In mountaineering, the goal shouldn’t always be the summit
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.”
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@ comcast.net) of Silverthorne writes a monthly column for 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.