"Safety Soapbox" Archive - August 2002
In the last issue the safety section discussed skills that climbers
should work on acquiring. This time the topic is partners, and what
skills they should have. For an interesting related article see:
The topic of partners gets directly into what avalanche courses usually
call "the human factor". While this is covered at length in
any good avalanche safety class it is rarely discussed very directly
in the context of climbing.
Potential partners planning to climb together should consider the skills
which each possess, as well as the composite between them. Expectations
should be at least relatively clear. If you are rock climbing do you
expect your partner to be able to handle an emergency on vertical terrain?
To do at least a basic raise or lower if appropriate? Or are you willing
to accept the consequences of them not having this skill? Factors to
consider include the remoteness, the length, and the difficulty of the
climb among other things.
Another thing to think about is "risk propensity". Are you
and your partner in agreement, at least in a general sense, on what
constitutes an acceptable level of risk?
These become particularly tricky issues when there is a significant
difference in the skills and/or needs of the partners or team members.
Beginners rarely have significant skills, yet they want to climb with
other more experienced people to gain skills and experience. This can put their partner,
often inadvertently, into the position of a guide. They need to be more
than a viable partner; they need to be able to take care of somebody
else who will have little to contribute in a difficult situation (except
a cool head at best).
So in your quest for climbing partners think about your expectations
and ask about theirs. Ditto for risk perceptions and propensities. Start
with something you are comfortable on in order to have the opportunity
to observe their belaying and other relevant skills. If you don't do
these things you may find yourself taking the risks of a soloist, and/or
being more responsible for somebody else than you want to be or have
the skills to be. In professional guiding it is sometimes necessary
to take more risk as a guide than you would as a partner in order to
best serve and meet the needs of the client. As a non-guide are you
ready to accept this? On the flip side, if you are inexperienced and
really in need of a guide is it fair, or in your interest, to put a
friend in this role of significant responsibility?
For beginners, there are many basic skills which can be practiced at
home with almost any old piece of rope. This includes setting up your
rappel device and the basic belay motions. Belay motions in particular
should be second nature. Practicing with a friend in a safe open area
will even let you simulate catching a slip or fall. This is a good idea
not just for true beginners but for many climbers who have been inactive
for a significant time period as well. When you don't make time to get
out climbing it is easy for your skills to atrophy.
As a final thought, two essential things among partners are trust and honesty.
Potential partners need to be honest about their skills, training, feelings
on risk, goals, etc. And once they are into a technical situation they
need to have complete trust in each other. These are difficult qualities
to assess accurately.