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.