The Two Most Important Skills for Staying Alive

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This note got started by some comments that Charles made on my page on the Four Mile Trail, basically asking if it was safe to hike it in late April/early May. I said that the most important piece of safety equipment is a willingness to turn around. Charles mentioned his obsession with hiking Half Dome and I wrote a reply comment, but then thought I would put this here instead since it's not really related to the Four Mile Trail.

It's funny. Turning around has never been that hard for me. My wife and I have talked a lot about this. I guess I'm very process oriented. I can really dig deep and suffer for a goal, but at the same time if I feel like the immediate goal (summit) doesn't match my overriding goal (survival), I can change focus and have fun without reaching the goal too. I think part of the key is to tell yourself ahead of time that you'll enjoy your time in the outdoors no matter what the outcome.

I think the two most important skills in mountaineering are

  • Knowing when to give up.
  • Knowing when not to give up.

A large percentage of deaths can be attributed to errors in one of those two areas. There are so many examples. I was climbing the Dent Blanche with a friend and when we were about 100 meters from the summit, I wanted to turn around because the weather made me nervous, though it was still 70% blue sky. My friend thought I was crazy and insisted on the summit. We went and as we turn around, I felt a bee in my hair. Then I realized, there were no bees up there! Looked at him and both of us had our hair standing straight up! We hurried to get off the ridge, found a snow slope and jumped onto it and slid down a few hundred feet and got out of the lightning danger. It would not have bothered me at all to turn around. Similar thing happened on the Diamond on Long's Peak. I didn't like the weather, but my partner, whose name is withheld in order to maintain a harmonious household, wanted to go. We were lucky. We climbed fast, got caught in a storm after the climb but shy of the summit, had our hair buzzing, and luckily ran into some other climbers who knew a safe way off the top. If we had been a half-hour later, we literally might have died because a four-day snow storm moved in with lots of lightning and we were preparing to hunker down.

The moral? I almost got fried by lightning twice because I let my inner voice get overruled by the desire of my partners to go for it. Bad judgement (even though it turned out okay). Of course, our terrible accident of a couple of years ago happened in a situation where neither of us perceived the risk.

Then there's the flip side of not giving up, which is giving up too soon. People think they're exhausted and they sit down in the snow and die. People are tired and do stupid things like get lost but decide to press on instead of backtracking to the last known location. When you're dog tired, deciding to backtrack can take an incredible force of will, but just hoping to press on and get unlost can be a risky strategy.

Most of staying alive doesn't have anything to do with gear, it has to do with what goes on in your head. And for when the chips are down, having a high fitness level is also a nice asset.

Charles, if you make it back here, you might also find my page on the Death in Yosemite book interesting. Had an interesting discussion with someone over there too.

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