A wee bit of bailing

Approaching the Wild Thing on Mt. Chephren (Photo: Ethan Berman)
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Since I started alpine climbing, which was not all that long ago, I’ve been relatively successful. For example, my first big expedition, which was to Bolivia, resulted in several new routes and a few other cool summits. On my second big trip we climbed the Cassin Ridge on Denali and were back home a week early (albeit, a bit beat up!). On my first trip to the Canadian Rockies I climbed the Grand Central Couloir on Mt. Kitchener. And last year I managed an ascent of the Emperor Face on Yexyexescen (Mt. Robson), only second try but within a few months of the first attempt.
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Pete catching some Z’s in the sun while we waited for it to get off the face so we could go down (Photo: Ethan Berman)
Pete starting the rappels down the Wild Thing. We used the anchor left by friends from a couple years ago after they made a similar mistake (Photo: Ethan Berman)
Rapping past the first pitch on the Wild Thing (Photo: Ethan Berman)
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Of course, there has also been some bailing over the last few years (mainly in the North Cascades!!), but not as much as you often associate with alpine climbing. I’ve always attributed this relative success to two main factors. The first being the slow and logical progression of harder, bigger, and more committing objectives, and the fact that these ascents have more often then not felt within my limits of skill and experience. The second, of course, being luck, which I think I have had on my side as I think back to the weather and conditions I was dealt, especially on the big trips (Bolivia is known for stable weather, Alaska not so much…). And ok, there might be a little bit of tenacity in the mix, but not in the same way as say the two Brits who we met at 14 camp on Denali, who had just finished climbing the Cassin in 5 days (with 3 days rations) in poor weather (which was forecasted), and all they had to say for it was that sometimes you got to “chin in”. We set off for the Cassin the next day with a much better forecast…
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Approaching the SE Face of Logan (Photo: Alik Berg)
Heading into the Cirque below the SE Face (Photo: Alik Berg)
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All this is to say that over the last year, I’ve spent a bit more time bailing and a bit less time sending. In April, I bailed off the Wild Thing on Mt. Chepren after screwing up the route finding in the dark and losing too much time before the sun hit the exposed eastern slopes and left us unwilling to continue climbing up the funnels. In May, I bailed off the Southeast Face of Logan after we got caught in a wet humid mess of precipitation on an otherwise bluebird day, and didn’t have a promising forecast. We did have an otherwise awesome trip in the mountains, with such a solid crew, climbing some new routes on smaller mountains and summiting Logan via the East Ridge, which was an aesthetic and pleasing alpine camping trip in its own right (especially when you bring the good coffee up!!). And just a couple weeks ago in September, I bailed off the Croz Spur on the Grande Jorasses.
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Making a traverse on the SE Face on Day 2 (Photo: Alik Berg)
Second night on the SE Face after the snow hammock exploded (Photo: Alik Berg)
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I’m not at all surprised with these big bails, and have actually been waiting for them. As the objectives have been getting harder, more serious, and a bit more out there, I’ve been anticipating a higher failure rate. As my experience and skills have progressed to allow for bigger attempts, I’m pushing closer to my risk tolerance, trying routes with smaller margins for success, and that demand near perfect decision making. Of course luck with the weather and conditions isn’t always going to be there, although we were actually blessed with quite good weather on Mount Logan for the first three weeks, but we never got the window we wanted to try the SE face, and once we were acclimatized it crapped out. Perhaps the tenacity is being more balanced by rational experience, for example deciding not to continue up the Wild Thing and risk getting hit by ice or rock fall in the lower couloirs, but also in hindsight recognizing that I just wasn’t super psyched on that particular day and was actually exhausted from trying to buy a condo and managing a seasonal move back to the west coast. More recently, we got skunked in Chamonix due to poor planning, and picking an objective that didn’t match the current preparation, comfort, acclimatization, and climbing fitness of the team.
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Approaching the Grande Jorasses (Photo: Ethan Berman)
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Sure, there have been frustrations and indecisive awkward conversations, but I’ve gained so much knowledge and comfort through these big retreats that it’s hard to even wish any of them have resulted in a big send. For example, I felt very intimidated with the prospect of bailing off the Wild Thing, and the furthest outside of my comfort zone I’ve ever felt climbing while getting pounded by spindrift on a ledge half-way of the monstrous SE face of Logan with the long and exposed proposition of retreat looming all night. But after these experiences, I felt totally composed bailing off the North Face of the Jorasses from 600 meters up, although everyone in town seemed surprised, like no one has ever bailed from up there (call the chopper!!!). Logan is also so massive (4000 meters from base camp to summit, and a 2500 meter south face) that other routes feel slightly more manageable (and warmer) in comparison.
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Starting up the Croz Spur. We should actually be heading up and left… (Photo: Ethan Berman)
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I’ve also learned to further trust my intuition and give a stronger voice to my concerns and doubts, weighing the options more wholesomely before devising a plan and questing into the night under headlamp. I’m opening up and learning to be more vulnerable, to express my emotions more openly and not shy away from a difficult and personal conversation. I’ve been reminded the importance of practicing skills on the ground, and testing equipment, especially after our snow hammock exploded soon after deployment 1200 meters up the SE face of Logan (what a bunch of chumps!). Most importantly, my tightly wound psyche is slowing starting to unroll, revealing a more mindful self, less absorbed in the outcome, and more in tune with the process. I was first drawn to climbing because of the way it could captivate my entire existence into a single essence, a fleeting moment, a beautiful connection to an ephemeral world. Over the years I’ve gotten so wound up in my progression, of improving, of always going bigger, stronger, higher, I worry that somewhere along the way I lost sight of the reasons why I actually started. But like a faint moon rising on the horizon, I slowly feel myself reconnecting with what is special in climbing, in life, the moments of compassion, companionship, of love. So although the cathartic moments of sending are rad (“sublime” as Chris Kalman once said), it’s more rad to live a life of humble beginnings and ends, of mindful reflection and positive energy, of compassion for the planet and those on it, and of appreciation of quiet, subtle progression toward a deeper understanding of self.
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Rapping over the bergshrund on the Grande Jorasses (Photo: Ethan Berman)