Jeff Lodas, one of our trainers, and I have a big goal: to do a new route on the East Face of Cloud Peak in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. The East Face is a beautiful 1000-foot wall with only two established routes. We’ve worked on the new route the last two years. Our trip this year, which occurred earlier this month, provided us with enough time to finish it. Yet, we failed, not because of the difficulty of the goal, but because of the delay we encountered on our approach to the mountain. 

In previous years we walked in the entire way: a 13-mile approach. The first part, six miles of improved trail, is an easy hike, albeit with heavy loads. The second part, seven miles without a trail, is difficult, consisting of scrambles across talus blocks and dense forests.

This year we had a bright idea: we could borrow an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) to carry our heavy packs on the first part of the approach. However, the trail for the ATV was different than the hiking trail. It started farther north and ended at a lake, intersecting the hiking trail. We didn’t think completely about the consequence of that difference. The allure of riding an ATV captured our attention. So, we borrowed a “Big Boss 6×6,” a 6-wheeled ATV, from our friends in Lander and drove to the trailhead. 

Bright ideas are great, but they can get us into trouble if we don’t do a thorough thinking/preparation process. Preparation requires thinking through an idea to understand it completely. “Completely” means thinking about all aspects of the risk, which include: the goal, the consequence, and the plan. 

Jeff and I were both unfamiliar with using an ATV and the ATV trail. After one false start, we found ourselves 20 miles in the wilderness with a broken-down ATV. The right-front and left-middle wheel assemblies came apart. It took us two days to hike out, get tools and repair parts, and fix it. This two-day delay positioned us in the middle of an inclement weather window on Cloud Peak, two pitches from the summit, preventing us from finishing the route and achieving our goal. 

Let’s look at where our thinking process was incomplete.

  1. Goal: We understood the goal. We wanted to arrive at the lake with the ATV and our heavy packs. 
  2. Consequence: We didn’t understand the consequence. We should have asked, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Answering that question would give us valuable information, such as the ATV breaking down, running out of gas, or the trail becoming impassable. 
  3. Plan: Knowing the full consequence would help us think about how to prepare for dealing with it. Could we fix the ATV or hire someone to fix it? Could we bring additional gas? Could we find out more information about the condition of the trail?

We’ll invariably hit road blocks that cause us to doubt our ability to stay committed when taking a risk. We did hit road blocks with the ATV. First, we had a false start. We drove five miles down the trail and realized we didn’t have enough gas. So, we returned to get more gas. Second, after experiencing the roughness of the trail on our false start, I doubted whether or not we should use the ATV. Better thinking prior to engaging the risk would have provided us with valuable information to be prepared to deal with such doubts.

We can also fall victim to similar incomplete thinking in climbing. We can tend to just start climbing, hoping for the best. Then, when we encounter unknowns we didn’t expect, our commitment is shut down, or we find ourselves in situations that aren’t appropriate. 

Doing a thorough thinking/preparation process helps us convert unknowns into knowns, and helps us take appropriate risks.

  1. Goal: Are we doing an on-sight ascent or just becoming familiar with a route, working toward a redpoint ascent? Being clear about the goal prevents us from changing our minds when we’re stressed. 
  2. Consequence: Clarifying if it’s a no-fall or a yes-fall risk helps us know how to deal with the possibility of falling. We don’t allow falls in no-fall zones; we allow falls in yes-fall zones.
  3. Plan: Knowing the consequence will help us think about how to prepare for dealing with it. How long and “rough” is the climbing? How will we apply our energy so we use it efficiently? Could we find out more information about the route?

We’ll hit road blocks that cause us to doubt our ability to stay committed. These road blocks seem unsurpassable if we haven’t thought them through beforehand. Maybe we run out of energy, or gas, because we failed to identify potential rest stances or to use our resources efficiently? Maybe doubts arise because we’re unfamiliar with the type of risk we’re in? We already know how to deal with doubts if we’ve clarified whether it’s a no-fall or yes-fall risk. 

Bright ideas are great, but they must be tempered with a thorough thinking process. Doing this prevents us from being two moves from our goal, breaking down, and falling, or being two pitches below the top of a beautiful new route on Cloud Peak’s East Face and failing. 

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