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Die Another Day

You won't get far in the backcountry without pushing through challenging conditions and terrain. But perseverance can be your worst enemy, and turning around the only way to succeed. Mark Jenkins explores the fine line between daring and doom.

Back in Wyoming, my friends all wanted to know what happened. We met at our usual time at the usual pub. On one screen there was boxing, the commentator praising the guts of the guy getting his face rearranged. On another screen, football players battled.

Trainers carried a giant off the field as the commentator went on about how “this guy never says die.” Bruce Springsteen wailed in the background… “no retreat baby, no surrender.” Pints arrived. My buddies were ready for the story. “There isn’t much of one,” I said dejectedly, “things went sideways and we turned around.” I didn’t even have any frostbite to show off.

We all talk a good game about how it’s the journey, not the destination, about how what matters is the experience—but what we really want is a fight against the elements. We want hubris, a heroic struggle. “Quitters never win and winners never quit” is practically the motto of America.

We are steeped in this sophism from birth. As a culture, we dismiss moderation and despise defeat. “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence,” said President Calvin Coolidge. “The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

That’s fine when the goal is reaching a budget compromise in Congress. And in most sports that Americans play, the consequences of not quitting are typically no more than fatigue, maybe a torn muscle, at most a trip to the hospital. We live in a land of second chances. Break your ankle playing basketball, cast it, rehab, good as new.

But in the outdoors, you’re time-warped back into an anachronistic kingdom where indifferent Mother Nature, not you, makes the rules and changes them any time she likes. And the consequences of not quitting are often draconian.

As in the Old Testament, the smallest infractions can be severely punished. Keep moving when you’re exhausted, break your ankle, and you’re in for the fight of your life. Slip on snow on the Grand Teton, and you die. Stomp stubbornly into a storm, get lost, freeze to death.

Too many people leap past the invisible line of safety—often just before that slip happens. Testosterone is a common culprit; inexperience, a close second. Some hikers forget their safety net (did you leave your route with a friend or spouse?); others grab satellite communicators and treat these high-tech nets like get-out-of-jail-free cards.

In truth, rescue has gotten easier, and that’s good. But quitting, it seems, has gotten harder. Nowadays, rescue is cooler than retreat.

There was no possibility of rescue on Nyambo Konka. Ross and I knew this and still pushed our limits. Nonetheless, failing to reach the top got to me. I admit to a badger-like obstinacy when it comes to climbing mountains.

I know it’s old fashioned, but I like to stand on top. I failed on Denali in 1980 and returned 20 years later and made it. I failed on Everest in 1986 and returned 26 years later and got it done. In the mountains, thank God, you don’t get something for nothing. It’s the opposite of winning the lottery. The only real reward is the satisfaction of the struggle and an empty summit. But there’s an invisible line between pushing hard and pushing too hard.

We all know how great it feels to not give up, persevere, and pull through. And we all know how rotten it feels to give up too early, to back down before giving it your best. In between is the muddy arena where humility and pride, fear and courage do battle.

Ross and I failed on Nyambo Konka in 2005. In the next few years, the reality of what we had experienced was slowly replaced by the age-old romance of exploratory mountaineering—the magnetic draw of the unknown, the grand potential for a first ascent. If we went in the spring rather than the fall… if the conditions were better… if we had a four-person team…

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

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