The Twin Joys of Mountaintops and Teamwork

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Climbing gets way more attention when things go wrong than when things go right. “Into Thin Air” was a bestseller, but almost no one would read “Someone Climbed Everest Successfully without Incident.” It’s a shame, because the kind of seamless teamwork that takes place in the backcountry may be climbing’s greatest joy, a fact I was reminded of on the way up Abernathy Peak.

I was with an old friend I hadn’t climbed with for almost a year. As we headed up, we fell back into a familiar, comfortable kind of rapport: looking ahead, dissecting the route, seeking each other’s counsel.

We trust each other, but neither of us ever blindly follows the other. We each know we can make mistakes (because we’ve seen each other make them on adventures and misadventures in the past), and that informs the debates we have in the present. Each of us brings as much as we can to the table. Decisions get made in a casual consensus.

Do we head in a straight line to the summit or run the ridge? The direct route had snow, and in the heat of an 80 or 90-degree day, we were both concerned it could be really soft. We could go conservative: veer to the right, run the ridge. The ridge had three high points and two gullies to cross, but we agreed they looked doable. The indirect route it was.

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The first gully was easy – a nice broad walkway ending in a solid shoulder. The second one left us standing on sheer rock. My friend felt we needed to lose elevation and cross well below the ridgetop. I argued that we could safely traverse on small ledges at the top of the ridge (I hate to give up any hard-fought elevation). We looked ahead and decided the next high point looked sketchy, and dropping down would preserve options – assuming, that is, we could make it safely around the portion of the route that was hidden from view.

We dropped down, skirted a snowfield, rounded the corner and…smooth sailing. We headed on decent rock up to the final saddle below the summit. From there, it was a walk in the park. It all went as smoothly as it could have.

On the way down, we both agreed: there was no way we were going back all the way we came. We made a beeline for our starting point, down over that soft snow we’d avoided on the way up. It cut an hour off the return – another win.

I’ve seen plenty of climbing relationships that are like a bad marriage – committed, but fraught with impatience, frustration, competition, and judgment. It’s only natural. Both parties are dependent on one another for something really important to each of them. Each is grateful for what the other enables them to do; each chafes at the limits the other sometimes imposes. Little differences in style and thought get magnified.

What makes the opposite possible?

In this case, we have similar temperaments. Do we both want to get to the top of the mountain? Heck yeah. Do we both have a hunger for a certain amount of adventure and even slight misadventure? Check. Do we both want to get to the top of the mountain so bad we’ll look past objective danger to try? Nope. We’re both coming home at the end of the journey.

We also have a similar style of decision making. We survey the options and work through the advantages and disadvantages of each. We have a similar view of risk when climbing un-roped, as we were up Abernathy: anything over Class 5 gives us pause. If it’s a single move from static position to static position, we’ll do it. If it’s more than that, we’ll find another way.

We each know and trust what the other knows. We both did the Mountaineers basic climbing class. We both followed that up with rock climbing (for him, trad; for me, sport). We’ve climbed together enough that we’ve seen each other process risk and know how the other thinks.

It’s something I’m truly grateful for. More often than not, it gets us to the top of the mountain, and more importantly, it has always gotten us back safe. That may be boring, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

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