Logo Jim Frankenfield
jim@mountain-guiding.com; 1-877-604-0166

Mountain Guiding; Mountain Safety
An Experienced Professional

Rope Bar

Guiding Newsletter

"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: http://www.mountain-guiding.com/safety/

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.


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