Wednesday, January 26, 2011

No. 9 - Decision Time on the Mountain

- by Bill Urbanski   

      Decision making is a critical aspect of mountaineering, just as important as having the proper gear and the proper training.  Making the right decisions on the mountain can mean the difference between success and failure, and in some circumstances, between life and death.

       1967: decisions made by members of the Joe Wilcox party on Denali in the midst of an arctic hurricane resulted in seven deaths - one of the worst disasters in North American alpine mountaineering history.  Wilcox’s story is recounted in Forever on the Mountain.

Siula Grande - Simon Yates decided to cut the rope
      1985: in the Peruvian Andes, Joe Simpson dangled from the lip of a frozen cliff, held only by the rope attached to his climbing partner Simon Yates, who desperately clung to the icy slopes above.  Losing ground from his belay, and fearing that Simpson would drag them both over the edge and to their deaths, Yates made what in the abstract is an unfathomable decision; he cut the rope.  The rest is mountaineering lore and history as told by Simpson in Touching the Void.

      June, 2010: I found myself pinned down for three days by a storm at 17,200 feet along the West Buttress Route on Denali.  With no appetite, my body began to consume itself, and with no clear weather window in the forecast, our team decided to abandon its summit bid.  My Denali journal remains an unpublished work, but I do intend to share excerpts in a future blog post.

Mt. Marcy - in the clear an hour before our summit
      January 22, 2011: I stood atop New York’s highest peak, Mount Marcy.  Once again, it was decision time on the mountain.  While the environment may not have been as extreme as those described above, the potential adverse consequences of making a wrong decision were just as real.

John, Patrick and Bill at Marcy Dam
    Along with my four climbing partners, I had gained 3200 feet over seven and one half miles to reach a stunningly beautiful mountain top.  We used the popular Van Hoevenberg Trail to reach the top of New York, but I had hoped to descend via a  different trail on the opposite side of the mountain which would allow us to pass Lake Tear of the Clouds and enjoy some different scenery on our way back to Marcy Dam, 2.3 miles from the trail head.

      It was 12:30 pm. The temperature was five below (F), and winds by my estimation were fifteen miles per hour.  This equates to a wind chill of twenty-five below.  Conditions were terrific during our five-hour climb, with mostly sunny skies, and temps remaining steady in the minus five to zero range.  We couldn’t have asked for better weather.

Phil approaching the summit in a frozen world
      But at the summit things were different.  Clouds were moving in. Visibility was sketchy.  It appeared the weather was deteriorating.  A decision had to be made whether to take the alternate decent route, or to simply retrace our steps on Van Hoevenberg.

      Beyond the obvious consideration of weather, here are the other factors that went into our summit decision on Marcy:

Alternate Route towards Mt. Skylight - weather moving in
Route Finding:  Having done variations of the proposed alternate descent before, I knew that cairns existed to mark the path from summit to tree-line.  But my past Marcy climbs were done in the summer; this was winter.  So it was important to take the time to scout the beginning part of the route.
      I was relieved to find that the hefty cairns were not buried beneath the windblown snow.  Snowshoe tracks were also visible.  However, the tracks appeared to evidence just two climbers and they did not appear to be very fresh.

Distance and Time: The alternate route would add another two to three miles of trail to our descent – meaning at least ninety extra minutes.  Departing the summit at 1:00 pm meant that under ideal conditions, we would be lucky to reach Marcy Dam by sunset.  No one had issues hiking from Marcy Dam to the trail head with headlamps; the problem was we could not be confident we would reach Marcy Dam by sunset.  

Trail Condition:  The single factor that caused most concern was the possibility that the alternate descent trail was not broken.  Having seen five- and six-foot drifts in the woods along Van Hoevenberg, the prospect of breaking trail through similar drifts on the windward side of Marcy was not appealing.  Breaking trail in those conditions would be a physically grueling endeavor.

Team Fitness and Possibility of Retreat:  Finally, the team as a whole had to be given consideration.  We all had been exerting ourselves for six hours.  Fatigue would increase regardless of the direction of our descent.  A thousand feet down and past a point of no return, there was the possibility of losing that alternate trail, in virgin snow, in fading light and falling temperatures.

     All things considered, the risks of the alternate descent far outweighed any reward, and the decision was made to forgo the scenic route and to retrace our steps via the Van Hoevenberg Trail.

      In the safety and warmth of the Adirondack Loj Visitors Center, I spoke with a park ranger.  I was advised that the alternate trail we had considered was indeed not broken, and what’s more, those trails that were broken on the windward side were drifting over.

      In retrospect therefore our summit decision was the correct one.  But it is important to note that it would have been just as correct even if we found that our intended trail was open.

      Decisions on the mountain can only be made with the information available at the time of making them.  So do your homework.  Learn as much as you can about the mountain.  Assess your situation carefully and thoroughly.  And when it comes time to make that most important of calls, do so only after you have acquired as much information as possible.

      If you make decisions in this fashion - if you do it right - you will never have any regrets.

      Sure I'm disappointed my team didn't get to experience a more scenic route on Marcy.  I'm disappointed that I didn't summit Denali last June.  But do I have regrets - absolutely not.  I know the correct decision was made in both cases.

      Making correct decisions on the mountain means being around to make more decisions the next time or on the next mountain.  And as alpinists are fond to say, the mountain will always be there.

** For a complete photo set on Bill's climb of Mt. Marcy including a summit panorama video, click here.

Summit Shot - David, Phil, Patrick, John and Bill


  1. Bill, incredibly well said. You've captured the importance of using your head in the mountains, and that decisions are made by weighing a number of factors. When Aleya and I were up on Algonquin last January, we experience similar conditions. The wind picked up and weather deteriorated quickly on top, and the cairns were completely invisible under the snow. Sounds like you made a good choice. I'd be your climbing partner any day!

  2. Thanks Katie! Did not know you and Aleya did Algonquin. You'll have to fill me in sometime. And we'll def have to get together for some alpine one of these days.

  3. Great post Bill. You made it clear - we must keep our wits about us at all times.

  4. thanks for reading and for the comment Jim.