I approached the rock face slowly, tentatively. The painful truth: I lacked the skill to climb up it or around it.
Yet I stood there staring at the obstacle defiantly, as I had so many times in the past. Reluctantly, I turned and headed back down the ridge, trying to reconcile myself to the fact there were places I’ll never go.
The subject of “failure” was broached in August’s Echo magazine, and I once believed that falling short of a mountain objective was a failure. But I have stopped feeling that way. I am grateful for my experiences in the mountains and the fact I have always returned safely.
I know firsthand about “summit fever.” It’s a very real and visceral phenomenon among outdoor adventurers, particularly goal-oriented climbers. It drives one to pursue the objective despite imminent danger. Learning how to overcome that ‘fever’ takes time, patience, willpower and experience.
The motto of Alaska outdoor survival and rescue instructor Brian Horner is “Learn to Return,” and I fully embrace that philosophy.
Famed mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who has climbed the eight highest mountains in the world without oxygen, says: “Reaching the summit is optional; returning safely is mandatory.”
Planning a trip: When planning a hike or climb it’s important to gain as much knowledge (beta) as possible about the route, distance and conditions, especially conditions that might be changing, such as weather. One needs to assess how much time the trip will take and weigh that against the amount of daylight available. The availability of water is also an important thing to consider, as well as the difficulty of stream crossings and other objective dangers.
More challenging, however, is determining if you are in good enough physical condition, or experienced enough, for the route’s demands. I have overextended myself on some trips and had difficulty returning, especially when required to downclimb in steep terrain. Most climbing accidents, as is commonly known, occur on the descent when bodies are tired. I try to keep some strength in the reserve “tank.” Such a reserve greatly increases the chances of a safe return.
When in a difficult situation, take your time, rest, evaluate your route alternatives and then slowly make a move.
Learning how to pause and not hurry is harder than one might think. In most of my climbs I’ve nearly always “found a way.” In other words, with time and patience, I have found a relatively safe way to proceed – up or down.
Mark your route: I usually hike and climb in good weather because as a retiree, I can pick my days. Working folks, however, have to go when they can, and weather doesn’t always cooperate. Before climbs, I used to rely on aviation weather forecasts that provide more detail on cloud ceilings and wind directions. If you’re going up high and it looks as if clouds are coming in, mark key points of your route with rock cairns or red survey tape. Of course, carrying a compass, GPS, or an In Reach satellite communicator is a good idea. I rely more on landmarks, some of which I create myself and leave behind.
I don’t like getting my visibility obscured by clouds and fog because it’s very easy to become disoriented. If bad weather is closing in, I usually descend without delay. I nearly became disoriented on Gunsight Mountain (6,441 feet) on a couple of occasions because clouds moved in quickly. It’s also happened in other southcentral locations, where weather can change quickly because of our proximity to the Gulf of Alaska.
Getting outside of the moment: I have a Buddhist friend who lives on the island of Kauai. On a hike with her, she mentioned that instead of “staying in the moment,” I’m constantly thinking about what’s up ahead, what the weather is going to do, etc. My response to what I perceived as a criticism was that in Alaska, we always have to be thinking ahead. If we aren’t cognizant of what’s ahead of us, weather-wise or otherwise, we might get into serious trouble.
So, back to my climbing nemeses, where I turned around: It occurred on the col between the south and north peaks of Pioneer Peak. It was on the eastern face of Mount Marathon, the larger peak that lies behind Mount Marathon Race Point above Seward; it happened on the northern ridge of Benign Peak at the south end of Eklutna Lake; the southeast side of Baneful Peak above the East Fork of Eklutna River; at the top of the big rock slide coming from a peak way out of my league, The Mitre.
And there have been several others. I might have started climbing too late in life and never acquired the technical skills needed for serious alpine challenges. But as a non-technical climber, a scrambler, I’ve made it up quite a few peaks in the Chugach, Kenai and Talkeetna mountains. And I’m happy with that.
But I’m most grateful that I’ve learned to return, as Brian Horner teaches, and to go forth again.
My friend and hiking buddy Pete Panarese, an accomplished mountaineer, feels the same. The mountains will always be there. To be out there among them, not always on their summits, is good enough. In fact, it’s awesome.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.