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Safety first, then fun, then summit

Lake Arnold is seen last November with snow, which was not there this past weekend but could be the next time you go. Sometimes — especially this time of year in the Adirondack backcountry — no matter how well you prepare for the unpredictable weather, it’s not enough. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

Last Saturday, I was reminded of just how challenging shoulder season weather can be for those who aim to venture out in it.

Setting out at 4:30 a.m., my good friend Bear and I were hoping to make some decent headway before showers that were slated to come and go all morning began. The goal was to summit Grey and Skylight — mountains she needs to visit to complete her 46 — and we’d been working to plan the trip for a couple weeks. Caution had prevented us from going the week before, but having taken the time to get kitted out with the right gear for the task, Bear was ready to tackle this hike. Unfortunately, even the most meticulous planning can’t account for every circumstance, as we were soon to discover.

We got off to a good start, with redundancies for important gear included in our packs, and were making a solid pace when the drizzle started up just before Marcy Dam. In a few minutes, we were moving along in full rain gear and feeling alright despite the dampness and the dark. All that took a turn around Lake Arnold, however, when a cold breeze whipped through the pass and Bear stopped to add a layer. It became very clear that her rain jacket (a top-of-the-line one at that) had completely failed and was soaked through, inside and out. We were both stymied by this turn of events. She had packed perfectly for this trip, with plenty of extra layers and a change of clothes, but none of this meant much if her rain protection failed before we were even up on the summits.

It was still coming down pretty hard at that point, so we had to make a choice: Do we continue, knowing that we were only 5 miles into a 17.5-mile day (and the miles we’d done were the easy ones), or do we turn back now? To continue would mean gambling with her happiness and health as the ante. If the rain stopped, she could dry out a little and change clothes, but we still had a swamp to cross and a couple of mountains to ascend. Being only 8 a.m., there was still a significant chance for continued rain until noon, so chances of drying off were not high. If she stayed soaked, then the wind on the summits and the downhill hike afterward would have robbed her of hard-fought-for body heat. With a rain jacket that was no longer functional, she couldn’t hope to cut those winds as she planned to. If she didn’t become hypothermic in the process, she would at least suffer some pretty unpleasant bouts of shivers while we picked our way back along the same route in reverse, mostly downhill this time so the body wouldn’t be producing as much heat. Maybe it would turn out fine and we would get the peaks, but the scale of negative alternatives ranged from unpleasant to outright dangerous.

When it came time to decide, it was clear that the risk outweighed the reward. The peaks would be there another day, after all. Despite the disappointment, we made the best of the way back, enjoying more spirited conversation and evaluating the decision we’d made. More than a few times, we passed folks who were less prepared than we were heading toward some peak or another. It made our decision feel like a bitter pill. Despite the frustration involved with bowing to caution rather than throwing it to the wind, we were confident we had made the right choice for us, at least.

In my line of work, the motto to live by is “Safety, Fun, Summit.” That is the ranked order of importance when we consider any sort of outdoor pursuit. My primary function is to return clients safe and sound. After that, we want to make sure their experience was as good as it could be. Sometimes, conditions make that difficult, but in those cases, we refer back to safety as our focus. The summit, or whatever the specified goal of the adventure may be, is the last thing we think about. Of course, we want our clients to achieve their goals, but the first two conditions are the most important by orders of magnitude.

Ultimately, you choose the kind of adventure you want. Sometimes, that involves pushing the boundaries of human potential to the absolute limit and seeing just how far you can go. For those of us who teach in the outdoors, however, the goal is often more nuanced than that. Discomfort in a wilderness setting is, to a certain extent, inevitable. Part of the point of leaving the couch is to push yourself, experience a certain amount of exertion, and find places and experiences that breathe a different kind of sensation into the very notion of existing. In the outdoor education field, we talk about “type 2 fun” a lot. This refers to those experiences that can feel a bit miserable when they’re happening but, when you look back, you can only smile — the camaraderie and the solitude, the endorphin rush associated with high-output activity, the awe you feel when the clouds break and the view from 4,500 feet of altitude rushes into frame.

Especially for people new to the outdoors, these kinds of experiences can truly feel like their absolute limit is being pushed in the moment, but that’s the point of going into the wilderness with an experienced individual. After countless days in the woods, one learns what boundaries you can push and which you really shouldn’t. One of those boundaries you shouldn’t push is cold, wet weather. There’s a difference between “type 2 fun,” just plain suffering and real danger, but even for experienced wilderness enthusiasts, that line can be difficult to see sometimes.

While it might feel tough and righteous to push those limits, the consequences can be truly dire. Weighing the benefits against the potential costs is a ritual that is inextricably linked with recreating in the outdoors. The calculus will be different for everyone, for every situation, but the process is largely the same. By the time we returned to our cars, we were both certain we’d made the right decision. Better to be cautious and return to hike another day than to push on, potentially past that limit and into the danger beyond.

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