Both "Burrito" and I recently had the same revelation about climbing big routes, but we came to the same conclusion from different perspectives. She's certainly a good climber. She's a bit on the vertically challenged and slight side, but I've seen her tactically reach through with ease what would be difficult reaches for me, so she's a pretty good climber. Her fiancee, "Sensei", with his beard, thin frame and years of climbing curiosity built into experience, is almost always the important safety component when they climb together. In other words, they can both climb well, but if something happened, it was he who got them out of trouble. While I don't know the story behind it, there was an apparent moment during a recent, long climb in Arizona that made "Burrito" think that if anything happened to "Sensei" they could both be screwed. I'm not so sure that she wouldn't have figured out what to do, but the point remains the same: that in a party of two climbers, one should not assume that the other will be able to get the party out of a jam. Because in the end, what happens to the party if the knowledgeable climber is the one who is hurt, or, as we'd assume to be even worse, unconscious?
My own revelation came upon my rappel with "Tattoo" off Crimson Chrysalis in Red Rocks, which happened well after sunset and with headlamps that would only shine a few feet away with any clarity. We were both tired and in the dark, and yet, as warned, the rope did not cooperate when we pulled the rope from station to station. Because of the frequency of Chickenheads (rock formations that stick out like tentacles trying to reign in unsuspecting ropes) on that route, it is not uncommon to find one's rope wrapped around an unwanted rock feature or even stuck in a crack. During the day, one is likely able to see where the rope is stuck, diagnose the situation and make changes to the rope-pulling strategy based on what one sees. At night? Forget about it. If the rope is stuck, there's only so much one can do to free it from whatever owns one's life at that given moment.
It was during this descent that made me think, "Crap, if this rope doesn't come unstuck, then what am I going to do?" I would have figured something out, but I would have had only a small arsenal of techniques that I could have used. "Tattoo" had the same arsenal of techniques, but a lesser understanding of those than I had. We could have potentially been stuck on that route hours longer than we actually were, so the same thought crossed my mind differently, "What if something happens to me while I'm trying to free the rope?" The answer ultimately led me to realize that I had put my regular partner, "Jello", in an awkward situation all summer long by relying on his expertise to save the day if something happened to me or us (note: remember when I dropped my belay device off Paralysis at Poke-O? It's a good thing he knew how to belay with a munter).
As I noted above, I eagerly met "Sensei" and "Burrito" at Quincy Quarry to practice ascending a fixed rope (both from the ground and "at the crux", so to speak), become hands-free on rapell when not using a friction knot as a backup (i.e. - prussic), and how to become hands-free when belaying with an ATC. "Burrito" and I did not learn how free ourselves form the belay, but we learned how to let go.
I'm not going to go into actual techniques, but I'll say that we used an Bachman to learn how to ascend, a Legwrap to go hands-free on rappel, and a Munter Mule to go hands-free while on belay. "Sensei" also showed us how to belay using a munter. I'll need practice with the two Munter techniques, but at least I know it's available.
Six doughnuts and a couple of hours later, we zipped out of the beautiful spring-in-January weather knowing a heck of a lot more than we did going in. And it is amazing because the techniques we learned weren't that complicated. Just a little bit of knowledge opened up an entire world of safety in a matter of moments. I feel so much better now than I did before. I hope "Jello" is reading this because he should feel better about my advancement. And he should feel better about the text message I received from "Sensei" later on that evening suggesting that we take it to another level the next time out. I can't wait.