Quitter and Proud. On the Life-Saving Skill of Knowing When to Quit
When I was a kid in High School, I used to go to a local mountaineering club. We had an indoor climbing wall, and most of us also did rock climbing, mountain cycling, and alpine mountaineering. It was a great bunch of people - there were just a few women there, the rest were mostly excellent, friendly guys with a passion for mountains.
One of the guys there (let's call him Tom) was this very calm and mature young man, very talented and driven. One time, in winter, he went with another friend (Greg) to climb in the Polish Tatra Mountains. They were well prepared and highly skilled, with all the gear they needed for winter approach on Tatras (the trails soar above 2000 m). As they hiked, the weather turned for the worse. Winds got very strong, creating whirls of snow and sleet. After walking for a while, Greg said there was no sense to keep on going - the trail got too dangerous. But Tom wanted to press on. After some talk, they decided to split, as Tom didn't want to hear about quitting. And so he kept walking, alone. Greg turned around and started to walk down to a more secure position, to wait there for Tom.
That was the last time he saw him. Tom fell to his death when he was only 19 years old. Usually the responsible one - suddenly in the worst conditions possible, he lost all common sense, all sensibility. He just wanted to complete the trail, to reach the peak, not to give up, never quit.
The local newspaper wrote about the tragedy. But if Tom did listen to Greg and turned around - would they ever write a piece on the brave and wise decision to quit? I doubt that.
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Never give up! on living, so know when to quit.
This is one of the horribly tragic examples of the pitfalls of "never give up" attitude.
I believe knowing when to stop, turn around, give up - is the most important skill any hiker or mountaineer can have. Writing into the culture of wrongly understood "motivation" can be deadly.
I was reminded of my friend yesterday when another news story broke about a group of charity hikers needed to be rescued by a group of volunteers because they didn't know when was the right moment to turn around. They thought they had to push on, finish, complete. They endangered themselves and all the brave volunteers who went searching for them in thick darkness.
There is no shame in quitting. Anyone who says so has blood on their hands.
As I already stated a few times, I find the ubiquitous "fitspiration" of "never give up" disgusting and dangerous.
But we are surrounded by the macho culture of winning, being the first to reach a “never before” place, be better than the other one, risking life to achieve some Big Goal.
The responsibility of hiking solo
As a solo hiker, this notion is even more critical. When I am alone in the wilderness, I am fully responsible for all my decisions and acts. To protect myself I must know when my body needs a rest or when a trail I hope to do is just too hard.
Almost three years ago, when I was hiking in Scotland, I hoped to do the southern part of the Cape Wrath Trail. I craved the wild landscapes, the solitude, and the need to challenge myself. I went to Glenfinnan to see what was ahead of me, still considering hiking it.
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But thank goodness, the common sense won. I had to admit that my navigating skills were only basic and that my stamina was pretty weak. The Cape Wrath Trail has no markings and requires excellent orienteering skills. I did the best thing I could: I turned around and chose a different trail. And lived to tell the story.
I didn't "quit," I was not a loser. I'm not hiding this part of my adventures, I describe it as it is - and I'm proud of the great skill of knowing myself and my shortcomings. Who knows? Maybe one day I return there and walk that path.
Turn around and live to do another hike.
But I admit that by hiking solo I’m in an easier situation. I have no one around me to “inspire” me to push on, no one to call me a chicken or shame me into continuing on the way. There is no peer pressure, no ego pangs to prove the companions you are the big guy. No feeling of disappointing others or spoiling the fun. It takes quite the resolve to stand up to others and bet he voice of reason. That’s why I still think my old friend Greg was the real hero to know when to stop and turn around, when his friend pushed him to continue.
Don’t sweep the hiking dirt under the blogging carpet
There was also another article I've read that sparked inspiration for this article. The writer claimed we don't write enough about the ugly side of backpacking: the challenges, the pain, the bad weather, the dirty and the smelly. People who read about our adventures and see only the beautiful photos of happy hikers on top of mountains head off to repeat the same and face the brutal reality that it might not be the same after all. They might be surprised by the weather, difficulty of the trail, demands of climbing or finding one's path.
When I describe my hiking and camping adventures, I try to be as true to the reality as possible. I don't hide being tired or in pain, I don't embellish distances covered or prettify the hardships, I admit to not reaching a daily goal or changing plans.
I did it multiple times - in Scotland (cancelling Cape Wrath Trail, cutting the Great Glen Way in half, skipping parts of the Skye Trail), in Catalonia (cutting the trail short b/c I was "done" with it) or Crete (when the winds were so brutal, I decided to stop hiking and jump inland for better weather).
I am proud of my responsible and sensible behavior.
Quitter and proud.
But it's also not just about danger - sometimes I quit a trail or change a path because I just don't enjoy it anymore. Who said I had to complete every trail I attempt? I often hike for 2-3 weeks, and at the end of it, I typically feel I am satisfied and can go home now. Sometimes it happens after I get back home, and sometimes it's during hiking when I think "I'm good, I can go home." After a while, the need to go and hike again arises and the search for a new destination starts again. I feel that if I pushed myself too hard to "complete" a particular goal, it would just feel like a chore instead of a fun, yet challenging adventure. I am not going hiking to punish myself, right?
How to be a responsible hiker (and sometimes a quitter)
Don't feel bad to stop and turn around. Know what are your alternative exit routes on a longer trail. You could set a time when you know you have to turn around to reach a trailhead or a parking lot - no matter if the end of a path were achieved or not. Be dead serious about your strength and weaknesses, learn to assess them, and act accordingly. If the conditions change - assess the situation again. Think if you have the gear and skills needed to continue the trek. Learn as much as you can about your planned destination - what the weather can be like, how hard is the path, if it is well marked or not, if there are any shelters along the way, if there are rivers or streams to cross, what’s the estimated time to hike it in good weather and how much you have to adjust it to you (your strength, the season you hike in, how often you stop to take photos, etc.), what gear you need to hike it, etc.
When we read articles about annoyed rescue teams, the general repeated message is that the tourists were clueless, unprepared, with no extra clothes or gear needed, no light (other than their cellphones), no power banks for their dying phones, no maps or compasses, etc. They saw images of beautiful views from a trail and just jumped into a car and decide to hike it.
When we head into the mountains we are responsible not just for our own safety but also for the safety of people who will risk their own lives to save us. We have to do all we can to prevent such situations. Accidents happen, even to the most experienced mountaineers - but many can be avoided if people just used their brains a bit more.