The Myth of Solutions

Denali traverse plan

If you’ve been reading any of my previous posts, you know that my Denali team and I are preparing to take on the West Rib Cutoff route this coming June. The Cutoff takes the standard West Buttress route from an elevation of around 7500’ up to “14,000’ Camp” (coming into the photo from the left side via “Windy Corner”), then takes the marked “West Rib Cutoff” route in the center of the photo to the “16,300 Camp.” We will then ascend the upper West Rib to the summit in one push. So on summit day, we’ll be doing 4000’ vertical, on sustained 45-55 degree slopes (steeper in a few places), over mixed hard snow and rock terrain, and at the highest altitudes we’ll encounter.

For all of that difficulty, however, I’m not overly worried about the ascent. For the last number of weeks, I’ve been burning through a pretty significant amount of mental energy contemplating the trip back down from the summit. In particular, I’m trying to decide amongst three basic descent options:

  1. Descend the ascent route
  2. Carry over a camp from 16,300 on the Upper Rib to 17K on the West Buttress
  3. Pre-set a camp at 17K on the West Buttress; don’t carry over camp from 16,300 on the upper Rib, go back and get the gear at 16,300 a couple of days later.

Each option presents problems.

If we descend the ascent route, we are down climbing mixed terrain and reversing the crux when we are at our most exhausted, as the crux sits between 16,300′ and 17,000′. If we do a carry over, we are carrying camp-weight packs for our hardest climbing day – and carrying that weight for 4000’ vertical. If we pre-set a high camp at 17K on the West Buttress route, so as to be our haven on the descent, we need extra days to a) set that high camp, and then b) go retrieve what we leave behind from our summit launching point at 16,300 on the West Rib.

The first option increases the time spent in the most significant objective hazards; the second option is extraordinarily physically demanding; the third option presents logistical issues.

Thomas Sowell wrote “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.” And while taken completely out of context, the quote nonetheless resonates for me as I consider not only my pending decision about the Denali descent, but also about most decisions in mountaineering… maybe about most decisions in life. There are no perfect solutions. You never completely remove risk. You often can only make and educated guess at the best plan. Your ability to control the situation is often limited to deciding which risks to confront (and hopefully mitigate) and which risks to avoid.

In my opinion, there is a kind of spiritual growth in all of this. You cannot set the perfect plan. You can not eliminate your constraints. Accepting these limitations and striving to excel anyways, taking on challenges when you do not necessarily know the “best” thing to do ahead of time, working diligently without knowing if you will succeed, these are all paths to bettering your character and are part of the intrinsic value of climbing mountains. Solutions are a myth. There are no guarantees of success; there is only progress to be made towards your desired goals. Accomplishment lies in the striving, not in the destination.

As of this writing, I am leaning towards the third option: setting another high camp on the West Buttress. If the team – making good use of our ability to acclimatize up to 14K here in Colorado – can move quickly up to the camp at 14,000’ on Denali, we have the potential to spare the extra days needed to set the descent route camp at 17K on the West Buttress as well as later retrieve our Upper Rib camp at 16,300 in the days following our summit. We would then avoid the hazards presented by the other two options. However, should weather or some such interfere with this plan and slow our ascent, we’ll need to be prepared for contingencies.

There is a lot of uncertainty in this decision making process; but, frankly, becoming comfortable with that uncertainty is part of why I’m drawn to climbing.

In the meantime, if we are planning on having two camps set at the same time, one at 17K on the West Buttress and one at 16,300’ on the West Rib, this means I need to get my hands on more tents 😉

Scene from Emmons Flats camp (9,800) on Mount Rainier, July 5, 2012. Photo credit: Jason Kolaczkowski
Scene from Emmons Flats camp (9,800) on Mount Rainier, July 5, 2012. Photo credit: Jason Kolaczkowski

Until next time, climb high and climb safely,


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