Why Is It So Hard To Turn Away From The Top?

Every climber knows there’s more to the expedition than the summit.

Out in the wild places of the world, a lot can happen. Each and every decision affects the whole team and these decisions can easily change the course and outcome of any adventure.

Mountains are defined by their summits, and as a mountaineer we’re defined by how many we reach, right?

Sarka at “The Edge Of The World”

The goal of this trip was to finish the Between The Peaks journey that started in 2013 with Aconcagua down in Argentina and was set to end on Denali that same year.

Due to adventure being adventure, and our team wanting to volunteer and explore the places we were passing through, we did not make it to Denali on that journey. But we’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Four years after returning from the first chapter of Between The Peaks, we finally rallied and made our way to Alaska in June of 2017. Our goal was to splitboard Denali’s West Buttress—summiting the tallest peak in North America and snowboarding back down.

This was the biggest mountain of my life and one that I will always remember. Nothing I did fully prepared me for this expedition.

Ethan Lee (left), Ryan Sarka (right) crossing the lower glacier morning 1

I trained hard for months, every single day. I read books and trip reports. I tried to memorize each minute detail about the route. But as every climber knows, until you’ve been there, you just don’t know.

Our team spent over two weeks on the mountain and made it to the 14,200 camp on Denali. This camp is your launching point for hitting the upper mountain and making your summit bid, and your base camp for big climbing and ski mountaineering missions (ie. Cassin Ridge, Messner Couloir, Orient Express, etc.)

Sarka smiling after 15,000-foot powder turns

For us, it was a safe haven and our place to rest while waiting out the weather. From there, we expected to continue up to 17,000-foot camp and later on, the summit.

We were at 14,200 for 5 days planning our next move, waiting for a weather window, and seeing our team fall apart piece by piece.

As early as Camp 1 on Denali, my teammate Ethan was coughing. He expected this was just carryover from a recent cold but as the days continued the symptoms did not subside.

Coughing, throwing up, loss of appetite, forgetfulness – AMS and even some early signs of HAPE had set in. Ethan would not be going any higher on this mountain and we were on edge monitoring his condition, ready to turn and get him lower if need be.

Jake also wasn’t in the best of places. Although physically the strongest in the group, he was battling his mind from the moment our team boarded the planes for the glacier. Being part of a major ski mountaineering accident with your girlfriend less than 2 weeks prior will do that to you.

In the end, anxiety or PTSD of sorts won out, and feeling like he was more of a hindrance to us and himself than an asset to the team, he decided to turn back and head down, off the mountain. A huge blow to our team.

Jonathan and I, we felt good. Maybe too good given the circumstances. With Jake gone, we were worried about leaving Ethan, in his state, at 14k while we made a go at the top.

Also weighing on our minds, there were helicopter evacuations happening around us daily. Nearly all climbing teams pushing above the fixed lines had at least one member descend with severe frostbite (and even one death). The winds were howling and windchill temperatures were below -40 F.

Meanwhile, the daily 8PM weather reports radioed up from the landing strip spoke of snow bridges melting out, crevasses opening, climbers falling, and the runway needing to be pushed back a few hundred yards.

All factors combined, the decision Jonathan and I didn’t want to make was looking more and more like the one we had to make.

Evening view at Denali’s 14k camp

Climbing can be difficult to put into words, the emotions that I felt were as vast as the landscape we were in. For me, this story is about deciding to turn away from the top, so close to our goal.

How, even though we had a few more days and more than enough food before we had to turn around, despite all the time, money, training and heart that we had invested, we would forgo the summit.

Two days after getting off the mountain, I wrote the following:

“I’ve thought about the climb, the missed summit, the 15,000 foot top out, the cold, the days spent shivering and wondering silently. The decision we made was right. It was a hard one to accept. No matter what others say, turning back takes courage. It’s a decision that you don’t expect to make. A tough one on The High One. But we are all back in one piece now. Would that have happened if we went higher? If we pushed for the summit? It was one of the hardest decisions that I have had to make. One that took way too much thought and a lot of back and forth… but should it have?”

The Between The Peaks Expedition Denali team (left to right: J.Ronzio, R.Sarka, E.Lee, J.Willson)

Between the safety considerations for my three friends climbing with me, and my fiancee and family so worried back home, should turning back have been such a struggle?

Why is making the decision to be safe, to climb another day, to turn around and wait for the next adventure, so much harder than just saying “fuck it” and going for the summit?”

10 months later, I am still not sure.

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Ryan Sarka
Ryan Sarka

Writer

Cyclist, climber, snowboard mountaineer, triathlete, and engineer. Founding member of Between The Peaks. Bikepacked across the entire U.S.

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