Survival: Choose Your Partner Wisely

Pick a good partner--or you may get burned.

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In 1993, before adventure racing, the Seven Summits, or any of the other life-changing expeditions I’ve tackled, I was just a 25-year-old schoolteacher learning to rock climb at a crag outside of Phoenix. I wasn’t looking for special attention or people who would go easy on me because of my disability. I entered the world of climbing like most people do: I joined a mountaineering club and hooked up with one of its members. But I didn’t know how important it was to test a stranger out on a small route before going big.

Fortunately, my wife was watching our climb from the bottom of the crag, a multipitch route in the Superstition Mountains. She sat in the dirt while we crimped our way up two 50-foot-long pitches. At the top, I listened as my partner verbally walked me through how to set up a rappel and throw the ropes over the cliff. Typically, what happens when you climb a two-pitch route is you tie two ropes together and they touch the ground. When we were ready to go, my partner told me to clip into my ATC, lean back, and rappel to the bottom. Twice I asked, “Do the ropes touch the ground?” When he twice answered, “Yep,” I took off.

Thank god my wife was watching. Near the end of the pitch, she screamed for me to stop. I was 50 feet off the deck and 10 feet from the end of the rope, which—you guessed it—had no knot. Man, I wish I’d known then to feel to the end of the rope and check for that knot myself. A few more feet and I would have gone zinging into the abyss. A 40-foot fall almost guarantees a fatal accident. Even now, my rappel hand starts shaking when I think about it.

From that point on, I learned to be self-reliant. And I never climbed anything serious with a stranger until I’d tested him at the rock gym or on a single-pitch, bolted crag first, using these criteria:

1. On trial climbs, become a private investigator. Pay attention to how a partner clips gear, ties knots, and route-finds. Does he move fluidly—indicating experience—or does he freeze at the first sign of falling?

2. Your new partner doesn’t necessarily have to be the best climber in the world, but someone who can think on his feet.

3. Recognize red flags. If someone’s belaying you, and he starts digging in his pack for an apple or camera, say something—then think twice about climbing with him. Make sure your partner gives you his full attention any time you’re on a rope with him.

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