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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.