Can Alpine Climbing teach us something about relationships?

In Alpine Climbing the primary aim is to ‘always come down or descend as friends’. 

Anyone who has seen Brad Pitt in the role of Heinrich Harrer in the mountain scenes of ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ will know how not to do this!

Alpine Climbing in the 1930s

Whilst it sounds like a really simple notion it is in fact a loaded statement and comes with a lot of other ideas.

So what is Alpine Climbing specifically and how does it vary from other types of climbing or mountaineering? Wikipedia provides a useful definition:

‘Alpine style is mountaineering in a self-sufficient manner, thereby carrying all of one’s food, shelter and equipment as one climbs, as opposed to expedition style (or siege style) mountaineering which involves setting up a fixed line of stocked camps on the mountain which can be accessed at one’s leisure’.

Sound familiar? Yes it’s just like being in a relationship or marriage – especially when you have children thrown into the mix!

So what can Alpine climbing teach us about relationships?

  1. Life is a mountain
  2. You can either view it as an adventure or a chore
  3. Reminding yourself of the life changing ‘view’ from the top is what it is all about
  4. The better you communicate with your partner the stronger the rope between you becomes.
  5. A fully functioning relationship between the ‘lead climbers’ is paramount for the success of the other people in your life
  6. It is vital to contemplate and discuss what peak you are climbing and where it leads
  7. Remember that when the storms come is when your skill and training kick in
  8. Having what you need on the climb is essential
  9. Always maintain a sense of respect for your partner’s skills
  10. Keep Voltaire in mind – ‘Life is a shipwreck, but we must remember to keep singing in the lifeboats’
  11. Keep singing!

Life itself can be seen to be the ‘mountain’.

Seeing it as a long climb can be useful but only if you see it as an adventure and that by sticking together you might eventually stand on the top and admire an incredible view – possibly one denied to those who didn’t keep just putting one foot in front of the other (no guarantees though!).

The view from the top

Alpine climbing at it’s purest is beautifully illustrated in Joe Simpson’s amazing book, and subsequent film, ‘Touching the Void’.

At a distance one would assume that Joe and his partner, Simon Yates must have fallen out for Simon to cut the rope whilst trying to lower an injured Joe down the mountain.

In fact he only he did so because he had tried everything to get him down and if he had continued then they would have both fallen to their deaths. (If you haven’t read the book, Joe survived the fall and fully agreed with Simon’s choice of action in cutting the rope).

So what is the key to a successful climbing partnership?

The answer is trust. For trust to exist between climbers there must be constant open and honest communication as well as belief in the other’s technical ability and their capacity to keep you safe – and unlike Heinrich remembering to sometimes put your own ego and desires to one side!


So when thinking about your life together, rather than seeing yourselves as two lonely people wandering about lost on a windswept moor, how about reimagining yourselves as a fit and enthusiastic climbing partnership taking on an incredible adventure with all the resilience and equipment needed to survive and thrive?

Maybe, the next conversation on ‘date night’ could be about all the things you need from each other to strengthen your partnership so that when the metaphorical weather turns bad, or potential disaster strikes, you have what it takes to carry on.

In Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’ his dying wife Dora states that ‘there can be no disparity in a marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose’.

To my mind there must also be an opposite to this – that there can be nothing better than a commonality of mind and purpose.

So how do you achieve that?

By communicating. You need to allow each other the freedom to be vulnerable and to express your wildest dreams and deepest fears. Some people avoid doing this for fear you’ll find out you don’t share similar goals. However, you also won’t find out what you have in common or how to overcome your differences if you don’t share.

Like the wind external factors such as children can get between you. They may weaken the rope and threaten to pull one or both of you over. The best way to stop this is to reaffirm your chosen route.

Sometimes the ‘peak’ we think we are striving for is not the one that matters.

So the final question has to be – how do you identify the peak you are aiming for?

Sadly, I think that due to years of conditioning many of us assume that things like paying off the mortgage, putting the kids through Uni or retiring with the pension intact is what it is about. In fact it can be the much smaller things that matter.

Things such as still being able to hold hands walking through the park, having a cup of tea and chatting in bed, giving the father/mother of the bride/groom speech you always dreamed of and so it goes on.

One of the reasons that some people climb, despite the obvious dangers, is that it makes them feel ‘alive’. Maybe you could use that to guide your thinking as only you will know what makes you feel that way.

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