Searching for Failure - by Laurel Fan

It’s a cliche that if you want to get better at something, a good way is to fail at it.


When I very first started climbing, I didn't have any expectations of myself and nobody had any expectations of me -- it was easy to not know what I was doing, fail a lot, and learn a lot. There were plenty of people who knew more standing around to watch out for me, tell me what I was doing wrong and what to do instead. I got lots of encouragement to overcome my fears and go for it, because at that stage, fear was mostly illusion. Learning to fall and fail well, and learn from it was a big breakthrough as a beginning climber.


We came up with Robson as the AM-PNW summer trip while up in the Canadian Rockies ice climbing in the winter. Robson -- an archetypical Canadian Rockies pyramid with stripes of snow, ice, and bad rock -- from an “ice climb” first done over a hundred years ago to a huge face staring out from the back cover of the Selected Alpine Climbs guidebook. And of course, the chance to climb with the legendary Jim Elzinga (who is himself all over the guidebook) influenced our choice.

As I became more self sufficient, failure became paradoxically more difficult. It felt irresponsible to choose objectives where I might fail when others were depending on me as part of a team. Especially in ice and alpine climbing, failure is legitimately scary. I’m afraid to seem scary by admitting that I’m scared. Advice sometimes seems to more often take the form of discouragement, not encouragement. I don’t like being discouraged so I’m afraid to admit when I’m discouraged.


We chose a route, and dates. Fuhrer Ridge had an intriguingly short description in the book and a lack of internet bragging/beta. We Pacific Northwest climbers like to complain/brag about the long approaches, glaciers getting in the way everywhere, crappy rock, and bad weather. It seemed that there was a lot more of that in the Rockies but a lot fewer complainers.


But how do you get better at alpine climbing? It’s not like sport climbing or bouldering where you get better by simply going until you can’t go anymore and falling off. I felt like I was getting stuck succeeding, choosing routes with approaches I’d done dozens of times, with a pitch by pitch topo in my pocket, waiting for bomber weather windows. How could I learn again to accept failure in alpine climbing? If falling isn’t an option, how do you fail well and learn?

The first day of the climb took the same typical form of the approach part of any other climb -- gradually abandoning the trappings of civilization such as wheeled transportation, trails, cell signals, other humans, space to walk between bushes, trust in surfaces to be walked on, etc. After a long day of surveyors tape-based routefinding, treacherous creek crossings and such, we reached a flat rocky bench surrounded by snowmelt creeks at the toe of a glacier as a light rain began to fall an hour before sunset.

Jim gently hinted that we should stop and camp there instead of continuing on the route, which seemed like it was starting to decrease dramatically in flatness.


We were woken up by morning alarms and rain pounding on the tent and seeping into the vestibule. We definitely weren’t going to climb in the rain and there was nothing to do about the weather except sit there or leave. Alex and Andy and I chose by inaction to sit there in our dry-ish tent with our 2 days of extra food and go back to sleep.


We were woken up again a couple hours later. This time Jim and Nino were hinting, not so gently, by having their tent already packed up and ready to go. The guidebook back cover view was hidden in dark cloud but whatever was happening behind that cloud was definitely not improving things. We went back down.


Was that the right time to decide to bail or could we have climbed it if we’d waited another day? Were we not persistent enough in the face of a little discomfort, or wise in quitting while it was easy to quit? If we’d gotten an earlier start could we have gotten higher that first day and seen snow instead of rain? Should we could have chosen a different objective, waited for a better weather window? Were all these things we should have known already?

We parted ways with Jim and Nino and headed back home via Squamish and Index. Back to where we could trust bolts and gear in solid granite to protect us and let us fall and fail.