The Climbing Code in The Freedom of the Hills has nine precepts meant to promote safety in the mountains. Some are common sense, such as No. 1: “Leave the trip itinerary with a responsible person.” Others are technical: “Rope up on all exposed places and for all glacier travel.”
Most of us violate some of the rules on occasion. Many times I’ve gone on a short hike without telling anyone or without carrying the ten essentials.
But I’ve had the hardest time over the years with precept No. 7: “Never let judgment be overruled by desire when choosing the route or turning back.”
When you set out to climb a mountain and you travel for hours in pursuit of that goal, it takes mental discipline to turn around short of the summit if, say, bad weather or fatigue slows your progress. If you’re a mountain climber, after all, you’re probably the sort who takes risks, the sort inclined to push on despite the dangers.
Several years ago, I violated six or seven of the precepts when I climbed the slides on the east side of Giant Mountain. I went solo, I didn’t tell anyone, and I got into a situation above my ability. I ended up ascending a very steep face, scratching dirt out of cracks to make holds. Essentially, I was rock climbing in hiking boots, and I had no rock-climbing experience.
It wasn’t the only time I got lucky.
This past weekend, I set out to climb Debar Mountain with Mike Lynch, the outdoors writer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. I needed to get photos for a snowshoeing story that will run in the January/February issue of the Adirondack Explorer.
It’s a round trip of nine and half miles. We skied in a few miles and then switched to snowshoes when the trail got steeper. We were breaking trail the whole time.
Most of the climbing comes in the final mile or so. As we ascended, Mike started to fall behind, so I waited for him. He told me his asthma was acting up. He also may have been worn out from skiing eight days in a row. We decided to go a little farther to see if he felt better. He didn’t, so with less than a half-mile to go to reach the top, we turned back.
No doubt we could have made it had we pushed on. In the past, I might have regretted turning around, but I felt we made a smart decision—especially as we were running out of daylight—and that gave me as much satisfaction as reaching the summit.
A wise man once said: “The mountains will always be there; the trick is to make sure you are too.”