F is for failure

November 25, 2008

Homer J Simpson once said, ‘Trying is the first step towards failure, which is not only one perhaps the most pessimistic statements ever made, but also the most pertinent when it comes to pushing your limits on rock, ice and in the mountains.  but for me as a climber, failure has always been crucial, so much so that it seems that I actively seek it out rather than constantly trying to dodge it, because as Mick Fowler remarked that it’s better to only just fail - or only just succeed on a route rather than do a route easily.  Failure is also a cornerstone of adventure, after all, adventure is supposed to be a journey with an uncertain outcome.

When I first started climbing in the Alps someone commented that I failed so much because I tried routes that were too hard.  At the time I took this as an insult, but in retrospect, I can see that he was right; and I could have climbed a lot more routes if I’d lowered my sights a little.  But would it be worth giving up the joy and reward I got when I finally did reach the difficult summits in return for far more summits of lower personal value?  The answer for me is a definite ‘no’  because although every climber has their own reasons to climb, for me climbing has always been about what a mountain takes not what it gives, the struggle not the reward.

A few years ago I was asked to interview for a climbing extravaganza on Everest, along with several of the UK’s top alpine climbers and mountaineers.  It was very old school, with us all having to report to Plas y Brenin on an allotted day for interviews, with each climber being called in one after the other to sit in front of a panel, where they would be asked various probing questions.  Finally, my time came, and I sat there nervously answering questions such as ‘would I be able to be away from home for 2 months, ‘how would I work in a team), and ‘what I experience I had of climbing at 8000 metres?’ (I’d only been to 4000 metres, but I had been in loads of planes). The final question was ‘what ascent do you feel most proud of?’.  I thought for a moment and answered it was a failed winter ascent of Fitzroy’s Super Couloir – which surprised them a little.  One of them asked why, after all flagging up a failure to an interview panel looking for winners probably seemed a bit odd.  “Because it was the biggest struggle in my life – and it was a great journey.” 

Of course, I took failure hard at the start, but slowly over the years, I’ve come to see that the weight of failure balances the reward, meaning the greater the risk the greater the reward, a reward that can be tasted even if you don’t reach the top.  Perhaps this is where the saying that you can judge a climber not by what they have done, but what they have failed on, comes from? 

Failure tests the most important aspect of who you are and what you do; your self-belief.  Of course, the line between self-belief and delusion is a very fine one, but with practice – and the odd success – it’s a line that becomes easier to tread.  This fine line and the effect it can have on a climbers psyche is best demonstrated by Joe Tasker’s comment that there are many reasons for failure, but mostly failure is a result of a lack of will to succeed. This thought should be in every climber’s mental tool kit, to be brought out at the junction of a climb, that moment where you must decide whether you want to commit or not, it may just give you some light on a lack of will and bona fide rock-solid impossibility.  When you walk the line and succeed, the reward for not wavering from your self-belief is immeasurable. 

And this is why I climb.

So if you’ve always played it safe,  why not try for a heroic failure this year, push it too far, give it your all - even if only to find your all is not enough and find yourself a battle you can’t possibly win.  Just think how amazing it would feel if you actually succeed.

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