Failure and Success – What Climbing Taught Me About Writing (Essay)

Base camp at Cottonwood Lake in the Crazy Mountains. The Dogtooth and Incisor make up the central skyline.

Being an independent author forces you to find your own metrics for the success of your writing. I don’t have an agent or publisher telling me how great (or not) my work is, but thankfully, I do have many readers who enjoy my novels and stories. On days where I’m feeling less confident, however, it would be nice to have the backing of a “professional”. The lack of this type of validation has made me think a lot about how I define success and failure, and what they both mean to me.

As I often do, I look to climbing for clarity in a situation. You wouldn’t think something as basic as ascending a rock or mountain would be very enlightening, but I find it has a way of distilling a topic down to its essence.

This past weekend is a good example. All summer I have been eying a climb up the Incisor in the Crazy Mountains here in Montana. For one reason or another, it hasn’t worked out to go. It’s a big endeavor, requiring a good weather window and either a super long single push or a heavier backpack/camp/climb over a couple of days.

The Incisor is the middle formation, with our climb going up the outside corner of the main feature for ~1100 feet.

Our current alpine goal is in the Tetons, so earlier this summer we went there to work on that project rather than climb in the Crazys. When September rolled around, temps dropped, snow flew in the mountains, and it seemed alpine rock season was over. But after a week of warm weather, Sarah and I thought perhaps we might eek out one more climb. There was a decent weather window, and we had time off work, so we packed up and headed out.

Obviously, it was a very real possibility the climb wasn’t going to happen (due to conditions), but we hiked in anyway, hoping that the daytime forecast for clear skies and 57°F would materialize. It wouldn’t be “warm”, but it would be doable.

We spent a somewhat uncomfortable night, with me testing a new, lightweight sleeping system that might have been a little light for the mid-30ish degree F temps. Sarah, who is constantly switching back and forth from working night shift, didn’t sleep very well either. The lack of sleep was fine though, as we both expected it.

Morning dawned, finally, and the wind started gusting, throwing up a flag in my mind. The already cold day would be made worse with wind chill. I crawled out of the tent to make breakfast and was dismayed to see dark, flat clouds building above us. A second flag went up. Sarah and I talked over the situation as we ate some hot oatmeal with pine nuts and chia seeds. 

The sun tried to break through once. No luck.

The weather, along with time, was beginning to conspire against us. The climb itself faced west, so we hadn’t gotten up early, hoping to let it warm up enough to climb without gloves. For the 6 pitches (about 1100 feet) of climbing with vague route info, we’d need at least 6 hours (conservatively). Much of the descent was covered in snow, with unknown difficulties just getting to the part we could see. We still had about 1000 feet to gain through talus and boulders to even get to the start of the route. As we discussed our options, the clouds continued to build overhead, blocking out what little bit of sun that had been coming through.

After adding up the time requirements for each part of climb, we decided it would be too close. Everything would have to go just right: we couldn’t get off route, the weather would have to improve (or at the very least, stay the same), and we’d have to nail a potentially icy/snowy descent. It would be dangerous to get stuck out overnight in such low temps, especially since that night’s forecast predicted rain.

Sarah leads the way through the talus/boulder field.

Instead of packing up and heading down the trail right away, we decided to make the trek up to the start of the climb, both for training and so we’d know where it was next time we attempted the route. Once we made it up over the terminal moraine and across several lateral moraines, we got a better glimpse of the route. I really wanted to go, and we’d brought all our gear as training weight, but everything still pointed towards a no go. The wind was blasting and after the few minutes we stopped to look, we were both freezing. The conditions were surpassing our skills.

From the second I woke up that morning and heard the wind whipping around us, I’d struggling with a feeling of failure. Each flag and warning that came increased the enormity of it. Were we just not pushing hard enough? Would we look back and be disappointed in ourselves? So many people push through epic conditions and make the summit. Was I just letting my fear and discomfort get in the way?

Turnaround point. Still about 1/4 mile from the base.

When we finally turned back, I felt both a sense of relief and of self-condemnation for feeling that way. I’d taken the easy way out, removed myself from an opportunity to overcome. Then the wind would gust and I would think about topping out the route with the sun going down, temps dropping, rain falling. Did we have the experience to get down safely?

When we go into situations like this, I try to rely solely on myself and Sarah. Rescue is far, far away, both in time and space. If something goes wrong, we have to get ourselves out. That really is the only option. In this case, I didn’t feel our safety margin was big enough. I’m sure there are others who would have gone and crushed the climb, no problems. That wasn’t me, not this time.

But I was still left with a feeling of failure, despite knowing it was late season, despite knowing the weather forecast was not good and the real conditions turned out worse, despite September’s lack of daylight and snow on the descent.

As we packed up and hiked out, Sarah and I did our post climb debrief. While talking, I slowly metabolized my negative feelings and realized this trip was far from a failure. We’d gained more experience with backpacking into climbs, testing systems and learning more ways to be light. We’d also gotten some physical training out of the process. Most importantly, we’d went out into the mountains and tried, despite the late season and less than amazing forecast, something I wouldn’t have done in the past.

Momma Black bear and her two cubs on the way out. Pretty cool!

This brings me back around to looking at failure and success, and I think what I’ve learned is that it is all in your perspective. Sure, I could look at that mission as a failure, and in some ways it was. But in larger, more important ways, it was a success. Better to attempt something big, with bad odds, and fail, then to succeed at the same old thing you know you can do. That’s not to say we should always be going after the unattainable or unlikely, but we can’t allow the fear of failure to turn us away from big goals.

I’m learning to adopt this new perspective when I feel I’m not having the success I need in writing. I look at myself from more angles and realize I’m growing and doing something I love. I have readers who enjoy my work, even if I’m not selling as many books as I’d like or getting more reviews.

I tend to look at a point in the future and say, “When I get there, I’ll have arrived. I’m a real author. I’m successful.” But from everything I see in the world around me (it’s also another lesson I learned from climbing), I realize that such a point does not exist. It’s always a line. We continually striving for the next “point”, the next, and the next. It’s not wrong or bad, necessarily, but if you don’t understand that cycle, you’re doomed to feel like a failure.

So, find a new perspective, enjoy your successes, and learn from your failures.

 

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