I’m falling, a foot breaking off a lichenous nubbin of rock, my hands instinctively cutting loose from the crimpy bits of nothingness that until now had me safely perched 80 feet off the ground in a Bitterroot canyon.
“Falling!” I call down to my belayer and climbing partner, Olin Martin.
“Got ya, pardner!” he answers.
The rope comes tight almost sweetly, in what rock climbers call a “soft catch.”
“Always got ya, bud.”
“Okay, going back up.”
And so it goes, dozens and dozens of times over the years. We’re climbing partners, which is significant, but it’s more than that. Olin and I put up new climbing routes, opening new paths up unclimbed rock faces. It’s a riveting, exhausting, rewarding effort that is not without its share of danger. Route development is time-consuming and arduous; you spend a lot of time with your partner, climbing and re-climbing the proposed route, knocking off loose rock and obsessing over where to place bolts, how the route should be rated and whether the route is safe.
Choose the wrong partner and it’s the sort of work that you just wouldn’t bother with. But I chose wisely, or perhaps I chose lucky. For a handful of reasons—mostly because of how we see the world—Olin and I are good at what we do, and we’re good at doing it together. I can’t think of a time I’ve worked with Olin that wasn’t joyful, thought-provoking and fulfilling.
Now, for good reasons, Olin is looking to relocate to Colorado. He’s 20 years my junior and isn’t ready to settle in quite yet. Totally reasonable, but my heart aches at the loss. Look, I’m not an idiot. I know that not even rock walls are forever. Sport partnerships come, go. I’ve lost my best ski partners, my best fishing buddy, my best ice-climbing partner. Time passes, another one comes along.
This time feels different, though. Skiing, snowboarding and fishing—plenty of other pursuits, for that matter—are all more satisfying with partners. But they are not climbing, and they certainly don’t involve the development of new routes. As much joy as I find snowboarding with my family, at rock bottom the experience is still an insular one; your mind transfixed on the line ahead, the cold in your face, the board arcing through uncut powder. It’s all you, joyous, fulfilling, alone.
Putting up routes isn’t like that. Climbing is a partnership, the hallowed “brotherhood of the rope.” The line we climb is “our” line, a shared vision, a link as real as the rope that connects us. I move, Olin moves, in tandem. He works, I work. He commits, I commit. Less then 1 percent of climbers put up new routes, so most have no idea of the real work they entail: the grubby hours scrubbing lichen and sweeping dirty ledges, the dicey drilling stances, the endless hammering of cruddy rock. Nearly everything that happens is the result of a joint decision, sometimes reached through disagreement.
On the last route we put up, for instance, we had a thoughtful but testy debate about where to place a bolt on a move that would take a climber over a roof. Olin, who is 6’2” or so, thought the bolt should be over the roof, to protect the climber if she fell while making the move. I’m 5’9”, though, and couldn’t have reached Olin’s bolt placement without completing what is likely the hardest move on the climb.
“What about short people?” I whined.
“Must we do everything to cater to the whims of short people?”
Olin eventually caved, ensuring safer passage for short climbers while making the point that disagreeing respectfully on the way to compromise in furtherance of a greater objective is grown-up business.
“There’s nothing as sacred as partnership forged by shared risk and uncertainty, failure and success,” alpinist Mark Twight once wrote.
Over the top, perhaps, but mostly true. Twight, writing in Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber, goes on to detail the difficulty of forming “meaningful partnerships,” regardless of the venue—home, work, in the mountains. It’s all a high-wire act without a net, where a fall has real consequence: death, divorce, you name it. Twight doesn’t talk about finding any old partner; that’s easy. I have climbing partners and I can easily find more. I need a meaningful partner willing to do meaningful work. Setting new routes is a love, a passion, a commitment.
So now we’re down to it, the heart of the matter: love. Love of the work. Love of the mountains. Love of the freedom to create. Love of the time together. Maybe you’ve had better luck than I finding that sort of love. It seems all too rare, and seeing any part of it fall away feels like having part of my heart carved out.
Here’s Twight again, speaking the truth of both his partnership and mine: “He never let me down. He always answered the call. He always held the rope. I suppose each of us is still holding it, but the distance between us has dimmed once-shocking energy to intermittent vibration.”
Falling is what happens in climbing and in life, but it’s only a dip along a line that arches upward. We fall. We get up. Heartbroken and reminded that nothing lasts, we start climbing again.