My husband who climbs mountains (I know) once told me about a phenomenon one of his peers had experienced, known in the field as “summit fever.” Poet me perked immediately, drawn to the ping of that phrase. Then he told me what it means, and writer me just about had to scoop my jaw off the table.
When a climber or group of climbers plans an ascent, they also have to plan the descent, which includes a timeline for everything. They look at weather and conditions that might make the climb slower than expected or otherwise hinder their plan, and, importantly, they decide up front on a turn-back time. Climbing is dangerous, especially at night or under adverse conditions, and there’s only so much water and food you can take with you; you’ll need half left for climbing back down.
For example, let’s say it’s a one-day climb; they need to be back to base camp before dark. If they start at dawn, they’ll need to be heading back six hours in at the very latest. That’s the agreed upon turn-back time, even if for some reason they haven’t reached the summit yet.
It happens all the time: plans go awry. The ground is wetter than they thought, making the layer right beneath the surface slick and muddy, prone to slipping once their weight is on it. They’re in good shape, but the air is thinner than they accounted for, leaving them winded too easily and requiring more short breaks to catch their breath. And even though the forecast said clear skies, some nasty-looking clouds have rolled in, casting everything in twilight even though it’s not dusk yet.
Still, they soldier on, pushing through fatigue and slippery terrain, and they make good progress—just not quite good enough. Five and a half hours in, they stop to assess; they’d hoped to be at the summit by now, breaking for pictures and food before coming back down. They’re still climbing. What should they do?
The options are: turn back now because they know they won’t swing it, go on for half an hour more and then turn back, or try to push through and turn back later than planned. Later than planned shouldn’t be an option, so none of them vote for it. They all know they probably can’t make it by their stated cut-off time, but they also can see the peak. They’re so close. And climbing back down always takes less time than climbing up, right? They say they’ll stop in half and hour, but they rally and pick up the pace to see if they can make it in that half hour.
They don’t make it in that half hour, despite valiant efforts. One member of the party has a splitting headache from the altitude, another has a whopper of a blister going, and another has gone into hangry mode despite having snack bars. Half an hour rolls by, unspoken, and they all push harder, furiously pretending not to know the time has passed and they should stop. The peak is right there. Half an hour more, less.
Half an hour past their turn-back time, and they’re still not up, not all the way. But they can’t give up now, can they? Why come all this way and quit? They forge ahead.
Maybe they make it to the summit, climbing back down in the dark, which could be a strange adventure of its own—a fun story to tell later if everyone returns safely. Maybe they get lost in the descending dusk and spend a cold night up on the mountain, underprepared, worrying their families only to climb back down in the morning. Maybe they die up there, from exposure or injuries. Whether they’re changed forever, at this point, is mostly luck; they already made the wrong decision.
They should’ve turned back at the cut-off time. They should’ve seen the signs and recognized their sudden poor decision-making in the face of almost: they were suffering from summit fever.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a mountain climber or even a very intuitive group of writers to see where I’m going with this, does it? I, for one, immediately saw myself and my goal-achieving work ethic clearly illustrated in my husband’s story. In fact, I think I said out loud, “That’s like my life.” Funny, almost, if it weren’t so true. In a field as self-driven and goal-oriented as writing, which of us haven’t suffered from summit fever?
Burnout is certainly a thing; if you don’t believe so it’s because you’re lucky enough not to have experienced it (yet). Creatives of all types are probably prone to it, but writers have that special “almost” taunting of rejections and personalized rejections and revise and resubmits to lure us into summit fever. It’s not just that we get fatigued and burned out; it’s that we get that way juuuuuuust when we’re this close to finally landing that thing we’ve been striving for. We can see the peak. Surely we can climb on, eh? We can always rest later.
Here I am, ten+ years into climbing mountains, telling you that there is no later and that right behind that peak you’ve been headed for is another one. It’s higher, prettier, and juuuuust out of reach.
This is how we burn out. Striving for goals is admirable, but it can’t be literally constant. Creating new goals after achieving the old ones is also admirable, but we need to stop and appreciate the view we have before we plan the summit. And perhaps most important of all, we need to assess our progress and accommodate our needs—expected and unexpected—as we go. (Do you hear that, me? AS WE GO.)
Otherwise we end up ragged with a list of peaks we never appreciated, and a need for a big long break just to function. Much better, I’d say, to come back down than hike in the dark, take a day or a week or a month to better prepare, and tackle that climb again when we’re better able.
It’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned, and I re-learn it over and over and over again: there’s not a rush. This isn’t a race. Climb it well, not quick. Climb it to enjoy it, not to say you touched the top. And climb it at the pace that allows you to keep climbing for the rest of your life, stopping to rest and snack and enjoy the views. Because really, even the view from base camp is pretty spectacular if you actually stop and appreciate it.
There’s my metaphor for the day. (I’m only allowed the one.) What about you, fellow mountaineers writers? Have you experienced our version of summit fever? Have you learned to recognize the signs and symptoms? What do you do when you realize the top is juuuust out of reach but dark is falling?
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