Knowing When to Bail on Your Summit Attempt
Sometimes you can't make it to the top. Here's how to make that call, and have that talk with the rest of your climbing group:
During a recent summit attempt of Mt. Elbert, I felt confident, ready to power through the hike and reach the top in good time. I wound up feeling weary, struggling, and was eventually forced to turn back for the first time. Here’s what I learned from the experience:
I’d been expecting a false summit, but not one quite like this.
Each time we thought we were cresting the ridge line, a new undulation in the mountain revealed itself, the trail doubled back, and we faced another enormous incline.
We worked our way through a daunting gulley, switch-backing through the vanilla-smelling pines. When we reached the invisible ceiling where the trees stop growing: the real slog began.
The path here became little more than a shallow layer of dirt, too thin to dig into with trekking poles and not thick enough to provide any kind of traction. No more switchbacks either, just straight up the side of the mountain.
The grade cracked 40%, as we made our painful push out of the valley. If you’re having a hard time picturing how steep that is: most staircases are set at about 30. So, steeper than that, with no steps, on poor footing.
Subscribe for free to support independent journalism, and get more stories, interviews, and guides to improve your outdoor experience
My pulse throbbed against the back of my skull. We’re not even that high up yet —what’s wrong with my body?" I asked myself. Is this altitude sickness? I reasoned this was unlikely. I was deep into my summer climbing season, and I’d been hanging around Colorado’s high peaks for weeks now without incident.
I chalked it up to an extremely poor night’s sleep and pressed on. As we finally found ourselves on flat ground, Elbert’s Southeast ridge soared to our left. We could just make out the true summit beyond.
The problem with the sheer scale of these mountains is that without points of reference, accurately gauging distance becomes tricky. After a brief snack break, my hiking partner and I made an optimistic estimate: hitting the false summit in 20 minutes, and reaching the true peak in another 40.
In reality: we were still two long miles away, and more than 1,000 feet below the summit.
The whole way up the valley, I’d been telling myself the trail would mellow when we got to the ridge. This wound up being true — but only relative to the slope that had just finished kicking my butt.
I tried to focus on enjoying the view. My head swam as I turned to look. I could see the creek we crossed multiple times, meandering through gaps in the young aspen trees, leaves quivering in the wind.
As we closed in on the landmark false summit, I paused to fix my trekking poles. The screws weren’t quite tight enough, allowing them to collapse ever-so-slightly under my weight. I fumbled with the latch to re-adjust them. But I couldn’t get it to open. Confused, I turned the poles over in my hand, bringing them up closer to my face to study the mechanism I had already used half a dozen times that day.
I could feel my hiking partner’s eyes on the back of my head as he waited patiently for me to make the simple fix. Still, the latch vexed my sleep-deprived brain. Does this pull up and to the left, or out and to the right? Unable to decide, I resolved to jiggle the piece of plastic with my fingers until I found which way it was meant to move.
A voice from the deep recesses of my mind spoke up in a calm, even tone: It shouldn’t be this hard. You’re not thinking clearly. The sensation was familiar, transporting me back to something I'd felt only once before:
My mouth was dry and aching. I shifted my weight and heard the squeaking of a vinyl chair below my body. Someone put a gentle hand on me. “You’re fine. It’s all done,” the voice assured me.
A familiar metal rectangle was thrust into my hands. “Here—” the voice said. “—why don’t you put on some music to relax.”
I stared down at my ancient first generation iPod touch, headphones neatly coiled around the device. I tried to plug the headphone jack into the hole along the edge, but kept missing. With all my concentration, I held the iPod steady, lined up the wire… and missed again.
“Do you need help?”
I spoke through a mouthful of wadded up cotton. “nmm, mmm gmmt mmt.”
My loss of coherent speech confused me for a moment. Then I remembered: my wisdom teeth removal. I was still loopy from the drugs. Even with all my concentration, I couldn’t execute a simple task I’d done countless times.
The latch on the Trekking pole clicked open, snapping my mind back to the present. I fixed the problem, and without saying a word, led us up the last few hundred feet to the so-called South Summit.
We arrived at our vantage point at about 10:45 a.m.. I dropped my pack and took a long drink of water. I gave both of my bottles a shake. I was down to less than half of my supply.
I felt each of my fingers to ensure none of them were swollen, then took my pulse. My heart rate seemed fine. So did my breathing. I concluded my dizziness and confusion were the result of sleep depravation, not altitude sickness — though the cause wouldn’t matter if the result was me making a dangerous decision.
“Only another what, mile to the summit?” My hiking partner asked.
“Maybe more,” I said. Then: “I think we need to have a discussion about heading back.”
He turned away from the true summit looming to our North, and turned back to me. “Okay. What are you thinking?”
“I’ll be honest, I haven’t been feeling fully myself for most of this hike. I was okay until I started struggling with the poles. I’m not thinking clearly. If we had to make a quick decision, I’m worried I might not react in time,” I said. “How about you?”
“Honestly, a little light-headed, but nothing that’s telling me we should stop,” he said. “Not trying to force you to keep going, but just to make the case: I don’t think it’s that far—”
“It’s farther than it looks,” I warned.
“Okay, but it can’t be longer than a mile, maybe 1.2?”
“If we were going our usual pace I’d agree with you. But we’re behind. With the speed we’ve been going, that’s an hour away. We’d summit right around noon.”
He glanced up at the sky. “I mean, I think we’ll probably be fine weather wise.”
I nodded. “Probably. But if a surprise storm develops, look at how long we’ll be exposed for.” I traced my finger across the horizon. “From the summit, it’ll be two miles before we’re off the ridge. And another mile-and-a-half before we’re in the trees.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, slowly.
“If it were any one of these problems, I’d say they’re pretty minor concerns. But if you let enough little things pile up, you start running into serious trouble.”
My hiking partner turned to face the peak again. “I feel like I could do it. But if we don’t both want to go, we have to bail. It’s up to you.”
I stared across the gargantuan valley between us, and our destination for what felt like several minutes, before shaking my head. “Today’s not the day.”
In the end, my hiking partner respected my need to turn back. We made the most of our trip, taking in the view and feeling the warm late-morning sun. I sketched the horizon from the peak, and we began working our way down.
This is the first time in all my years of hiking that I’ve felt the need to pull the plug on a summit attempt. In hindsight, I think I made the correct call. A slip-and-fall on the way down left me a bit banged up. My tired body was not up to the task that day. We did run into some rain on the drive out, so who knows what the weather would’ve been like had we pushed farther?
It’s impossible to predict that outcome. But I did come away with some important lessons. Hopefully these can spare you from trouble on the trail:
Hike well-rested — exhaustion is no joke
Your ability to think clearly is your most valuable asset. If this is threatened, you absolutely must turn back
Start early to leave room for error
Pack enough food and water for the length of your trip
Choose a hiking partner who will respect your decision to bail
Brush up on your first aid; help is a long way off
Do not ignore warning signs; this is how good hikers get in too deep
It’s tough to make objective decisions about a trip you’re involved in. You want to make it to the summit and achieve your goals and see the view! But it’s important not to let these desires get in the way of sound judgement.
My trick for getting past this: imagine someone is making a TV dramatization of your adventure. How would the narrator comment on your decisions?
Would they say something like:
“And that’s when they made their biggest mistake…”
“…A decision that tragically, would prove deadly…”
“…A call that almost cost the team everything…”
Or more like:
“…that decision wound up saving their lives…”
If you were looking on as an outsider, would you rate your own actions as reckless and risky, or smart and safe?
Remember: the mountain isn’t going anywhere. You can try again another day. The summit isn’t worth your life.
I Want to Hear from You
Have you ever decided to pull the plug on a hike or trip? What led you to make the decision?
As always, leaving a like on this article really helps me out in identifying which pieces connected with you.