In a previous post, Maddie mentioned adaptability. Due to the exceptionally unpredictable nature of the mountain environment, it’s worth a deeper dive into this trait and its cousin, resiliency.
Best Chance of Summits
To maximize our chances in the mountains, we try to control every controllable factor. Things like fitness, the right gear, route knowledge, climbing experience, and picking an appropriate climb date all contribute to success. However, a battery of factors we can’t control face us every time we enter the mountain environment whether we like it or not.
Solving for Uncertainty
So what should we do in the face of these uncertain factors? Some of the greatest climbers in the world are described as adaptable and resilient. Though the difference between these two traits is small, it’s an important difference. Let’s define these traits and put a true story to each:
a·dapt·a·ble – /əˈdaptəb(ə)l/ – Able to adjust to new conditions.
June 2019. The Muir Snowfield, Mount Rainier. Over a 30-minute period, the bluebird skies gave way to a significant storm cell. What was shorts weather with full sun, no wind, and 50-degree air temps quickly became winter. Wind at about 30mph drove the rain sideways. We took 3-minute breaks instead of the usual 15-minutes, and gained the final 2,000 feet to Camp Muir over a couple of hours. By the time we reached the shelter of the hut, we were all covered in frozen gunk on our left (windward!) sides. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t a problem – we made ourselves adaptable to the uncertain weather by carrying midlayers and hardshells. In combination, these layers kept us warm and dry enough considering the conditions.
re·sil·ient – /rəˈzilyənt/ – Able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.
May 2014. High Camp, Denali. For nearly a week, we sat above 17,000 feet. I do not sleep well at 17,000 feet, with Cheyne Stokes racking my body with “I’m drowning” feelings a half-dozen or more times each night. But – but – we had come too far to give it up. The forecast looked like it’d give us a weather break eventually. On top of rough sleep every night, we had to move our snow block windwalls three times. We built the walls…and then the wind flipped. We moved the walls to the other side of camp, thinking it’d be easier than cutting another wall. Then the winds flipped again. We moved the walls. And then the winds flipped again. You get the picture. Finally, on a day with okay but uncertain weather, we went for the summit – and were rewarded by standing atop the highest point in North America, the only three to summit that day. Our resilient team did what it took in far from perfect conditions. We had to be resilient in the face of monotonous and labor-intensive camp chores, and had to be resilient in the face of a spookily-empty high camp.
In the first anecdote, our group adapted to changing weather conditions. We planned ahead by packing gear for changing weather. While some resilience was required to keep walking uphill in sideways rain – nowhere near as pleasant as hiking uphill in early summer sunshine – our primary success came by adapting to changing conditions by putting on more layers.
In the second anecdote, we couldn’t do much to adapt, aside from perhaps coming back on a future expedition. To summit on our trip, we had to “gut it out” for a week. Resiliency, in this case, was leaning into the grim humor of our windwall moving, laughing off just how difficult expert-level Sudoku can be in the hypoxic environment, and for me, taking almost transcendent pleasure in a mug of piping hot Tang (it’s a kick in a glass!).
Practice, practice, practice!
You need to practice these skills. In practicing, you will increase your adaptability and resilience. So how do you do that?
- Cross-train in the backcountry. If you’re keen to climb big mountains, your time is well spent in the backcountry in almost any format. Cross-country mountain biking, overnight backpacking, scrambling, long distance trail running, canyoneering, and rock climbing are all excellent activities for improving your adaptability and resilience. Things will not go exactly according to plan, and in “figuring it out” you will become ever more adaptable and resilient.
Planning to get into expedition climbing? Haven’t spent much time in a tent? You need to get out there! Tent camping is most comfortable if it’s familiar to you. Even getting out to a state park to car camp will level-up your comfort on expeditions.
- Travel in foreign countries. The discomfort of international travel is great prep for expedition climbing. Flight itineraries change, language barriers have to be surmounted, bags get lost, and every once in a while, hotels lose reservations. Adapting to these circumstances will improve your ability to “take it in stride”, decreasing your stress level when a climbing itinerary needs to flex to fit changing conditions. Even if you’re backpacking around Europe via trains and hostels, you’ll grow as an adaptable, resilient person.
- Spend time in bad weather. City-bound, say, in Houston? Go for a run when it’s 101 degrees and humid. Learn to appreciate just how much sweat your body can produce. Living in the Manhattan winter? Instead of pounding the treadmill, get outside to run in the biting cold and wind of a New York winter. Any exposure you have to sub-par conditions will stretch your resiliency. Learn to appreciate how well your body can handle it. Don’t forget to yell into the storm from time to time.
- Physically exert yourself – intensely, regularly. The demands of climbing at altitude are much more tolerable if you’re used to pushing hard when you train. Very light elliptical training, at a pace where you can carry on full conversation without pause and don’t break a sweat, is not enough to make your body resilient to the demands of climbing. While sweat-dripping, breath-stealing exertion isn’t necessary for all of your training, it needs to be a component.
- Fail and bail. Over-reaching physically, when done in a safe way, is an excellent way to build resiliency to failure. For example, I yearly plan an activity that I can safely fail to complete, that sits at the edge of my physical capabilities. Sometimes this is a competition where I can set a goal for myself, like 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. Other times this is an off-trail peak linkup with safe bail-out points between each peak. Most regularly, this is simply aggressive goal-setting on my bike commute time or climbing difficult rock climbing sets indoors. This will give you the psychological resiliency to try again when your expedition can’t summit due to weather or other emergencies.
If you’ve practiced being resilient and adaptable, you have a higher tolerance for adversity and uncertainty in mountain environments. This means that events and changes that would upset most will barely register for you. Tent camping will be easy and comfortable, hauling a heavy pack will be par-for-the-course, and you’ll find yourself taking selfies in sideways rain rather than turning around for the day.
This will save your deepest reserves of resiliency for when things truly take a sideways turn. Becoming truly unflappable – resilient and adaptable – will enable you to be not only a fantastic team member, but also a successful climber, able to reach your goals in due time.