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. [Read more…]