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Talent or Talismans: Was it Luck or Skill that Got This Lifer Through?

Jim Bridwell once said that it is the mountain, not the climber, who defines the way things turn out. And yet, four basic principles mold the way we experience fate.

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Illustration Dan Yagmin

This article originally appeared in Ascent in 2011.

The routine is as familiar as it is inexact. An exploratory look around the corner, a pause to reflect, then another look. Questions assembling themselves in bundles. Am I on route? Is there gear? What happens if I fall? Assessments made in the full knowledge that even in the asking they are moot. The answer is, after all, the reason you came. Not to die. Not to fall. But to find out. To take that one deep resolving breath, shuffle your feet, arrange your hands, and then roll the dice for more than you can possibly afford to lose.

Every big alpine route turns on just such moments. Intersections of doubt and desire where our hunger for the summit is balanced by what we know about ourselves, our skills, the rock above, our partners below, and, most important, what we are willing to leave to chance. And though skill and experience matter hugely—as do weather, the quality of the rock, the time of day, and the equipment at hand—always, inevitably, luck plays a role. The stone that stays in place. The perfect crack that magically appears. The snow bridge that collapses only after you have passed. Gambles that, as Emmanuel Swedenborg once observed, “force one to cast aside glory and reputation and embrace instead the fullness of life.”

Climbers, of course, prefer to minimize the function of luck. Like gamblers we choose to emphasize ability over blind fortune. Talent over talismans. A friend of mine once put it more succinctly. “Luck,” he said, “never led A4.” And while luck alone has never been responsible for a breakthrough route it is hard to think of any major accomplishment in the mountains that didn’t involve at least a modicum of chance.

Richard Wiseman, a researcher at the University of Hertfordshire, who has written widely on the subject, maintains that not only is luck real but it is also subject to a specific code of behaviors that can be mastered and, thereby, leveraged.

“Luck,” as he puts it, “isn’t due to kismet, karma or coincidence. Lucky folks think and behave in ways that create good fortune.”

Jennifer Merchan, another researcher, explains that lucky people “create, notice, and act upon opportunity . . . transforming the improbable into the possible to make the difference between life and death.”

Many of you reading these words will have, at some point, climbed into a situation where you experienced something akin to what Merchan describes. Probably in the company of a skilled companion who, in the most desperate of circumstances, chose chance over retreat and came up holding a handful of roses. Yet while only a fool would disavow the function of luck, it is also true, as Mark Twight once noted, that “self-deception kills” because luck, too, runs out.

The last two years have been particularly cruel in that regard and those tales cast a paler hue over the discussion. Jonny Copp, Micah Dash and Wade Johnson killed retrieving their gear from the base of a rotten couloir in China. Craig Luebben dying on a relatively benign route in the Cascades. Joe Puryear falling through a cornice and Guy Lacelle being swept away by a freak snow slide only a short while after giving an interview in which he observed, “If you are patient and have the right priorities and motivations, chances are with a bit of luck that you will live long enough to have a lot of great adventures.”

The fact is that intuition, experience and skill are not always enough. Indeed, for every Jamie Logan hooking a lucky flake on the last 10 feet of the Emperor Face, fate places someone else in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. No matter how good you are, there are occasions when rocks simply bounce in the wrong direction, cracks taper to nothing, snow bridges collapse, and bold gambits, however well played, simply fail.

I once heard Dougal Haston, the great Scottish alpinist, say as much in a bar not far from my apartment in Grenoble. It was 1973 and I don’t know what he was doing in France—probably climbing in the Massif des Eerins—but the weather had turned against him and he was sitting at a corner table with a couple of Brits drinking beer and looking out the window at the rain. I sat nearby and after a few moments got to talking with his companions. They were mildly drunk and pleasant enough though Haston, true to his reputation, seemed distant and aloof. Eventually, however, the conversation turned first in the direction of climbing, then to a discussion of fate that seemed to pique the great man’s interest. Smiling, his pale blue eyes suddenly animate beneath a mop of tousled blondish- brown hair, Haston shook his head and in a deeply Scottish burr murmured something along the lines of, “There is no such thing as luck. You climb long enough and hard enough, you’re probably going to get killed. That’s all there is to it.” A prognostication that was almost eerie inasmuch as within a few years Haston would not only put up historic new routes on both Everest and Denali but die on an afternoon ski tour out the back door of his house in Leysin.

I remember walking home that night and mulling over his words. It seemed to me that there was little doubt random chance played a role in dictating one’s survival in the mountains though I was not so sure Haston was right in regard to the inevitability of it all. I had just spent 15 months in Vietnam playing much longer odds against the house and most of what I had seen pass as bad luck was less a function of fate than a simple failure to manage those elements within one’s range of control. Or, as they say in military parlance, paying attention to detail. Most of my own failures as a leader could be traced directly to instances where I had let my focus drift and, as a result, I had come away believing that while fate might have the capacity to play havoc with even the best-laid plans, awareness, vigilance, courage and paying attention to detail could still be leveraged to achieve a positive outcome regardless of the circumstances. And, yes, I know what you are thinking—that these were the rationalizations of a rookie—and you would be right to say so. But I was only a couple of years into my climbing career at the time and I did not yet have the experience to understand, as Jim Bridwell once so aptly put it, that it is the mountain, not the climber, who defines the way things turn out. That lesson still lay in front of me along with dozens of other dances with chance that would ultimately provide me not only the richest moments of my life but a series of textbook examples underscoring Merchan’s contention that four basic principles mold the way in which we experience fate.

Principle 1: You Make Your Luck

Upon my return from Europe I spent the next couple of years concentrating mostly on cragging. Trips to the Sierra, Newfoundland, the Canadian Rockies, Yosemite and Colorado helped stoke my alpine jones but for the most part I stuck close to New England and I have no idea how my name wound up on a list of those interested in making an attempt on the West Face of Makalu. Yet that is exactly where I found myself in the spring of 1977. Sitting in basecamp gazing up at the mountain and asking myself how I had ever blundered in so deeply over my head. Fortunately, I was not the only one who saw my participation in that light and I was greatly relieved to find myself at the back end of the pecking order and relegated to hauling loads in support of more experienced climbers. As the weeks went by, however, I discovered that while being tethered to a pair of jumars was an excellent way to acclimatize to both altitude and topography, it did not take me higher on the mountain. Which is when fate intervened and as sickness and politics began whittling away at our numbers I got my chance to begin shuttling loads up to Camp I in support of our leaders. I should have known there would be a hitch.

The author west of Kontum, Vietnam contemplating the intersection of happenstance and attention to detail, 1968. Photo: Geof Childs Collection

Owing to the fact that we were on a west face it was not unusual for small amounts of detritus to slough off the mountain in the late afternoons. For the most part we were well away from the worst of it and so low on the wall that our efforts seemed more endangered by drudgery than objective danger. But on occasions rocks did go by and I probably should have paid them more attention. I never heard the one that hit me. One second I was pushing Jumars up the rope and in the next I was sprawled backward in a pool of red and yellow light. I struggled to my feet, took a deep breath, and passed out again, this time slamming my face into the ice and splitting my lip. I was more careful on my second try, this time spreading my feet and leaning back against my tether. During my years in the Alps I had fallen into the habit of carrying the small rectangular batteries for my French “Wonderlamp” in my shirt pockets and that is apparently where the rock had struck me. Dead center in the middle of the battery in my right shirt pocket. A realization that even as I began rigging my gear for retreat had me feeling very lucky. Or was I? On the one hand had I not been carrying that battery or had the rock bounced a few inches to the left or right, I probably would have been dead. On the other hand, our expedition doc and another climber had been only a short distance above me and they had never even seen the rock, so who after all was the lucky one?

After a few days of rest, a couple of stitches, and a generous allocation of Percodan, I was back on the mountain. Tripping my brains out and watching the exodus of our best climbers in their downhill flight from what was now being called the “unacceptable level of risk” of climbing above Camp II. Only two of our original leaders were still fixing line on the upper face and they were glad, indeed, when I arrived carrying a load of food and ropes, and kindly invited me to spend the night. We had just begun passing around a pot of stew when the wall above let go. Scores of refrigerator-sized blocks humming through space and then slapping into the snow around us until finally a flake the size of a pie plate tore through the roof of our tent, grazed one of my companion’s hip, before burying itself a foot deep in the ice below.

That was enough. We limped and dragged our way down to Camp I where we spent the next few days sitting out a storm and trying to decide whether we were the luckiest or least lucky people alive. Back in basecamp we put a bold face on wanting to give it another go but I think all of us were contemplating ways to call it quits. I know I was. I didn’t mind taking my chances on climbing but I had no desire to get killed working as a mule. So we began our retreat back down the Arun. A 10-day journey during which I promised myself that I would never again shuttle loads up and down a fixed line or climb in a party of more than four people. Luck was one thing but the algebra of risking everything on the whims of solar heating and orogenic felicity simply made no sense to me.

Principle 2: Go With Your Gut

A year later I had a chance to test those commitments. A friend had asked me to go on an early-season climbing trip with him to the Bugaboos, just the two of us. Climbing in alpine style with a minimum rack and just enough food to get by. The hut was empty when we arrived and over the next week we had the range pretty much to ourselves. Day after day of perfect weather with dry rock and just enough snow on the ledges to feel alpine. Sometimes going after our hit list and on other days just picking an objective because we liked the way it looked. Success followed success until we decided it was time to up the ante. Working our way around the back side of the Howsers, we knocked off the Beckey-Chouinard and then traversed further west, dropping down a thousand feet, and starting up a route we thought would require a Rebuffat-esque mix of rock, ice and snow climbing.

For the most part, we were right. Carrying packs and climbing in Super Guide boots we put a thousand feet of corners and cracks below us on that first day, to where a pair of pendulums brought us to both a comfortable bivouac ledge and a series of soaring corners we hoped would eventually lead us to an ice gully and, above that, the summit. Still, the night was not an easy one. Although we were higher on the route than we had hoped, I was concerned that we had trended too far east and placed ourselves directly below our target gully. My partner disagreed and, in the end, I acquiesced to his certainty. Sure enough, the next day began with a series of brilliant pitches on good gear that eventually brought us to the base of a steep wall just as the sun bathed the upper wall in golden light.

I was 40 feet out on shaky aid when the first handfuls of gravel and snow went by. Followed by an occasional rock. And next, of course, an avalanche. The stone that hit me this time landed directly on the top of my helmet and took me out of my etriers. I don’t remember losing consciousness or thinking that I was going to die but I clearly recall the wave of electrical pain that ran down the length of my spine and the torrent of blood that coursed off the end of my nose. My partner and I shouted back and forth to each other trying to figure out what we should do next as more rocks shot by. Eventually, I pulled as much gear as I could and had him lower me to the belay. No sooner had I arrived than I passed out and when I woke up my partner had padded my wounds with torn bits of T-shirt, strapped my helmet back in place, and rigged our ropes for retreat. Since we didn’t have anywhere near enough gear to rap what we had climbed, our only option was to diagonal in the opposite direction in hopes of reaching the upper glacier. It was nearly dark by the time we finally touched down and by then the bleeding had stopped and my limbs had regained their full mobility. Oddly enough, the hike out was not entirely unpleasant.

I remember a moon the size of a burnished quarter, the shadowed hulks of Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires, the absolute silence, and somewhere around 4:00 in the morning looking down and seeing the lights of the hut. We walked through the door just as a group of CMH guides were handing out breakfast to their clients. We drank a cup of tea, ate some porridge and packed our gear without saying much. By noon I was sitting in the emergency room in Golden while a doctor laced my scalp back together and pointed out the salient features of a black-and-white transparency of the interior features of my brain. After a brief lecture on luck and the tensile strength of the human skull we were on our way. Free to both climb again and extol the virtues of socialized medicine. The accident, however, once again laid a challenge to my assumptions about preparation and attention to detail. Had I gone with my gut and believed more strongly in my intuition than my intellect we might well have avoided the accident altogether. It was compromise, not fate, I decided, that had nearly killed me. I would not be so foolish a second time.

Principle 3: Expect the Good

Still, climbing is more about pleasure than pain and the deeper you go the more profound its rewards become. Or at least that is how it felt. I put in a good season in the Pacific Northwest, then headed back to New England for a winter of ice climbing while dawdling at a job that provided a steady income, affordable health care, and a year-round training facility. As the summer of 1979 came around I was feeling very fit and happily joined three friends on a meagerly funded expedition to Chorico, an unclimbed peak in Pakistan. Like our team, the trip proved to be greater than the sum of its parts. A superb adventure with a group of sterling companions to a fine summit accomplished in pure alpine style by a route that, while never extreme, challenged us all the way to the top.

I returned to New England that fall, then headed west in the spring, putting in a solid season in the Cascades, after which came ice in B.C., a return trip to the Alps, and, finally, a superb trip to Yosemite. Not surprisingly, the more I climbed, the luckier I got. My eye for objective hazards improved and things stopped falling on me. And as my confidence grew as to what to trust and who not to, I found that though I was spending more time in the mountains my epic index was actually in decline. Plus there were other changes, too. I got a job that I liked, found a city I enjoyed living in, a woman who could abide my eccentricities, and to my utter amazement allowed climbing to become a part of my life rather than the focus of it. I began to believe in happy endings. And though somewhere in there I took a fall off a grit-covered slab that broke my leg in seven places I discovered that, too, had its upside. The weeks spent on crutches gave me a chance to concentrate on my work at a time when I needed to and, with the help of the local YMCA, I was climbing again in less than three months. Trips to everywhere followed. The Wind Rivers, the Tetons, Red Rocks, Smith Rocks, Indian Creek, City of Rocks, back to Yosemite, down to Joshua Tree, east to the Gunks, up to Acadia and over to New Hampshire. Each adventure drawing me deeper into the belief that luck evolves from habit. That if you expect the good, positive outcomes will find you.

Moving up above Camp II, West Face of Makalu, 1977. (Photo: Geof Childs Collection)

Principle 4: Fix Your Luck

Or so I though. I forgot that fear is good. That it gives proportion to our ambitions and acts as a balance to arrogance. The next spring I met a friend for a week of soggy climbing at Cascade Pass and then drove east to the Liberty Bell massif for five days followed by another week in the mountains south of Leavenworth. Our goal was to do an early-season ascent of the complete North Ridge of Mount Stuart but upon our arrival in Leavenworth I discovered I had forgotten my fleece sweater, insulated parka, wool cap, and all my storm clothes at the last stop. We cragged on the Icicle for a couple of days waiting for the weather to clear, then decided my cotton pants, flannel shirt, down vest and cagoule would probably be clothing enough if we moved fast and were able to get up and down the route in a day.

It had already begun to rain by the time we reached the base of our route. A cool Northwest drizzle that we decided to ignore. By noon we had put the hardest pitches below us and were making excellent progress up the ridge when it began to snow. Then the wind began to blow. The easy slab leading to the rappel at the base of the Great Gendarme turned out to be one of the hardest pitches I have ever led. Protectionless with every hold needing to be chipped out of a thick layer of verglas. By the time I reached the slings I knew we were screwed. The ropes were now frozen stiff as carrots so who knew if we could even pull them down behind us. If the fourth-class slab below me had been that hard, no way were we going to climb the 5.5 slab separating us from the summit. It was time to go home.

Our descent was orderly and desperate. Most of it downclimbing. Some of it rappelling. We didn’t talk much. Scrambling past ledges piled knee-deep in snow, our eyes straining to see in the rapidly waning light, our faces frosted in hoar, we knew there was nothing much to say. Only that it was getting dark and we might have to spend the night on the mountain. By the time we reached a 4′-by-4′ ledge suspended like a ship’s prow above the void and absent of any rappel anchors, we knew that the time had come.

You could almost hear our brains saying “uh-oh” at exactly the same time. We kicked away as much snow as possible, laid down our rope, pulled on whatever dry clothing we had (which, in my case, was nothing), loosened our boots, stuck our feet inside our rucksacks, and sat with our backs against each other. Fragments of activity followed. We tried to eat something. I remember shivering. Then each of us taking turns doing sit-ups, flapping our arms, running in place and, for some odd reason, yodeling. Anything to generate a little heat. When those options no longer worked, my partner suggested that since he was wearing a fleece coat and Gore-Tex shell maybe it made sense for him to lie on top of me while I slapped and rubbed his back. Then, when I was warm, we could switch positions. A lost page from the Kama Sutra that we practiced all night long. I think we were both amazed when the clouds began to lighten and we realized we had made it through the night. We discovered a half-dozen rappel slings cinched around a flake hidden beneath a small pile of snow not two feet from where we had spent the night.

I was amazed at how quickly my fingers and toes began to warm themselves once we began to rappel. By the time we touched down on the glacier I was actually beginning to feel some regret that we hadn’t kept climbing. An hour later we were back at our camp and after several cups of tea we packed up our gear. At the car I squeezed a full quart of water out of my pants and the two of us laughed about how lucky we had been. Though, secretly, I thought the word stupid might have better applied in my case. “The greater the risk,” Reinhold Messner has written, “the more difficult it is to do the right thing. And the right thing is what allows us to survive.” Despite all my blather about risk awareness I had let ambition override knowledge and assumed that speed and experience would trump a poor wardrobe selection when, in fact, it rains just as hard on the rabbit as the turtle. Had I died it would not have been an example of bad luck as much as a simple unwillingness to focus on the right risks. Among the variables that exist beyond our ability to control, clothing is not one of them. To have taken something so simple so lightly represented not only a huge error in judgment but an attitude in serious need of adjustment.

When I’m 64

The adult in me probably should have quit right then. I had clearly exhausted more than my fair share of luck and with my 30s winnowing away my best years as an alpinist were behind me. But we are our own discoveries and for some reason craning my neck around a corner and looking up at what lies ahead has never lost its appeal. Not that I don’t enjoy my job or love my life at home but slipping sideways into a couloir filled with crap ice and spinning the wheel for all my accumulated Social Security is what gives those other things dimension and makes them all the more dear. True, I don’t burn with the everyday desire of my earlier years but I still get out two or three times a week and have arrived at a point where I actually enjoy sport climbing.

Not all my friends have been so fortunate. At age 64 I have acquaintances I have seen more often at memorials than in the mountains. And not because we were the smarter. Or fitter. Or more deserving. But simply because we were more fortunate.

The fact is we play a dangerous game and some simply stood too long at too steep an angle to the edge. But there are others, the majority, who were simply unlucky. They were as innocent of the circumstances that took their lives, as I have been of the ones that spared mine. Theorists like Richard Wiseman and Jennifer Merchan would have us believe that luck is a function of risk avoidance but there are others, like Cary Frydman of the California Institute of Technology, whose computational probability models suggest that “risky behavior is not always counterproductive” to achieving a positive outcome. Haston, I think, would laugh at the whole discussion. The point, he would say, is not in how long you had, but what you did with the time you were allotted.

We all die. More often in cars than in the mountains and much more often from cancer than climbing. Yet, since we do live in a society in which all hurt, whether real or imagined, is medicated or litigated, the illusion persists that we are fortunate in direct proportion to our ability to mitigate risk. I think not. Despite all our efforts to manage chance, we ride this giant stone in rings around the sun without considering what the late Brian Marsden, head of the International Astronomical Union, replied when asked by a reporter to name the factor that most determines the probability of our planet colliding with an asteroid.

“Luck,” he said.

But can it be manipulated? I guess so. To some extent. I wear a helmet more than I used to and tool up every spring with equipment that seems to improve in direct proportion to my physical decrepitude. I read topos, train harder, take fewer chances. But ultimately the answer to that question lies in the act of climbing itself. That single instant between shaking out your arms, looking down at your feet, and stepping out over the void onto the smallest prow of chance perched at the apex of both fate and foolishness and thinking to yourself that there could be no more pointless or fortunate thing you could have done with your life.

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