Backing Off

Backing Off

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Ice Climbing, Aid Climbing, Big Wall, Mixed, Scrambling

Naive Kid I Am...

I've pushed on uphill above treeline when it's pretty cloudy out, I've taken a 20 foot pendulum fall and then went on to finish the route in five more pitches, and I've summitted at 5PM more than I care to admit. My attempt is to try and explain what goes into backing off a route. I'm also going to try and try and glorify retreating off routes because untold numbers are alive that made the right choice to head down before it was too late.

How to be a Wimp

My most recent failure in the mountains was a failure to solo a grade one ice climb that I soloed the day before. I was just before the crux and I was looking at it and so many things were different. I had two ice axes instead of two ice tools like the day before. My axes weren't exactly sharp. My crampons weren't exactly sharp either. It was more cloudy than the day before and it looked pretty windy at the top of the gully. I had spent three hours in the morning trying to get a a remote ice climb but without skis or snowshoes I got stuck in waist deep snow half way there. So I was a little more tired than the day before. I had slept in my van the night before, and it had been -10F. Now the free breakfast at the Ice Fest had been nice and warm but it's a little harder to recover sleeping in really cold weather. For some reason I usually end up waking up feeling cross eyed and stiff when it's cold out...

So there I was looking at a 25 foot section of grade one ice that I climbed the day before and I was wimping out. After sitting there a few minutes to take pictures and drink a little I decided to head down. Fortunately, on the way down I found out that the winds picked up to 70 mph and over. I also had a really hard time with snow balling up under my crampons. I'd never had snow ball up so bad. I could maybe take two steps with each foot before I had to knock the snow off. Argh, New England snow! End result: I'm still here and no harm done.

Are You Really Motivated?

This past fall I teamed up with a friend to climb a four pitch aid route. We started around 11 AM or so. A great time to start a grade IV route, if you're Hans Florine. Pitch one I led. Pitch two he led. Pitch three I led at C2. This ended up taking 2:15, my longest pitch yet in terms of time. By the time we reached the belay ledge it was after 4 PM and the sky was darkening. We had been in the shade the whole time because the wall was Northeast facing. It was late September so it wasn't exactly warm either. Staring up at the overhanging-flake wide-horizontal crack we had to aid on pitch four it would have definitely meant topping out in the dark. While there is a road at the top of the cliff the prospect of hiking down something neither one of us had hiked down before was not inviting. Besides we had gone up to learn how to aid climb better... mission accomplished. We did two double rope rappels to get to the bottom. Getting the rope stuck on the second rappel we were forced to stay and jumar back up and move the rope so that the knot didn't stick in a crack again. Then we went out to eat and I drove 4 hours home.

Expanding Flakes

45 Foot Factor 2Factor 2 Fall
In October I was attempting to climb an aid route with a friend that had never climbed any aid before. Pitch one went fine it was mostly free climbing anyway. Pitch two started with 20 feet of easy followed by clipping a piton and aiding a crack diagonally upwards at C2. I couldn't reach the piton. I didn't have a stick clip. (I still don't but I think I'll make one out of a hanger if I need one again.) Fortunately for me there was this little expanding flake to the left. I put in a nut and moved up a few feet. Unfortunately it was a few feet off to the side so now I couldn't reach over to the piton. So I put in a microcam two fee higher and weighted it. The cam came out. And I fell. And the nut came out. My thought process was: (the nut came out) "oh no" 'what if I don't stop?' I bounced off my camelbak on the belay ledge and stopped 4 feet before a nice flat ledge that would have most definitely meant broken something. There was a second pause where I thought 'am I hurt?, I feel ok'. Then I let out a yell "That was AWESOME!" Ask my friend I really did yell that. After the yell I started to get sore and I climbed back up to the belay ledge and and we rapped down. My partner carried all of the gear and I just sort of hobbled down and got more sore as time went by. The next day I could hardly move and I spent all day on my couch.


When I was 17 I went backpacking with my 13 year old sister and my 16 year old friend. Our parents dropped us off around 10,000 feet and we had hiked up 2,000 feet to a few lakes to set up camp. The plan was to side hike a 14er that afternoon. We left my sister at camp and headed up. The going wasn't particularly fast or hard on the talus but it was tiring. After an hour we were about at 13,000 feet but I was tired. I was also worried about my sister down there alone on her first backpacking trip. Had we continued to the top it would have been 3 PM or so by the time we summitted and it didn't rain that day and it wasn't very cloudy. Between feeling a little sick and worrying about leaving my sister behind alone for hours I couldn't continue. Fear is contagious and I had known her long enough to know she doesn't like to be alone for very long. I knew that she would be getting worried about being alone and us being gone. The result was no summit that day but two days later we topped out the highest point in Colorado with full backpacks.

Learning Experiences

Every time I turn around and say no it's a good day. It means I realize that something is not right. I am fully aware and address all of the problems with my situation. I learn something about myself, about what I am able to do and how I limit myself. I learn that there are more failure than successes. It only takes one event to define a career and it only takes one mistake to take a life. Solo the west face of Gasherbrum 4 in the winter and you'll be famous, even if it's your eighth try at the thing. Fall from the top of the local crag to the bottom setting up an anchor on a warm sunny day and you made one mistake too many.

Be careful. When I push on under less than perfect circumstances part of my brain shuts down. Instead of realizing that I'm in a bad place I only worry about the next move or the next 20 feet. I ignore the blood, hunger, and thirst. I am strong.

Someone famous once said "there are old climbers and there are bold climber, but there are no old bold climbers"


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-13 of 13
The Defiant One

The Defiant One - Mar 22, 2009 3:23 pm - Voted 10/10

Really enjoyed this article

Thanks for posting. I think it's good for the climbing community to remind us that backing off isn't bad, quitting can mean staying alive and that external pressure to complete a climb (from peers, sponsors, partners) is arbitrary and potentially dangerous. We all do what we do for our own reasons, at least, that is the hope. Keep spreading the rad.

Bill Kerr

Bill Kerr - Mar 22, 2009 9:38 pm - Voted 10/10


I think all of us has a certain amount of luck, free passes, get out of jail cards or whatever in our lives and we need to be careful how hard and how often we push the edge. Don't waste that luck on too many bad decisions. It is good to know when to back off because it doesn't always come out right.


AJones - Mar 23, 2009 3:24 pm - Voted 10/10

Luck, experience, & kids

There's an old adage that goes something like "you start out climbing with a jar of luck and a jar of experience - as you climb more and more, your luck jar empties and your experience jar fills". The moral of the story - as you get older, trust your experience more than your luck.

I notice that you are still quite young. I would guess you have no kids. The decision to back off or not takes on a whole different meaning when you have children (yes, even different that wives, siblings, or parents). All the people that I've climbed with (who have kids) have said the same thing - having kids affects the level of risk you're willing to take.

Good article!!


Isaiah - Mar 27, 2009 1:35 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Luck, experience, & kids

Yep, 22 and very single. I climb on Mt. Washington a lot and read the death list occasionaly:

One thing that stands out is the people (mostly male) aged 15-28 out number everyone else. For me personally, learning to be cautious has had a big impact on my climbing. To be safe and successful in the mountains I feel like I should know how to do anything be it M4, A2, 5.7 off widths, layering for -20F, splinting broken bones, or not burning the eggs. A big base of experience is really what separates the men from the boys. I like the example of the two jars.

Cascade Scrambler

Cascade Scrambler - Mar 23, 2009 7:35 pm - Voted 10/10

The smartest decision... can make in the mountains is to know when they need to back off or turn around. The mountain or the route will be there next time- you might not be.

Well written!


dfrancom - Mar 26, 2009 12:52 pm - Hasn't voted


I turned back on a few routes when the weather was getting bad or I was lazy with a late start. I hope to make good decisions in the future. Better safe than sorry!

T Sharp

T Sharp - Mar 28, 2009 12:59 am - Voted 10/10


Some of it is about rocket science! But seriously, the experience is far more valuable than the summit, going up is optional, coming back down is mandatory, trusting that little voice in your head that says "not today". It sounds like you are making good decisions as you go through life, and that is where it is at!
Congrats on a well written and thoughtful article!


TheGoat - Mar 28, 2009 7:22 pm - Voted 10/10

Great article!

I felt sort of bad about turning back 3 times from climbing Iron Mountain in California until I read your article. Way to be smart, even when the temptation is big just to keep going. You should talk talk to Noah, the writer of "Success and Failure, as Simple as That." He seems a bit over-zealous at this point. Great work!


Isaiah - Mar 31, 2009 2:07 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great article!

I had been thinking about writing this for a few weeks and reading his article motivated me to actually write mine.


travelingclimber - Apr 17, 2009 12:03 pm - Hasn't voted

Very good article

I've backed off of attemtps a few times, once no more than 100m from the summit. I think your article refelcts on the decision-making process than most of us make (or fail to make)as we attempt routes and epaks.


Dean - May 8, 2009 2:39 pm - Voted 10/10

Indeed !!

I had a fall on American Twins a few years ago that was totally unexpected and it was on an easy piece of ridgeline that most have no problems with. I was stepping around a corner when one of my three points of contact pulled out and I headed for the promised land. I did a complete flip and only luck stopped me from going a 20 foot cliff onto some rocks (pointy ones) below while my son watched in disbelief. Ever since that I have been much more cautious and respectful of the outdoors in similar situations. I have now backed off on situations where the red flag goes up like on Round Top in California last year. Thanks for your article as it is important to be smart and safe and listen to "intuition" and common sense at times.


mtneering - Mar 8, 2013 1:58 am - Hasn't voted

ahhh good ol central

Huntington Ravine

Eric Sandbo

Eric Sandbo - Mar 17, 2013 2:15 am - Hasn't voted


When I accepted an invitation to Pakistan I considered my priorities and decided they were:
1: Come home safe
2: Take a truckload of pictures
3: Have an excellent time
4: Summit
Altitude sickness kept me from #4, but I accomplished #1, 2, and 3.

There have been weekend trips where I didn't quite accomplish #2 or 3, even when I got #4, but I always came through on #1.

And while a serious injury isn't necessarily the end of the world - some people do amazing things with prosthetic limbs, after all - I'll settle for being a healthy, whole old fart.

Viewing: 1-13 of 13