Friday, October 17, 2008

Climbing and Failure

Since long before I started guiding, I kept a journal of my ascents. I noted how many days it took to do a mountain route and who I did it with. I also noted how many times it took to get up an alpine route or a hard rock climb. Over the years this journal become an invaluable resource. I am now able to take that information and see patterns and statistics. And perhaps the most pertinent pattern is my success rate.

On non-guided alpine climbs I summit approximately 67 percent of the time or two thirds of the time. On rock climbs that are at or slightly above the limits of my skill, I fail approximately 80 percent of the time.

On Toqllaraju (19,790 ft.) in Peru. I was sick when we climbed this
and wasn't sure it would go...but we summited!

(Photo by Andrew Wexler)

Anecdotal evidence indicates that these types of statics are the norm for climbers who "get-after-it." Failure to summit or failure to complete your rock climb without falling are major elements of the game. Indeed, one could argue that without the possibility of failure, climbing as a pursuit is meaningless.

Dealing with failure is a whole other ballgame though. Some people are fine with it, while others throw tantrums. When one's failure is the result of another team member, sometimes grudges are created and sometimes people treat the individual who caused the failure poorly. This latter response is completely inappropriate. Climbing is a team sport and if one person can't make it and forces a team to turn back, that too is part of the game.

Some failures can be chalked up to no one's fault (i.e. the weather crapped out or a key hold broke). Whereas others might relate to improper fitness, poor route-finding, a poorly executed strategy, or any number of other things. The reality is that regardless of what caused the failure, you still failed and you will still have to deal with the aftermath.

Long before I became a guide I attempted Mount Baker twice, before I summited
on my third time. I've now summited Baker 31 times.


Some people are not very good at dealing with failure in climbing. They let it eat away at themselves. "I was only a thousand feet from the summit!" or "It was just two more moves and I would have gotten to the anchor!" And while these sentiments might be true, they should not dominate your thought process. Mountains and rocks will always be there and there will always be another opportunity.

Climbers can't help but compare themselves to others. It's easy to look at high-end climbers and to assume that they're always successful. It's easy to look at somebody that's floating up a hard rock climb like it's nothing and then to assume that that's the way they were born. In both cases, these climbers failed on numerous occasions before they were successful.

By examining my success and failure rate I was able to see that ultimately I do tend to achieve my goals. In some cases it takes two or three or ten tries. But when one's mind is set on an objective, failure is a positive part of the process. If you have failed on a summit or a route multiple times, success is significantly sweeter than it is when you get up everything every time.

Failure is a major part of the learning process. I know -- through guiding -- that my success rate on peaks that I once considered daunting, is considerably higher. Failure has taught me how to climb those peaks. Failure has taught me how to climb a hard rock route. Failure has allowed me to battle through the crux of a tricky ice route. Failure and my ability to learn from it is what has made me the climber that I am today.

--Jason D. Martin

4 comments:

John said...

Great perspective Jason... good reminder for us all.

andrew w said...

Great photo Jason! Is that a Wexler photo by chance :)?

Bill said...

I always enjoy the AAI blog and look forward to it every day, but this item was especially good!

Kaj said...

Well stated Jason - the best lessons in life come from failure. It is our ability to recover from these failures that makes the taste of success that much sweeter.

At the end of the day it is being out in the wildeness and the camaraderie of the team which makes mountaineering a unique sport. We all play our part and we all need to enjoy the complete experience - summit or no summit.