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.

[blockquote_with_author author=”Steve Roper, about the 3rd pitch of the Worst Error”] “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.” [/blockquote_with_author]

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)

 Finding a good partner

Skill, especially in skiing, is not a good proxy for what makes a good partner.  Just being able to shred hard or pull down has little bearing on the myriad other skills that are required to be a good partner in the mountains. This is true in both climbing and skiing; skiing fast and hucking in the resort, or cranking hard in the gym, doesn’t translate to safely skiing big slopes or climbing in the alpine. Don’t select your partner based on athletic ability alone.

The best way to find a good partner is to be a good partner.  The best partners out there, the ones that you want to attract, have been in the game a while.  They’ve made it this far in a dangerous world by choosing their friends wisely. They are looking for safe and efficient people to climb or ski with, and they likely have a lot of other options, so there’s no real pressure to take you out unless you seem like a solid, energetic, and willing person. A strong belay or good avalanche rescue skills will take you much farther than athleticism ever will.  A sense of humor, some humility, and a few beers will take you the rest of the distance

Partners gotta' share the pants.
Partners gotta’ share the pants. (Wrangell Mtns, AK)

While it’s important to find key partners with whom you’ll do most of your climbing or skiing, it’s also good to have a variety of partners with different interests and schedules.  To develop such a posse, be open-minded and climb and ski with many people.  Don’t be elitist and insist on climbing only with those who are as good or better than you. Someone took you under their wing at some point, and returning the favor to someone else can result in a really rewarding partnership. That said, be sure to make a few noncommiting trips on smaller objectives with a partner before committing to bigger or more dangerous objectives.

Being a Good Partner

Attentiveness, self-awareness, and proactive initiative underly all habits of good partnership.  Bother before, during, and after an outing, try to think ahead, be aware of your surroundings, be energetic, and have a good sense of humor.

Crossing big water, headed for the distant snowy mountains, Wrangell-St. Elias NP.
Crossing big water, headed for the distant snowy mountains, Wrangell-St. Elias NP. Cliché teamwork in progress.

In Preparation

Show up packed, fueled, and rested.  There’s no real excuse for not being ready to go at the trailhead with all of your gear packed and ready to go.  What ‘ready to go’ means is different for different people, but having everything on/packed but your boots is a good place to start.  Get a good night’s sleep so that you’re prepared to pull your weight, and eat good food.  Don’t show up hung over unless that’s the MO with your dawn-patrol crew.

Some consider packing at the trailhead normal.  Some can't stand it.
Some consider packing at the trailhead normal. Some can’t stand it.

Be informed about safety practices, routes, and alternate options.  Know about where you’re going.  That way, the responsibility for navigation and decision making doesn’t fall on just one person, but instead is split between you and redundant. At the very least, understand what you must to be safe for the day.  Read the avalanche forecast and understand the objective hazards inherent in your route.

Never flake.  Give yourself enough time to show up on time.  Pack the night before when there are no time pressures and then set two alarms for yourself if you’re a heavy sleeper. Your partner’s time is valuable, and if you don’t treat it as such, they’ll find someone else who will.  

Before leaving the trailhead, express any concerns or reservations that you have.  It’s your responsibility to bring these up before you’re in a position where addressing these concerns would be challenging. If you’re worried about your technical ability or any aspect of the day, express that and discuss how you’ll manage that before you’re committed or in a position where many fewer options are available to deal with your concerns.  

Likewise, elicit similar concerns from your partners.  Discuss what you think will be the biggest hazards of the day and how you plan to manage these.  Starting this conversation at the trailhead can be challenging, especially among a gung-ho group fo 20-somethings, but when done casually it’s no big deal and can save the lives of you and your partners.  It will also prevent hurt-feelings should expectations turn out to be very different among members of your group.

During the day

Rule #1: Never ask your partner to do something which you would be unwilling to do yourself.  While your partner may be stronger, or may volunteer for tricky tasks, you may never ask them to do something that you wouldn’t do for fear of safety.  Don’t ask them to ski cut a sketchy slope that you wouldn’t, or  to lead the 5.5X pitch that you wouldn’t go near.  If they’re willing or volunteer, and the risks are discussed, that’s OK.  Sticking your partner’s neck out before your own is not.

Be active and proactive: address problems as they arise, care for yourself, and look out for your partner.  Recognize hurdles and hazards as they come along and address them.  If you see something, say something. Even if you’re travelling with someone more experienced than yourself, you may still be seeing something that they’re missing.  At the very least, expressing their decision-making process will force your partner to be thorough and articulate, and can only improve the plan.

brewing up below dragontail peak
The author, brewing up below Dragontail peak. While melting water, we discussed what we were seeing and decided to change plans entirely. (Photo: Colin Bohannan)

Practice self-leadership: be efficient with self-care at transitions, apply sunscreen, hydrate, and don’t be casual. Relax only after everything has been done that can be done. Don’t ever make your partner wait for you to deal with your gear, food, or sunscreen if you’ve been standing around staring into the distance while they organized the group gear and took care of themselves.  Feed and hydrate yourself, then take care of group tasks, and only then whip out your phone for a twitter update. 

Play to your strengths and pull more weight in the areas where you’re strongest.  If you’re more fit, it’s fine, and even beneficial, to break more trail or carry more weight.  This is what partnership is all about.  Be sensitive to your partner and don’t do everything unless they’ve completely bonked.  Also, be mindful and don’t take on so much workload that you’ll lose steam before the day is through.

Swapping Lead up the tripple couloirs
Swapping trail-breaking duty up the Triple Couloirs, Dragontail Pk, WA. (Photo: Colin Bohannan)

Conversely, be willing to move outside of your strengths if need be.  Partnership also means going to lengths for each other and moving out side of your individual comfort zone as part of a team. This is one of the beauties of partnership– that out of care for our partner we can find inspiration to go further and try harder than we would alone.

Be honest, open, and communicate. Don’t let anything simmer, especially the elephant in the living room.  If you have a concern, voice it.  Do not be afraid of what your partner will think should you voice a concern about a plan that you’re both taking for granted.  More often than not, they may harbor the same concern, but be afraid to voice it for the same reasons.  Many avalanche accidents begin in exactly this way. 

Encourage your partner to stretch their limits and push past irrational fear.  Help them to recognize when they’re safe to go for it, and when they need to watch their back. If you can, watch it for them.  Some of the biggest breakthroughs that I’ve had in climbing were facilitated by partners encouraging me to go for it when they recognized needless doubt in a safe situation.  Encourage your partners to push you appropriately, and provide the same kind of inspiration for your partner when the moment arises.

In the parking lot/at the bar

For a good partner, the day isn’t quite done when you hit the trailhead, the tent, or make it back to the bar. Now is the time when temptation is great to do absolutely nothing.  That said, if you’re on a multi-day trip or expedition, the minutes after you get to camp should be when you prep and store gear, melt water, and get ready for the next day.  Don’t be the guy who flops down on his backpack and watches while the proactive group members set up the tent or pack gear into the car.  Stay moving for 10-15 more minutes.

Standing around the fire.
Standing around the fire. Big day complete, snow irrelevant to good cheer. (Wind River Range, WY)

The end of the day, after the food is cooked, the fire is roaring, and you’ve a beer in hand, is a great time to recap and debrief the day.  Climbers and skiers do this naturally- recounting stories from the day, talking about amusing or serious screw-ups and chatting about the day to come.  This is a good time to relax, and also to go over anything that did go or possibly could have gone wrong.  There’s plenty of science to show that reviewing events after the fact cements any learned lessons, and there’s nothing in the literature to suggest that this can’t be done around the fire with a whiskey in hand.

[blockquote_with_author author=”Gaston Rebuffat”] “We were two men in a land of stone and we walked toward the same star. I was happy to be on the Drus, but here as elsewhere, my happiness was to lead a companion. … Good weather, bad weather, easy, difficult, I need to sing the same tune as he. That was the gift of our mountains. Climbing to the summit …the luxury of their efforts is friendship.” [/blockquote_with_author]


If you have any thoughts about what makes a good partner, or how to find a good one, please do post this in the comments below!  Your thoughts, comments, or objections are appreciated.  I care what you think.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother to write all that I do.  And as always, thank you for reading!


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    1. Brody, your comments leave me stoked. Knowing that I’m connecting with people is big-time inspiration to keep putting in the work. Hope iceland was good– and that I get to read more about it soon.

  1. Great write-up and everything here is so true especially when it comes to backcountry skiing/splitting. Before this season started I made sure I was going to be a good partner by being fit. Then, the season hit, and I learned avy skills. The least I’m looking for in a partner is someone who does the same commitments that I do/did. I don’t like it when potential partners think “it’ll be fine” to not be avy certified or at least educated by book. Also, a pet peeve when people don’t practice those unwritten/untalked about ethics…for example like if you break trail for a long time, you get to drop the first line. I didn’t bust my ass to get here for you to drop a fresh powder line.

    1. Sounds like you’re becoming a good partner. It’s true that there are a lot of rules that folks consider “unwritten” or “simple courtesy”, especially when it comes to powder skiing. Some people get revved up when you don’t spoon their tracks or if you take the first line, but others won’t even bat an eye. it seems like a local phenomenon, and a problem that can be easily overcome with a little bit of calm communication.

      I too am wary of those who’ve learned their avy skills ‘by the book’. It’s a good start, and it’s better than nothing, but it’s not a replacement for one-on-one instruction by an experience backcountry traveler. It’s the responsibility of the more experienced skier to recognize their innocence, plan an appropriate day, and then help to steer them to further education.

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