Contributed by Michael Restivo of Mike off the MapWe stood before an icy couloir that divided Mt. Meeker from the Diamond Face of Longs Peak. Behind us, up a desolate, cold valley, the sunrise illuminated the rock in a brilliant gold hue. We huddled with the wind at our back, barely trying to stay on our feet, ice axe in hand and crampons firmly gripped to our boots. In the brief moments of calm between gusts funneling through the couloir, we pondered our chances on the Dreamweaver Route. Our plan was to climb in alpine-style: fast, light, no rope, and relying on our tools and efficient movement to ascend the 60-degree ramp to the summit ridge. As we stared up the face and came to a decision, a blast of spindrift – swirling, icy crystals of snow, had us pulling our hoods over our mouths. I turned to my partner and I said the words that no climber likes to hear:
I don’t think this is a good idea.Alpine climbing is always a gamble and never a certainty. Unlike a day at the crag where you have ample time to relax and take in the view, alpine climbing is about efficiency and constant movement. In the mountains, you’re fighting against the weather, the condition of the snow, the movement of other parties ahead of you, and a variety of factors that are determined to slow down the climb. The best alpinists became that way because they knew when to make the call to turn back from the summit. During the ascent, there’s a constant state of awareness regarding the changing conditions. A bluebird day turns into storm clouds and blasting winds within minutes. The snow softens, becomes too warm, and risks sliding. If you’re within yards of the summit, you know to ask yourself:
I may make it to the top, but do I have the ability to make it back down?
This is the question that should plague every hiker, backcountry skier, climber, or snowshoer. During high-intensity backcountry excursions, self-assessment and condition awareness is crucial. How fast is the party moving? What’s everyone’s condition regarding altitude and overall fitness? How much daylight is left in relation to the summit’s distance? There’s always that desire to be bold, be the superhero, and have that story about beating the odds to make an objective, but at what risk? The mountain is always going to be there and the trail will live for another day. Unwarranted criticism about the decisions that anybody makes in the mountains should be taken with a massive grain of salt.In 2012, on my first attempt of Mt. Rainier, we got caught in a storm on the upper reaches of the mountain. Despite the stinging cold, blinding snow, and unbearable wind, I was determined to make it to the top. Because of my ego and personal pride, I overlooked my condition and kept forging ahead, putting at risk my life and that of my teammates. The fault in my actions that day was due to the fact that I had under-assessed my own condition and tried to push ahead with all my strength despite being already exhausted on the upper slopes. The next few trips, I learned to treat climbs not as a reach for the summit, but instead to enjoy the beauty and the athleticism behind alpinism as a whole. On subsequent trips, such as getting turned back from Mt. Hood due to the warming weather and soft snow, or a turnaround on Washington’s Forbidden Peak because our timing at the base of the route was way off, I learned to respect these decisions for what they were. Not a representation of what I couldn’t do, but just the luck of the draw. An unfortunate side effect of what we do as climbers. Every climb is a learning experience. You learn how to read different conditions, how to gauge good movement, and take that into future ascents. During the climb there should never be any kind of doubt or “I don’t know” about the route. Ultimately, the decision of turning around will always be the right one.