Anatomy Of A Sandbag

hand drawn semi-rad chart about how scary sandbagging is

We all have that friend who may need a little encouraging to do something they’re a little apprehensive about. Or something they’re just flat-out scared of. Like leading a run-out pitch, or dropping into a couloir they haven’t skied before, or rowing a rapid with a reputation for flipping boats, or riding a technical trail famous for breaking bicycles and bones. Many times, we are that friend who needs the encouraging.

Sometimes, the encouraging requires a tool called “sandbagging,” in which one friend convinces an apprehensive friend to do that thing which scares them by making the thing seem easier than it really is. It is not quite lying, but not quite the truth, and in the end, one friend is satisfied that he/she helped the apprehensive friend “push their limits,” and the formerly apprehensive friend is … well, the reactions vary, really.

Sandbagging occurs when two friends have a different perception of the less-experienced friend’s ability, and the more-experienced friend wants to the less-experienced friend to explore their personal capabilities through a formative experience. Sandbagging can be, at one end of the spectrum, challenging, and at the other end, terrifying and deeply emotionally damaging. Here’s how it often works:

Stage 1: Doubt
Friend #1 believes their ability in a sport is not sufficient for a certain objective (example: riding the Portal Trail, leading the crux pitch of The Naked Edge, rowing Lava Falls). Friend #2 believes Friend #1’s ability is sufficient, and all that’s really missing is confidence.

Stage 2: The Sales Pitch
This is where Friend #2 tries to supply the appropriate confidence, with a number of tactics to convince Friend #1 that the impossible is possible. Friend #2 minimizes the danger or uncertainty, saying things like “Just relax,” “There’s a short technical section, but other than that, it’s easy,” “You don’t need a #4 Camalot for this pitch,” “If you can follow it, you can lead it,” and many other phrases, usually including the Ultimate Sandbag Axiom, which is “You’ll Be Fine.” The key here is to push the sale, carefully, but firmly.

Stage 3: Commitment
When Friend #2 says “You’ll Be Fine,” Friend #1 only needs to believe it 51%. Friend #1 only needs just enough confidence to perform The Thing Which They Need But May Not Think They Want: to rack up and tie into the rope, clip into his/her pedals and drop in, grab the oars and pull the boat into the current, or buy the plane tickets, or make whatever irreversible first step is necessary for a memorable and formative experience. Friend #2 either needs a) only a 70-80% belief that Friend #1 can do The Thing Which They Need But May Not Think They Want, or b) only a 49% belief that they need to remain friends with Friend #1.

Stage 4: The Outcome
After Friend #1 decides to step into the void, march in the direction of their fear, or launch themselves into the often terrifying river of personal growth, a number of outcomes are possible, positive and negative. Unscientific estimates put the success rate of sandbagging in the 75% realm, but are only anecdotal. In the case of sandbag failure, negative outcomes such as broken bones, broken bicycle components, swearing off climbing for the rest of one’s life, and embarrassing public breakups are possible. (It’s important to note here that sandbagging in romantic relationships is extremely risky and often disastrous, and should be attempted only with extreme caution, if at all.) On the positive side, personal limits are often shattered, climbing careers are begun, Facebook profile photos are captured, and astronomical leaps in personal growth can occur.

Sometimes, although not always, a friendship will survive a sandbag. The odds of this vary widely based on many factors, including the age of the friendship, the audaciousness of the sandbag, the respective emotional stability of the two friends involved, each person’s appreciation of the value of intense experiences, and the amount of physical and emotional damage incurred by the outcome of the sandbag. It’s important to weigh these factors to the best of your ability before you actually sandbag a close friend.

A good general rule is: If your friend does not survive your sandbag, your friendship will not survive it, either.


More stories like this in my new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems, out now.

11 replies on “Anatomy Of A Sandbag”
  1. says: jonathan

    Anytime “it’s pretty casual” is uttered before “you’ll be fine” – big red flag.

  2. says: Chad

    From my buddy at the top of the Gold Hill chutes in Telluride after I expressed extreme reservations about dropping in, “See you at the bottom!” Later, after I finally made it down, “yeah, that may have been a little steep for you but you made it.”

  3. says: Ed Gnarley

    One of the classic mountain biking sandbag lines- What you say “Its pretty much all down hill from here…” What it means ” We’ve got at least 5 more miles and 1500 feet of vertical left to climb.

  4. says: Coop

    Haha! This is great – a quality breakdown. Another useful tool is to understand the background of “friend #2” and his/her history of sandbagging. Is friend #2 a sandbagger at the core? Should all of their suggestions and recommendations be forever considered with substantial sandbag potential? Necessary info for decision making in my opinion.

  5. says: Michael

    Such a perfect description. I would have never had the words to explain this situation, and I just sent it to my sandbagging climbing friend immediately. I was lucky it worked out as a positive, he got me on my first outdoor climb down at The Red. low grade 2 pitch trad route that I was cleaning. When I struggled to top out the 2nd pitch, I wished terrible things upon him, said some not so nice words. When I topped out my life was changed forever. He knew it would either scare me away from climbing or I’d be hooked forever, thank god it was the latter.

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