Every year during the month of December, Buddy highlights the Twelve Days of Fearlessness. Whether it is getting up the nerve to lace up your old ice skates with your five-year-old or conquering a halfpipe like your teenage days, fearlessness is not just situational for all- for some, it is a way of life.
Seven simple words, learned early by all climbers, which instills the confidence that you are protected from a fall by a strong rope and a solid teammate who has your back.
As a climber, paddler and general outdoor guy most of my life, I’ve had the good fortune to have been introduced to hundreds of kindred spirits in the outdoors. Many have become teammates on a rope, river or trail and solid lifelong friends. Those who, in a pinch, I know I can call for just about anything.
There is something about being tied together on a stone wall, completely dependent on another person, your life in fact, and having the confidence that while you might come off and take a nasty whipper, you are protected by a skilled teammate from a lethal fall. Unless you’ve climbed, it’s hard to describe the relationship between climbing partners. It’s a lifelong bond.
For many years, one of my climbing, paddling, and outdoor adventure partners is a guy named Pat Riley. We met a long time ago at a local crag and became fast friends. We’ve climbed together locally, in the Cascades, Kilimanjaro, backcountry skied out West, and paddled our white water. Pat is also an aerobatics pilot. While I’ve flown in his open cockpit WWII trainer, I’m wary of and stay away from his loops and vertical stalls.
One weekend, Pat and I decided to make a short trip to a local crag and do some moderate trad climbing. One of the routes we decided upon was a two pitch 5.9ish, maybe 5.10 crack certainly within our skill set.
After a short approach we scrambled to the base of the route and set anchors. Pat made light work of the first pitch and I was to lead the second. The second pitch started from a flat deck about 80 feet up and about 4 feet wide. It was a very comfortable place from which to stand and belay.
Things started out fine, the first few placements were bomber and I was moving smoothly. About midway up the route placements became scarce. Still feeling strong, I continued up assuming I’d find something in short order. I didn’t. The pitch wasn’t that long, maybe 60 feet, but I was now 50 feet up and my last piece of gear was a least 20 feet below me. This meant that if I did come off, with the stretch of my dynamic rope, I’d probably crater. This was not good as I still had another 10 feet of climbing before I reached a decent placement.
Upward I went. Shortly, I found myself in the unsettling position that my arms were somewhat spent. I now grew increasingly nervous while resting my elbows along a flat 5 inch ledge with my feet dangled below me and my face pressed against the black wall in front of me.
Above me, about five feet out of reach was a crack sent from heaven. If I could just get there, which was questionable, I’d be fine the balance of the route.
Feeling uneasy about the move and the consequences, I yelled down to Pat, “Dude, I’m not sure I have this move, if I come off it’s not going to be pretty.” His response, in an almost humorous tone was, “I can see that, and if you come off you’ll most likely land on me.” That didn’t make me feel any better.
What did make me feel better was when Pat said, “I’m assuming your last gear placement was good and if you do come off I’m jumping off the back of this ledge which will take some slack out of the rope and keep you from cratering.”
Wow. And at that moment, from the tone of his voice, I had no doubt he would have done it. My teammate had my back. He was willing to risk his own life because he had confidence in my gear placement. I could not let him down. Those words on that mountain gave me the will to move and I was not going to come off.
With a new found resolve that I had a chance if I did fall, I rested a little longer, made an unusual move that I’m not sure how I pulled off, reached the crack and secured a strong placement. After a few minutes on that narrow ledge, shaking out my arms and nerves. I started upward again.
The rest of the route was relatively easy, I topped out, Pat followed, we high fived and enjoyed the view from the top of the mountain. Soon we began our descent down an easy trail and hike out to the car.
While driving during our trip home, I asked Pat, “Were you serious about jumping off the back of that ledge if you saw me come off.” With a wry smile he turned, looked me in the eye and said, “absolutely.” And I have no doubt he would have. He then added, “But don’t think I didn’t check your placement that would’ve taken our falls as I cleaned the route. It looked solid, believe me, I’ve told you if it didn’t.” We both had a laugh at that.
Since that climb many years ago Pat and I have skied, paddled and climbed often. We are planning an ice climbing trip now. We talk business, family and the future whenever we are together. I consider him a best friend and somebody that I can count on and for whom I‘d do just about anything.
Teamwork, our lives depend on it, both in the outdoors and in everyday life. Cherish the time you spend building these relationships. They will take you far through life and might even save it.