Big Wall Matchmaking

Finding a phenomenal partner for a big wall objective can be difficult. As in romantic relationships, climbing couplings work best when you have an ideal balance of similarities and complementary differences. An in-depth personality questionnaire might help this process, covering everything from the mundane but critical details: Do you prefer the inside or outside on the portaledge? What’s your stance on wag bag re-use? What snacks will you bring and will you share?—to the self-awareness measures. What are your daily stress management tactics, and how do you translate these to a big wall environment? What types of situations overwhelm you and how do you act when you lose it? Describe the communication strategies your ideal partner would use and provide an example. It’s a little like a personal ad.

For example, mine would read:

Portaledge: True switch?
Wag Bag: Single use preferred
Snacks: Paleo (gourmet Paleo if my girlfriend hooks us up), and yes I’ll share
Stress management: Dissociation, meditation, cuticle care, dance parties
I find overwhelming: Direct sun exposure, temps over 80’F, any unwanted thoughts or feelings occurring less than 200’ off the ground
When overwhelmed I tend to: Blame self silently or others not so silently. Climb harder
Communication preferences: Gentle, sensitive, empathic, but able to wrangle me firmly when necessary.

My girlfriend’s—she’s got a doctorate in psychology, is an anxiety disorder specialist, a women’s college grad, radical behaviorist, and hobby sport climber—would read:

Tara Eastcott, Psy.D.
Portaledge: Um, porta-kingsizefuton? Porta-little dog bed?
Wag bag: Never. Ever. The bathroom at the gym is just fine, thanks.
Fears: Heights
Self-preservation instinct: Extremely high
Overwhelmed by: The top of the gym bouldering wall, any climbing situation in which I can’t “just lower,” exposed belay stations.
Typical reactions: Panic attacks, inconsolable sobbing.

Sorkin/Eastcott big wall match? Absolutely not. Other questionnaire items were used in establishing romantic compatibility.

For me, my partner selection has been influenced by desires to push my capabilities as a big wall free climber, cultivate self-awareness and have phenomenal adventures with friends in remote wilderness. From free routes on El Capitan to first ascents in Kyrgyzstan, I’ve explored my physical, mental and emotional capacities and built some truly fantastic climbing partnerships with both men and women. And as women are still relatively scarce amongst ambitious big wall free climbers, finding partnerships in this arena is even more special.

The first difficult objective I completed with another woman was a free ascent of Moonlight Buttress with Kate Rutherford in 2006, and this remains a pivotal achievement for me. Sharing adventures with other women has since been a significant part of my climbing experience and central to many of my goals.

Being a lesbian has allowed me appreciate some of the unique qualities of female relationships and community. In climbing partnerships, big objectives with other women have helped propel my achievements via valuable lessons in self-awareness and mutual empowerment. Watching other women face and cope with their own difficulties, while still being supportive partners, has helped me to do the same.

We’re in a dangerous sport that celebrates boldness and risk taking. And we also live in a broader culture that still equates fear with weakness, and weakness with femininity. It can make it difficult for any climber to be honest about feeling fear, let alone knowing what to do with it. While women have so long been maligned for being “too emotional,” etc., it was actually my female partners’ willingness to identify, share and collaboratively address their emotions while climbing that has been so supportive and inspirational for me.

I’ve found women are often more emotionally available, and almost always work with their limits better than 20-something year old guys. But to be honest, the same qualities that have attracted me to climb with woman have also sometimes repelled me. I don’t want to always acknowledge my emotions. Often I just want to go climbing, and difficult emotions can easily seem an obstacle to doing what I want to do. Plus, if you want to go up big walls, 20-something male partners are way easier to find.

Having benefited so much from female partnerships in life and in climbing, I want to help other women climbers experience similar support. So I called upon my girlfriend and her relevant areas of femme expertise—she’s got a doctorate in psychology, and is an anxiety disorder specialist, a women’s college grad, radical behaviorist, and hobby sport climber. We’ll be teaching a women’s clinic at the Lander International Climbers Festival (July 12th at 10 am), weaving together behavioral principles and practical climbing tips. Find more information at www.climbersfestival.org, and be sure to stop by the Outdoor Research booth to say hi!