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.
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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.

Neither of us slept that night. Twice, avalanches nearly killed us. We just lay in our tent, listening as intently as soldiers, straining to interpret the portent of each explosion.

My partner, soft-spoken Louisiana climber Ross Lynn, and I had come to eastern Tibet to attempt unclimbed 20,000-foot Nyambo Konka. The peak was so unknown we’d left home bereft of beta: no photographs, no descriptions, no idea what the mountain even looked like—just a fuzzy photocopy of a Chinese topo. It could have been a high-altitude walk-up or a sheer-walled monster.

The mystery of this isolated peak drew us like moths to light. It had taken a week of humping loads to reach the base of the east face, during which time it was ceaselessly misty or snowing. We had only seen the mountain once.

When the sun finally sliced through the mattress of clouds, we discovered we’d hiked right up beneath a quarter-mile-long hanging glacier. After beelining across a fan of avalanche debris, we made camp in what we thought was a safe alcove beneath a prominent rock rib.

That evening, Ross was regaling me with a story of his ascent of Lurking Fear, a notorious route on Yosemite’s El Capitan, when an ominous roar drowned out his words. Suddenly, ice and snow pummeled our tent. Ross and I dove out into the darkness, clawing barehanded and sock-footed to safety. After the avalanche passed, Ross in his laconic Southern drawl said, “Perhaps we should move camp.”

We spent the next hour digging out a new tent platform by headlamp, only to have an avalanche sweep by on the opposite side the moment we were back in our bags. At the first semblance of light, Ross exited the torn tent and studied the face above us with a monocular.

“How’s it look?” I asked from the warmth of my bag.

“Couloirs are avalanche chutes and the rock is rotten,” replied Ross.

“How’s the weather?”

“It’s not storming.”

What to do? Had we had two feet of fresh powder, or high winds, or both, we could have justly turned tail. But as often happens, from our present, radically foreshortened vantage point, we couldn’t accurately determine the conditions of the mountain. We had to test them firsthand. At this stage, the reward still seemed worth the risk.

We scrambled up the first few hundred feet, then the face steepened and we were confronted with the appalling insecurity of the rock: thousands of feet of sharp, irregular blocks stacked one on top of the other, held together only by the mortar of ice.

We reluctantly moved into the couloirs. Unroped, swinging ice tools, we began climbing the face, connecting ravines of snow. Despite the shaky start, all was going relatively well. Then the weather went to crap. Soon, snow squalls threatened to knock us off the face.

“We’re moving too slow!” I shouted over the roar of the wind. Ross nodded. Yelling back and forth, we discussed our options. Continuing upward, whether we reached the summit or not, guaranteed an exposed, bagless bivouac. Hypothermia certain, frostbite likely. If it snowed too much, we would be swept off the mountain by avalanches.

I stabbed my finger downward. Ross shouted, “OK,” and we turned around.

We descended all the way back to basecamp, where we recuperated with slabs of fried pork and buckets of Chinese greens—and planned our second assault. “Let’s try the south ridge,” I suggested. “More sun, less snow.”

We went alpine style, one push. Gaining the ridge directly from the valley floor required bushwhacking up a thousand vertical feet of briar patch. Emerging onto the alpine slopes, we were so scratched and bloodied we’d be pulling thorns out of our hands for weeks.

The ridge itself, which had appeared benign from a distance, turned out to be a series of ugly gendarmes—towers of crumbling rock. For several days, we tiptoed sideways and down and around more than up.

Then, somewhere above 16,000 feet, Ross slumped to the ground. It could have been the altitude, it could have been fatigue, it could have been the mental strain of dealing with fear and uncertainty for days on end. Whatever the cause, his body simply refused to go higher. No amount of cajoling could change the situation.

It crushed me to back down. Descending through the briar patch, thorns tearing at my skin, the expedition over, Churchill’s famous inducement reverberated in my head: “Never, never, never give up.”

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.

In the spring of 2009, I returned to Nyambo Konka with three partners: Jackson Hole Mountain Guide Kenny Gasch and two New Zealanders, Lydia Bradey and Penny Goddard. Both Kiwis had cut their teeth on hard routes in the Southern Alps. Lydia, a smart, tough climbing guide, was the first woman to climb Everest without oxygen and had led mountaineering expeditions around the globe. Penny, a beautiful avalanche forecaster, had also climbed Everest, as well as many other mountains.

The goal was once again the east face. Lydia and I were to make the first summit attempt, Kenny and Penny the second. Lydia and I left camp by headlamp, ascending steep couloirs for the first 2,000 feet (just as I had with Ross Lynn). We roped up to cross a delicate snow bridge connecting two gendarmes, then simul-climbed with the occasional ice screw between us.

By mid-afternoon, we were only one long pitch below the heavily corniced summit ridge. To surmount the cornice required tunneling up inside a precarious 40-foot shaft of ice. Popping out on top, I found myself on a knife-edge with a drop of thousands of feet on both sides. It was like hanging out of an airplane by the teeth of my ice tools. I was so scared I was queasy.

Looking up, I saw that the summit ridge was cut with crevasses and impossible to ascend or descend without a half dozen ice screws and several ropes, which we didn’t have. After delicately downclimbing from the brink and showing the digital photos to Lydia, she shook her head knowingly and stabbed her finger downward.

We had only dropped 800 feet when a storm pounced. We managed to chop out a ledge, erect our tent, and cook dinner. We initially talked cavalierly about our chances of surviving, but by midnight, we were actually worried. Our tent was being buried in new snow. “We’re in a bit of a pickle,” Lydia said.

If we stayed put and the snowstorm continued, we’d be washed away by avalanches. On the other hand, if we tried descending—in the dark, when we were already exhausted—we risked falling off the face.

Trying to make light of the situation, I sang a line from The Clash’s well-known ode to indecision. “Should we stay or should we go-oh?”

Lydia smiled grimly. “We go.”

Shoving our feet back into frozen boots, we stepped from the tent into the tempest. The cones of our headlamps were clotted with flying snow. The frozen tent was solid as an igloo, so we abandoned it. Eight treacherous inches of snow lay in the couloirs we had ascended 20 hours earlier.

We roped up and began carefully downclimbing, weaving between rock outcrops, hoping that if one of us slipped or was swept off the face by a slough, the rope would catch on something. The harder it snowed, the more I expected a misplaced posthole to start an avalanche and sweep us both to our deaths. For the first hour anxiety was ripping me apart, then Lydia said something that calmed me down:

“Mark, we have no choice. There’s nothing else we can do.”

This somehow created in me what could be called a sense of optimistic fatalism—I stopped sweating death, stopped worrying if we’d actually turned around too late, and just focused on downclimbing, one careful move at a time.

As in many other outdoor predicaments, mountaineering rarely presents a binary dilemma. Usually there are a host of options—you simply have to remain calm enough to think them through. If you’re cold, for example, should you simply move faster? Or should you put on more clothes, or build a fire, or change into dry clothes, or stop and take shelter, or put up your tent and get in your sleeping bag? There are often a dozen different places to ford a stream. Which is safest? Before giving up, and without panicking, you owe it to yourself to carefully work through each option.

The greatest difficulty arises when one person wants to turn around and another doesn’t. This is precisely when rational thinking must override emotion. But you have to understand whose emotions are at work, and why. Perhaps the objective dangers of continuing forward are minimal, but someone is freaking out. Then again, perhaps it’s the opposite and someone is driven more by pride than common sense. The cool head should always prevail.

Lydia and I reached camp below the east face an hour after dawn, where we rendezvoused with Kenny and Penny. Lydia ate a little, napped a little, and then miraculously carried on down to basecamp with Kenny. He had been studying the face, and decided it was a no-go. I holed up with Penny, hoping the next day would be sunny, the mountain would brush itself off, and we could give it another try in a day or two.

But it started snowing hard again that afternoon. We got in the tent. Penny made dinner while I cued up John Prine songs, plugging my earbuds underneath her blond pigtails. For a few hours it was fun, almost serene. But the snow kept falling. We lay listening to the muffled pounding of the flakes. By midnight, two feet had fallen.

“Avalanches are going to bury this tent,” Penny said.

Once again, we had no choice. Penny and I struck camp in the dark and began postholing off the mountain in a maelstrom. Once again I was terrified that the slopes we were plowing across might avalanche. We descended all night. It was only through using a GPS that we located Camp 1. The tents we had left there were flattened, buried beneath three feet of concrete-like snow. It didn’t matter. We were alive. We dug into one mess of broken poles, raised the nylon off of our faces with a ski pole, and passed out.

Thus ended my second expedition to Nyambo Konka.

Three weeks later, on a peak just a few miles away, renowned alpinists Micah Dash and Jonny Copp and photographer Wade Johnson all died in a massive avalanche.

When you research “quitting,” you find mountains of material about how easy it is to quit smoking and how morally important it is to never quit at anything. Both are lies.

In one slim study published in the September 2007 issue of Psychological Science, 90 adolescent girls took a questionnaire that measured how they reacted when they had to stop pursuing an important goal; researchers also collected and analyzed blood from these girls.

Despite accounting for other variables (age, ethnicity, smoking, obesity, etc.), the girls who most resisted giving up had higher levels of C-reactive protein in their blood, a condition that precedes heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

According to co-author Carsten Wrosch, a professor of psychology at Concordia University in Quebec, people who are better able to let go of goals may suffer fewer depressive symptoms and have lower levels of systemic inflammation. “Despite the popular and scientific enthusiasm for persistence, there are contexts in which it is likely maladaptive,” Wrosch writes. “Specifically, when people find themselves in situations in which they are unlikely to realize a goal, the most adaptive response may be to disengage from it.”

In another study published in 1984 in the Journal of Personality, psychologists compared high-self-esteem individuals to low-self-esteem individuals attempting difficult tasks. The researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, subjects were given groups of three words and asked to add another that was similar in nature; in the second, subjects were given stacks of difficult, geometric puzzles to solve. Both experiments were timed and there was a clear understanding that at a certain point, it was best to quit and move on.

High-self-esteem humans, despite their confidence and ability to recognize information suggesting they should quit, didn’t. The study’s authors concluded: “Our results indicate that individuals with high self-esteem may be prone to engage in nonproductive persistence in some situations. There are indeed many situations in which renewed effort may not be the optimal response to failure.

Our impression is that many researchers tend to equate high self-esteem with health and optimal functioning. We suggest, however, that high self-esteem can mean delusionally conceited as easily as low self-esteem can mean pathologically insecure.”

Whoa!

I actually witnessed this very behavior on my expedition to Everest last spring. Everest climbers are often guided clients who have been successful in some other walk of life. They have high self-esteem and don’t quit easily. Some won’t quit no matter what. Five people died in one day on Everest when I was there, and in all cases, they only had to do one thing to save their lives: turn around.

Why do people refuse to change course when there are so many good reasons to do so? The most insightful research I uncovered was conducted by psychologist Barry Staw. In 1976 Staw wrote a paper wonderfully titled Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy: A Study of Escalating Commitment to a Chosen Course of Action, a work now considered a classic in the business world.

The term Staw coined, “escalating commitment,” is roughly defined as unduly persisting in an unsuccessful endeavor. In subsequent papers, Staw describes how individuals, businesses, and governments get “locked” into a course of action despite the fact that the outcomes have been consistently negative. He identifies three key elements of escalating commitment.

Optimism and illusions of control. People like to believe everything is going to work out. It feels good. “They see themselves as performing better than others in most situations and able to avoid future mishaps,” writes Staw. “Accidents and illness are things that happen to other people. Underlying such optimism is the belief that one can control one’s destiny.”

Self-justification. After having made a decision, “people convince themselves that it was the right thing to do,” which only increases their zealotry.

Sunk costs. After having devoted enormous resources of time, money, and emotion into a project, no matter how irrational it may be to continue, some people just can’t bear to pull out.

Again, my recent experience on Everest is perspicaciously instructive. All five of those who died on Everest refused to turn around. One specifically told her Sherpa that she had paid a lot for her expedition (sunk costs), and expected to reach the summit. Another insisted he was strong enough to reach the summit and descend (optimism and illusions of control), despite repeated advice to the contrary from his Sherpa. They had decided they would go to the top no matter if it killed them, and it did.

I, of course, would never act irrationally, which is why I decided to avoid the avalanche-prone east face on my third attempt of Nyambo Konka, in the autumn of 2011. My new/old goal was the south ridge, the second route Ross Lynn and I had failed to climb in 2005. My partner was Joel Charles, bicycle guru and fellow winter mountaineer. Skinny as a rail, Joel wears long johns even in the summer.

Denver, L.A., Chengdu, Luding, a taxi to the trailhead, heavy packs to the toe of the ridge. From basecamp at 10,400 feet, we spent two glorious days vertically bushwhacking, using our crampons and ice axes to claw our way up the thorn-and-spine spiked foliage.

We established Camp 1 on the ridge, at 14,600 feet, scattering herds of wide-horned Tibetan blue sheep. It was an idyllic site on a spit of grass. We spread out our foam pads and watched an ocean of clouds surge up the fjord-like valley.

The jeopardous gendarmes, which I had conveniently forgotten in the intervening six years, began just above us. For the first 2,000 feet beyond Camp 1, Joel and I—like Ross and I before—were able to thread ourselves around these threatening steeples of rubble on one side or the other. Usually it was a matter of descending until we found a notch in a side rib, trickily cutting through, then trudging back up sliding scree to regain the ridge.

It was perilous going, the rock getting worse the higher we climbed. At one point, the ridge became so ridiculously shattered and sketchy that, after downclimbing back to Camp 1, Joel and I seriously discussed ending the expedition right then. But we didn’t, of course. Undue optimism prevailed. It was too early to throw in the towel. The gendarmes would disappear, the rock would improve. We just had to get a little higher.

Measured optimism is essential if you’re going to get anywhere as a mountaineer. You can’t let minor setbacks like a bit of bad rock or bad weather scare you. As soon as you think you’re going to fail, you do. A close climbing partner of mine, John Harlin, calls this “retreating in the face of imminent victory.” Years ago on Canada’s Mt. Waddington, Harlin and I agreed to a 2 p.m. turnaround time. But when that bell tolled, we were still five pitches from the summit.

Snow was coming. Rescue wasn’t. By any objective measure, we should have retreated. But we didn’t. We summited at 5 p.m. and struggled through the night to get down to camp—where we celebrated our successful completion of the first ascent of the South Face Direct. Lesson: A pinch of courage and a pound of perseverance can take you a long way in the mountains.

Joel and I eventually reached 17,200 feet and decided to make Camp 2 right there because a storm was blossoming. While Joel began hacking out a platform with his ice axe, I continued above him to recon a possible route. The ridge had now become truly menacing.

I climbed unroped through a half-dozen exposed towers, reaching 18,200 feet, before encountering a massive, jenga-like gendarme. It was the turret of a medieval castle—steep rock with sinister blocks hanging out everywhere. I knew I should turn around, but my ego kicked in. This was my third attempt on this mountain (sunk costs); I should have the ability to climb this rock arête, no matter how rotten (illusions of control); this must be the right route because I chose it (self-justification).

Searching right and left, I found a place I thought was feasible and slid out on a snowy, window-sill-size ledge. Forcing myself to stay calm and ignore the swirling oblivion below, I removed my gloves, reached up, gripped the snow-crusted plates of rock, and, holding my breath, pulled myself up. Nothing popped out. I made another move, stretching for fingerlocks in the friable stone, then another. After a few minutes of the most delicate climbing I’ve ever done in big boots, I stood atop the gendarme...only to discover a dozen more disintegrating minarets above me.

That was it. My rational mind was finally reawakened. Even if we managed to get through some of these spires, a block from one of them would eventually pull and the crag would collapse and drag us both to our deaths. It was over. I was done with this peak for good. All I wanted at that moment was to be down. To be on flat, solid ground, in the forest.

I had been so focused on going up; now I had to get down. Concentrating with a mortal intensity that can only be summoned when the smallest mistake will result in one’s immediate demise, I lowered myself in slow motion. I willed myself to be weightless, my touch on the stone a mere whisper. Inch by inch, like a dancer’s leap slowly played backward, I downclimbed the gendarmes.

Back at Camp 2, I crumpled onto the platform Joel had chopped into the airy ridge. I felt like I was going to puke. Snow was whizzing by horizontally, the wind batting our heads like a boxer, and it was getting dark. I showed Joel photos of the ridge above. He nodded, smirked sorrowfully, and stabbed his finger downward.

During the long, chancy descent, in a moment of fatigue- and fear-induced lucidity, a quote from W.C. Fields popped into my head: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” •

Mark Jenkins is the writer-in-residence at the University of Wyoming. He failed to reach the summit of Mont Blanc some years back, and it’s starting to bug him.