The Delicate Art of Negotiating Adventure With Your Partner

The Delicate Art of Negotiating Adventure With Your Partner

What happens to your relationship when the going gets tough?

“This is it,” I told myself, traversing a granite ledge, scrambling up a grassy corner and onto the next ledge, nearing the top of the pass. “We’ll pop out at the top of a beautiful alpine lake, pitch the tent, and be done for the day.” I couldn’t remember feeling this way before, the hollow, almost fluttery feeling across my chest as I pushed the pace through the day’s 11th hour. Sure, I’d brought myself to what I thought was the limit before, running the 800-meter in high school, 5Ks in college, half marathons in my 20s. But this was completely different, and I didn’t know how much farther I could go.

Brendan waited at the top, beckoning from where he sat, sheltered from the wind behind a boulder. I relied heavily on my trekking poles to pick up slack under the weight of my 40-pound pack, stepping quickly across the top of the talus field. His facial expression was my first warning. Instead of the relieved, end-of-day victory smile, his eyes were cautiously encouraging, quickly scanning my expression, reading for my response. There was no lake. Not here, or anywhere else, as far as I could see. Just talus. More talus spreading downward and downward.

We had seven days’ worth of food and were behind schedule about halfway through a high-altitude traverse of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. After a casual couple of days, we realized we’d need to pick up our pace if we wanted to finish before our food ran out. The off-trail scrambling and bushwhacking was kicking our asses. Up and over boulders, millions of them it seemed. Through willow thicket after willow thicket, around this lake and that lake, over unending mountain passes.

Brendan set the pace and I power-walked in his footsteps, trying to keep from losing him over a ridge or among a field of boulders. Today had been huge. We’d been moving hard since the August sun had peeked over the horizon, up and over mountains and through terrain that required my full body to get over or around. I’d felt my limbs tremble with adrenaline as a boulder slid out from under me on one descent. I barely caught myself before taking a flying spill down a talus field, carried forward by the momentum of my pack. Already, I had dug deeply several times to find the courage and motivation to keep moving. As the sun started sagging low, my mantra had been “just to the top of this pass.” But, no.

I collapsed, very nearly in tears, behind a boulder near Brendan. “It’s just at the bottom of this,” he said softly. “We’ve just got to keep moving.” Somehow I’d managed to ignore those topo lines when I’d looked over the map earlier, perhaps out of denial. He watched my face as I gasped huge breaths, deeply grateful that he had the emotional intelligence to give me a minute. It’s a moment preserved in my brain, a faded, overexposed snapshot. His questioning expression, checking to see how I felt, was hardened by the knowledge that we couldn’t stay there. We had to keep moving. I was scraping the very bottom of my heart to come up with the energy to move forward, knowing full well that it was only Brendan’s gentle quiet that stood between collecting myself and bursting into tears of exhaustion.

I’m sure these kinds of moments happen to non-outdoorsy couples, too, maybe in dealing with unruly children, frustrating finances or stressful career choices. But if you spend enough time adventuring in the outdoors with your significant other, it’s sure to happen out there on the side of a mountain, in the middle of a rushing rapid, or halfway down a trail. Nature has a way of stripping away our excuses, the airs we put on. There really is no way to fake it out there. The nice and the nasty both come brutally into focus under the mountain sun. Every ounce of ego is amplified, and without humility and patience, good luck to you and your loved one.

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been the one leaning over my bike at the bottom of a series of switchbacks, cocking my head to peer around the corner for Brendan, hoping he hadn’t eaten shit and didn’t hate me with the fury of the significant other thrown helpless into the deep end. And I’ve cursed loudly on toprope halfway up a desert mountain, grunting my way up my first off-width to find Brendan’s shocked face at the top, afraid I’d immediately state, “I’m never climbing again.” And I’m sure – actually, I hope – that those moments aren’t over.

I’m sure the Wind River trip won’t be the most demanding trial Brendan and I will face together. Life is long and sometimes tragic. But I’d like to think that those moments in the mountains, learning to be patient, gently pushing each other to be our best selves, might somehow echo back when the real darkness of life threatens, reminding us we’re made of grittier stuff than we thought.

Photo by Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Contributing editor Hilary Oliver lives in Denver and blogs at The Gription.
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Showing 7 comments
  • Taryn

    Thanks for this Hilary! My husband and I experience this often – him waiting for me at the top of hills when road biking, me talking him across exposed sections of trail when backpacking. Relationships are always compromise and give-and-take even in the outdoors.

  • Mtnlee

    Nice one Hilary! Kerry and I have been “in the middle of a rushing rapid” and it is always nice to have a strong patient partner to lean on. Sometimes it’s me; sometimes it is Kerry.

  • Amy

    What a great post! I’m glad to know that my partner and I are not alone in having these moments. My role in our adventure relationship is to find new adventures, seek out new places, and encourage him to explore.
    So far, we’ve had only two experiences like this in over two years. Last summer we made several beginner mistakes that are inexcusable considering we are experienced. We choose a long hike, in late summer in an area we were new to. We did not bring a filter, had the dog with us, and at that time he carried a 1L bladder while I carried 3, and on top of all that we started far later in the day. This ended up with me leaning against a boulder, in the dark, with a jack russell in my pack, sobbing. He knew when to empathize, and when to tell me to, “suck it up, buttercup”.
    He was also patient and kind when I wanted to conquer my fear of heights by tackling Angel’s Landing in Zion. That poor man encouraged, consoled and cajoled me all the way up and down that hike. And when we missed the last bus, didn’t make me feel bad while we had to walk six miles back to our car. It’s amazing what a wonderful partner can do for you.

  • jon canuck

    your terrier sounds like a great partner. So touching that he cried during your exhaustion. How exactly does your Jackie convey his compassion to you? Licks? Cuddles? Tail-wags?

  • Bob D

    Yep, I can relate. Unfortunately, joint adventures outdoors haven’t been kind to us. Banged up foot on a NM backpacking trip in ’07, and two weeks ago, a broken leg after a fall from a bike. Poor gal may never want to do anything outdoors with me again! Good on y’all for encouraging each other through these adventures. Only makes the ties that much stronger.

  • Dan

    Similar experience on a six (ended up being seven) day trek down Vancouver Islands West Coast Trail with my wife. And with unruly kids, finances and careers. Our outdoor challenge was the first and proved we’d be able to overcome the rest!

  • DanO

    Great piece of writing! I’ve been at both ends also and believe the vulnerability we reveal, even unwillingly, makes us closer to the person we are with in that moment.

    Touchy feely moment, over; Now I have to go bang on something with a sledgehammer..

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