“The summit is optional, the parking lot is the goal; you have to come back.” The first time I ever heard those words was from Whigger Mullins. It was the summer of 1999 and I was working at Trails Wilderness School in Kelly, WY. We, a group of wilderness course students and I, were headed up the Grand Teton with Exum Mountain Guides. Thus far we had had a successful course and students were amped for the final challenge and a cool summit. I was young then and full of summit fever. Whigger´s words however did not fall on deaf ears. In the decade and a half since that day I have told countless students, instructors and partners some iteration of that expression. In the past I have written about bailing and the ability to keep on looking up, both of which dance around the edge of what is success. Below I will address success directly.
What is success? There is a litany of answers to this question and the question triggers just as many questions as it does answers. For some the only measure of success is the number of new routes accomplished or summits attained. For others it is getting on a route and having fun doing it. Success, at least on my part, differs depending on the location. In these harsh Patagonian mountains I define success differently than I do when clipping bolts on sunny dolomite in Sinks Canyon.
One could argue that setting simple and sometimes intangible goals, such as enjoying the asado at the end of the weather window or going back to the states as friends or trying on a route and fighting the good fight are ways to cop out, to say that a trip or expedition was a success when in fact we didn´t climb jack shit or were overwhelmed by everything we tried to climb. I would agree. I do not come down here to have asados or to go home without a good fight on the mountains (though that is a risk I take). I come down here to climb. Sometimes the climbing is unsuccessful. Earlier this month on Mate, Porro y Todo de la Mas we tried hard, climbed and made it back to El Refugio for an asado, but we were unsuccessful in climbing Fitz Roy via the Pilar Goretta. A mental error on my part, not trying another pitch for fear of not finding a better bivy ledge cost us the route and ultimately the summit of Fitz on that attempt. Yeah, we came down alive, yeah, we are still friends but the climb was not a success and for me and my failures that is a bitter pill to swallow. Knowing that I could have done much better leaves a blight on my memory of our Fitz Roy campaign.
Summits and new routes are easy measures of success. Other things are less tangible measures of success. Sometimes success is defined by its converse, failure. In January of 2012 Matt Hartman and I climbed St. Exupery. While we went up and down and got back to the ground safely, to me that climb will always be marred by the memory of the failure that occurred as I hiked back to Niponimo. Not asking Cian where Carlyle was turns that climb into a failure for me. I didn´t just fail myself, but I failed another human being, something much more important than any summit ever will be. Would it have turned out different? That is hard to say but the ability to think that I tried to do the right thing would be much easier.
An unanticipated success for me this season happened while climbing the Franco-Argentina on Fitz Roy. I always thought I would feel nervous on the side of a large mountain. Sure there was the anticipatory pre-climb jitters and the moments of doubt as we wandered around El Glaciar Piedras Blancas in the dark, but once we started climbing I never felt out of place. There was a focus on the task at hand but also a contented peace of knowing that this is where I belonged. I never felt in over my head or unreasonably scared. Rock and ice fell down and in those moments my heart and breathing may have paused but we kept looking up till all we saw was a cloud streaked sky. It was always a natural that I was there. Moments of doubt escaped me quickly even though the perspective of it being “only a mountain” remained. Up or down it didn’t matter. There was honor in summiting and there was honor in honesty and retreat in the face of real objective hazards. To know that I could perform adequately and uphold my end of the partnership may have been the whipped topping on the sweet treat that was successfully executing our plan B excursion up the peak.
Another success for me this season was tying in with someone new. As I wrote in an earlier post it is not my usual game plan to do so on a large, objective hazard riddled peak. Overcoming this first in the style and manner that I did was a solid step for me. I easily could have feigned an illness or found ten different reasons not to have climbed that day, whether the sketchy approach, being off route or forgetting my harness. The success that I found that day lay in overcoming my fear of the unknown; it was not the unknown of a mountain, but the unknown of an other and the unknown of how I would respond to an other who was as unfamiliar with I as I was with her. I would never say that I didn’t trust her, for trust was needed just for Matt and I to accept her invitation to join us. I would easily admit that there was little trust in myself however and while there may be honor in backing off in the face of objective hazards, there is little honor in not giving myself a chance to trust others based on my own ungrounded moments of fear and doubt.
Success here in Patagonia can indeed mean standing on a summit. It can also involved bailing successfully in the onslaught of a storm. Matt asked me what I wanted out of this climbing trip. My answer was that I wanted to push myself, try to climb some mountains, but most importantly, I wanted to return stateside as friends who would once again venture to this massif to once again test our skills. We have pushed ourselves both in the physical realm of climbing and in the mental realm of tolerance for adversity and uncertainty. In many ways we are nearing the end of what many would call a successful climbing trip. And for that I try to be happy.
So I write summits into goals as a side note, cause that is what we are here for, that and to climb. Friendships, sense of place, cultural experience and personal growth and development are all by-products of time spent in the mountains, tying in, and being in a foreign country. The mountains, the rope and its challenges are the means by which we seek to achieve those other goals. Without these entities we would have now way to succeed or rather success may come to easy. Success, for me, that comes to easily is to easily discarded and forgotten. So I will continue to tie in and fight the good fight.