We’ve all perfected the art of bailing in daily life. It’s as easy as pulling out your smart phone and punching out a vague text message to the friend you’ve had longstanding plans with. “Hey, sorry, but I gotta take a rain check on tomorrow. Got some last-minute stuff.” Maybe work is a legitimate scapegoat. Maybe it’s a result of the contagious FOMO syndrome (Fear Of Missing Out), where Plan A is put on hold because a better Plan B came along. But maybe “better” is really just a code word for sitting at home and avoiding your friends because laziness got the better of you.
Photos by Abby Stanford
The art of bailing on an alpine climb during a ski tour, though, is a little more complex. You set out to accomplish an objective, and dammit, you’re gonna get there. You didn’t come all this way just to turn around before reaching the top of the summit. Neither did your touring partners.
But sometimes retreating is the best option. Avalanche danger, numb toes, injuries, fatigue or rotten weather can all contribute to the reasons for bailing. And while you may be sacrificing weeks of hard work, time and/or money by calling it quits, you’re simultaneously exercising the most crucial skill for any outdoorsman or woman: putting good judgment to use.
Here are a few tips to help you assess a potentially dangerous situation, and how to figure out when it’s time to bail on an ascent before it’s too late.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to hear backcountry avalanche survivors reflect on the events leading up to the accident. They saw the red flags, they might say, but they did nothing about it.
If you’re on a guided trip, climbing parties will look toward a designated leader to make the meat of the decisions. But more often than not, the group decisions fall upon all members of the team. When it comes to bailing, it’s anyone’s call, and when one person wants to retreat off the mountain, a good climbing partner(s) will respect that instinct. The peer pressure from climbing buddies to forge ahead can be intimidating, under the often-persuasive “we’re almost there.”
So if you have concerns – whether based off field observations or gut feelings – speak up and discuss them with your partners. The voice of concern is the voice of the group and should never be overruled by experience or assertiveness. No matter the final call ends up being (go back or go forward), every member of a climbing party has authority to freely express themselves throughout the day. Communication is everything.
When planning your route, set up a number of predetermined checkpoints on your approach. When you reach them, discuss among your group if the conditions, terrain and/or time of day are acceptable to continue. Also use the checkpoints to adhere to a prearranged timeline and keep to a schedule. If you don’t reach Spot X by 7 am, for instance, you’ll know that your group needs to turn around and try again on a different day.
When you’ve exerted all your energy to ascend a steep pitch and you’ve found yourself in terrain above your ability level, take a deep breath and reassess your predicament. Sometimes fear has a way of overriding your true capabilities, and you may just need a minute to collect your thoughts – and courage. If you truly need to bail at the crux of a roped approach, you’ll need more technical knowledge than what you can learn from any blog post. Perhaps you’ll have to rig an anchor and rappel down an icy couloir. Or turn around in the middle of a snow bridge. Every situation is unique and requires different strategies based on terrain shape, snow and rock conditions, and weather. Know your options and know how to retreat before you actually need to.
Equipment may fail. Weather may turn for the worse. People may get violent diarrhea. You can plan all you want, but outside factors have a way of changing your goal. Be willing to modify your trip and accept that your objective isn’t the only possible outcome.
As obvious as it sounds, mountaineering is a weather-dependent sport. Be alert to changing conditions and make alternative plans if it doesn’t look promising. If you’re caught in a sudden whiteout, start moving towards safety. Just know that your safe zone isn’t always down. Sometimes it’s just better to stay put and hunker down.
If you took the time to plan your objective, you hopefully planned an exit strategy; you should never expect to use your skin trail to backtrack, especially if visibility drops to zero. When that happens, it’s a good time to checking your bearings on a compass or waypoints on a GPS (you did write down your bearings or mark your waypoints on the way up, right?!) and carefully navigate back to a safe zone (or be prepared to bivy up for the night).
Observing the terrain features during your approach will clue you into what lies ahead and help you anticipate any hesitations. Look for terrain traps that weren’t obvious on a topo map. Dig through the snowpack and identify any instability. As the terrain shape changes, so does the snowpack. Understanding and reading terrain is little more than pattern recognition, so constantly take inventory of your surroundings – a skill that only improves with more practice.