Find a Good Partner, Be a Good Partner

Today, I want to talk about partners.  I have had the great fortune of stumbling into some life-changing partnerships through my development as a climber and a skier, and these partnerships have without-question helped to shape both who I am in the mountains as well as the rest of my life.  When I reflect on how I came to these partnerships, some of it seems like luck, but I also think that I found these wonderful people in part because I made an effort to be a good partner.  Being a good partner will take you far, without question, so I have tried to distill some of what I think makes a good partner, and what I look for before heading out with someone new.

Partnership is, to many misanthropes, a surprisingly appealing part of mountain travel.  Mountains don’t care about you. They’re simply an inert medium for exploring your own constitution.  On the other hand, sharing trying and glorious experiences with a partner amplifies the joy and minimizes the negative aspects of the mountains. While certainly there is a certain aesthetic and logistic appeal to traveling alone, a partner can take the edge off the hardest moments, turn suffering into laughter, and facilitate learning through mentorship.

“In 1961 I led this chimney in a state of metabolic uproar. At the base of the pitch I smoked several cigarettes (the first and last ones of my life). This was to calm me. Then I spooned half a jar of honey. This was to ensure superhuman strength. Mort Hempel, my partner, watched this silly ritual with mouth agape and eyes exploding with fear.” 

Steve Roper, about the 3rd pitch of the Worst Error

Partners should be complementary in skills, and matched in risk tolerance and expectations.  With complementary skill sets, the team is stronger and more capable than either partner alone.  Two minds can facilitate bother better and worse decision-making than one mind alone, but with matched risk tolerance and expectations, two minds will make better decisions together.  With complementary skill sets, the team is able to handle more and more-diverse challenges than either member.  Matched risk tolerance is also a must, because nothing can sour an outing quite as much as realizing that what one partner thinks is safe, the other finds appalling.

Breaking trail towards dragontail

The Author, breaking trail towards Dragontail Peak. When you know that your partners will be doing the brunt of the climbing, step up and do the grunt work.  (Photo: Colin Bohannan)

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