I stood on the banks of Swift Creek. At 23 years old, I had not been faced with an impassable obstacle before, especially alone. It was massive and raging down the steep side of the mountain. I cautiously stepped in and took a few steps, but the force of the water was too great. The swollen creek crossing could easily turn into a disaster. I trudged upstream in the hopes of finding a safer ford. There was nothing. The pressure to wade straight through the cascading whitewater was intense, but the risk was too significant, so I set up camp for the night. The snowmelt would slow in the cooler overnight temperatures, and the creek would drop a few inches by morning. Waiting worked, and I safely crossed after a night of sleep. I could continue my Pacific Northwest Trail thru-hike.
It was my first experience assessing risk and factoring it into a decision. I made the right cautious choice, but it would have been so easy to risk injury to capitalize on the remaining hours of daylight. Patience is difficult, especially when there is immense pressure to keep moving forward. But accurately evaluating risk and making the current decision in each situation comes with experience. It occurs by understanding the ramifications of an action and assessing the likelihood of a bad outcome. But it is not easy. The choice to turn back or quit is one of the most difficult decisions to make, but it is also one of the most important.
What is the risk of continuing? What is given up by quitting or pushing forward?
Even amid adventures scrambling up peaks in Montana, my mind is assessing the pros and cons of a situation. Is the weather questionable? Am I alert? Does my body feel capable of what I am expecting of it? Constant awareness is vital as the envelope is pushed further and further. Not just physically but also mentally. There is a time to push and there is a time to lay up.
Turning around or ending an adventure early doesn’t always have to be due to safety. It can be the loss of passion or changing priorities. I quit a record attempt on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) simply because I wasn’t having the experience I wanted. I felt as though I were wasting precious days of my life trudging toward an obligation rather than a passion. It took three days of record level effort for me to mentally accept that I was not emotionally invested. I was out there for the wrong reasons. So, I quit. It was a difficult decision but also the right one. The mental aspect of a challenge or an adventure is so important that if it isn’t aligned with what you are attempting, the experience can be miserable. It not only can ruin the current trip, attempt, or adventure, but also cloud the passion and desire for years to come.
So many public figures promote the “suffering” lifestyle and pushing through every possible discomfort or obstacle. But that can be a terrible mindset. There is a time to push forward, and there is a time to quit. Quitting is not the worst decision. In fact it can be the best decision. After quitting the Superior Hiking Trail I had enough days left in my schedule to go to Alaska. Quitting one adventure led to another. Failure and quitting are not necessarily the same as there is opportunity both in deciding the timing or adventure isn’t right and also finding new limits by pushing onward.
Recently I had to listen to my body physically when all I wanted to do was push on mentally. I wanted to complete a route that covered nearly every mile of trail in a mountain range ten minutes from my house in Montana. Not only did I want to complete the route, but I also wanted to do it faster than anyone else ever had. I took off early in the morning and was on pace to absolutely crush the adventure. Then the temperature rose into the high 90s and the distance between water sources grew to over 20 miles. My body began shutting down. I could see the final peak of the ridge and knew I only had seven miles left, but I also could feel my muscles cramping and the detrimental impact of dehydration consuming me. My hands were cramped, and I couldn’t hold my poles.
Despite the pressure to keep going, the choice was simple. I had been dehydrated enough to know exactly where this day was heading if I pushed on. So, 31 miles into a 37-mile route, I dropped off the ridge and found the nearest creek to lower my body temperature. Two years ago, when faced with the same problem, I continued. It resulted in my girlfriend contemplating calling an ambulance. From that mistake came a new self-awareness and a better decision-making process. One that continues to evolve and is based on longevity and long-term success rather than short-term goals.
The key learning and improvement doesn’t take place during the adventure but in the reflections after. It is a push and pull of finding the edge of the comfort zone, pushing beyond it, but recognizing what is too far. The pressure, drive, and motivation should be within, yet it is too easy to fall back on wanting to impress people through social media or by adding an accomplishment to your outdoor portfolio. It is like an ego check, a way to reign back the ambition to a realistic level. It comes by accepting that quitting isn’t failing, but a healthy step in the progression toward any goal you are looking to achieve.