In moun­taineer­ing, the goal shouldn’t al­ways be the sum­mit

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Steve Lip­sher

The sum­mit of the moun­tain was tan­ta­liz­ingly close — maybe 25 or 30 feet of scram­bling up a blocky gran­ite cap­stone was all that re­mained.

Lo­gan Smith stared at it and con­sid­ered his op­tions high on Shoshoni Peak in the In­dian Peaks Wilder­ness Area.

“I could taste it,” Smith, a friend of mine, posted on Face­book. (I use his de­scrip­tion with his per­mis­sion.) “I could also see this was the top of a pin­na­cle, and not just an ex­posed knob at the edge of a plateau. In­jurypromis­ing fall-off on three sides. Es­pe­cially where the route to the crumbly blocks on the sum­mit pinched to three feet across. And it was cov­ered with loose rock.”

He had no hel­met, no ropes or pro­tec­tive gear. He was fa­tigued from a long hike, but the sum­mit — his goal for the day — was so close.

Smith spent a good 10 min­utes de­bat­ing whether to go on, try­ing to sum­mon courage but tem­per­ing it with wis­dom.

“I told my­self I would edge closer, get a view, prac­tice ac­cli­mat­ing my­self to real ex­po­sure at the very least,” he wrote. “And I put both my hands on the lip of the chunk of gran­ite in front of me. That was it right there. NEVER has a rock felt that hard, never have my hands felt so soft. I re­mem­ber the sen­sa­tion vividly. I think it came to me in these terms: This moun­tain does not owe me a damn thing, and today is what I make of it.”

At that point, Smith turned around and headed down.

In an era when ev­ery­one, it seems, is try­ing to push the lim­its, to out-do the next guy, to be a Youtube star com­plet­ing ever-bolder stunts — and when the pop­u­lar mea­sure of suc­cess solely is reach­ing the top rather than en­joy­ing the jour­ney — Smith’s pub­lic dis­play of hu­mil­ity is re­fresh­ing and ad­mirable.

There is no doubt that he made the cor­rect de­ci­sion, and he should be praised for it.

Colorado’s four­teen­ers have been deadly as usual this year, and more peak-bag­gers should keep in mind that risk­ing death re­ally is a thing on these so-called Every­man’s Ever­ests.

I’ll con­fess that I used to suf­fer from “sum­mit fever,” which fre­quently com­pelled me to take un­war­ranted risks to reach the tops of peaks. Chalk it up to false bravado, con­ceit, stub­born­ness and a com­pul­sion to add to my moun­taineer­ing check­list, but I would forge ahead into dark­en­ing clouds, make reck­less, blind grabs for hand­holds and scam­per up ex­posed

es­carp­ments lit­tered with loose rock on the as­sump­tion that things would work out. Some­how, they al­ways did. Only af­ter ad­e­quately prov­ing my­self to my­self on some cov­eted peaks did I fi­nally gain the abil­ity — the ma­tu­rity, the con­fi­dence, the strength of con­vic­tion — to be able to turn back when things weren’t right. Some­times, it’s been the weather, or how I was feel­ing that day, or even un­ex­pect­edly dif­fi­cult climb­ing.

That re­al­iza­tion has been lib­er­at­ing. While I en­joy the re­ward of stand­ing on the sum­mit, I rec­og­nize now that it’s not the sole pur­pose of the climb.

Know­ing when to throw in the towel is com­pletely sub­jec­tive, of course. Climb­ing to the sum­mit of a moun­tain takes a fair amount of phys­i­cal ex­er­tion, and it’s sup­posed to be chal­leng­ing. Giv­ing up too read­ily means miss­ing out on many of the re­wards of climb­ing, in­clud­ing the in­de­scrib­able sense of ac­com­plish­ment and the de­light of the breath­tak­ing views.

I asked An­drew Hamil­ton, who holds the speed record for climb­ing the 14ers in the state — un­der 10 days to reach the tops of all 58 named points above 14,000 feet — whether he ever con­sid­ers turn­ing around.

“I’m a lot more aware of risks when I’ve got my kids with me,” he said. “I def­i­nitely want them to hike and think it’s OK to turn around … I don’t want them to think they have to get to the top no mat­ter what. That’s just dumb.”

Hamil­ton said he is most likely to re­treat in the face of a brew­ing thun­der­storm.

“But I’ve hiked with peo­ple who will just barely see a storm cloud form­ing off in a dis­tance, and they’ll say they need to quit. I’m like, what storm clouds?” he said. “Ev­ery­one has their own risk thresh­old.”

He does try to stack the odds in his fa­vor, choos­ing to climb when the weather fore­cast is fa­vor­able and get­ting an early start — com­mon-sense tac­tics — but, like most other ac­com­plished climbers, he knows all too well that it’s dif­fi­cult to turn around once you get close to the top.

Imag­ine, Hamil­ton said, the pres­sure that peo­ple feel af­ter spend­ing $100,000 for an ex­pe­di­tion to Mount Ever­est, where an un­for­tu­nate storm can scut­tle a chance for the sum­mit or, worse, lead to death.

Which brings us back to my friend Lo­gan Smith, who swal­lowed some pride that day on Shoshoni.

“My ego is still sit­ting with its back to me this morn­ing, shrug­ging its shoul­ders and mum­bling. Kick­ing the ground. Pout­ing,” he said. “But I thor­oughly en­joyed the jour­ney yes­ter­day. I’m more than OK with my de­ci­sion. I know my pro­gres­sion in­cludes the abil­ity and equip­ment to do things like this in the fu­ture. Be­sides, ego has lost a lot of friends.”

Den­ver Post file

Moun­tain climbers make their way along the sum­mit ridge of 14,150-foot Mount Sn­ef­fels near Ou­ray on July 4, 2010. At least four peo­ple have died on Colorado’s four­teen­ers this year.

Steve Lip­sher (slip­sher@ com­ of Sil­ver­thorne writes a monthly col­umn for The Den­ver Post.

Char­lie Nut­tel­man, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

With as­sis­tant John Prater trail­ing, An­drew Hamil­ton hikes up Mount El­bert in July 2015, when he set a record by climb­ing all 58 of Colorado’s four­teen­ers in un­der 10 days. De­spite the feat, Hamil­ton says he does some­times re­treat be­fore sum­mit­ing, es­pe­cially in the face of a brew­ing thun­der­storm.

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