. I needed a belay, and they were there, and so I went for it—come better (a good, reliable catch, which I aim to repay in kind) or worse (see above).
I’ve compiled the following archetypes after my four years as a climber, based on an array of experiences at the local Colorado crags and on the road.
1. The Beatnik
The Beatnik is that guy I’ve had to drag out of a sleeping bag from a hung-over stupor to go climbing (not an easy task for a small lady like myself). He grudgingly stomachs a few summer sausages, while sipping a breakfast beer and eyeing me defiantly—How dare you wake me up to go climbing…on a climbing trip?! Then he will promptly, in a bizarre display of secret skill, lead that stiff 5.11d everyone’s been eying to string up a toprope and crawl under a rock to take a nap.
After I’ve taken a couple burns on the climb, I decide it’s time to hop on a couple moderates to cool down for the day. That’s when a cloud of skunky smoke wafts up from under the rock and signals that my day is about to get even weirder...
I’ve never seen this guy outside sober. There’s never a shortage of substances, ranging from handles of whiskey to Mason jars full of weed—he always has something to take the edge off while he’s hanging off edges. When planning a day of cragging, you might get a message saying, “Let’s get beers. I have a sixer… for myself. So, ya know, you might want to bring some too.” He might be so high from the ‘ol approach joint that he doesn’t notice the fact that you’ve fallen six feet above your last piece on a 90-foot climb and are careering toward earth until he absentmindedly catches you 10 feet before you splat. This might make you a little uneasy, but he always has a cold beer waiting for you at the bottom, and that usually makes up for his lackadaisical attitude and semi-lethal belays.
2. The Insta-Sender
The Insta-Sender is one of the most common specimens today. She is named primarily for her prominent social-media presence, not for her innate ability to, Ondra-like, “Insta-Send” all routes in sight. With all of the gyms being built, we see surges of new climbers being cut loose into the world, fancy outfits on, smartphones and almond lattes in hand. Climbing: It’s the hip, trendy, new thing! Don’t get me wrong, though—I am so excited to have such a large community, but when I meet a new person who says they climb, I take it with a grain of salt, especially when their first question is, “What gym do you go to?”
The Insta-Sender has a feed full of photos and videos from the gym, with the occasional outdoor shot to show everyone how hardcore she is. When you invite her to climb at the crags, she makes sure to wear her best outfit. While you’re flaking the rope and organizing the gear, she’s scrambling up beside the cliff to figure out which route has the best light and camera angles. “I’m solid here—can you take a photo with your phone?” is a phrase I’ve heard more than once.
But…. it is incredibly convenient to climb with an Insta-Sender. They always send me a couple good snaps at the end of the day to share with all of my own followers (OK, guilty as charged). I often forget to document things happening in my own life, and it’s nice to have memories to look back on.
3. The Flirt
The Flirt is an endemic specimen at a gym near you. This guy is always looking around the room for his next target. He’s armed with plenty of jokes about sending 5.15, and will jump on your boulder problems thinking he’ll impress the ladies by showing off how much stronger he is.
One of these guys somehow wormed his way into being an outdoor partner of mine—what can I say, charm (well, stalker-like persistence) can wear you down. Before I knew it, I was leading a route with a flirty belayer who was chatting up everyone at the crag. While he was distracted by the cutie in tights next to him, I fell and decked on a ledge 10 feet below me. Once I dusted myself off, completely incensed by the fact I’d just been dropped on my ass, I clenched my fists ready to swing! But instead of punching him in the mouth, I cracked some jokes about his sub-par rope-handling skills, turning his face rosy red from embarrassment—the greatest form of revenge.
Another thing about the Flirt is that he gets bored easily, so don’t expect to be in this partnership for long. You’ll see him around the gym again come winter, trying out his same old tricks, avoiding eye contact with you because he knows that you have grown wise to his ways.
4. The Complainer
The Complainer is consistent at her craft. She’ll gripe about anything that causes the slightest discomfort or inconvenience—which is pretty much everything in rock climbing. I’ve climbed with several Complainers. I always try my best to make trips with the Complainer as low key as possible, doing things like picking her favorite crag, bringing her favorite snacks, making sure the approach isn’t too long, bringing extra water, and forcing myself to say encouraging words when I just want to yell, “It’s a 5.4—get up it already!” The Complainer can always come up with new excuses:
“It’s too cold!”
“I ate too much.”
“My shoes are too tight!”
“The rock is all sharp and pointy!”
The script can go on for eternity. Being on the receiving end of complaints teaches you the patience you need in climbing. Plus, you yourself are going to be the Complainer sooner or later. One time, not to let my climbing partner down, I reluctantly agreed to climb the South Six Shooter in Bears Ears/Indian Creek in late October. The wind was howling, the temperature was dropping, and I didn’t have the right layers for the job. Cursing everything around me as I shoved shoes one-size-too-small into a thin crack, I had to remember all the other times I’ve heard the same complaints coming from my partners. What goes around definitely comes around. So I bit my tongue and jammed my way to the anchor.
5. The Guide
The Guide always has some technical obscurity to critique you on. He has gone through all the classes and courses so that he can tell you, with authority, that you placed your cam incorrectly on that 5.6. He’ll turn single-pitch climbs into a “multi-pitch experience” where he has you meet him at the top so you can practice simul-rappelling on multiple fixed lines with double, overlapping back-ups, or something. In love with his own oratory prowess, he’ll happily take hours of your time bloviating about different systems in pedantic, patronizing tones. You’ll often find yourself feeling talked-down-to on subjects that you already have experience with and fully understand. He’ll shrug his shoulders and say, “Just making sure you know!”
But all that talking about rescue systems pays off when no one else took the course and you’re in trouble. One day I was climbing with the Guide on a multi-pitch route in Clear Creek Canyon, Colorado. This specimen kept telling me things that I already knew. Amidst rolling my eyes and telling myself I should climb with someone else next time, I soon had to swallow my pride when I realized I didn’t remember how to belay from a fixed anchor—and needed him to teach me. He walked me through it, step by step, but my eye rolls quickly returned when he made the process 20 times more complicated than it needed to be. The Guide is always overly safe, which is fine, until what should be a one-hour excursion turns into a six-hour epic and you find yourself benighted on a 40-foot roadside chosspile amidst a tangle of ropes, brake bars, locking biners, rescue beacons, prusiks, and pulleys.
6. The Project or Die
The Project or Die climbs hard, has motivation in spades, and is always on time and reliable—that is, if you want to work on HER project, and nothing else.
Even if you climb close to the same level, she’ll quickly relegate you to being her belay bitch simply through pure, old-fashioned inflexibility and by being tone-deaf to your needs. She’ll get you stoked on going out to the crag every weekend, only to end up below the same 5.12b that she’s been whipping on for the past six months.
You’ll find yourself suggesting another crag, only to have her bail on you to go back to her beloved project. And God forbid she ever gives you a belay on your project somewhere else…so don’t even ask.
I learned a lot of valuable skills from the Project or Die. I never picked up a Grigri until I was forced to be her hangdogging counterweight for hours at a time. She taught me how determination can get you places, even if it’s just one bolt higher, with a stick clip. I often find myself being a little lazy at crags, soaking up the sun and sipping on a beer. It’s really important to have a climbing partner who pushes me into doing really hard shit. I wouldn’t have progressed past 5.10 without it, but you can never take away my lazy crag days. It’s all about balance, which some people *cough cough* don’t quite understand.
7. The Crag Mom
The Crag Mom always makes sure everyone is safe and prepared for anything. And I must confess—the Crag Mom is me. I’ll always remind you to bring a jacket, sunscreen, enough water, and a couple extra draws, because “you never know.” And I’m often preaching to my partners about the best way to finish off a knot (Yosemite, duh), how many slings to use when cleaning, and how they should always have a backup on their rappel. While I have your best interest in mind, I often try to take charge of plans. This is fine on trips that require a lot of tedious logistics, and you’ll be glad I’m there to make sure there’s enough food for everyone and that you’re all having a good time.
Planning our last trip to Moab, I asked everyone what they wanted to eat for dinner each night. They answered with a “We can figure it out when we’re there,” a response that always makes me cringe. No way, Jose: I’m not eating ramen and tortillas with questionable lunchmeat all weekend. Instead, I prepared meals to reheat when the time came, plus the perfect backcountry margaritas; everyone was ecstatic, including myself. We were well-fed, had energy at the cliffs, came home without third-degree sunburns, and all wounds incurred from using a hatchet improperly were cleaned and dressed correctly before anyone got gangrene and died.
Just like any relationship, you learn lessons from everyone whom you climb with. You learn these qualities: how to have patience, how to plan ahead, how to push yourself, how to not take yourself too seriously, and so on. These are the skills that you don’t often think about when you think of progressing in climbing.
In my perspective, “climbing partner” is the highest title you can have in my social circle. A climbing partner is more than a friend. They’re someone who understands me without my having to say a word, someone who knows my limits in climbing and uses that knowledge to push me forward. They understand how mad I get when they short-rope me on the crux, and they know that pink frosted doughnuts are the fastest way to get back onto my good side. A good climbing partner is someone who hears me say, “Keep an eye on me, I’m going to fall,” and responds, “OK, but you’re not.”
This is obviously my ideal partner… but that’s not always the person I'm with. Being pretty fresh in the climbing community, I have had to sift through people and experiences to get to those golden years in which I only have climbing partners whose company I truly enjoy and who are friends. For now, though, I still need to listen to how I clip my draws to my harness incorrectly, hear complaints about how I brought the wrong kind of beer, and take the occasional groundfall because my spotter is toking on a “sweet vape.” But hey, what’s my other option: not climb? I guess I’ll take my chances.
Bailey Batchelor is a freelance photographer and writer from Colorado. She’s been climbing for four years and is always taking applications for reliable climbing partners. Check out her work and maybe tag along on an adventure at baileybatchelor.net.