“What’s your gut say?” Patrick asks me as we stand on the west edge of the Upper Fremont Glacier; dark clouds billow over Fremont and Jackson, blocking out the deep blue.
“My gut always says to go down” I quip. “I always bail to soon. I think I’ve bailed more than I have succeeded.”
“‘Tis better to have bailed once to often than once not enough” he replies with a smile, as I count the seconds between a lightening flash and the anticipated rolling of thunder.
I look up silently and know we are going down, unspoken as is that decision. Gabo is up briefing the students on our current holding pattern. I think about the open wide flat expanse of the Upper Fremont and the likely technical descent onto the Sacagawea. Dry glacier to a fixed line descent. I remember our flash booms of yesterday when we were securely on the valley floor well below the Knifepoint Glacier. I check my watch, 1420. I bend over and start digging a deadman…
Years ago it was at 11000’ on Mount Hunter’s West Ridge; I dropped a crampon mid-climb and face a descent in the only good weather window that year. An expensive bail costing more than just the price of a Grivel 2F.
Then the Prow on Washington’s Column. I was scared of the descent: wet, dripping and slippery. My gut wouldn’t allow me to go up. Scared, I told my partner and we bailed.
I bail because of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of oncoming weather, fear of commitment. My heart tells me “just keep looking up.” My gut and head say “what if?” and “is it worth it?” I sometimes try to rationalize, ask myself what I have to fear. Fear is a powerful thing. Fear keeps me alive in the mountains, yet it also can inhibit a clear head. It also keeps me from my objectives.
I have bailed with students and I have bailed with friends. While working responsibility is what drives me down. Students can learn as much from conservative decision making as from an epic; bailing with students is easier to justify.
As Xoxi reaches the top of the third pitch I tie him in ten feet above Ben in order to have them climb the next pitch on one rope. Ten feet up from the belay a crack of lightening and an instantaneous thunder clap rock our world from the clear blue sky. “Oh fuck” I mutter as I look left, knowing it is my best option. I give a quick thought to Seth a pitch
below and move left. I am over the descent gully. Belay. Now the students are with me. Lowering. Rain falls. Lightening flashes. 1052 am. A scramble, a 300′ two person lower. Ground. 1110 am. “Move, move, move, down the ridge to the trees.” Lightening flashes. I watch as Seth lowers Josh to the ground. I wait for Josh then make haste to the trees, leaving Seth to rappel into the storm, lightening striking the north summit of Haystack just above him…
My standard advice to newer co-instructors “it’s all low commitment when you are climbing on NOLS gear” hasn’t made bailing with students any less easy. The list is long: The North Face of Haystack (three times), the Tree Route, Flash Flood, South East Face of Flagstone, Antelope Arete, Group Therapy, South Ridge of Steeple Peak, South Face of Pingora, Sacagawea, Gannett Peak. All for their own reasons: ice, snow, lightening, cold, fear, time, wind. For some I never even roped up, the conditions dictating retreat long before rubber met rock, crampons met ice. Some were my decisions, my fears. Some were student fears, uncomfortableness, all were in the name of risk management.
Emily and I stand at the base of the Pownall-Gilkey. It is butt cold. Clear, but cold. We make tracks long before the sun will ever hit us.
Looking at the building clouds over the mountains and plains to the west I pull the plug on
upward movement. Lindsey and I rap eight pitches down the Wishbone Arete running from weather that never materializes.
Ditto that for four pitches down Lost Temple Spire with Daren. Drat.
Colleen and I rap two pitches off of Moby Grape in sideways blowing snow and rain. We were off route anyway…
The list goes on and on but doesn’t even include the ones that I never get on, the ones that I will someday have the gumption to try. The ones from which fear has made me preemptively bail. Through it all though, I must admit, that I am getting much better at “just keep on looking up.”