Failure And The Art Of Abseiling

This post is about failure.  Yes I know.  That’s a topic that’s been written about quite often.  J Money over at Budgets Are Sexy did a cool post a little while back listing out some major failures in his life and career, and asked for his readers to comment with theirs.

I commented to that post with two failures, drinking too much in my youth and a bad stock purchase.  Believe me, I could have kept typing away and provided enough content to keep a blog running for a few years with my failures in life.

This post however is about a very recent failure. 


Too Cold For Ice

The day after new years, I drove up to the Adirondacks to go ice climbing and mountaineering with my climbing buddy Andy.  Most of the country was already a week into a deep freeze, so the ice was good.  Our timing seemed perfect.

Ice Climbing Adirondacks

A Warm Up Day Before The Big Climb

But the forecast called for ridiculously low temps for our 4 days of climbing.  Two of the days were supposed to reach minus 10 degrees – for the high temperature.  It sounds counter intuitive, but it can be too cold to go ice climbing.

On our second day, we decided to climb a route called the Trap Dike.  It’s an Adirondack classic route, a must-do.  I had never tried it, but my partner had climbed it twice.  So I was pumped.  He would know the route well, which is extra safety.

Well, things started off ominously as the forecast changed overnight and numerous inches of snow were now expected.  Additionally, we didn’t know how much snow the route itself already had.  It had been so cold that no climbers had been on it for a week.

So we just prepared and went.  We brought everything necessary for a long day of suffering in the mountains.  This preparation comes from years of adventure and failure in similar circumstances.


Winter Wonderland

During the 5 mile hike to get to the route, the snow kept getting deeper.  We soon found ourselves in snowshoes with 3 feet of glorious powder in all directions.

Junction On The Hike In, We Were Going Right


Hike In to Avalanche lake

Snowshoeing In As The Storm Kept Raging

It was challenging to take pictures since having our gloves off for more than a minute or two made our fingers numb.  But Andy took this short video when we got to Avalanche Lake.


We crossed Avalanche Lake which was of course frozen as you can see in the video and started on our way up the Trap Dike.

After climbing the first pitch (a section of a climb that is shorter than your rope and that allows for an anchor spot or safe zone at the top) we realized the snow was only getting deeper and it was still accumulating about an inch an hour.

Trap Dike Winter Climb

Me Starting Toward The Second Pitch

We were moving slow and losing time, the snow reached up to our chests at times.  Speed is safety in the mountains, we could not afford to be out in the dark on this climb and winter hours meant an abrupt 4:00pm sunset.

So we decided to “free solo” the second pitch.  In short, free soloing means climbing without a rope or a safety belay.  It saves time as you do not have to set up your anchors and tie-in points.  Let me say for the record, 4 out of 5 doctors do not recommend free soloing for good health and a long life.  And that 5th doctor, well, he’s out there….

Ice Tool

My Ice Tool, Ready For Action

We made the second pitch and I started leading the third pitch, again free soloing.  This is when things started going wrong.  As I kept climbing up through a mixture of deep snow, ice, and rock, the snow and ice kept getting looser and there was too much exposed rock.  Smooth and steep rock.  Jaggedy and cracked rock is fine when you have ice tools, you can hook into it.  But smooth rock leaves you helpless.

I got to a point where I was barely hanging on.  Looking up, apparent safety was only 4 feet above me.  My ice tools were marginally keeping me on the cliff and a fall would have been catastrophic.  I freaked for a micro-second but just breathed deep and kept my cool.

You’ve been in hairy situations in the mountains before, keep your head and you’ll be fine.

I made it to the safer, flat part above me only to find that I was now trapped.  There was no more ice or snow to climb above me, only exposed rock.  Smooth rock as flat as a board.  I couldn’t go right or left, and lord knows I couldn’t down climb what I just did.  It was way too sketchy.

Andy was still below me and would have to climb a different gully next to mine and then throw me the rope to belay me to safety.  I was literally stuck on an uneven 8 inch slab of ice.


Ice Is Frozen Except When It’s Water

As my partner climbed up, the two gullies were situated in a way that I could watch him.  He free soloed the last pitch of ice to get to a visual safety spot to set up the belay.  Just as he topped out, he fell through the ice into a pool of water.  Sweet molly in a manger no….

Let me explain this briefly.  When you’re ice climbing, you’re climbing a frozen stream or creek.  When ice is fully formed it’s solid throughout and thick, but if it’s warm enough or if there’s a nearby underground spring with water warmer than 32 degrees flowing, liquid water could be flowing underneath the ice.  This scenario is what Andy stumbled upon.

So it’s 4 degrees out, snowing hard, I’m still stuck, and my partner just got drenched up to his waist.  The climb instantly turned into a cluster-eff of the Mongolian type.

Andy quickly got out of the water and, adrenaline pumping, started to set up an anchor to belay me.  That’s why he’s my best climbing partner.  He’s a badass and selfless.  Soaking wet from the waist down with 32 degree water, his hypothermia clock was ticking fast.

“Let me get you outta there and then we’re gonna have to bail”.  Yeah.  Bail meant retreat down.  And the only way to do that would be to abseil.

He tossed me the rope and I quickly got off the ice ledge by taking a short plunge on the side of a rock, roped from above.

Then we set up our abseils and started going down.  Mind you, there wasn’t much to anchor to but we made due.  When you have an emergency such as Andy’s oncoming frostbite, you anchor to a rock, a tree, whatever.  You make due.


Trap Dike Winter Climb

We Set Our Second Abseil Up Around This Tree. Notice the Drop-Off On The Left


Trap Dike Winter Climb

Yours Truly Looking Down Over the Cliff Of Our Last Abseil


We abseiled as fast as we could and started the long five mile slog back to the trailhead and car.  Andy’s feet were numb at this point as his boots were soaked, but he had to press on. 

The best way for him to keep from getting frostbite was to haul ass on the trail to build up body heat.  He used to be a professional soccer player, is 9 years younger than me, and is super-fit.  So he started tearing down the trail. 

A slow run with a 40 pound pack was all I could do to keep up.  By the time we got to the car I was actually drenched in sweat and Andy saved his feet using the heat from the car.  Ten hours after we started that morning we were safe.


Fail Forward

We failed that day on Trap Dike.  In bombastic fashion.  If you’ve read this far you’re a trooper.  

But our failures are stepping stones.  They’re clandestine gains in life.

As a climber I’m used to failure.  Climbing dishes it out often.  But the wrong kind of failure in climbing can be fast and final.  Too much hubris and ego will get you killed.  Over time you learn what to do and what not to do, how to prepare.  You learn what kind of failure is acceptable and beneficial even, and what kind is terminal.

My previous climbing failures prepared me for this one.  I took note of places to abseil while we were going up, just in case.  Andy and I didn’t panic when I was literally stuck and he was up to his waist in ice water.  We calmly did what we needed to do to get out of the situation.

Your previous failures are a book of knowledge in your head, with valuable information ready at your call.  Don’t be ashamed of them.  Don’t hide them.  And above all don’t try to forget them.

If it’s a failed business or website, a poorly-timed home purchase, or a 2 year spending bender that racked up thousands in consumer debt.  Don’t sweep it under a rug.  It taught you things.  Keep those lessons and use them.

If you’re a blogger, blog about it.  If not, write it down in a journal.  Tell your spouse, or your kids.  Own it.  Let them know that not only are you not embarrassed or ashamed by your failure, you’re using it to win moving forward.

Trap Dike Winter Climb

The Snowy Hike Back, Racing Sunset


Failure Cultivates Courage

When Andy and I took off that morning to climb Trap Dike we knew failure was a very strong possibility.  With brutally cold temps and an unexpected snowstorm the cards were stacked against us. 

We went anyway.

Of course it’s easy to just say “big deal, if you can’t climb the mountain then you just come down”.  But as we both knew, failure could have simply meant turning around due to bad conditions, or it could have meant injury or death.  Mountains can serve up failure across the spectrum of consequence.

We chose to take a “no fear” approach on that climb.  The resilience and perseverance from previous failed climbs drove us.  If we succeeded, we no doubt would have learned more about climbing and our abilities.

But because we failed, it was the same.  Our failure taught us much, and I consider my self a better climber for it.

Risk comes with the attempt of any worthy goal in life.  Financial independence is no different.  If you embrace the risk and learn from the guaranteed failures on the way, your journey is sure to take you where you want it to.

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43 Responses

  1. Bob says:

    Awesome article Accidental Fire guy. I have never done the climbing thing with ropes and ice axes but really enjoy watching it and reading about it. That was kind of a close call considering the temps, but it sounds like you have a great partner. You never really know what you are going to encounter when out on the trail and should be prepared, at least mentally, for anything, and it sounds like you are.

  2. Team CF says:

    Great story, good response too! Keep your head cool, think and act. Really a life saver.
    P.s. those photos make me wonder why we left Canada! Very nice.

  3. I think I can safely check off that kind of activity as something I never want to do. lol! wow! that is scary! But you did prepare so that’s a great thing! I think what I got out of the story is that most failure won’t kill you, so try anyway. Have some safety nets or plan b’s if necessary, but try anyway.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Indeed, I think both in my athletic and professional lives failure has been my greatest learning tool. Problem is it often sucks at the time. But you can’t go through life on the sidelines not trying.

  4. i fell through some spring ice on pharaoh lake in the ADK when i was 12. you can make mistakes and recover but i’ve noticed you don’t come back from death. but being near death once or twice in a lifetime keeps you much calmer when the s+p500 drops 10% in a week. are you within driving distance of those climbs? it’s a great place to live. rock on and stay safe.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Glad you made it out of that, falling through ice is never good. I live in the Washington DC area so it’s an 8 hour drive to the Daks. It’s probably my favorite place on the east coast though so I go as much as I can.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Joe says:

    Wow, that was scary. Glad to hear you guys made it back okay and learn along the way.

  6. The saying I was taught and go with for rappeling off trees was
    5 x 5 and Alive ~ 5″ trunk 5′ tall and of course tree needs to be alive

    Did I mention I hate cold temps LOL I think the biggest reason I chased the FI life was so I could move away from the frozen central Canadian winters and avoid the deep freeze forever 🙂

    Glad you got down ok, I hate feeling pinned on a route and totally know that micro wig out you were talking about 🙂

    • Accidental Fire says:

      I’ve heard that 5/5/ alive saying. Of our three rappels we had two trees which met that criteria (one barely), but one rappel had a Dyneema sling already up there. Problem is it was on a rock and the whole setup was sketch. But there was literally no where else to anchor from. We had to use it. We inspected it and the Dyneema looked pretty new so we went. But I’ve heard the term “alpine slings are trash” and it still made me nervous.

      Ha, tough to be a Canuck and hate the cold! But I realize the Vancouver area is mild, milder than here in DC in winter.

      Love that term – “micro-wig”. I’m gonna reuse that!

  7. DocG says:

    Wow. What a story! And well told!

  8. steveark says:

    My wife and I like to extreme hike but taking those kind of risks, where there is a percentage chance of dying, might get you killed in the long run. It is just math, no different than compound interest. The number of fatal risks you take times the percentage chance it will happen has to be kept at a very low total value or you will not make it to my age. I didn’t realize that either in my younger days which led to some brilliant moves like skiing off a 40 foot cliff that should have killed me. I keep my skiis on the snow now. Great writing though, it made me feel like I was along on the adventure.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Everyone has to decide how much risk they want to take when they do any activity. There’s percentage chance of dying in many things of course. I would offer though that every night when we go to bed another 100 Americans are dead from car crashes. Every single day, totaling over 37,000 per year. Driving carries more danger than most things any of us do, but most don’t think twice about it and even text and play around while they’re piloting a 4000lb machine. I’m more afraid of dying in a car crash than in the mountains, and with smartphones constantly in people’s hands while they’re driving it’s only getting worse.

      I admit the free soloing was not the best idea and in hindsight we should not have done it. Andy and I discussed it afterwards and decided to make that “one to grow on” and not do it again.

      I hear ya on the skiing. I’m a snowboarder myself and did all the crazy terrain-park stuff in my youth. I keep the board on the snow now for the most part. Same with mountain biking. I don’t heal too fast anymore 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

      • steveark says:

        Trust me it goes from healing slower, to not healing at all to breaking yourself for no reason at all. But you can’t stop living and life with no risk isn’t really living.

        • Accidental Fire says:

          I hear ya, had my second knee surgery last year and pretty sure I’ll need new ones by the time I’m in my 70’s. I hope to follow the model of the book “Younger Next Year”, I have a link on my ‘recommends’ page. If we stay fit we should still be able to enjoy outdoor activities into our 70’s and even 80’s. Just way slower and with more Ibuprophen 🙂

  9. Thank God you both came out okay in the end! We definitely learn so much more from failures/losses than we do from success/wins.

    Awesome pictures as well!!

  10. Erin says:

    Whew, glad this failure wasn’t of the death or frostbite variety!

    Near-death experiences notwithstanding, those are some gorgeous pics!

    • And that posted before I was done. Since it wasn’t a deadly failure, it was an excellent lesson in what we can learn from failure (and something I need to keep in mind since I’ve historically been scared of failing) 🙂

      • Accidental Fire says:

        Andy probably would have gotten frostbite in his feet if we were out for a few more hours. They were totally numb when we got to the car and his feet even hurt a bit the next day. But he’s fine now.

        I believe we’re all scared of failing on some level. When I was a kid I used to be terrified of failing and disappointing my Dad. But as the failures pile up, the lessons do to. I prefer to look at the second part of that sentence 🙂

        Thanks for the comment Erin!

  11. need2save says:

    I really really hate cold water. Just reading Andy’s situation made me cringe. Glad to hear there is no permanent damage.

  12. Mrs Groovy says:

    My coffee began churning in my stomach as I read this. To my thinking, you won — because you’re alive to tell a great story with a happy ending. There were many opportunities for your day to become a disaster. I’m with Steveark on this one. That kind of risk is not worth the reward, IMO.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Sorry I made your stomach churn, that wasn’t my intent :/ I do love adventure and with it comes risk, but as I told Steveark, driving a car on our roads today is often a bit more risk than I’m comfortable with. Especially after one of my employees was killed in a crash a few years back.

      Thanks for the comment and please keep reading, my next post will assuredly not make your stomach churn 🙂

  13. MrFiGuy says:

    This post gave me a lot of anxiety. I’m newly married and my wife is a big climber and has been getting me into it (the easy stuff). I kept imagining her or me in the situation you described and it was just too much. Maybe I’m just not cut out for the ‘extreme’ side of climbing.

    I am glad you survived and didn’t take the fall! That would have make the experience much more a failure. I recently had a big failure at work, missing a big international flight. At the time it felt like the end of the world, but as time goes on I realize it’s changing the way I approach procrastination and time management. Failing forward. Thanks for the post.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Man, first a “stomach churn” reaction and now anxiety…. I hope I’m not making for uncomfortable reading. I’ve been climbing for 20+ years and I’d like to think I have my risk management down pretty well, but Mother Nature writes the rules…

      One of my biggest recurring nightmares is missing a big flight. I’ve never had it happen, but been very close. That does seem like a great way to teach time management though, so yours is a perfect example of a fail-learn-improve cycle.

      Thanks for the comment!

  14. Wow, that was riveting! So glad everyone came out safe and sound. I’ve climbed but never on the ice, I know for sure I won’t now. 🙂

    But yes, learn from your mistakes and keep going forward. Excellent message!

    • Accidental Fire says:

      It probably looks more dangerous than it is but I understand that many think we’re crazy to climb ice. It’s safer than base jumping 🙂

      Thanks for the kind words!

  15. Tawcan says:

    Great story, I’ve done something similar before but not as extreme. Glad that everyone came out safe and sound.

  16. Thank you for encouraging bloggers to write about failure. I’m all about being open with readers about our (too many) fails. I think it fosters more trust — and by being honest, you don’t risk making your readers feel bad because you always seem to do everything perfectly. Let them know you’re human!

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Yes, sometimes blogs can suffer from “social media syndrome” where all you see is the good stuff that people want you to see. I could do a hundred more failure posts 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  17. Holy $hit. What a crazy story. I have no idea how you kept your cool. There is failure to achieve your goal and there is failure when you end up injured or worse. The first kind is good. Without setting lofty goals that you sometimes miss, you will never live the life you want. The second kind, I try to avoid. Everything in life has risk. Still, sometimes you can reduce risk and still enjoy the experience you want.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Glad you enjoyed the story Jason. I love adventure sports and they carry a bit of risk, but with a cool head, planning, and knowledge it’s very minimal. As stated to another commenter, they’re much safer than driving on our roads which frankly scares me to death.

      Thanks for the comment!

  18. Whoa. I just can’t get past falling in icy water when it’s 4 degrees and then having to hike yourself back before you get hypothermia. As much as it might have been a “failure” it sure doesn’t sound like one from the outside.

  19. Susan @ FI Ideas says:

    There’s that saying “Good judgement comes from experience, experience comes from poor judgement”. I’m amazed at the level of climbing you are doing. Incredible story!

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