Explorers Connect

Turning back on a mountain, the toughest decision

Adventure RevolutionJames Hipkiss

Turning back on a mountain the toughest decision When you announce to the world you are off to climb a mountain its pretty much assumed that you will summit; not only by the people you tell, but also by yourself.

You certainly depart for your trip with the intention of reaching the top. But what happens when things get tricky and you are faced with the choice is it time to turn back? The wrong decision could cost you your life. Reaching the summit worth dying for? Maisie Hayman talks to Squash Falconer who is no stranger to climbing mountains. In fact shes climbed a few. In 2008 she climbed Cho Oyu, only 600m lower than Mt Everest and bum boarded back down. An interesting achievement that demonstrates Squashs ability to design unique adventures! In 2009 she rode her BMW motorbike to the foot of Mt Blanc, reached the top and leapt off with her paraglider becoming the first British woman to do so.

Then last year she summited Mt Everest where she celebrated her 30th birthday. Not every trip has gone exactly to plan though. Here Squash explains her thoughts on turning back, the time she had to make the call and her surprise reaction to the outcome. How and when did you get into mountaineering? I was 23 when I climbed my first mountain, Aconcagua in Argentina. A group of friends who I did endurance adventure races with were off to climb it and I wanted to go too. So I did! When you first began climbing mountains what were your thoughts on reaching the top?

I knew that making the summit wasn't guaranteed. In fact I knew that often on big mountains the odds are against you and for reasons that you sometimes have no control over like the weather. I also knew there were reasons that I did have control over, like fitness, and so I went in the best shape I could be in for the climb. Looking back even knowing that a summit wasn't a given I did assume I would get there, or rather I didn't spend much time thinking I might not. I was going to climb Aconcagua, there was an itinerary for the climb with several possible summit attempts and Id be back after that, after Id reached the summit. I did reach the summit as I had intended; therefore nothing was learnt about turning back on that trip. Have you ever had to turn back on a mountain? What happened? Yes. The next mountain I climbed, where I was attempting to be the first British woman to snowboard from the top. Mustagata in China a 7,500m peak.

It was a month long expedition and just two weeks into the climb after lots of bonding had been done between team mates (some of us had been strangers at the start of the expedition) there was a terribly awful and sad death. Jonathan Peacock, a very fit and able 39yr old died. At the time signs pointed to altitude sickness (we later found out it was a DVT) but that obviously brought the reality of mountaineering and what can happen to the forefront of our minds. After Jonathan's death we spent time considering whether we would even continue the expedition. Death on mountains certainly wasn't something I'd considered too much either and it highlighted many things to think about, including turning back and not reaching the summit. Was this something I was prepared to do and how would I make that call? Losing Jonathan was the toughest thing I've ever had to deal with on a trip and it made me very sure about one thing - I wanted to return from the mountains I climbed.

I would do all I could within the circumstances that I was exposing myself to to reduce the risks where it was in my control to do so. We made the decision to continue this expedition and for the first time I thought long and hard about making the top or not. The most common thought about getting to the summit is that you are there. In fact you are not there. You are halfway there. It is vital to remember you still have to get back down and after a tough climb to the top this can be the hardest part. For this reason a plan is often made on mountains to have a turnaround time the time at which you abandon your summit push and head back down. NO MATTER WHAT. On Mustagata, with less than 200m to the top, we reached this critical time. As a team we had discussed and set the turn around time and as a team we turned back. Was it difficult to turn back? Surprisingly no! If you had of asked me before I actually had to turn back how I would have coped with turning back I would have said that I couldnt imagine doing that - I think I would probably have felt as if I had failed and it would have been awful.

After Jonathans death I knew that I didn't want to die and I wanted to be as safe as I could be on the mountain. When we reached the turnaround time I just knew that the best move I could make was a 180 turnaround and getting back down was now the priority. What did turning back teach you? I was surprised turning around had been so easy, but I realised that the expedition had been amazing. I still had the experience of climbing the mountain, of being in that part of China. I'd still gone through all the things you go through to get there in the first place: the training, the preparation, the anticipation. Id been through more emotion than I thought possible on such a trip, Id been higher than Id ever been before and I was one of the first British woman to snowboard on the mountain. It didn't matter that it hadn't been from the top. What mattered was that I was going home. Back to all the people I loved and who loved me. More than anything I learnt that the success of climbing a mountain is measured by getting back down, that reaching the top is only a very small part of the trip and that there's so much more to mountains than the summit. How did not reaching the top on this mountain affect your next climbs? In a way I suppose it took the pressure off. I still went with the intention to summit but I knew that I would be ok if I didn't and I knew that it would still be an amazing trip if I didn't. I think it also made me safer, I trusted myself more, I went with the knowledge that I had it in me to make the right call and I had no issues with turning back. Summit fever (when people try to reach the top no matter what) is a very real issue in mountaineering and people kill themselves because they don't turn back.

I absolutely knew I could turn back. What advice would you give to other people who climb, about reaching the top? I think there are two main areas Id suggest are worth thinking about: Are you prepared to turn back and do you know when to turn back? Mentally any climber should be prepared to turn back, think it through and realise that the top isn't everything. Obviously it can be important and the intention to reach the top is there but the biggest priority should always be getting back down. Being at the top is only half way there - do you know when you are half way exhausted?

Physically, mentally and emotionally where are your limits? I believe we can use practical things like a turnaround time to keep us safe but there's nothing quite like experience to know honestly: who you are, how you are and where your limits are. I do believe that someone with no experience of mountaineering can climb Mt Everest. I also believe that they are the most likely candidates for not returning. I learnt the most important lessons Id ever learnt on mountains when I didn't summit Mustagata. These lessons were valuable to me when I climbed again but also in life in general this is a bit cliche but Its most definitely about the journey and not all about the destination.

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