Essay: Love on the Rocks — Weighing the Risks and Rewards for Climber Couples

love on the rocks

A month ago, in October of 2017, the deaths of Hayden Kennedy and Inge Perkins stopped the climbing community in its tracks.

Not because they were unaccustomed to loss of friends and partners (an occurrence in fact all too common to those in the inner circle), but because they were unaccustomed to the inability to get over that loss. Countless mountaineers and climbers have mourned the deaths of partners in just enough time to summit another peak or establish another route. Kennedy’s refusal to follow in these footsteps was shocking. Unheard of.

Shortly before ending his life, Kennedy wrote in a blog post on Evening Sends,

I’ve realized something painful. It’s not just memorable summits and crux moves that are fleeting. Friends and climbing partners are fleeting, too. This is the painful reality of our sport, and I’m unsure what to make of it. Climbing is either a beautiful gift or a curse.

It got me thinking a lot about what it means for two climbers to be in a serious relationship. Not just a climbing partnership, but a relationship, where disaster would mean a lot more than finding a new weekend friend. Climbing partnerships are bonds forged in fire, and when those partnerships also coincide with romantic ones, one would be hard-pressed to exemplify a more permanent and pure alignment of souls.

Lost partners might lead climbers to quit the sport, hoping to spare themselves and their family a similar fate. But what happens when the one lost is not only a partner but family as well? Well, it seems quitting the sport just might not be enough.

I didn’t start out as a climber, and it was hardly something I ever predicted I’d become. Then I met someone that changed everything I thought I knew about my life. I started climbing because of a boy. How non-progressive of me, I know. But soon I was in love with one of those things, and it definitely wasn’t the boy at first. I fell in love with climbing long before I fell in love.

My boyfriend Chris and I met during our final year in university at a work-study job. We started as acquaintances who worked together a few hours a week with a couple mutual friends. Then one day, out of the blue, Chris invited me to go climbing at his rock gym on a free membership guest pass. Having just gone through a rough personal scenario and in desperate need of some sort of change in my life, I agreed. I was a senior double major desperately trying to finish two theses and nothing seemed more appealing than launching myself into something that wasn’t school.

The rest is history.

A few years later, we now live a wonderful life in Alaska, coaching and teaching the very sport we love. Our friends at the rock gym greet us with, “Well, if it isn’t the crushing couple.” Together, we have traveled across the United States and other parts of the world climbing. We have lived out of a car more than once, even lived out of backpacks for months. We are cut from the same chord of rope, but that doesn’t mean our relationship has always been easy.

Most professional climbers—and here and henceforth I speak specifically of rock climbers, not mountaineers—date someone who shares their passion for torn tendons and chalk-coated hands. Look at Daniel Woods and Courtney Sanders, Alex Puccio and Joel Zerr, or Cedar Wright and Nellie Milfeld. The list goes on.

To some degree, I think climbers are inevitably drawn to one of their own. With an outsider, they’d have nothing in common. Climbing is such an all-consuming sport that for those who first and foremost define themselves as climbers, there is little choice but to spend your life with someone who understands the madness. It changes the way you think, the way you see something as simple as rock on the side of the road.

Climbers are a specific breed: hard-headed, restless, determined, and masochistic. They’re not the easiest people to date, and it often takes one to deal with one. They say opposites attract, but in my experience, that sentiment is so rarely true.

One night early in our relationship, Chris confessed to me that the moment he saw how much I genuinely loved climbing—that I wasn’t just doing it to impress him or have an excuse to hang out with him—was the moment he started falling for me.

“I’ve always said the person I’d end up with had to love climbing,” he said. “I never really thought I’d find that.”

Of course, such relationships then come with their own set of unique challenges. Climbing and dating are deceptively similar while being different enough to demand knowing where to draw the line. Relationships, after all, aren’t as straightforward as routes yet you can solve their issues like you can boulder problems.

Before I really fell into the climber mindset, before I became a climber you could say, Chris and I struggled with our approach to solving problems in our relationships. Chris wanted simple solutions … Beta not working? Change your beta. Feeling stressed about life? Just stop feeling stressed. And I was anything but simple. I tackled problems immediately, recklessly, and in the most complicated ways possible. Climbing eventually taught me at least to work out problems one move at a time. Looking at the whole climb won’t help if you don’t know the beta for the first move.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for couple climbers is balancing the partnership with the relationship, a difficult task since both demand an almost soul-stealing amount of personal dedication. As climbers, we put everything we have into our struggle, and the sport is thus not only immensely physically taxing, but mentally and emotionally exhausting. Everything gets raw when you’re on the wall: your hands and more importantly, your heart. On bad days, which are an inevitable commonality in climbing, the crag can chew you up and spit you out with twice the force of any fall you’ve ever taken.

As a textbook Type-A personality, with high standards of perfection, these bad days took their toll on me and pretty much every climbing day became one by the end. Especially when I was first learning, I allowed myself to be consumed by what I should have been able to climb, arbitrarily assigning standards for myself in a sport that I hadn’t yet learned couldn’t be confined to standards. Climbing is like art, subjective and deeply personal, but I approached it like a math problem, with a single formulaic approach and a definitive answer.

Climbing together can be especially difficult for couples with drastically different abilities, something that only heightened my awareness of how bad I was. By the time I began climbing, Chris had already been climbing for sixteen years, spending the majority of his childhood competing on the youth comp circuit, and placing in the top three at nationals three times. When I was struggling up V1 and 5.8, he was easily working V10 and 5.13.

At the gym, this wasn’t necessarily problematic, but when we moved to Montana, away from any indoor gyms, and had to rely purely on outdoor climbing, the disparity between us became ever more pronounced. Rock formations tend to yield similar climbs and thus we struggled to find anything that fit both our needs. We weren’t lucky enough to live near crags with easy access to highly concentrated routes. The closest crag to us was very scattered, with mile-long hikes just to get from one wall to another. We could, at best, make two or three walls in a day. Anywhere that had enough low level climbs to occupy me was sure to bore him and anything hard enough for him would hardly allow me the opportunity to get on the wall.

The belayer always suffered, too. We hadn’t been climbing together long, and we hadn’t yet learned the nuances of each others climbing style and ability yet. We hadn’t come to that place where we operated on the same wavelength, not necessarily needing verbal communication to predict each other’s movements. Like our relationship itself, our climbing partnership was young, awkward, and riddled with insecurities.

For me, a new lead belayer still learning the ropes (literally) on chossy rock and shale, the difficult routes Chris chose often me put me in uncomfortable belay positions, gripping the rope until my knuckles turned white, a nervous wreck that I wouldn’t be able to catch a bad fall. While belaying was a source of anxiety for me, it was a painstaking chore for Chris. I climbed slowly, taking long, restful hangdogs on routes, while Chris sat below on belay, twiddling his thumbs and getting cold. He was remarkably patient with me, never minding taking a chunk out of his own day to focus on me and never reducing me to the sole role of belay slave. But there was always this persistent feeling that I was holding him back, which would only further my anxieties and amplify how hard I came down on myself.

Since bad attitudes are notoriously contagious, especially for couples concerned for the happiness of the other, a bad day for one then becomes a bad day for both. It’s a slippery slope from there. For couples, frustrations in climbing can quickly bring out frustrations in other areas of life. Outside relationship issues can crop up at the crag, and before you know it, a failed send turns into a fight about why one never helps with the dishes.

Once I got frustrated with my climbing and began to break down, Chris and I would often start fighting about our different ways of expressing emotions: my tendency to overreact to things and his to under-react. It was a common source of contention in our relationship all-around, something we continue to work on together, and climbing always seemed to cause it to come out in full force.

“Maybe this isn’t the sport for you!” Chris finally told me one day. “I’m not sure you’re mentally tough enough for it.” He didn’t mean it, hoping instead to finally light a fire under me. Even before I was a climber, I was stubborn as an ox, and he knew it. The words had the desired effect, and from that day forth, I set out to prove him wrong.

In doing so, I learned how important it is to stay positive, motivated, and goal-oriented. Bad days still happen, but it’s important to recognize them as just as important (if not more) for climbing gains as good ones. On especially bad days, I learned when to call it quits for myself, shifting my focus to making sure Chris had a good day. I learned to be both selfish and selfless. I learn to forgive myself, to stop saying, “I’m sorry.” To give my partner and myself slack, both on the wall and off. A tight belay, after all, doesn’t always mean a safe and successful one.

That’s the beauty of climbing; it teaches you hard lessons. Alone, it teaches you about yourself: your body, your limits, your drive, your mental resilience. And when you attach that learning process to another individual, you learn a great deal more about what it means to cooperate and coexist within the messy web of the world. It teaches you to open your heart, despite the presence of inherent risks and the danger of breaking it.

Despite the often fraught and mysterious nuanced nature of that bond between climber couples, the kind of relationship that forms is more solid than the granite obelisks of El Capitan and Half Dome.

To combine two such fierce passions is beautifully elating. It can be that moment of clarity, the proverbial Shangri La where everything aligns and you realize an almost painful joy in simply being alive. Those are the moments where you end up in pile of chalk and rope on the ground, still harnessed together, embracing and laughing in sheer joy at the accomplishment of the other. It’s one thing to revel in your own accomplishment, and entirely another when you also feel another person so genuinely happy for you, for something the two of your accomplished together. There is no greater intoxication.

Perhaps there is no great ultimatum for those who love to climb and climb to love. To me, climbing is both a curse, capable of enchanting and addicting all the while threatening to take it all away, and a gift, capable of making one feel more alive than they ever thought possible.

For climbers, climbing is often our first love, and it’s hard to imagine it not being our last. But we are masters of the impossible, defying laws of nature and gravity itself. If anyone is capable of committing their whole heart twice over at the same time, it is the climber, risks aside.


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