Learning Curve: Learning to Turn Around

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Learning Curve: Learning to Turn Around

Viewing 14 posts - 1 through 14 (of 14 total)
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    Maggie Slepian
    BPL Member


    Companion forum thread to: Learning Curve: Learning to Turn Around

    For some people, turning back is the hardest skill to learn.

    Bryan Bihlmaier
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wasatch Mountains

    You’re brave to admit you have a hard time deciding to turn back.
    For me, I’ve found it most helpful to go on risky trips (usually involving a very high peak) with people I have been on other trips with, who I know have similar skills, experience, and risk tolerance as me. It’s so much easier to decide to turn back if the whole group is thinking the same thing. I think choosing the right companions, and especially having honest communication, are key.

    Paul Leavitt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Midwest

    I think we are cut from the same stubborn cloth.

    You are not alone in finding yourself in conditions that are terrible and are bordering on type 3 fun.  I recall a 7 day late October trip where I was 35miles from my car sunrise of day 6.  My campsite was 15 miles and up at the summit of a ridge.  I got there by noonish. I was hammock camping and the weather went sideways.  Instead of the forecast 45 degrees it was 30 degrees and falling with torrential rain and 35mile per hour winds.  I hiked low but still the conditions exceeded my meager hammock tarp with sideways freezing rain.  I bailed and hiked the 20 miles to my car arriving at midnight.  I changed out of my soaked clothes turned the heater to max and drove 6 hours home.  I have never been so close to hypothermia in my life. Only the hard hiking kept me warm.  There are many ways this solo trip could have ended badly.  At that time I did not have a satellite communication device.  Now my Garmin Explorer is my constant companion.  Updated weather forecasts in the backcountry are a daily plan.   I still hike solo but my daily plans include exit strategy and my gear can handle adverse conditions.

    Suffer on

    All the best


    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    I’m another person who often hikes alone. In some ways, that makes it easier to decide to turn back. There are no worries about what others might think.

    On the other hand, when travelling alone, there’s no other person to provide perspective. this last can play in the wrong direction.

    I remember one time camping with someone on a very early spring trip in Yosemite. He’d been on the trail that I hoped to follow. There was far more snow than he’d expected and I met him on his way out; he couldn’t finish the route and had turned back. I had blister treatment that he welcomed because his feet were wasted. At the time I thought the guy was a total newbie not used to Sierra conditions. As you might guess, two days later, after slowly hiking across miles of snow cups, and finally not being sure of where the route went over a crucial pass, I also turned back.

    In this case, meeting the ‘newbie’ gave me the perspective of another person, even if he wasn’t there with me. His earlier story made my decision to bail easier to make. And looking back, it was the right decision.

    ERIC G


    I have traveled extensively alone in the mountains (years). I’ve been generally good at recognizing my limitations as I have gotten older (65 now). Five years ago though I was doing an early spring trip with swollen Sierra creeks. And I did something incredibly stupid.

    I didn’t want to get my boots wet! I decided to cross a swollen creek in my bare feet. I have never done this in 40 years of backpacking! What was I thinking? I didn’t have a trusted partner to ask if I had gone nuts.

    Of course the water was freezing and the rocks were slippery. I was half way across and took note how seriously dangerous the situation was. Feet now dead numb from the cold, freezing water waist level high, stumbling from one almost falling point to another, I relied heavily on my ultra light carbon poles to keep me up (just waiting for them to break). I was ready to jettison my pack but stopped short; I was 3 days from an exit and the GPS was in the pack. I was not confident I could retrieve it.

    Shoving numb bruised feet between rocks and with uncommon strength I got across. I sat on the opposite side of the rushing creek and contemplated how a perceived inconvenience , wet shoes, almost killed me. No matter how experienced, now and infrequently then, you can make a very bad decision. In 40 years of backpacking and years being in the back-country I can recall at least a half dozen times I got close to killing myself.

    Not sure what to do about it.


    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    We regularly turn back in the face of such obstacles…and have written about it extensively on our website and blog.  There is no better way to kill yourself than to push on beyond where your body or the conditions warrant it.

    High water, bad weather, fire, sore feet, steep snow…all goods reasons to bail.

    Got to keep going?  A lousy reason to die.

    lisa r
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western OR

    I’m pretty good at turning back, probably thanks to coming from a long line of anxious people, although sometimes turning back brings its own problems that can make it hard decision. I find myself thinking I probably already used up my all good luck surviving some seriously risky behavior in my youth and that it would be pretty disappointing if my luck ran out now. I also do most of my trips solo, which lowers my risk tolerance. Most recent turnaround was at the top of Matterhorn Pass in winds so high it was hard to stand upright. Bummer to climb up, just to turn around and repeat the miles I’d just done, but the risk just didn’t seem worth it (and I don’t really relish type 3 fun these days)…

    Tom K
    BPL Member


    To paraphrase an old climbing saying:  the are old hikers and there are bold hikers, but there are no old, bold hikers.

    The choice is yours, but know that sooner or later you stand a good chance of  joining that select group who make the evening news, if you continually put yourself in situations beyond your abilities.


    Jon Fong / Flat Cat Gear
    BPL Member


    Locale: FLAT CAT GEAR

    While developing new products, you usually conduct a risk assessment (FMECA).  Some of those same principles can be applied to al kinds of activities like backpacking.

    Evaluate each criterion and sum the following three criteria:

    • Severity – what it the worst that could happen? (0=no harm no foul, 10= death)
    • Probability – how likely is it to occur? (0=not likely, 10=probable)
    • Detectability – What is your ability to detect if there is a problem? (0=easily detect and issue, 10=clueless)


    So, while I was hiking in Iceland during a whiteout with no GPS:

    • Severity? Getting lost, but I have plenty of food.  It was a busy trail so there were people around.  I would rate is a 2 or 3
    • Probability? Whiteouts in Iceland? High, I would give it an 8.
    • Detectability? Can I tell when I am in a whiteout? Yes. Can I tell if I am getting lost? Not really.  I would give it a 5

    Sum total 120

    Skiing out of my league

    • Severity? Broken leg, concussion – 8
    • Probability? Likely – 5
    • Detectability? Do I know if I am in trouble?  Not really 8

    Sum total – 320

    This gives you a relative score to assess Risk.  More importantly, it makes you think about the decisions that you are making.  My 2 cents.

    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member


    I made many “shoulda turned around” (or never started) mistakes when I was younger. But somehow I lived and learned, developing a sixth sense that trouble was in store even without hard evidence.

    With whitewater rafting, playing in what I called the “high energy zone” had frequent life-or-death consequences. I bailed on many trips before they even started, based on nothing more than a gut feeling. Unfortunately I was almost always right. But I was still on a couple of outings where the outcome was very bad. Sometimes you are not in control, and the totally unexpected happens (hello Enron and hydroelectric dam operators). There’s not much more you can do than try your best to survive.

    For many years I pushed myself to complete ambitious backpacking trips, but failed for different reasons, often bailing when stuff went too far south. When I finally finished one, I literally cried as I reached the end.

    The tension between pushing your boundaries and staying safe is a tough one. And individual decision-making versus lemming-like “group-think” is also hard. Experience helps, but sometimes at great expense.

    No easy answers. Listen to your gut, evolution put it there for a lot more than indigestion. You have my sympathies.

    — Rex

    Tom K
    BPL Member


    “The tension between pushing your boundaries and staying safe is a tough one.”

    All to often complicated by one’s perceptions of others expectations of them, or their own expectations of themselves.  Some are better than others at stripping these distractions away before they get into existential situations beyond the point of no return, at which point their fate is in the hands of the gods.  Most of those who survive such experiences become much better at knowing their limits and make decisions accordingly.  I know several who did not;  most of them are no longer with us.

    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member


    Two important lessons:

    – If you are with a group and don’t feel comfortable doing something, you are obligated to speak up. You might be surprised how many others share your concerns, or didn’t notice the problems. And you put the rest of the group at risk if you participate but aren’t ready or committed.

    – If that group gives you a really hard time for not wanting to participate, leave. Now. There are plenty of other groups who will respect you.

    In my fairly large whitewater rafting community, the rules were always speak up, and no shame if you don’t participate. At difficult rapids requiring scouting, we gave everybody the opportunity to walk around – even guides.

    And some walked. We rearranged people in boats, ran the rapid, picked the walkers up below, and everyone had a good time. No big deal.

    — Rex

    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member


    Activity leaders can make speaking up a lot easier by inviting anyone to raise concerns one-on-one. Lots of folks won’t “make trouble” in a group setting for a variety of reasons, and nobody’s going to fix that problem in a few minutes outdoors.

    In practice, I’ve rarely seen leadership that good. If you have concerns, take the initiative and pull the leader or their assistant aside before it’s too late.

    — Rex

    Erica R
    BPL Member


    When I was young and dumb I really liked doing circuits. This lead to all kinds of risky cross-country travel. So, just turning around and going back the way I came was a quantum leap in uncommon sense.


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