Failing gracefully in the mountains

©Jef Verstraeten

On 15 July 2016, Hélias Millérioux shared an excellent lesson in humility with us on social media:
“Hi everybody! On 11 July we turned back at 7,800 meters because of the wind. At around 6 am we were 300 meters below the summit. The wind was really strong, about 60 km/h. So we headed down to C4 at 7,400 m to wait until the 12th to make another attempt. Ferran was suffering from a bit of altitude sickness, so to be on the safe side we eventually decided to go back down. Back at base camp on 12 July, we could see plumes of snow blowing off the ridges of the mountain. It would have been impossible to go to the summit. Sometimes things happen for a reason. No regrets, nature just got in our way. And there’s nothing we can do. We could have tried to use whatever means possible, or been the best climbers in the world; it wouldn’t have worked. In any case the experience has been a good lesson in humility. At 7,800 m you feel pretty small. The mountain is huge and civilization is far away, in another world. The air up high is pure, but too thin to keep you alive. It’s a beautiful but harsh environment. I feel like I almost touched the sky; it was incredible.”

Nonetheless, Hélias got the chance to even the score sixteen days later when he reached the summit of Nanga Parbat (8,125 m) by the Kinshofer route.

The team was able to remain pragmatic about their initial failure caused by external elements (the wind) as well as human factors. Admittedly, this isn’t always the case.

What follows is a non-exhaustive list of common causes of failure in the mountains:

Quote: It should be noted that the further from the coveted summit the retreat actually occurs, the better. The ultimate alpine retreat is when you bail on the route before even leaving the house.

The weather fail:

  • You were sure that the “localized storms” would inevitably hit the next mountain over, but it’s already too late when you realize that you were wrong.
  • When you stop at the Torre cabin, not far from Cerro Torre in Patagonia, and you see the intricacy of the sculptures carved into the beams of this small shelter, you think to yourself that either alpine climbers are passionate about woodworking, or that they’ve had plenty of time to enjoy the local weather…
l'Hiver est là

Winter is here

The physical fail:

  • Starting with the approach, you get the feeling that the longer you hike, the further away the mountain actually gets. You often have a tendency to think that the route is definitely hard for the grade.

Note: the “day after a night of partying” fail does not belong in this category.

The mental fail:

  • The French also call this the “mal des rimayes,” literally meaning “bergschrund sickness.” This transitory ‘illness’ allows the climber to dodge the challenge at hand.

Even 3 rounds of rock-paper-scissors don’t mean you absolutely have to climb the crux pitch of the route (all friction, totally unprotectable).

Note: You’re better off regretting an excess of fear than an excess of enthusiasm.

« Quand vous vous rendez compte que dans ski de pente raide il y a le mot raide »

“When you realize that steep skiing has the word ‘steep’ in it.”

Technology fail:

  • A car problem, an alarm clock that doesn’t go off, the topo on the telephone that doesn’t turn on, a closed road…

The poor analysis fail:

  • When that wafer-like layer of snow turns out to indeed be a nasty layer of crust instead of powder.
  • When the nice looking ice route that only you and your partner have spotted turns out to be a thin layer of snow on top of smooth slabs.
  • A route that definitely looked dry… from a long ways off and with your eyes closed.

The timing fail:

  • When the guidebook says you ought to be back at the hut by 3 PM and that’s the time when you reach the foot of the route.

The logistical fail:

  • When you drive two hours, hike to the base of the route, and realize that you’ve forgotten your helmet (or your avalanche beacon, rope, crampons, ice axe, harness, etc.).
  • Can also involve seriously underestimating the necessary amount of food or water.

Quote: the logistical fail can be countered by some human resourcefulness.
Example: one headlamp for two, belaying with a munter hitch, a night spent in the entryway of the Goûter hut on the Mont Blanc because you’ve forgotten to make a reservation, etc.

The GPS fail:

  • When you’re sure you’re on the right route up until the moment that you realize that it doesn’t at all match up with the topo and it’s way too hard to be 4c!

An actually-not-so-bad fail: Like in 1958, when Yvon Chouinard thought he had put up a new route on Mount Alberta, but instead found himself on the summit of Mount Wooley, a ways off from his chosen objective, but happy to have climbed a beautiful mountain.

The unlucky fail:

  • When everything goes well until the moment that you drop your pack, or the only rock to fall that day hits you in the shoulder.

You often need to know how to analyse the succession of unlucky events before getting to the point of no return.

Ueli qui vient de laisser tomber un brin de rappel

“When you drop your Reverso”

The chance encounter fail (As rare as it is coveted):

  • You abandon the awesome objective that you’d planned because a really hot girl (or guy) is going to go climb some other route that now actually seems to be more interesting.


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