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.
Factor 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.
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"