On Knowing when to Turn the F*** Around

Last Saturday, Golab, Curry, and I had plans. After a successful (but surprisingly pants-less) fishing trip in Arizona’s White Mountains a few weeks ago, we would backpack the same area, camping at our most favorite campsite in the world.

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Most favorite campsite in the world

Normally when we head to the Mt. Baldy Wilderness we come in the short way, off the West Baldy Trail. This is an absurdly easy hike, usually leaving us plenty of time to sit and drink in camp day hike around the area. I’ve been on the West Baldy Trail a few too many times recently (for example HEREHERE, and HERE), and I just wasn’t in the mood for an ultra-easy hike. Instead I cooked up what seemed like a great idea: rather than hiking half way up the mountain from the west side, we would hike all the way up and over the mountain from the east side. A quick look at HikeArizona made this look like a pretty simple endeavor: 10ish miles up and over the mountain on day one, with another 6 or so on day too. A perfect, moderate backpacking trip.

So, we loaded up in the Mighty Forester around 3AM to make the long drive 95% of the way to New Mexico. Four hours or so later we arrived at the East Baldy Trailhead. Things started off well, with the trail wrapping around a beautiful alpine meadow:

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The trail got more serious about two miles from the trailhead, where the meadow gave way to some relatively steep switchbacks and exposed rock faces:

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It was already obvious that we were moving wayyyyyyy slower than usual. One of us in particular (who I’m not gonna call out on the internet, because that would be a super dick move and its not actually important to the story) was not feeling well. We were all worried about the slow pace, but the view at the top of switchbacks cheered us up

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So we pushed on. Unfortunately, the trail didn’t stop climbing

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And our slow partner had transitioned from being a little out of sorts to evidently ill. After another set of switchbacks we sat down for lunch, hoping our friend would improve with a nice long rest. He didn’t. We were all worried, but no one said a word.

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It took us about an hour to cover the next mile. Finally one of us spoke up. Are you sure you want to do this? What if you don’t feel better in the morning? What if you feel worse? In the end it was his call. After a few soul wrenching and deeply embarrassing moments he decided it was best to turn back. We all knew he had made the right decision.

The fact that turning around was the right choice didn’t change the fact that we had already been in the packs for 5 hours and now had at least another three hours of hiking in front of us. We made reasonable time, now moving down hill.

As we hiked it was impossible not to think of all the places we should have stopped.

There’s one:

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And another:

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We tried to keep our spirits up, but I think we were all thankful to see the last meadow before the car.

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As we drove home we tried to process everything. As the person who planned the hike, I apologized to everyone. Our recovering, but still not quite himself friend, thanked us for not being jerks about the whole thing. We talked a lot about the mistakes that we made that day and we settled on the idea that really we had only made one: not turning around earlier.

I don’t want to pretend this was the hardest hike in the world. It’s not. If anything, I would put the loop squarely in the moderate category. I’m also not big fan of the pop-philosophy that infests outdoors writing. That being said, I haven’t been able to get this hike off my mind since coming home, so here goes nothing:

There is a clear and obvious connection between people who hike and people who push too far. Hiking is, in and of itself, and act of perseverance. It is a test of how willing you are to put one foot in front of the other. On a fundamental level this the thing that we love about hiking. It is simple, visceral, and physical, only requiring that you not quit. However, though this simplicity is empowering in success it is also haunting in failure. If successfully reaching the summit only requires perseverance then it stands to reason that not making the summit is a failure of resolution. And so we find ourselves plodding up mountains, talking ourselves into taking one more step because the other option is to quit and no one wants to be a quitter.

Here’s the problem though: that you can take one more step is not an indication that you should. Worse, even if you can bring yourself to admit that the entire hike is going to be too much to handle, picking out exactly which step to quit on is an impossible task. After all, you can always go a little further. Unfortunately, deciding to push through and take one more step hundreds or thousands of times quickly takes you hundreds or thousands of steps from where you should have turned around. There is a reason that nearly every climbing disaster is connected to people pushing on past their turn around time: summits are elusive, hikers are stubborn, and knowing when to quit is impossible.

The web is littered with literally millions of posts on why we hike, and that is fine. We all have an intrinsic need to validate ourselves, and I’m not here to tell you to do otherwise. However, as I get older, I’m starting to wonder whether Why I Hike is really the right question. Sure, there are many idiosyncrasies and contradictions in waking up at 2 in the morning, driving for hours, and spending a huge portion of our disposable income so we can drag ourselves up a hill. But really, in our heart of hearts, I think we know why we hike. It might not be effable, and we might not have a quick answer on hand, but, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that there is a reason hiding somewhere. I’m not worried about why I hike anymore, that part is easy.

On the other hand, last weekend our friend was sick, the trail was steep, and we pushed forward longer than we should have because we were dumb and stubborn. No, I’m not worried about why I hike anymore, I’m worried about knowing when to stop.


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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

15 thoughts on “On Knowing when to Turn the F*** Around

  1. I don’t believe it is a ‘failure of resolution’: I believe it is a re-ordering of priorities. As we grow older, our commitments change and activities that we once saw as goals to be met become achievements put down to experience. You will always love to hike, I am sure of that, but the reasons WHY you hike will change. Great article, by the way!

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    1. Thanks, Jane! I hope all is well!!!

      I think you’re right. We all change as we get older and our goals change with them. I guess this is what being an adult is, in a nutshell.

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  2. This is a good philosophy for many if not all of life’s pursuits- both professionally and personally. Knowing when to say no or enough can be a hard lesson to learn!!

    Liked by 1 person

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