How (Not) to Find a Climbing Partner

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Finding a belay buddy, even in the after-work cragging capital of America, is not as easy as you might think.

It was simple to find a belay buddy in a university setting: There’s a Facebook page for everything. Even the Crochet and Tea Society (CATS) had a Facebook page, though I’m not sure what it could boast in terms of traffic. But it was there if you needed it.

In college, I could put out a call for a partner to give me a catch between classes and know the post’s entire audience was guaranteed to live within a two-mile radius and have a membership to the same gym. But when college life ended, and I moved to Boulder, Colorado—with its three climbing gyms and 4,418 routes within a half-hour drive, yet no obvious collective social media presence for climbers—I was at a loss.

Where could I find a location-based social platform populated by people my age and catering to those in search of someone they could spend a day or two with and then move on, no strings attached, should things not work out?

Oh, hey! Tinder!

I threw together a profile showcasing my climbing habits, disinterest in romantic relationships, and friendly, trustworthy nature. I was new to the world of app-assisted dating. Was this like craigslist? Would people be reluctant to climb with me if I failed to offer solid proof that I wasn’t an axe murderer? I had no idea, but craigslist was my plan B, so I wasn’t about to give Tinder anything less than my best effort.

Now, just swipe right on anyone and everyone with a photo involving a rope or harness, which would seemingly be about 50 percent of the Boulder population. At minimum. Bonus points if they had gear—I need well-equipped friends.

The matches started rolling in. I’m a genius.

Match #1? I met him in Boulder Canyon. Nice guy. Good taste in music. Full rack. Storm clouds teetered on the ridge of the Flatirons. We started driving, and as soon as we zeroed the odometer at the mouth of the canyon, the clouds toppled eastward, washing the windshield in rain.

We went to a carnival instead (a carnival!) because he “hated pulling on plastic” and didn’t want to “waste the day.” I puked over the side of the Pirate Ship ride. Twice.

We tried again the following weekend, this time on Eldorado Canyon’s Wind Tower with Match #1’s friend in tow. They both worked for a prominent climbing film company and wouldn’t stop name dropping “Cedar” and “Alex” and “RED Scarlet-W with 8k Resolution” and discussing how talented they must be to have done so well in such a competitive industry.

It was getting dark when they decided we ought to simul-climb Wind Ridge, the four-pitch 5.7 we were eyeing. Sure, sounds fun, I thought.

It would have been if the leader had put in more than two pieces of gear. Back to the drawing board.

“Hey,” said Match #2. “Do you like off-widths?”

“Does anyone like off-widths?” I replied.

“I enjoy becoming the best at things no one else is good at,” he said. “I don’t climb anything else.” I went back to searching the app for potentials. Several minutes later #2 messaged again asking to climb sometime.

“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t climb off-widths.”

Ah, Tinder, I thought. Where everyone thinks they’re a catch but no one can give you one.

Match #3 was an upstanding fellow, and after some miscommunication about his request for a date (he wore too many scarves to be my type) we became friends and somewhat regular climbing buddies. Match #4’s large religious tattoo and affinity for guns seemed suspect, so we never met up. Match #5 turned out to have more in common with me than climbing, and I was the one who requested an actual date. Regular climbing partner secured, I gave up Tinder, and with it, the drama.

Not so. The climbing community is tight-knit, and in Boulder, its impeccably toned arms can be constricting.

One day I arrived at the gym and found #5 (then, my boyfriend), had run into #1 and his filmmaking partner. The trio climbed together on friendly terms until I showed up and they put the pieces together. From then on, #1 glared at #5 and insisted on making snide comments to me about the sexuality implied by #5’s outfit. For #1, purple tank top and jorts sent all the wrong messages.

Dream Canyon, Boulder, CO | Photo: Match #3, Ryan Walker

On the Fourth of July, #3 invited me on a group camping trip to Upper Dream Canyon. I pulled into the dirt lot with #5 the night before, rolled out sleeping bags, and passed out, dreaming of hard sport climbing and patriotic tights. And rumor was, there'd also be pie.

Pie wasn’t all that awaited us. I found #5 sizing up #3, and when I turned around to escape the situation, I saw a big, barely-familiar grin.

“Hi! Nice to finally meet you!” It was #4. Small town, Boulder.

Still haunted by the social panic of that Independence Day, I’ve come forward, bearing wisdom to share with anyone seeking to learn from my mistakes:

In order of effectiveness:

  1. Use Mountain Project to find a buddy. (That advertisement comes wholly unsolicited.) Seriously, the site has a handy partner-finder feature which is where I’ve had the most success in my post-Tinder recovery period. Be sure to describe your availability, experience, and ability, both as sharp end and second. Sandbagging not appreciated.
  2. Most cities with a significant climbing presence do indeed have a community Facebook page, and so do many gyms. After spending a few weeks prowling the bouldering cave in hopes of making a friend or two, someone pointed me to the “Outdoor Climbing in Boulder” page, which offered the comfort of online interactions I had come to appreciate in a dating app without any of the romantic awkwardness.
  3. Speaking of gyms. The old school sticky note on the bulletin board actually works. I found rainy-day belays with the same membership and a geographically-convenient carpool to the crag. This is also a great way to hear about used shoes and built-out vans in your area, but you probably knew that.
  4. Apps like Gociety (Tinder for adventure partners) and Yonder (Instagram with a built-in location function) minimize romantic confusion and allow you to find partners for specific trips. They aren’t as streamlined or to-the-point as a simple MP or Facebook post, and you have to make a profile, but for extroverts or serial partner-switchers, these apps can be a fun way to meet new people.

Once you find a potential buddy, interrogate them. How long have they been climbing? What are their thoughts on risk-taking versus conservative climbing? Climb with the person in a gym or low-stakes setting first, to get a feel for how badly may have exaggerated or sandbagged their experience level. Make sure your new friend is a good communicator, too, both willing to take constructive criticism and fun to hang out with before you sign yourself up to spend a full day (and possibly night) with them, down-climbing three pitches in Eldorado Canyon because you can’t find the rap rings.

Most of all, remember this: Unlike that nut tool you also use to spread peanut butter, dating apps aren’t multipurpose. And, quite possibly, the one thing that matters more than climbing is who you’re doing it with.

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