Seven signs it’s time to bail on a summit

When you're so close to the top, it's hard to turn around. But there are times when you must.

When you’re so close to the top, it’s hard to turn around. But there are times when you must.

In 12 years of peak-bagging, I’ve found there is hardly a greater moment than topping out on a hard-earned summit. The post-climb eat-fest that usually follows, complete with exultant friends and brews aplenty, makes for sweet memories as well.

But mountains can turn on you with little warning, making that high country adventure more than you bargained for. Summit fever is a real thing, and it gets some people in serious trouble. Lightning strikes, heart attacks, rockfall injuries and avalanches — these are just a few maladies that strike would-be hikers, climbers and mountaineers when they push on despite the warning signs and forget uber-climber Ed Viesturs’ cardinal rule: getting the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.

So here are seven signs it’s time to bail on a summit bid…

  1. When the mountain says no. Defining this can be a bit murky, but when you see it, you’ll know. The route may be too icy and steep, or perhaps you are seeing too many signs of dangerous rockfall. Maybe that cornice above you looks menacing, and temperatures or wind conditions tell you that a slope is ripe for an avalanche. If a route you spied is too dangerous, or would take too long to be safe, reassess and back off if needed.
  2. When the weather says no. This is pretty straightforward. When storm clouds arise, it’s time to bug out — regardless of season. Thunderstorms can bring lightning and heavy rain. Being caught in an electrical storm is clearly nothing anyone wants to mess with, and a doable route in dry conditions can become treacherous when wet. Snowstorms often lead to whiteouts, and then can get you lost, stranded or, in the worst possible scenario, lead you right off a cliff. If you get pinned down in a snowstorm, hypothermia and frostbite become real dangers. Keep an eye on the forecasts, and always watch the skies. When they turn on you, turn around.
  3. When your skill level says no. There is nothing wrong with pushing your limits to get better. But there comes a point when your experience and skills don’t — and won’t — measure up to a challenge you come across at a specific time. The thought of bragging rights after a climb might sounds awesome… until you get cliffed out or injured and need to be evacuated from the mountain. Or worse. Don’t end up being a headline because your eyes were bigger than your stomach, so to speak. Be excited, be daring, but be realistic and honest with yourself.
  4. When your body says no. There are a lot of factors to consider here. Some of it might be conditioning, which is often the case at altitude. Perhaps the route was too long and too taxing, and you are out of steam. Or maybe you end up suffering from dehydration, altitude sickness or some other sort of illness that is making your summit bid too daunting to continue. I’ve pushed through pneumonia to bag a peak, but I don’t advise it. It’s better to listen to your body.
  5. When your partners say no. This is a biggie, and can be complicated. You may be following an experienced buddy and are amped to do something great, but he/she tells you it’s time to bail. Or perhaps you’re leading a group and your friends are too sketched out or too tired to continue. Listen to them. The only way you can split up a group is if you’ve planned for that contingency, and this is a rare exception. Even if you are sure you can go on to tackle a peak, or you’re certain that your partners are being overly cautious, listen to them anyway. The dangers of splitting up a group and the risks of alienating your friends/partners is not worth an iffy summit bid.
  6. When your preparations say no. Whether it’s the clothes you bring, the gear you hauled or the food/water you packed, if your adventure is going to outstrip your provisions it’s time to face the facts: being too hot/cold/wet/hungry/thirsty to reach your goal is a good sign it’s time to back off. Take a few mental notes, learn from your mistakes and use that knowledge to try again another day.
  7. When a combination of those first six items say no. Sometimes it seems that the world is plotting against you. When it really feels that way, maybe that’s less of a cosmic conspiracy and more of a giant series of red flags that it’s time to call it a day. Trust your instincts when lots of things are going really, really wrong before committing to topping out.

So that’s my list. Any tips of your own? Feel free to share in the comments!

Bob Doucette

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19 thoughts on “Seven signs it’s time to bail on a summit

  1. A well thought out list. I especially like #7, as it mirrors one of my personal rules of thumb. I usually figure I can handle one or two negative factors in the course of a climb. Once it starts feeling like negative factors are starting to gang up on me, then I begin to seriously reconsider if I should be where I am, or if I should be down in the valley watching the storm from a porch with a beer in my hand! My dad likes to quote an unnamed alpinist, who said “natural forces do the killing; its human decisions that position the victim.”

  2. Great post, it is hard to do but as the saying goes- the mountain will be there another day. I love the tag line of your blog! From a fellow wildcat, Roar!

    • That’s something I have to think about, too, when I bring friends who are new to the mountains. Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves, but there is that added responsibility when people look up to us to lead them. Great take!

  3. Great post, Bob. You’ve laid things out really well. Often the answer is right in front of us, and we have a remarkable ability to ignore all the signs. I know I’ve turned back because of reasons #1, #2, #4. This is a really valuable post for many hikers, scramblers and mountaineers!

    • Thanks for the kind words! I haven’t been turned back much, but it has happened. It’s never fun to bail. Often very disappointing. But there are times when you have to obey the things that are more powerful than you. When the mountain says no, it’s not kidding around.

  4. Great advice from someone who knows what he’s talking about. Here’s something that applies to all of them: Don’t forget that the summit is the halfway point, not the end, of your journey. Assessing your resources enroute needs to consider that you face what can be an equally arduous trip back down. Deciding you can gut it out to the summit without seriously considering resources to descend could mean you’re gonna be staying there.

  5. Pingback: The year that was: Looking back on a challenging, educational and fruitful 2015 | proactiveoutside

  6. Right on – concise and well-articulated. I’ve had close calls before and worse yet, I have put people that trusted me at lesser or greater risk. Outdoor adventure is supposed to be fun, not a tryout for the Navy Seals. Predictable risks need to be mitigated because you will need to have a margin for the unpredictable challenges. With minor changes your rules would be equally applicable to most outdoor adventures, such as backcountry skiing, rafting, etc.

  7. Pingback: The Weather is Calling my Bluff. – The Journey Within; The Journey Without

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