Leaders tend to get all the cred, which for the most part, is the way it should be. After all, if you manage to latch a desperate throw high above a horrifically inadequate RP, you certainly deserve a hearty congratulations and fortifying pint of ale.
But climbing is a team sport, and even Honnold needs someone to hold a rope for him from time to time. So far, nobody has managed to solo Freerider without a few cheeky familiarisation laps before game day. Behind every great leader (and every great soloist) is a great seconder, following the line for a mere fraction of the glory. The humble seconder rarely receives the kudos they are owed, and I reckon that’s a bit raw, because they often work just as hard as the leader and sometimes even harder.
We all know what a dick drag it can be to climb with a piece of deadwood who organises ropes and gear at the speed of continental drift. Conversely, we’ve all benefited from the potent energy of a partner who has their shit dialled in and their psyche turned up to 11. This is a shout-out to the latter type, and an examination of the skillset that separates second-rate from second-great.
Retrieving gear is one of the most fundamental skills in the seconder’s toolbox. This is particularly true in Australia where a large DMM Dragon cam is more expensive than the entire budget for NASA’s Apollo 11 mission. A great seconder never forgets the nut tool, never leaves an SLCD behind, and absolutely never misses an opportunity to tell you how sexually appealing that hex placement was.
A belay ledge is not a place for a tea party. It’s a place of business, and what’s more, the opening hours are short. A great seconder knows this, and they will have the ropes flaked and the gear transferred faster than you can force a Clif Bar into your head.
Long routes, particularly those with sustained technicalities, may require sacrifices in style. Namely, the second may need to forego free climbing, instead jumaring difficult pitches for the sake of speed. Even if climbing the old-fashioned way, the seconder will need to dispatch the pitch quickly, engaging in such grubby tactics as light aid if need be. Adventure routes, alpine climbs and big walls are not boulder problems – ain’t no such thing as dabs.
Images are a crucial component to the modern climbing, because if you didn’t spray about it on Instagram, did you even send? At the very least, your seconder should be able to supply you with some badly angled, poorly lit bum shots. But every now and again, the belay ledge will offer a superlative vantage from which a partially candid hero shot (as above) can be obtained.
Not flipping out during traverses
Often times, traverses are more serious for the seconder than for the leader. The potential for large pendulum falls coupled with insecure, technical movement can be a real trip for those whose mental fortitude is questionable. The best seconders finish such pitches with an expression of nonchalance and nary a bead of sweat on their brow, despite the possibility that they are secretly shitting bricks.
When the bad thing happens, it’s generally going to be the seconder who picks up the pieces. This means they need to be au fait with vertical rescue techniques and carry the tools to accomplish basic first aid and complex descents. A great seconder accepts this responsibility and undertakes the relevant training, because a couple of shoelaces and a “she’ll be right” attitude don’t cut the mustard when you’re 300m off the deck.
If you shout unsolicited beta to someone on a single pitch sport route, you should be stoned to death using fragments of rock found at the cliff base, and all the while somebody will shout helpful tips at you like “duck” or “watch out”. I am willing to relax such punitive measures in the case of longer routes, where it is often vital for the seconder to advise the leader on poor rock, hidden holds and rope management issues including drag and dangerous edges.
Humping the backpack with water, snacks, headlamps, your warm jacket and occasional alpine accoutrements often falls to the seconder. This can be an onerous task in its own right, but with the modest application of chimneys, offwidths and/or squeeze cracks, it becomes a legitimately traumatic experience. Spare a thought for Morag who, after a single pitch of “chimney familiarisation” at Frog Buttress, hauled a pack some 200+ metres up the smooth-walled chimneys of the Red Rock Canyon classic Epineprhine. Mega.
Did I miss anything? Feel free to add to my list and don’t forget to give a shout-out to all the great seconders in your life!
Ryan Siacci, Esq.