GET OUT: Brazen Bails

By on March 15, 2016

In the mountains, sometimes quitters are the real winners.

Left: Disappointment Peak lives up to its name as the author decides to turn around. Right: Laughter ensues between the author and Brittany Mumma after  they endure a rainstorm en route up Teewinot. Bottom right: Soaking in the rays, the author and Kelly Halpin take a moment for morale during a Middle Teton mission. (Photo: bree buckley)

Left: Disappointment Peak lives up to its name as the author decides to turn around. Right: Laughter ensues between the author and Brittany Mumma after  they endure a rainstorm en route up Teewinot. Bottom right: Soaking in the rays, the author and Kelly Halpin take a moment for morale during a Middle Teton mission. (Photo: bree buckley)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Mountaineering is a package filled with proper equipment, acquired techniques, and a practical mindset. We can tape together our package until all the loose ends are secure, but regardless of our resume or set precautions, injury and death also comprise the package. Accidents happen and in a community of go-getters, we often learn that the hard way.

I spend a lot of time in the mountains and I spend a lot of time choosing to turn around before I accomplish my set goal. Yet, I still have a track record of becoming a wounded soldier. This phenomenon has simply reinforced the truth that accidents actually do, well, just happen. My accidents have turned me into an authoritarian. I fear the slightest mishap in the mountains and have become overly vigilant of the dangers I may walk into. So, whether I am defending myself or supporting those who preemptively turn around in the eye of danger, I’ve learned to trust those who follow their instinct and feel confident in their ability to call it quits.

Let’s take a few noteworthy failures from last summer, for example.

My first failure was a trip that didn’t go as planned. Our goal was to summit Gannett Peak. However, we miscalculated our approach and subsequently threw ourselves off schedule. Traveling as a rat pack of petite females with heavy packs proved to be too fatiguing in our effort to reach the climber’s camp before nightfall. So we decided to set up camp six miles early and make up for lost time in the morning.

A decision to quit was made at three in the morning. Due to our monstrous backpacks, a member of our group lost feeling to her arm and couldn’t sleep through the night. She forced herself to make the painful choice to stay at camp on our summit day, understanding that her injury and fatigue put us all at risk. Her choice was not an easy one to make.

Later, we three remaining mountaineers didn’t quite succeed either. We became disoriented crossing rivers under the 3 a.m. moonlight, stumbling through boulder fields in the dark, and exploring new terrain. We eventually found ourselves at the base of the correct glacier three hours too late. Temperatures were rising and due to softening snow, we knew that we couldn’t summit later than we agreed upon. So we too called it quits.

I could complain about needing to cross 15 rivers in one day, walking an agonizing 50 miles, our inability to actually summit, and the jealousy I felt as a horse pack trip trotted by our ambulating bodies. But I could not complain about trusting our instincts. Sure, it was frustrating to turn around, but in the end, the summit shouldn’t be the only prize.

The second time I found victory in an assumed failure was in my attempt at the Moranic, a locally invented triathlon that combines a 25-mile bike ride, 3-mile hike, 1.6 mile-alpine swim, 5,367-vertical-foot hike, and a 1,000-foot technical climb to land yourself on the summit of Mount Moran. Once you reach the summit, there is brief celebration—after all, you just endured half of the challenge. But then you have to turn around to do it all in reverse.

Until the second rappel, I thought I had the race in the bag. But my abrupt transformation, from feeling like a hero to complete zero, forced me to call it quits on our second midnight swim to the East shore of Lee Lake. Despite the fact that my muscles felt strong, I was dehydrated and feared hypothermia. So while I still had the energy to help myself, I decided to crawl into a support canoe.

Though I was upset with my body’s reaction to myriad forms of fatigue, I shifted my perspetive; my decision offered a way to look out for the safety of myself and my partners. Immediately upon crawling out of the water, my body agreed with my choice, sinking into a trembling state of exhaustion. Indeed, putting my health before my ego was the right move.

Next came a 9 a.m. bail on Teewinot. This time, however, it was due to sopping wet granite rock… and the promise of Nom Nom Donuts. It was early in the Alpine season and pouring rain, but our six-person train met at the Lupin Meadows parking lot at 5:30 a.m. Avoiding any option to drive back to town after caffeinating instead of sleeping, we began to hike up to the face of Teewinot in hopes that the rain would subside and the rock would miraculously dry.

But the rain did not stop. It fluttered between a gentle mist, coercing us to believe that hiking was worthwhile, then falling as sheets and making us feel like idiots for even being outside. However, our positivity and expectation that we could potentially summit came to an immediate halt as the dirt trail turned to rock. We had gone this far, but no one in her right mind would proceed on wet granite. That was our cue to sit down, enjoy a maple frosted donut from the Farmer’s Market, and wiggle our way back down to the parking lot where we began.

Yes, many of us are goal driven and find it difficult to think clearly in an unplanned event, but a perfectly good day will be even better if you call it quits before danger strikes. Every failure makes a future success that much sweeter, and for that, I would rather lose my photo opportunity on the summit of Gannett than be carried down. PJH

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