Turning Around

The Importance of Failure in the Mountains

Last spring a buddy and I rappelled into a chute in the Chugach Mountains. We tossed our skinny ropes from the second rap station. They tangled and caught in the rocks. We pulled, but they wouldn't budge. The sheath of one tore on a sharp edge. We cut the remaining rope free and climbed back to the ridge. I hoped nobody would find our abandoned rope and learn about the debacle.  

 * * *

Mountain objectives can be elusive. The size of the objective doesn't matter; it could be a 3,000-foot wall of rock and ice or a low-angle powder ski run. If the objective challenges the mountain traveler, then there is potential for not achieving the objective. In some cases the mountain or weather could simply defeat us. Other times we use poor judgment and make seemingly dumb decisions. In the best case, this means turning around. In the worst case a fatality. Regardless, the objective wasn't achieved and the trip can be considered a failure. 

The dictionary defines failure as lack of success. The word failure packs a negative punch: failure is perceived as bad. To avoid the stigma, other terms are common in the mountain idiom: to bail, turn around, retreat, to be defeated or to make an attempt.

Mountain failures can be attributed to either external or internal factors or a combination of both. External factors are from the environment, such as avalanche, rockfall or weather. Internal factors are from our own limitations such as fear, or lack of experience or strength. 

While failure is initially frustrating to mountain travelers, with experience they learn to accept it as an integral and important part of being in the mountains. 

Joe accepting failure in the Tordrillo Mountains. Photo by Andrew Wexler/globalalpine.com.

Joe accepting failure in the Tordrillo Mountains. Photo by Andrew Wexler/globalalpine.com.

Why is Failure Difficult?

Humans are hard-wired to succeed. Plus, social norms reward success and punish failure. We crave that pat on the back and the sense of completion that comes from success. The problem with striving for success in the mountains is that it's often all-or-nothing. Return from an expedition and people ask, "Did you get to the summit?" Reach the summit and you’ve succeeded, don’t reach the summit and you’ve failed—and failure doesn’t feel good. 

Another difficulty with failure is that it takes self-control—to resist the powder slope that you're 99.9 percent sure is stable, to back off the frozen waterfall when the bowl above moves into direct sun. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment highlighted the importance of self-control. Scientists placed kids in a room with a marshmallow. If they didn't eat the marshmallow within 15 minutes they could have two marshmallows. In a follow-up study years later, kids who waited 15 minutes had better life outcomes. This is called delayed gratification: exchanging a small reward now for a bigger reward later. In the mountains, the big reward is a long life. Most long-time mountain travelers have learned that the real objective is to come back alive, with all of their fingers and toes. 

Turning around is not easy. Most agree that turning around is more difficult than continuing. Some say it's the hardest act in the mountains. Extreme skier Andreas Fransson said he was most proud of the runs he didn't take because backing off is harder than dropping in. 

We bailed back to the lodge after four hours in a 32-degree downpour. Brad Cosgrove finds justification in his Good Earth tea: "Failure is success if we learn from it." –Malcolm S. Forbes.

We bailed back to the lodge after four hours in a 32-degree downpour. Brad Cosgrove finds justification in his Good Earth tea: "Failure is success if we learn from it." –Malcolm S. Forbes.

Why Failure is Important

At the most fundamental level, turning around is how we avoid accidents. Failure is also how we learn, find adventure and gain trust. 

Success feels good, but it teaches us little. Alpinist Marc Twight calls it "the tyranny of success." When you succeed at something challenging, it is difficult to know why you succeeded. Was it luck or are you just really good? Steve House writes, in Beyond the Mountain, "Success, when achieved, is deceptive—for there lies praise, closure and achievement. Failure is the more valuable fruit, borne as it is from the knurled vine of process."

It is through failure, and its inevitable analysis, that we learn the most and get better at our craft. Twight calls failure “The Schoolroom.” As an Anchorage professor reminded me, "You can be told an important concept ten times, but nothing teaches you faster than screwing it up." For example, the quickest way to learn about avalanches—although not recommended—is to almost get killed by one. 

Failure is also fundamental to adventure and the allure of the mountains. Adventure requires an unknown outcome, and the possibility of failure. If you always achieve your mountain objective, then you aren’t challenging yourself. It is okay to simply enjoy the mountains while working toward objectives within your ability, but true adventure and challenge come with a high chance of failure. 

Ultimately, adventure requires an upper limit, which is the impossible. A classic story of adventure and failure occurred on Cerro Torre in Patagonia, a rock tower that legendary french alpinist Lionel Terray described as “an impossible mountain." In 1970 Cesare Maestri drilled a line of 400 bolts up its granite wall, creating an easier route to the summit. Soon after, Reinhold Messner wrote a seminal article, entitled "The Murder of the Impossible," targeting acts such as Maestri's. In 2012, young climbers chopped 120 of Maestri's bolts, an act for "restoration of the impossible." 

Great successes ride on the back of failures. Adrian Nature's 1998 solo ski descent of Denali's Wickersham Wall—perhaps the most significant ski descent in US history—took several years of attempts. The household oil WD-40 was developed on the 40th try. Thomas Edison's light bulb on the 10,000th try. Likewise, having an article rejected or severely criticized during the review process leads to a better published article, if the author is persistent and willing to learn from mistakes.

A final reason we need to be able to accept failure in the mountains is to build trust. You learn to trust yourself, knowing that "If it gets bad, I can turn around." Also, your history of turning around lets friends and family rest easy knowing you will turn back if it gets bad.

Eric Parsons and Jeff Conaway turning around in the Talkeetna Mountains after a whoomph.

Eric Parsons and Jeff Conaway turning around in the Talkeetna Mountains after a whoomph.

How to Turn Around

Fundamental to turning around is discussing options with your group while trip planning. "Let's give the North Chute a try. If that doesn't work we'll ski the trees." Without options you’ll blunder single-mindedly into true failure—an accident.

For mountain travelers, the desire to achieve single-minded goals can kill us. If turning around is so difficult, why not include it as one of the trip options? Look for reasons to turn around. If you can’t find any, continue on. But listen to your gut instinct if things feel weird. Correct the error before it becomes an accident. Have lower expectations, then be surprised by a success. As the Kiwis say as they leave the hut for a wall of rock and ice in the Southern Alps, "Just going for a look." 

A third tactic to make turning around easier is to focus on the experience rather than the end point. Practice mindfulness: look around and try to live in the moment. Have objectives, strive for objectives, and yet commit to the process. By engaging in the process you’ll enjoy the trip more and your heightened awareness of the present will increase your safety.

Be proud of turning around. Get comfortable saying, "The mountain will be there next time." It shows you are humble but have confidence in your skills. If you turn around, you will instinctively analyze what happened. Debriefing with yourself and your partners is a necessary part of the learning process. 

Joe in the Chugach Mountains. Photo by John Sykes.

Joe in the Chugach Mountains. Photo by John Sykes.

* * *

I wondered what happened that day when I cut the rope and turned around in the Chugach Mountains. I have been rappelling for 30 years. It seems like it shouldn't be an issue. But after a week of thinking, I narrowed my problem down to several mistakes, principles I'd learned in the past and needed to relearn. The first was that skinny ropes cut easily—use them with care around sharp rock. Second, tossing rap ropes often doesn't work in the alpine—carry them down as saddlebags. Third, apply the steep skiers' rule of climbing the line before skiing it. A week later, I returned and completed the project. I learned more from that descent than from any other. 

2016 Update

Over the past couple years I've continued to learn the importance of turning around. If turning around is practiced, such as in avalanche classes, pathways are built in the brain that make it easier to turn around when it is really needed. Without practice, your brain won't consider turning as an option.

2017 Update

The bias called Loss Aversion—people's tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains— helps explain our difficulty with turning around. Studies have found that losses are twice as powerful psychologically as gains. For example, it's better to not lose five dollars than to find five dollars. Or, it feels better to not turn around, than to improve your chances of not being caught in an avalanche. 

You want to know the difference between a master and a beginner? The master has failed more times than the beginner has ever tried.
— Yoda

More Reading 

  • Beyond the Mountain, by Steve House.

  • Editor's Note: Restoration of the Impossible, Alpinist.com, June 2007.

  • Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast & High, by Mark Twight.

  • Hayden Kennedy: Alpine Taliban or Patagonian Custodian? Part 2, The Enormocast, Episode 7.

  • Guide's Corner, The Importance of Failure, by Joe Stock, Off Piste, March 2015, pages 18-19.

  • Mountain Craft, Arcteryx.com.

  • The Murder of the Impossible, by Reinhold Messner, Mountain #15, 1971.

  • The Rock Warrior's Way, by Arno Ilgner.

  • The Tortoise & the Hype, by Carlin Flora, Psychology Today, August 2015.

  • Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual For the Climber as Athlete, by Steve House and Scott Johnston.