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The Problem With Failure In The Mountains

Author: Teresa Hagerty

May 16, 2019

It was only 30 minutes into my first Rainier climb, and I was already getting dropped by the rope team. Of course, it wasn’t meant to be that way—I didn’t plan to fall short.

On Mt. Rainier it was a beautiful summer night. I was on an all-women rope team that embarked for the summit from Camp Muir at 11:30 pm. Our team was led by an experienced mountaineer with six previous Rainier summits to her name. All of my fellow rope team members had seen the summit of Mt. Rainier at least once. I had been invited to join the climb two months prior and was desperate to prove myself worthy. They were welcoming and encouraging, but I was the most junior member of the team by far.

I had previously summited other Cascade peaks—Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood—but this was my first roped glacier climb. I had taken formal mountaineering training classes, but a real alpine start in the dark, cold air, felt very different than those courses. I nervously fumbled with my harness and tie-in knots making sure everything was just right. Months of training, planning and anticipation had led to this moment.

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I fell behind almost immediately, having trouble keeping pace, putting strain on the team member in front of me. Every sound on the mountain seemed terrifying. Every rope team that passed was further proof that I didn’t belong. The voices in my head, telling me that I was going to fail, became louder with every step. I knew that it was time for me to make the call as my heart was no longer in the climb. I asked to be taken back to the safety of Camp Muir and cried myself to sleep.

I spent the first month post-climb in a deep depression. I struggled to process the feelings of shame around being cut from my first ‘real’ climb. It would have been easy to fall into a belief that I wasn’t meant for the big mountains. I couldn’t get the dream out of my head, though. I stared at the mountain with an unresolved hunger. This wasn’t going to be the end of the story.

I resolved to train harder, get faster, practice continuously, and try again. Three months after that night on Rainier, I signed up for a professionally guided trip the following summer. I committed to return stronger, more determined and better prepared. I focused on this objective with every lap of Mt. Si, every hour on urban stairs, and countless night in my living room practicing knots. I cried tears of joy when I finally stepped into the summit crater in July 2015.

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Several years have passed since that day, and I have since successfully summited again, leading my own rope team, and stood on top of additional Cascade peaks. But I still remember the feeling of that night like it was yesterday. The sense of failure, the shame, and the feeling of falling short. I didn’t measure up.

I have since learned that we, as women, can be exceptionally tough on ourselves. Women are often more likely fall prey to the negative voices in our head and downplay our accomplishments. We’ve all heard it – “I didn’t think I could do it.” “It was just Mt. Si.” “I’m too slow.” “It wasn’t Everest or anything.” Our community is still learning to view women as strong, capable and independent. And we carry this silent burden every time we step out onto the trail because it feeds the voices in our own heads.

That disappointing night on Rainier fueled a change in perspective for me. I gave myself permission to turn the experience into a source of growth. I have slowly come to realize that my primary objective should be coming home with the benefit of new experiences. I now view every outdoor adventure as an opportunity for progress and learning. I allow myself space to celebrate showing up, taking those first steps, and respecting my limits. The summit is amazing—but has become secondary.

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I challenge you to reset the failure narrative for yourself. Give yourself permission to fail and rewrite the concept of failure altogether. Failure is not the end of the story—failure can be a profound opportunity to learn and grow. The secret is using failure as a stepping stone toward your next experience.

As an outdoor leader, I firmly believe in the value of starting, safely failing, getting back up, and continuing to fail upward. I admire the bravery of respecting our personal limits. I believe it’s important to celebrate every success, big and small. Every success matters, every safe round trip is a source of pride, and every lesson is valuable. The only person to measure ourselves against should be ourselves.

Teresa Hagerty

Founder of Cascade Mountain Adventures, Teresa is proud to share outdoor skills with women in the Pacific Northwest and encourage them in their adventures. Her personal time is spent mountaineering, cycling, backpacking, snow camping, and cuddling with her hedgehog Snuffles.