I have a hard time considering myself a climber. What would it take for me to own that term? A specific grade? An unwavering passion? Feeling gutsier? I may never claim it as my own. I may always be someone who sometimes likes rock climbing. Is that my own insecurity about not being “good enough” or is it realistic? I’m not sure.

But even if I don’t care about being a “climber” myself, I used to care a lot about being my husband Jake’s climbing partner. Not someone who merely goes climbing with him, but someone who can push him to try his hardest and be pushed by him to try my hardest. Someone who can be the competent, brave, strong one half of the time.

I’m not sure if we’ll ever become “climbing partners” in the way I once hoped. But, truth be told, I no longer care.

So I busted my butt to try to fill that role. Each morning, I woke up with the sun to go for a run before work. Through bleary eyes, I drank too hot coffee too quickly, sometimes brewing it the night before to save time. After a day at the office, I’d drive the windy 30 minutes to Wild Iris to go sport climbing, always with specific goals in mind– today I’m trying to redpoint harder routes or today I’m going to climb 8-10 easier routes. I’d lose my breath walking up the hill through the paintbrush, lupines, and balsam root and break into a trot downhill in my excitement.

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I watch the magic in other couples who can climb well together. They’re matched in their competence and strength. They can swap leads and switch who hangs the draws on the hard climb. If either partner has an off day, the other can tag in. My husband and I have seemingly endless magic and chemistry in all other aspects of our lives. Can’t we foster climbing chemistry too?

When we started dating, he had been climbing for eight years, and I was brand new. He was the competent one, happily guiding me. I was thrilled to follow him up anything, thrilled to be near him and kiss him at belay ledges. We each knew our role, expectations were clear, and neither of us stressed.

With time, I started to love the sport too. I learned to trad lead, went on a few climbing trips without him and started guiding novices for an outdoor school. He was still stronger, more experienced and more competent than I was, but the disparity started to shrink. When I was with my girlfriends, I had to be the brave or strong one sometimes. I didn’t have the safety net of Jake if I got scared, so I consistently figured it out.

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Photo: Lionello Delpiccolo

Climbing with Jake, however, became more complicated. We went to Indian Creek on a three-week trip a few Aprils ago, parked firmly in our favorite Superbowl campsite. I’d been there a handful of times without him, building my skills and confidence little by little. The October prior, I’d committed to leading every pitch 5.11- or easier that was threes or smaller. It was awesome and empowering and I couldn’t wait to flex my bulging forearms in front of my love.

Sitting at our campsite’s picnic table one night, we tried to talk about our climbing goals over our neighbor’s too loud and too close didgeridoo. I had never gotten on the über classic Annunaki, a striking zig-zagging crack that’s short, sporty, and 5.11+/5.12- depending who you ask. Maybe it’ll be a good introduction to pushing myself on gear? Jake was so excited for me. The following day, we climbed at the crag with his project, took a shady nap in the cottonwoods and then trudged up the hill to the Optimizer Wall in the late afternoon. Standing below the route, my stomach felt like it had bricks in it. I experienced sudden onset (read: all in my head) physical exhaustion as I tied my figure eight. We walked all the way up here to do this. I was the one with camalots on my harness. How bad could it be?

To make a long (60 minute) story short– really, really bad. I allowed fear to completely run my show. I weighted the rope twelve feet off of the ground in the secure, within my ability approach to the hard part. It didn’t end there. I said “take” more times than that creepy song by The Police Every Breath You Take. I cried when I saw a piece wiggle and thought it was going to pop out. I asked him to lower me and to finish it. He was trapped– how do you support someone spiraling? With another climbing partner, he might’ve said, “Finish what you freaking started.” But with a life partner, that accountability is trickier. Eventually, I did hang the rope, but it wasn’t pretty. We became that couple at the crag. I was so capable of thriving in another role with other climbing partners, but with him, I fell back onto my tired “you’re the expert, you figure it out” belief. I felt unable to escape the expert/novice roles.

This past January, we had ten days off of work and decided to go climbing in Sedona. I felt inexplicably anxious about it– we had nothing to do but go climbing and read books, we were getting along really well, and I love the desert. Why do I have this pit in my stomach and resistance to our climbing vacation?

Lying in our tent on the foam car camping mattress (we do road trips right), I thumbed through a chapter about compassion and expectation in Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha. It hit me. “Can I interrupt you?” I asked, my standard question that’s already an interruption. I inched my sleeping bag closer to his and propped myself up on my elbow. “What do you think about letting go of the expectation that we should be climbing partners tomorrow? Just as an experiment. I have this expectation we’re supposed to swap leads on everything and be matched in our skill and our psyche. It’s exhausting.” I rocked back and forth anxiously as I delivered my rehearsed speech. “I really want to let go of the pressure I’m putting on myself to perform a certain way with you, and instead enjoy our time together. Is that alright?” He put his hand on my back, sensing my nervousness. “No pressure and more fun? That sounds awesome.”

It was awesome. When I let go of my expectation that I needed to perform a certain way in order to be “worthy,” I made space for us to enjoy our time. We were so lucky to be able to climb and have ten uninterrupted days together. My super hot desert guide led up incredibly fun towers and was genuinely thrilled to do so. Climbing together returned to pure joy, and I couldn’t wait to kiss him at belay ledges and laugh about how sometimes I flailed or got stuck or somehow was scared on a top rope. And oddly enough, once I let go of the pressure and expectation of how we should climb together, I could show up. I could take falls and occasionally hang the draws and give that perfect belay on his project.

I love needing to be the brave one in many of my climbing relationships. It makes me grow, I surprise myself with what I’m capable of, and I feel strong. But the pressure to foster that with Jake was not fun. And why go climbing if it’s only stressful and not fun? I’m not sure if we’ll ever become “climbing partners” in the way I once hoped. But, truth be told, I no longer care.

KATHRYN MONTANA PERKINSON is a writer living in Lander, Wyoming. Find more at kathrynmontana.com and @kathrynmontana.

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