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Every spring I go into a training frenzy, and usually that means long trail runs. As winter releases its frigid grip, I can begin to concentrate on hammering rather than hypothermia, so I start trying new cross-country runs I’ve scoped out.
Last weekend I was trying to link two scrambly out-and-back routes through Capitol Reef into one long, scenic loop. As usual for these kinds of link-ups, that means the exploratory part of the trip occurs in its most remote and committing portions, where the consequences of any mishap are magnified.
Indeed, I’d turned around twice on previous attempts to run this loop, intimidated by several short cliff scrambles where a fall might leave me stranded in a deep, boulder-jumbled gully. This time however, I was in an upbeat, aggressive mood, so I forged on. After two short cliffs, I was committed to finishing the loop. And then I came up against cliff #3.
Despite being nonplussed by this unexpected challenge, I squashed second doubts and jogged up into a narrowing, slickrock gully that became steeper and more crumbly as I ascended. Near its top, the gully pinched out into eroded overhangs, but a footledge ran left to a crack, which ascended to slabs above, detouring around the problematic roofs.
It was all easy climbing. The holds were huge and nothing was vertical. A lot of aggressive hikers would sail through this. And today, at least, I was an aggressive hiker. Easy terrain was only 20 feet above me. Everything seemed cool as long as I didn’t look down. If I polished this off, I’d be on known terrain in a half hour. So I tiptoed out the footledge and began jamming my way up the slab crack.
The closer I came to the rollovers above, the worse it got. The rock turned to sand. The crack flared into an insecure V. But the moves weren’t too hard, and upward progress was easier than downclimbing, so I kept moving up, fixated on topping out.
The rock turned to the consistency of sugar cubes. Then it pinched out into a dead-end groove too shallow for my fingers and toes. My body began trembling in that phenomenon eloquently described as ‘sewing machine leg.’ I started to sketch out, my mind wallowing in totally counterproductive panic. Upward progress ground to a halt. I was stuck near the top of an exposed scramble, suspended over a field of unforgiving boulders, and my self-control was crumbling.
I’d made the most common fatal error in hiking; scrambling unroped into a position from which I couldn’t safely downclimb. And I knew that even before my hike. I knew it as I looked at the cliff. I thought about it as I started my scramble. Yet I still climbed myself slowly, move by move, into a potentially deadly situation, simply because I was scrabbling from unsatisfactory hold to unsatisfactory hold, abandoning those below because they didn’t feel secure enough, and moving up only to be disappointed.
My feet scraped for purchase. Sand grains rolled under my fingertips. I reached that mental headspace where you know this is it, every move has to be perfect, every doubt and thought rigidly controlled, or you won’t see sundown.
Somehow I found reserves of mental control left over from long-ago decades of rock climbing, clamped down on my brain, and treadmilled up the disintegrating sandstone even as it evaporated underneath me. Topping out, I sat down on a broad, sunny ledge and berated myself for being a moron.
Unroped falls are the most common cause of death among hikers and backpackers. And I can guarantee that most of those falls happened the exact same way my epic did: A short, unexpected obstacle; The completion of your route so close at hand; Climbing difficulties that crux up high; Too much tunnel-visioned focus on upward movement with not enough awareness of alternatives. I’d been stupid but I’d gotten lucky, just like a thousand other hikers do every weekend.
Interestingly, I repeated the same route again several days later with much less drama. Simply by looking around, I found a nearby game trail that avoided the rotten crack altogether. It turns out I’d blown one of my nine lives needlessly – and not for the first time.
So, in the spirit of my dumb mistake, I offer this mental checklist for hikers and backpackers. Next time you’re staring at a cliff and wondering whether it’s worth it, ask yourself these questions:
 Do I actually need to do it?
 What will I gain? What might I lose?
 What will happen if I do fall?
 Do I still want it?
Save those nine lives for when you really need them.–Steve Howe