After a midnight start time, my tramily is making its way off Mt.Whitney. Within an hour of taking this picture, for better or worse, I would have an experience that would change my life forever.
I don't believe it's a stretch to say that most of us spend more of our time here in the "real world," then we spend outdoors. It's only natural to feel the itch to roam whenever we live vicariously through others' adventures. I know my Instagram is mostly filled with friends who are as outdoorsy as I am. Which of course, in turn, makes me want to get outside as well.
So you set yourself up with some vacation time, or maybe block off your work schedule so that can feel #blessed in the mountains. However, not all trips turn out the way you intended. For one reason or another, you end your trip short. Maybe you don't even go on your trip! You bail. You FAIL.
If you gather anything from this article, I want you to know that you are not alone. Nor are you a failure.
It's easy to feel like a failure. You're comparing yourself with the curated images and videos of your peers. The imagined story of what could have been. Your initial sense of "Fear of Missing Out” has now been replaced with flummoxed existential doubt. Are you truly the outdoor enthusiast you see yourself as?
Well…yeah. Because bailing before or during an adventure isn’t failing, but an acknowledgement of your current conditions. A calculated decision on the benefits and consequences of your trip, as well as your well being. The ability to self-reflect and admit a shortcoming, whether it be physical or mental, is a show of humility, maturity, and self-awareness.
Believe it or not, even I have bailed on backpacking trips! In turn, I have come to know myself. My limits. My needs. My comfort zone, and how far I’m willing to test myself. What I’m willing to give up. The end result has been largely positive. I now truly cherish the time I backpack, and also have found smaller ways to interact with the outdoors, such as writing for a small outdoor centric magazine (cough), and trail running.
With all that gooey heart and soul reading out of the way, let me tell you about five different ways I have bailed on trips.
If I asked you to choose one word to describe Texas, the word “mountains” wouldn't even break your top ten choices. Yet I called the Guadalupe Mountains my soul’s happy place for five years. In that time, I came to know them on a personal level, and they still hold a special place in my heart. I even drew a route through their heart called the Guadalupe High Route, which blazes a loop through some of the highest peaks and seldom visited valleys in the Lone Star State.
While tying together the last segment of this off-trail desert route to the rest of the loop, I came across an increasingly hard to find thing in our world — a seldom traversed strip of land. Frijole Ridge is the hardest 11 miles of land that can be found in Texas. It consists of a knife’s edge crest, boulder problem solving, route finding, never-ending quad crushing vertical, and a non-stop procession of flora that are trying to spear you with their thorns.
This section of Frijole Ridge is one of the tamer portions. Yet you can see how there is little room for error. The sides of the ridge are extremely steep, as are the walls created by boulders. I took this picture right before I sprained my ankle.
One spring morning, I drove eight hours to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, arriving around noon, just to spend another hour explaining to the rangers that I indeed could do this traverse. After much haggling, I was left to my devices. Yet they had sowed doubt into me. I had been training my body and studying maps for months, just for this day.
I climbed about 1600 ft in less than a mile and a half to make it just short of the first knife’s edge. When trying to solve a particular cliff, I loosened the limestone underneath my feet and fell a few feet, landing ankle-first onto the ground.
Mckittrick Canyon as seen during sunrise. Part of the Guadalupe High Route.
I was in denial at first. I tried to keep moving forward, and thought I could just “walk off” my sprained ankle. I’ve done this dozens of times when trail running. But, the deepest parts of me knew this was not ordinary.
I made it only a few hundred meters more before I realized that I couldn’t go on, and would need to climb back up the cliff I had fallen off of, and make it back to the trailhead on my own power. I hadn’t even begun the hardest part of the trek, and I was already down a whole limb. Even worse, I had to make it back to the ranger’s office before 5 pm, or risk being closed off from the park exit for the night.
I backtracked and negotiated my way back from whence I came. It was a slow moving endeavor because of the terrain and the sheer amount of downclimb. All the while, trying to ignore the pain that came with every left step. Eventually, I made my way back to the ranger station, just as he was locking the building. My ankle felt as heavy as a fleet of buses congregated around one singular joint in my body.
Standing on the second tallest peak in Texas, Bush Mountain, looking back at the three other tallest mountains in Texas. Part of the Guadalupe High Route.
In this situation I was able to self rescue, leave the park, and get myself an ankle brace. Although I had put literal years of research and training into this endeavor, I came up short. Yet it was not a failure.
I was able to practice critical thinking when my literal life was on the line. I gathered first person invaluable data on the “impossible task” I had set for myself. I used that data to finally conquer Frijole Ridge, and completed five years of hard work about two months after my initial attempt. A task I consider to this very day, my magnum opus.
The top of Lost Peak, with the sun setting over the Cutoff Mountain Range.
I consider myself lucky for finding a life partner who accepts me for who I am, and in turn, encourages my wildest whims. "You mean to tell me that you're gonna take that little backpack into the mountains for 6 days? Sure, why not. Love you. Take a shower when you get home."
Over the course of our relationship, we’ve battled my PTSD, anxiety, and depression, along with her accumulated physical injuries. Throw the Rona in there, along with two degrees for each of us, and well…we've withstood a lot together. I couldn't be happier though.
My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, and I are on top of Mt. Elbert. The tallest peak in the North American Rockies. We did a trip together to Colorado right after I got off the PCT.
In 2018, we made plans to hike the John Muir Trail together after we graduated from undergrad. However, because of an unfortunate accident, that plan changed to just me solo thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
I was still excited, though, and dove head first into planning my thru-hike. I got my permit with my dream start date. I trained for over a year. I curated my gear lists. I gathered hundreds of dollars in food for resupplies, and boxed them all up. I paid for shipping ahead of time and everything!
I knew by the morning of my second day on trail that I didn't want to finish the trip. I was living out thousands of people's DREAMS, but it wasn’t mine. I had twisted an adventure with the partner of my dreams into an adventure that I didn’t really want.
Just one of the many dangerous water crossings we encountered on the PCT, after entering the Sierra Nevada.
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. The stars align against you, and you have to call it a day. Maybe the highway to the trailhead gets washed out by a flash flood so fast that it reroutes the Colorado River. Or maybe you decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail during one of the highest snow years ever recorded (more on that later). The odds can get stacked against you, and you can’t change that.
I fell in love with Arizona on the AZT. The desert is just such a wild and beautiful place.
I hiked most of the Arizona Trail in the Spring of 2022, until the Tunnel Fire near Flagstaff ignited on April 17th, 2022. Things escalated so quickly during that time that I don’t exactly remember all the events clearly.
I was in Pine when I heard there might be a fire near Flagstaff. That could mean anything, as the Coconino National Forest is huge, and the phrase “near Flagstaff” could mean anything between Camp Verde and Wupatki National Monument. As it turns out, it meant pretty much on the AZT. By the 19th, the fire had grown to 16,000 acres and the Coconino National Forest had closed off the area for overnight camping. The AZT itself was affected along Passages 31 to 33.
Leaving the AZT was not the worst idea. It gave me the opportunity to build a camper SUV and explore Grand-Staircase Escalante. I could spend the rest of my life, and still never see every inch of this incredible place. But I am trying.
I was near Lake Mary when I attempted to flip up to the Utah border and head southbound to finish the hike. However, there was still a good amount of snow north of the Grand Canyon, and the area had just been hit with more precipitation. As will become apparent in the next section, I can get quite nervous around snow.
So…I made a hard decision that I didn’t want to make and ended my hike. At the time, I deeply regretted the decision. However, getting off trail gave me the opportunity to explore Grand-Staircase Escalante (now my second favorite place in the world) and build a camping platform in the back of my SUV.
Way Out of My Element.
Jump ahead about a month after I realized I’d rather spend my free time with my future wife than thru-hike the PCT, and I’m entering the Sierra Nevada in the first week of June during a high snow year. For weeks, as I crept closer to the Sierra Nevada, the mood on the trail shifted to casual doom.
Hiker 1: "Are you thinking of flipping?"
Hiker 2: "Where can we even flip to though, there's snow in Chester too?”
Hiker 1: "...so are you gonna try and push through the Sierra?"
Some version of this conversation happened multiple times a day, among different groups, throughout the trail. During those talks, my thoughts would circle back to the two women that were lost during stream crossings in 2017. Yet still, after banding together with a group of ten other misfits, I decided to push through all my doubts and leave Kennedy Meadows South and enter the Sierra Nevada.
Without getting into too many details, as this experience is still hard to talk about, I had an accident on Mount Whitney. What started as a controlled slide down a lengthy gulch of snow, turned nearly deadly as I lost control of my ice ax. Soon I started flipping and rolling down the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. I must have looked like a wet shirt inside of a washing machine.
Coming down from Forester Pass.
I was incredibly lucky in being able to flip onto my back, nose up and with my feet below me. I dug them into the ground until I lightly landed on a small boulder a moment later. I stood up from that 200 foot fall with very little physical damage. Psychologically though, I am f**ked. To this day, four years later, those few seconds play over and over in my mind once every few days. I’m still skittish around snow in the backcountry.
I wasn't ready. Many of us were not ready. We almost lost a friend the next morning, trying to cross a creek. One of us was able to grab her about 10 feet down river. A few days later, I got off trail in Bishop (one of my favorite towns of all time), and made my way home. I was way out of my element.
Sunrise from Mt.Whitney. June 15th, 6 am.
Sometimes you just want to splay out on your couch and binge watch a show that you love. Maybe a full workload has got you craving a warm bed after a long week. Do you…do you love your family and want to actually spend time with them!?!?! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it.
It doesn’t make you a failure, or a fraud who only pretends to love the outdoors. Rest is good for you, and will let you appreciate the outdoors even more. Distance apart makes the heart grow fonder, and there's no doubt you'll enjoy your time outdoors even more the next time you get out.
Of course, I’ve tried to push through the funk and still hike. Most of the time, I’m miserable, and on most occasions, I’ve ended the trip way sooner than planned. Yet I have never come to regret indulging my inner couch potato and resting my body.
Life is short, and it’s OK to take care of yourself, to love your friends and family, and enjoy the comforts you’ve earned. You’ll get that itch back to lace up, pack your bag, and head onto the trail. I always do.
I summited Mt. Whitney for the second time last year. I am much less scared about snow than I was just a few years ago. With wisdom and time, my wounds from the Whitney incident have begun to heal. Thanks for reading.
Rafael is a freelance writer and adventurer based in the Mountain West. You can find him trail running, backpacking, or sampling the best tacos during his free time. Follow all his adventures over on Instagram, or read more of his work over on his website.