Conditions seemed fair as we roped up in the wee hours of the morning for an ascent of Pico Naranja. We’d camped in the lee of the Largo chain, a north-south oriented massif that forms a shield against the savage westerlies that tear across the Patagonian Ice Cap. In single file, seven hopeful climbers set out to claim the expedition’s first objective under the fledgling dawn.
I was leading the second rope team as we rounded the northern shoulder of Cerro Largo, the wind increasing exponentially with every metre of progress. I could scarcely hear the commands within my own rope team, let alone communicate effectively with the team before us. No sooner had I decided that the situation was untenable did the lead team stop and allow ours to catch up. After a laconic discussion with Jaya, the lead guide, we turned both teams around and returned to the sheltered basin which housed our camp.
It was an easy call.
A year later, I found myself and my team of four at High Camp on Denali. We’d been set back a day by an incident of minor altitude sickness on a previous cache run, which had a flow-on effect when the low pressure system approaching the Alaska Range decided to make an earlier appearance then had been predicted. Essentially, we had to make a choice on whether to embark on a summit attempt the following day or hasten our retreat. After a group discussion, it was decided that we had neither the energy nor the resources to climb higher given the truncated timeframe. Descending over the exposed terrain leading to High Camp whilst fatigued and in conditions of low visibility was too considerable a risk, as was becoming pinned at 5000m during the incoming storm with limited fuel and food. We descended to Basecamp the following morning.
It may seem like retreat and our ultimate failure of achieving such a tempting objective may have been a difficult decision to make, but once again, it proved relatively easy.
There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two scenarios. On the Ice Cap, the circumstances were that of a guided expedition, our first and foremost concern being the safety of our clients. On Denali, we were beholden only to ourselves, each with roughly similar levels of experience and thereby responsibility. On the Ice Cap, the cynics among us would argue that we, as guides, had very little personal investment in achieving the objective. This is not necessarily true, but it can certainly be said that Pico Naranja is a mere trifle on the scale of mountainous ascents. On Denali, our team had expended a significant amount of time, energy and money in our attempt to reach the summit. Even though we’d ascended the West Buttress, Denali’s easiest line, a successful summit of North America’s highest peak is a definite feather in one’s cap.
The fundamental motivations behind the two decisions speak of the similarities between both scenarios. At the end of the day, the ultimate goal of any expedition should be a safe return. There exists a vast gamut of variables which effect the success of expeditions. Weather, fitness, snow conditions, teamwork and countless other factors form the minutiae of outdoor endeavours, many of which are beyond our control as individuals. Mountains care not for our desires, goals and dreams. They stand against time without intentions, malign or otherwise. They simply are. At times, we must yield to the conditions and decide that the time is not right for our goals to become reality.
What’s needed is a dispassionate assessment of the situation as it stands and this can prove troublesome at times. As humans, we sometimes have difficulty removing our ego from the equation, often making decisions based on emotion rather than logic. There’s a tendency to revert to a “Sunk-Cost” mentality, the rationalisation being that once you’ve invested a significant amount of time and money in pursuit of an objective, you have no choice but to continue onward. This logic is flawed. We always have a choice. Any loss of time or money pales in comparison to the loss of life or limb.
Sometimes people are surprised by my attitude toward risk, usually having assumed that I’m substantially more gung-ho than I actually am. Any outdoor activity (in fact, almost any activity on Earth, from driving cars to having sex) has inherent risks, and I’m okay with that. Additionally, I’m probably much more comfortable with risk than the vast majority of individuals. However, I know when to draw the line. I believe there are two important aspects of sound decision making. The first is becoming aware of the hazards and their ramifications. The second is setting a personal threshold, clearly identifying which of these hazards you may or may not be willing to accept. Declaring these intentions is a vital process for any group preparing for an expedition into the wilderness. In times of crisis or doubt, the team can simply revert to the preordained limits that were set in an environment of calm rationality. Many an expedition has been torn apart by ill-defined goals and differing levels of risk acceptance.
My judgment usually errs on the side of caution. As trite as this statement has come to be, the mountain will be there next year, but you might not. Discretion is certainly the better part of valour. Tales of bold ascents, death zone bivouacs and survival against the odds often capture my imagination, but forethought, clarity of judgement and prudence in action command my respect. I’m a subscriber to the Ed Viesturs School of Philosophy, which decrees that “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
The upshot of the decisions made on each expedition was largely virtuous. On the Ice Cap, we went on to claim three summits and a successful traverse. On Denali, the predicted storm ravaged the upper mountain for some days, but we came down as friends in possession of our fingers, toes and a raft of memories and experience. In the end, I’m confident that we made the right call in both situations. It’s plausible that we may have made it to the summit without any ill effects, but it’s probable that the outcome could have been injury or worse. I can look back on each memory without a shred of regret, something I could not claim with any certitude had we have pushed on.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in July 2015