The heartbreaker: Knowing when to stop short of the summit

If you were this close to the top, could you pull the plug on a summit bid?

If you were this close to the top, could you pull the plug on a summit bid?

I ran into a discussion on an online hiking and mountaineering forum where a question was asked: How many times have you been forced to turn back from a summit, and what caused you to make that decision?

I read through the entire thread, mostly because I like to learn about what prompts people to make the decisions they make. The answers varied, with most people citing bad weather, sketchy snow conditions or physical problems as the reasons they stopped short of a summit and turned around. One person said he was less than 200 feet from the top when he bailed, a true heartbreaker of a decision.

I’ve also seen some reports people wrote where they discussed what caused them to turn around.

In one report, writer Ross Gilmore talks about his attempted ascent of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. He was going for a winter summit of the highest peak in the northern Appalachians. Mount Washington is known to have some of the worst weather anywhere in earth, mostly due to its latitude and position vis-à-vis with common winter weather patterns that flow over that part of North America. Wind speeds of more than 200 mph and well-below sub-zero temps have been recorded here.

In this case, climbers faced high winds, whiteout conditions and frigid temperatures. Gilmore wrote this:

“It was becoming literally impossible to move. We just couldn’t stand up straight. We would make two steps and then be blown over. At times, no matter how hard you tried to stand up against the wind, it would blow you over. We struggled along, at times crawling until we got part way up Lion’s Head, just below the Alpine Garden. At that point one of the guys called it. I certainly shared his feeling that we couldn’t go on. Even if we found a way to keep moving, we were burning too much energy doing it. It would have been impossible to make it all the way up to Mt. Washington and then back down.”

His full report can be seen here.

Another post I saw was written by Heather Balogh. She wrote a piece about her attempt to climb Colorado’s Capitol Peak, one of the gnarliest and toughest climbs of all of that state’s 14,000-foot peaks. Capitol includes a highly exposed and committed portion along its summit ridge where you don’t want to be caught in bad conditions. It was here that she and her climbing partners faced a decision as weather conditions began to deteriorate:

“Luckily, Will and I both felt exhilarated on the ridge and loved every second of our crossing! However, we reached the end of the Knife Edge and realized that a massive storm was blowing in towards the summit of Capitol. It hadn’t gotten bad yet, but we could see the black sky developing and the wind gusts were increasing. Again, we chatted and both agreed that per usual, no mountain is ever worth the risk. There is no quick descent off the Knife Edge, so if you’re up there when a storm blows in, you’re fairly screwed. So, although we were only 45 minutes from the summit, we both agreed without hesitation that it was time to turn around.”

You can read her full report here.

As for me, I have a couple of stories: One where I decided to bail and one where I should have bailed but didn’t, and paid for it later.

In the first case, I was on a solo hike in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains with the goal of scrambling to the top of Sunset Peak. It’s not a big mountain, and it’s not an overly long hike. Gaining Sunset’s summit is not technically demanding. But it is in a wilderness area, and trouble there means a narrow window of opportunity for self-rescue. A huge storm with flooding rains and lots of lightning bore down on the range, and my decision was simple: Getting caught on a high, treeless granite dome in a storm like that was too risky. I did other things that day, but Sunset was a no-go. I went back months later on a bluebird day and had a great time hiking and scrambling to its summit.

In the second case, I should never have gone. I was overcoming a respiratory infection that I thought was on the wane when I attempted to gain the summit of Colorado’s Mount Yale, a 14,000-foot peak in the central part of that state. I began to drag physically around 12,000 feet, experienced some pain and cramping at 13,000 feet, but kept going. I ended up bagging the summit, but came down the mountain with a raging case of pneumonia and pleurisy that laid me out for a few weeks once I got home. Recovery from that illness took a couple of months, and there were aspects of it (fluid around my heart) that could have killed me. I eventually recovered, but that episode taught me that I need to make sure I’m in good health before attempting anything at higher altitudes.

So what stories do you have? Have you been turned back? What guided your decision? And has there been a time when you should have turned back, but didn’t? What was the result? Share your stories in the comments.

Bob Doucette

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10 thoughts on “The heartbreaker: Knowing when to stop short of the summit

  1. Awesome post. My first time on Rainier resulted in turning around 500 ft under the summit and it bothered me so much it was one of the chief motivators for moving me to Washington so that I could finish it.

    Also our winter attempt on Elbert last February got turned around because two walls of snow were closing in and being able to see the summit and not make it was really difficult. Great post and really important to know.

    • Thanks man! I’m sure there were some great lessons you carried off those aborted summit bids that helped you gain them in the future. It’s inevitable — you’re going to get turned around at some point. My hope is that in the future, I’ll always recognize that when the situation occurs.

  2. I always turn back from summitting. Mostly because of my asthmatic condition. But I don’t want to be rescued and then featured in the newspaper as the dumb asthmatic who had to get rescued. So I rather turn back than face embarrassment.

  3. I haven’t had any close calls but can’t imagine how it would feel being so close but not making it. Especially on a major climbing expedition such as McKinley or anything in Europe and Asia over 20,000 feet. Although it is better to bail and live to climb another day I always say. You know what the climber said that never retreated? Nothing, because he’s dead. lol. Anyway you get the point. Great article. I hope to do a nice climb this year.

    • For sure. It’s a lot easier to bail on a lesser mountain than it would be on a climb in which preparation could be measured in months or years. I can imagine how hard that would be. But being dead or crippled is worse. Good luck on your future climbs!

  4. I was set to hike Lone Pine Peak (Southern Sierras) just south of Mt Whitney last August. There is a 1/2 mile/1800 foot scree slope just before hitting the final ridge to the peak. On the way up, the slope seemed a little loose and unstable, but nothing too alarming. When we got about 4/5 of the way up, we noticed 2 separate boulder and rock falls from the same slope that we were on, 5 minutes apart, about 200 meters to the East of where our ascent route was. After waiting for an endless few minutes, we decided to turn around and head down because of how loose the slope felt and the rockfall. It just didn’t feel right. After dumping the sand out of our shoes, we headed back down the Meysian Lakes Trail to our campsite. 45 minutes later and 2 miles away, we saw what was a massive dust cloud from what we presumed was a very very very large rockslide from where we came. I’m still a bit spooked from the experience, but am grateful that we listened to our instinct that if it doesn’t feel right – don’t do it.

  5. I just barely began hiking Colorado’s 14ers a couple years ago and my very first attempt, I was not in as good a shape as I needed to be. I came pretty close finishing, but also knew that I was tired and fighting exhaustion in major way. I turned around, but completed it another time. And now I have 3 under my belt with plans for more this summer.

    • That piece of hard-earned wisdom learned so early on will help you immeasurably on future summits. It’s not like I have hundreds of summits under my belt, but it took me a little longer to learn that little nugget. May it serve you well in the future! And best of luck on future summit attempts.

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