Unless you’re Alex Honnold, climbing typically involves two people. And if you already have a partner in life, chances are you’ll want them to be your partner on the wall as well. But what if you fall in love with someone who has no idea how to climb? You have three choices: Leave ‘em, deal with ‘em, or teach ‘em. Options one and three are the only options that I condone. Personally, I went with option three. It can be a tough one, but in the end, it pays off.

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Lauren Horne following on Fingertrip (5.7, 4-pitch)

Rock Climbing is About Having a Good Time

The first thing you should keep in mind when teaching your girlfriend how to climb is to do your best to make the experience enjoyable and fun. Most of our generation start in the gym by pulling plastic and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I would recommend starting on a multi-pitch! Now, I’m not saying to take them on a top-of-your-grade multi-pitch with a 2-hour approach, 3-hour walk-off, and butt-puckering exposure. Take them on something well below your average grade that you think she could confidently climb without falling. Some other things to take into account:

  • Teach belaying prior to arriving at the wall. Rig something up at your van or house and show them the basics of tieing in and belaying.
  • Removing gear. If your partner leaves a piece behind, neither of you will enjoy your day. Show him or her a couple tricks to pulling your precious gear out.
  • Preach communication. I can’t stress how important this is. They should know all the normal commands on the wall, some non-verbal, and know how to really YELL!
  • Basic knots. You should ensure that they know how and when to tie a figure eight and a clove hitch.
  • Look good, climb good, safety third. Needs no explanation.

Climbing an easy route is essential. A multi-pitch that you would be comfortable free soloing would work best. There is a grand feeling that comes with summiting that you just don’t get from sport climbing. You want them to get the climbing bug as early as possible! (Like my first lead did for me) However, keep in mind how quickly this can turn sour if not done correctly.

Lauren on Nut Cracker
Lauren on the Summit of After Seven (5.8, 5-pitch)

The Worst Couple Ever!

I once witnessed a couple in the Ditch (Yosemite Valley) that probably did the opposite of everything I just said. The guy was already about 50ft up when I came by, and his partner started asking me if she was belaying correctly. After ensuring that she was doing everything right, he finished his pitch and called, “Off belay!” She turned to me and asked, “What do I do next?” It was a shit show. She wasn’t tied in, she didn’t know ANY communication commands, and she didn’t even know how to pull a cam. Don’t be like them. (Needless to say, experienced climbers were waiting at the base and getting ready to pull tons of booty once the shit show finished up.)

Making Your Girlfriend a Crusher

Lauren on lead
Lauren leading Burros Dont Might Fly (10.b PG-13)

Rock climbing is high stress, especially traditional multi-pitch climbing. A ton of variables can contribute to this, and the last thing you want is for that stress to be pushed onto your brand new climbing/life partner. Since things can and will go wrong, here are some ways I recommend mitigating stress for yourself (and for your partner as well):

  • Climb a route you’re familiar with. Knowing where you are going to set belays and not worrying about route-finding is super helpful.
  • Give ample time. Your new partner is going to climb slower than you think. Give yourselves plenty of time to approach, climb, and return.
  • Let parties climb through. Since you guys are taking it slow, and you’ve set aside an ample amount of time, just let other parties climb through you. Nothing heightens your stress level like another party nipping at your heels when trying to climb.
  • Communicate properly and often. As you can tell, I care a lot about communication. All solid relationships are built on it, and it makes everything easier Use it!

It’s important to keep a level head and not yell at your girlfriend on the wall (or off the wall for that matter). More than once, I’ve wanted to raise my voice out of frustration at my girlfriend for something or other. (Like when she wanted to give up on a cam after only trying for two minutes to pull it. Or when she sighed with irritation and complained as I spent 10 minutes pulling a fixed #3 BD Camalot.) But I refrained and remembered that this “climbing stuff” was all foreign to her and she was trying her best. She’s a crusher now (though she wouldn’t agree), so I don’t have to worry about that anymore. And after about one and a half years of climbing together, she hasn’t left a single piece on the wall. Well actually, she left a nut once. But I lowered down and pulled it. No harm, no foul. And it WAS her first ever trad follow.

From Crusher to Rope Monkey

So you can’t do a multi-pitch as your first route? That makes sense, not a lot of people can or even want to. There is nothing wrong with honing skills at the local crag or gym. If you’re going to take your girlfriend out to a local sport climbing spot, you can still utilize the majority of these tips (belaying, communication, knots, etc). Obviously, you wouldn’t have to worry about pulling gear though.

lauren on belay
Lauren being my personal belay. (this is why I date her)

When taking your girlfriend to the gym, keep in mind that as a beginner, she won’t be able to climb for as long as you. Don’t forget your first time gym climbing! Remember the raw fingertips, sore forearms, and numb feet? After my introduction to climbing, I could barely pull the clutch on my bike and didn’t think I would be able to get home. There is a BIG difference between an experienced climber’s endurance and a beginner’s endurance.

No matter where you teach your new partner to climb, just remember to create an enjoyable experience for them. Even if it’s at the cost of your own enjoyment (at first!) It’s the price you have to pay. Sooner or later, though, it pays off. You’ll have an experienced crusher of a girlfriend that you can easily convince to give you extended belays for projecting or even take the sketchy pitch of a route that you’d rather pass on. After all, that’s what love is, isn’t it?

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