How Do You Go Big in the Mountains, But Stay Safe?

he lure of the summit is a siren’s song. But learning to enjoy the journey itself might be the key to a lifetime in the mountains. Unless you insist on climbing a trophy mountain like the Matterhorn where there might be 150 other climbers, mountaineering is a quiet, soulful pleasure.

It allows you to become one with the magical quiet and majesty of the mountains. The dark, predawn approach to the climb is a calming way to start your day. As daylight arrives, the mental and physical challenges of the actual climb arrive as well: constant decision making about where to go, which hold, crampons/no crampons, etc. Just hearing your own breathing is meditative. At this point nobody cares about money, personal issues or politics. Being in the moment is the only thing that counts. It’s also nice to leave modern values like “success” at home, so don’t worry about “success,” which most people call reaching the peak. Just enjoy the journey because, really, it’s the journey there and back that’s the real story. What if conditions deteriorate, a thunderstorm rolls in, or you are not fast enough? You’ve still had an amazing, safe experience from pre-dawn to the return. Safety, i.e., making a safe decision to turn back before the peak if necessary, is one of the best measures of success.

We as mountaineers have to respect the mountains. The mountains are beautiful, but merciless. In our fast-paced, record-driven society, we plan a trip, and it may feel like it’s written in stone that we’re going to do “The Peak.” It feels almost worse when you’ve paid someone to reach a peak. Somehow this makes the peak—and not the journey—much more the measure of “success.” It can be very hard for some mountaineers to turn around at the right time when they see other climbers still pushing on. However, those others may not actually be going on the same route; they may be in better shape; they may have more information about the route and weather; or they may actually be making a foolish decision. Everybody is responsible for his or her own decisions, and the most important decision is the one that allows you to get home safely, to have another chance to try again. There will always be a next time. The mountains are patient.

An attempt should not, does not have to, end in drama each time you set out to climb, as happened on Everest in 1996. Patience is the most prudent policy sometimes. I had a client who needed six attempts to climb Mt. Blanc, but when he finally succeeded, he did it in style and was very happy. If a mountaineer is able to climb the Eiger, that’s great, but I’m more interested in the experience they had than the actual end result of reaching the peak. It’s more important to me that the climb was done in style. For example, Ueli Steck climbed the Eiger North Face in 2 hours and 47 minutes, but everything had to be right in all aspects to be that fast. His story of success lies in knowing when to go and when not to go, or when to turn back. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that a mountaineer has a good time and is able to forget the pressures of daily life.

How do I deal with it when I have to turn around and explain to someone we have to stop the climb? First, I try to evaluate whether or not the technical skills and physical shape of a climber are even suitable for a desired climb. This analysis greatly reduces the chances of the client having to turn back unless weather and conditions come into play. Preparation for the trip is key, and it’s the only thing I can control. Weather and conditions are out of my control. If these factors come into play or it’s clear that the client is too slow, not fit or technically overwhelmed despite their impressive resume of past climbs, I have to firmly and diplomatically tell them this. First and foremost, my job is to provide safety. Of course, people are disappointed. But after a few words, they usually accept the situation. They may have to train more to get the skills and/or fitness needed, or it just may be plain dumb luck, and they will have to wait for a better weather/condition opportunity to try again. The client may be frustrated, but that’s better than a possible dangerous alternative.

Even if you’re in the best shape of your life and a technical rock star, there is always the possibility that other factors may stop you from reaching the peak. The best advice is to just step back and enjoy the journey, and you may just reach the destination as well.