Mountaineering with Experienced Boyfriend

Original Post
Miss Mae · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2017 · Points: 0

So this past weekend I went out with my boyfriend who is an avid mountaineer.  I used to be part of my university climbing club (gym climbing) so I know how to belay and can climb fairly well- not nervous about falling etc. but have done very little back country adventures.  We did Uto Peak in Glacier National Park which is class 3 with 4/5 parts, internet says with lots of exposure.  I did a fine job climbing and only had a few 'holy shit' anxiety moments when doing the difficult parts where an unprotected fall would be certain death. I loved how the mountain was like a big puzzle to be figured out.

Because my partner has so much experience I think he occasionally forgets that others don't have his skill level.  I insisted that I be fully protected even in areas that more experienced climbers (or others with less fear of death) would be fine doing with less protection.  At one point the rope got hooked on a rock and he had to let out slack so I could fix it and get up a difficult spot.  I got spooked but then realized we are half way up the most difficult part, with no way down so I set aside my fear and kept going.  It took us a significant amount of time to summit and descend.  On the way down we were going down steep snow and I slipped and went for a little ass toboggan ride - but all in all I didn't have a ton of anxiety.  

Afterwards I got to thinking (possibly over thinking) things and now I wonder if I'm really ready to do this level of mountaineering.  I thought to myself... "what if he were to fall while I'm on belay and hurt himself?  what are the procedures when you are in the back country?  What equipment should I have with me if that were to happen? How do I make sure we are both ok?" I honestly felt more concerned for his safety with me providing protection than for my own safety.  Watching him lead climb and letting out rope made me nervous.  In the gym that stuff wasn't relevant.

I feel so unbelievably inexperienced.  I want to continue to learn more and think I need to go take a mountaineering course.  Another issue is that he's out doing way harder things with climbing friends for the past 4 days and I'm at home worried...  I don't want him to stop doing what he loves and after doing the climb last weekend I see how quickly something could go wrong...  not a month ago an experienced climber slipped and fell to his death off Sir Donald, which is beside Uto.  

I'm not sure what I'm asking here...  I'm just trying to process all of this, trying to figure out how I can become (and feel) more competent so I can join him while also trying to deal with this nagging anxiety.... maybe I need therapy :P

Can anyone relate?  Any thoughts?

Jon Rhoderick · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2009 · Points: 845

You certainly have a lot of new information and emotions from mountaineering that you need to digest. 

I think the way you described mountaineering as 'a big puzzle' is entirely correct. It is also a puzzle that has more than one solution. Unfortunately in mountaineering, there are many situations where falling is not an option, you can mitigate many, but not all of these situations.  There is a big difference between falling in vertical terrain found at crags and climbing gyms to falls in ledgy terrain on mountains.  

Some questions to frame your thoughts:

Did you wear crampons at all? Along with an ice axe, they greatly reduce the risks of climbing up and down snow and ice slopes.  They also increase the likelihood of tripping over yourself as well, but with practice this becomes rare.  

How in control were you in the high risk climbing?  Were you close to falling? Would it take the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse riding down the ridge line to make you fall?  In mountaineering, the biggest piece of safety protection is your ability to climb way harder than what you are expecting to face in a climb, as well as a route finding ability to help find the easiest path.  

How heavy is your pack? This sounds like a situation where a heavy pack would make things much more challenging.

I think  you should get the book 'Alpine climbing techniques to take you higher' by Mark Houston & Kathy Conley. They go in depth about how to protect the sort of terrain that got you thinking in a way that few other books do.  Your insistence to be protected should be respected by any climbing partner, so you both need to know how to protect this sort of climbing, which is a lot trickier than protecting a sport climb or a crack climb.  Honestly a bad fall in your described situation would be exceedingly hard to escape from even with very experienced climbers, so you really do have to rely on you and your partners ability. Don't believe posters after me claiming that you could escape the belay, prussik up to him, build an anchor and rappel with your injured boyfriend clipped to your harness, safety on these routes has to do with avoiding the shitty situation before it ever happens.  However, learning basic patient assessment and how to stop bleeding and splint limbs would be really helpful.


Miss Mae · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2017 · Points: 0

Thanks for your kind reply and book recommendation - I'm going to go see if it's in my BF's collection, if not I will go get a copy :)

Ben Stabley · · Portland, OR · Joined Sep 2014 · Points: 176
Miss Mae wrote:

Afterwards I got to thinking (possibly over thinking) things and now I wonder if I'm really ready to do this level of mountaineering.  I thought to myself... "what if he were to fall while I'm on belay and hurt himself?  what are the procedures when you are in the back country?  What equipment should I have with me if that were to happen? How do I make sure we are both ok?" I honestly felt more concerned for his safety with me providing protection than for my own safety.  Watching him lead climb and letting out rope made me nervous.  In the gym that stuff wasn't relevant.

 Another issue is that he's out doing way harder things with climbing friends for the past 4 days and I'm at home worried...  

For the first point, I think that you had these questions shows maturity and thoughtfulness. I hate to make generalizations, but I think it's all too common for male-female pairs, particularly ones in a romantic relationship, to remain in this pattern of "experienced male 'taking' a less-experienced female" on challenging climbs. Although learning and enjoyment can be had from such a situation, it's akin to learning how to swim by immediately jumping in the deep end--scary and potentially dangerous. I suspect you'll be able to enjoy climbing, with your boyfriend or others, much more if you can contribute your own robust skillset as an equal partner in the team. Having a higher level skill set yourself will also improve the safety factor as you'll offer another set of eyes able to recognize risks, hopefully mitigate them, and respond to a situation should something go bad.

For the second point, that's a reality of being involved with people who participate in high-risk sports. You'll have to come to terms with it one way or another. Perhaps improving your own skills, as you may want to anyway, will allow you to be able to better evaluate his other climbing partners? That could give you some reassurance.

I've heard some folks say that they rarely climb with their significant others simply because they dislike seeing right before their eyes this person they're so concerned with in a risky situation. So, they climb with friends who they can be more detached from. Others have said they don't like climbing with their significant other because it can sometimes bring out the day-to-day stress you have together and magnify it by being in a stressful situation on a mountain. Obviously, I don't know anything about your relationship though.

Martin le Roux · · Superior, CO · Joined Jul 2003 · Points: 234

No you don't need therapy! Your reaction is quite natural. As you've realized by now, classic alpine routes like Uto are quite different from climbing at an indoor gym or your local crag. Technically it's an "easy" climb, but it's an exposed route in a remote setting, and while the rock quality is good by alpine standards it's probably a lot looser than what you're used to. And it's a long enough climb that if you try to protect it the way you'd protect a shorter climb you'll end up benighted. The best way to get used to that type of climbing is to go out and do more of it. A guided course can help you with technical skills, but it sounds like your main issue isn't a lack of technical skills, it's inexperience.

And don't feel bad if you decide that alpine mountaineering isn't for you (although your boyfriend may be disappointed). It's a risky pursuit, and many technically competent climbers have decided they're much happier on low-elevation crags.

Kat Hessen · · San Diego, CA · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 0

Howdy Miss Mae. I was/am in a similar situation to you, except I suspect I'm a much much weaker climber than you are. I just started climbing about five weeks ago (I dabbled for a month or so three years ago, got injured bouldering and never climbed again), but my husband has kept climbing in those three years (to the point where passion meets obsession) and has gotten a lot of experience doing long alpine climbs, mountaineering, ice climbing, etc. 

Two weeks after I started climbing, we decided to climb the East Face on Mt Whitney -- rated 5.7 it's a very moderate alpine climb, but above 14k and with a 1000' drop at the most exposed traverses, I really had to face the least composed and most fearful parts of myself and conquer those strong impulses in order to complete the climb. When we got off route near the summit as night fell (my slothlike pace kept us moving up for a good 12 hrs on a pretty easy climb), I truly experienced the terror of realizing that you are inexperienced and out of your domain, with your safety completely in the hands of a more experienced partner whose own risk-taking can directly impact your ability to safely get off the mountain. 

Like you, I insisted on being roped up (simulclimbing) for parts that my partner would have easily and safely soloed (4th grade stuff), and a martial dispute (I meant marital, but the difference seems negligible) ensued when I argued for rappelling down a few pitches to get back on the right route, while my husband wanted to lower me and downclimb. To him, downclimbing a few pitches of easy grade seemed like a reasonable way to get back on route. To me it seemed like endorsed suicide! Once we summited I felt euphoric and super motivated to do more alpine climbing, although I mostly felt tired, cold and fearful while actually climbing. Car-to-car for 28 hrs (that Whitney trail is loooong) was a lot when you're a total noob, but it wasn't the physical challenges that threathened to destabilize me, it was the mental ones. 

Upon returning to civilization, I vowed to learn more about alpinism and mountaineering in order to feel competent and safe while climbing. Ordered Freesom of the Hills the next day, and currently working on knots, working up to leading trad and learning all I can about safety and technique. Having grown up camping and fishing in Arctic Norway, being in the mountains and snow is second nature to me. However -- alpinism and mountaineering are both completely new and unknown disciplines to me, and I entirely relate to your thoughts and feelings about this. 

My own takeaway has been that in order to feel truly safe and to have fun while doing these climbs, I want to be a capable and skilled alpinist myself. Trusting my husband and following him is dandy for now, but I personally am keen to learn how to jumar, prussik, build belays and anchors, self-rescue, haul gear (climbing chimneys with a pack was an interesting way to learn chimney technique!), set up a rappel, judge terrain and protection etc. etc. 

Thus, my advice would be to pick up Freedom of the Hills, as well as other books recommended to you here, ask your partner or another skilled climber to teach you the techniques you would need to feel safe in case of a worst-case scenario in the mountains, and most importantly to practice these techniques in a safe environment. I'm dragging my husband with me to go practice jumaring and knots this week!

Howard · · Costa Mesa, CA · Joined Sep 2010 · Points: 1,819

Without knowing all the details of your experience, imo it's appropriate for an inexperienced follower to be thoroughly briefed in what they're getting into and how it differs from shorter multipitch away from the alpine, etc in terms of strategy and safety.  It makes most sense to build up to it from less committing climbs.  Even the follower is exposed to greater objective hazards like rock fall, loose blocks, sudden bad weather including lightning, and often heightened risk taking out of practicality to move faster and carry a lighter rack over longer distance including being exposed to big falls or swinging falls over "easy" terrain, so it's only fair to them and more efficient for the party that everyone is mentally prepared.  This is where "easy" climbs may still be ill advised for new climbers.  Those who are safe will have a game plan to optimize success, reduce risks, plan for worst case scenarios. Self rescue skills help understanding for improvising these sort of solutions.  Books like those mentioned and an abundance of online videos are worth exploring and require giving careful thought to their application.  You tend to get out of this what you put in.

ErikaNW · · Golden, CO · Joined Sep 2010 · Points: 145

I can relate to what you said about the worry for your partner and not having the knowledge to react if things go pear shaped. I felt the same way when I was starting to follow more multipitch and climb in more remote locations. I took a self rescue course, and the instructor did a lot with me on leader rescue since that was my major worry. It helped tremendously with my confidence and made me feel less anxiety on those climbs. However the biggest thing that I needed was more mileage and getting comfortable and experienced with leading myself. In the alpine, I won't generally climb anything where I wouldn't be able to take over leading all of the pitches. If you're relying on your partner to lead every pitch, and don't have the knowledge/skill to take over, you could be in a world of trouble if (s)he sustains even a minor injury. Taking a WFA course is also worthwhile. Books are great, but there's no substitute for experience. It's a long learning curve - but take your time and enjoy it! 

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Post a Reply

Log In to Reply