Overcoming Failure in Climbing

by Rachel Sapp
Big City Mountaineers


You know the feeling. The climb starts to go wrong. The sloppy pawing of a foot against a rock, the tight clenching of fearful muscles as all style fades and those stressful seconds when your racing heartbeat overtakes your mind.

From there, it’s either up or down.

In climbing, one could view the simple act of falling, or trying hard for an objective and not being able to complete it, as “failure.” Time spent in the mountains brings the potential for many variables. Even a full bank of skills combined with a hawk-eye understanding of terrain and weather doesn’t guarantee an uneventful ascent or even a successful summit day. We do our best to mitigate risks and hazards within our control, but our bodies or the mountain can shake its head at us at any given moment. At times, trusting in our training is clear cut and easy. It can also feel hazy and begrudging.

From a young age, we are preconditioned to have a black-and-white view on success. From grades in school, to trophies, to landing “the” job or accomplishing personal goals; it’s either you do it or you don’t. Win or lose.

In our society, we thrive on the idea of success. It’s uncomfortable to address failure. It’s not elegant or shiny, and it’s definitely not the go-to speed-dating conversation starter.

Advancement in many fields comes from making mistakes and continuing to learn and grow from them. You simply don’t wake up a 5.13 climber or a WI5 ice leader, it requires determination and hardship along the way. In the public eye, we are always shown individuals excelling at their best: magazine covers of epic accomplishments, videos of strong movements, supermodels on their runways. Rarely do we see the grit and mental perseverance required to reach that peak performance. What would a climbing culture look like if it addressed the process instead of the final accomplishment? How do we manage these perceptions in an outcome-driven world based of instant gratification? Would it reshape our idea of failure? Success?

My current role is working with the nonprofit Big City Mountaineers. Every year we take underserved youth from six cities nationwide into the wilderness to use nature as a platform to build life skills and create individual transformation through the outdoors. Reaching a “summit” for these youth can simply be the ability to step outside their comfort zone, try something different and flip the internal switch from doubt to empowerment. Maybe they will discover that they appreciated the experience but never want to do it again, or maybe it will unleash the magic of the outdoors and inspire the next generation of leaders and advocates for our lands.

I believe the root of “failure” is our own perception multiplied by our vulnerability threshold.

Failure or success is a label we choose to place on our actions. Vulnerability is to allow ourselves to be fully self-aware and in the moment. It’s ever easy, but also never a weakness. Is it possible to romanticize the idea of our own vulnerability, to make it something for which we strive?

The ultimate success is the ability to fail, and despite that pain, frustration and discouragement, to pick yourself back up and keep moving forward.

I can’t help to reminisce on Mallory’s witty answer to the age old question, “Why do you climb?” Is it simply because it’s there? Or a primal instinct to push mental and physical limits? Or is it to feel like a little mouse at the base of a sequoia tree humbled by the pristine beauty and connection of what surrounds us? Whatever your reason, it’s up to each individual to tease out the intricacies of why you climb and weave your own pattern of success through the misthreads and tangles.

Just like climbing partners connected by nylon, there is always risk of falling or fraying but the reward is nothing less than spectacular. Sometimes you summit and sometimes you don’t, but there is always a lesson to be learned, an opportunity to grow.

Climbing isn’t always a cakewalk. Sometimes we need a soft catch or encouragement to go for that next move. When your bones are tired and your breath thin, the key is remembering why you are there in the first place and to dig deep and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Only then will we learn how beautiful our own vulnerability can be.


Learn more about Big City Mountaineers’ Summit for Someone benefit climbs.


Check out the CMC calendar for classes that might empower you through your own journey of success, failure, and vulnerability in the outdoors.

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