On Not Reaching the Summit

Summit Fever (n.): The compulsion to reach the summit of a mountain, at all costs. 

 A tundra nap on the summit of Divide Mountain in Denali National Park

A tundra nap on the summit of Divide Mountain in Denali National Park

    Some days, we reach the summit. We sit on top of a mountain, weather allowing, and we eat a sandwich and we take in the view. No matter how many summits you've reached, to sit atop a mountain is a wonderful feeling. Even on the smallest of peaks, there is a sense of triumph, as well as a reminder to feel small and humbled and thankful. But there are also days when the summit is not quite within reach. The weather might shut you down, or there is just not enough daylight to see you through, or, in the winter, avalanche conditions are of considerable importance. The worst reason , though, is poor planning. I experienced one such shut-down just over a week ago on a bluebird fall day in the Bitterroot Mountains. 

 Heading towards the summit of East St. Mary peak on a spectacular spring day.

Heading towards the summit of East St. Mary peak on a spectacular spring day.

    I got much too late of a start to the trailhead, which was my ultimate undoing. I was attempting an off-trail route to reach the highest point in the range, and had also gotten some confusing route beta. Despite my lack of progress at about 3pm, I decided to push on past Gem Lake to a small but steep pass. Once over the pass, I would have to descend into another valley before climbing the next few thousand vertical feet to the summit. As I crested the pass and began to descend the other side, knowing that I was racing the sinking sun, I was greeted by completely frozen ground underfoot on the near-vertical north-facing slope. Neither Matthew Junior or I could get any grip. And still, for a short way, I pushed on. It wasn’t until I took a healthy tumble and ripped up my hands on the cold, sharp rocks, that I sat down and really reconsidered my position. With just a few hours left until sunset, and a couple thousand feet of elevation yet to go, I sat and argued with myself. My main thoughts were with the summit, and the spectacular views ahead. But I thought of my friends expecting me back around 8pm, and I pictured myself and Matthew descending from the summit on icy ground as the day faded into twilight. And I remembered another day where I was too big for my britches in the Eastern Sierra last April. In the hopes of reaching a particular alpine lake on Mount Whitney, I post-holed past 11,000’ with little Matthew Junior, covering nearly fourteen miles and 6000’ of elevation gain. And we still didn’t make the lake. We were back to camp after dark, and MJ could barely walk the next day.  With both her’s and my safety in mind, I made the call and decided to turn back. Deep down, I had known this to be the right call for quite some time. But this meant climbing back over the pass I had just descended from, and I tried to embrace the concept of safety as I faced the demoralizing feeling of retracing my steps, having not reached my goal.

    Now, I don’t have immunity to summit fever. I have scrambled over rock ledges, shimmied along next to cliffs, stayed out well past dark, and pushed on long after I’ve run out of food. Some of these experiences have gotten me to the most memorable and spectacular summits of my life. But when I am rolling solo, and the ground is frozen and the slope is steep, it’s still in my power to turn back. I’m thankful that summit fever doesn’t fully blind me to risks. But it’s hard. It’s hard to turn around when the only thing stopping me is me. My speed, my mid-morning departure from home, my poor understanding of the route, and my decision to bring my little canine companion along were all factors in my failure. The crisp, blue day was free of wind, and it screamed that the summit view would be spectacular. The peak beckoned, gleaming within sight in the late afternoon sun. Still, I turned back. And I tried to stay positive. I thought about next fall. I thought about the subalpine larch, which had already lost their leaves, and how I could return next year while they’re still in color. I remembered that failure is just an opportunity to learn. It shows me where I went wrong, and how I can improve. And it’s a reminder to enjoy the journey. Maybe I didn’t make the summit, but I did enjoy a full day in the outdoors with my most trusty companion, weaving between granite boulders and emerald green lakes. The snow would fly only a couple of days later, leaving the mountains in a transition phase between summer and winter. It’s not snowy enough yet to ski, but the snow is thick enough to make alpine travel quite difficult. And so, Trapper Peak remains in my sights for 2017. And I will still attempt the off-trail route. But next time, I’ll go earlier in the fall when the larch are flaming brilliantly. I’ll leave early in the morning, I’ll leave Matthew home for this one, and I’ll have a better understanding of the scrambling involved. And when I reach the summit, having failed once before, it will be all that much sweeter. 

 The summit of Trapper Peak looms over Gem and Middle Lakes. Subalpine larch hold on to their last lingering yellow needles. A day spent with views like this is not a failure at all.

The summit of Trapper Peak looms over Gem and Middle Lakes. Subalpine larch hold on to their last lingering yellow needles. A day spent with views like this is not a failure at all.

emily sullivanComment