Peakbagging Philosophy - When you know it is not in the bag

Peakbagging Philosophy

What can we do when it becomes clear that a hike will conclude without a summit?  How do we find a way to still appreciate the experience?


These are questions that didn't much occur to me when I was doing what I now call "normal" hiking, when I had not yet considered or set sight on summits.  Do they occur to "normal" hikers?  I suspect not.  Back then, if the weather was nasty, it was a simple matter of heading to the gym- to the treadmill or recumbent bike.  If I was tired, fine, I was tired.  I could turn around early or push through or cancel the hike altogether. Not an issue. 

There is something about summits that wrenches these typically easy decisions.  We feel tempted to persevere toward plans despite somewhat adverse conditions (though this does differ person to person).  We feel unfulfilled if we turn around before the planned point (the summit).  We feel anxious and wistful when cancellation or postponement proves necessary.  Why? 

Summits subtly change a multitude of factors.  A physically obvious culmination, a place that is literally as far as one can go in the immediate vicinity, offers a very satisfying notion of success.  It is funny to consider so objectively.  "I walked (or scrambled) until there was nothing higher on which to walk (or scramble).  And then I walked down."  That is the bulk of this pursuit, one of the key facets of what many call "peak bagging."  Not all of it, to be sure- but a large degree.  We walk until there isn't anywhere else to walk and then we turn around. Seems a bit ridiculous laid that bare, doesn't it?

Though some admit this more willingly than others, humans enjoy struggle.  We enjoy the act of persevering, of doing something that is physically, mentally, or emotionally difficult or some combination thereof.  That is the root of Type Two Fun: accomplishing something that isn't easy.  Difficulty is relative; what is difficult for each of us is constantly evolving as our lives and skills do. 

There is perspective to be earned.  It is an exhilarating feeling to stand atop a summit and look around and see the world from a vantage point so alien to everyday life.  Whether or not we recognize our surroundings (other mountains, towns, for some people even cardinal directions), it is thrilling.  It allows a second thrill afterward, in gazing up and recalling how everything looked from a point so high overhead.

 The non-human world is breathtakingly beautiful.  It is inspiring regardless of each individual's ability to interpret or understand flora and fauna.  It is different in sound, sight, and smell, simultaneously foreign yet familiar to the primal instinct in each of us.  This aspect in particular extends into spirituality.  Regardless of any individual's religion or lack thereof, mountains are historically characterized as Sublime:

"impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc."  Different mountains communicate this sense in unique ways, but almost all of them do it.


(North Eolus as seen from Eolus) 

Completion, perseverance, perspective, inspiration- these are key things we gain from summits.  Some of them are gained from "normal" hiking too, though I argue to a lesser degree.  There's a wide variety of additional subtle things gained person to person, but these are the core. 

Colorado's 14,000 foot peaks offer these things in a distinct way.  These mountains involve a great deal of suffering; the high altitude is a relatively unique challenge compared to most parts of the United States.  High altitude is challenging but perseverance remains accessible mostly through willpower.  Not so in other states- peaks in Wyoming and towers in Utah require technical skills for perseverance to even be a possibility.  The 14ers are difficult yet many of them, at least from a professional outdoor lens, are welcoming.  Nearly half of them are categorized as "walk-ups."  This does not mean they are easy- they are anything but.  Yet Colorado 14ers are largely accessible in a way that the Rockies of Montana and Wyoming are not, literally breathtaking in comparison to peaks in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Maine.  These summits are an invitation toward perspective and inspiration. They also offer and subtly suggest a progression in skill development, even for hobbyists. 

No summit is accessible every day.  The two primary reasons are human health (physical or otherwise) and weather.  Which leads back to my opening questions.

What can we do when it becomes clear that a hike will conclude without a summit?  How do we find a way to still appreciate the experience? 

This is where skill development comes into play.  To those whose only reference for that term is career-based, skill development might mean computer program mastery or customer service skills (as in food service or any type of retail) or a specific degree.  But it applies to mountains, too, and can make them much more enjoyable.


On September 1st, I was hiking Handies Peak (outside of Lake City) via the East Slopes.  This is one of the "walk-up" peaks. The weather was beautiful.  For me, it should have been relatively easy. 

I was tired. Sometimes, we have no reasons for feeling less than one hundred percent.  Often, we do: lack of sleep, poor nutrition, emotional stress, or similar. I had a good reason.  I had summitted five more difficult peaks in the preceding four days.  I didn't like that reason.  It's so easy to tell myself I just ought to be in better shape.  I wanted to continue to the summit.  I felt obligated to my hiking partner.  There were only 200 vertical feet remaining to the summit. 

I decided to turn around.  I had a conversation with my hiking partner, checking to see if they were comfortable summitting without me.  We planned where and approximately when we would meet if they didn't catch me on the way down.  I descended to treeline.  I'm glad that I did.

 Taking care of ourselves is a skill that can be challenging when the objective is to summit a mountain.  On a "normal" hike, would turning around due to fatigue be a quandary?  If so, I don't think it would be as big.  

It is easy to be seduced by the allure of summits, after tasting a few.  That combined sense of success and accomplishment and inspiration becomes addictive.  It draws so many toward "peak-bagging."  It can blur the line between Type Two and Type Three fun.  Both suck while in progress. Type Two feels amazing afterward.  Type Three leaves a permanent sour taste in our mouths during reflection on the experience, even if a few small parts were okay or pretty.  Type Three teaches us only what we never want to repeat and gratitude we somehow made it out.


The challenge:  develop the mental skill to access the positive feelings associated with the summit without the summit, and willpower in the opposite direction (i.e. to descend).  Inspiration and perspective are possible with no summit- I got to see a tiny plane buzzing over American Basin at about 13,000 feet while I was descending from 13,800.  I got to watch clouds and listen to the chirps of pika and the soft musicality of the stream alongside me.  

 On a day with poor weather, it is harder.  Appreciating rain and suddenly more risky terrain is difficult- but not nearly as dangerous as continuing to ascend, especially if clouds indicate a potential for electricity.  Those situations are good ones for appreciating company and gear (keeps one dry and sometimes safe) and retreating to a card game back at camp or a drink at the closest brewery.

 And then there's a special thing we gain in turning around, in forsaking a summit: opportunity.  It is the chance to go enjoy those things in that place some other time, in a new way.  


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Twitter: @SkiLoveChocola


Annalise Grueter
Annalise Grueter


1 Response

Marcia P
Marcia P

September 22, 2015

Love your article Annalise! Sooo true.

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