The Climber’s Depression Abyss

Black Lab

Christine, 84 years young came up to me after a recent talk I gave on my K2 summit in 2014, both a success and an epic. “I don’t understand.” She said shaking her head in a bit of disapproval. I simply replied “I understand that you don’t understand.”

With that, I expect only a handful of my readers to understand this post.

You summit the mountain of your dreams. You did it in style with great friends or teammates. Everything was perfect. You come home excited, full of energy and then it hits … your emotions drop like a rock in a still pond. All ambition is gone. You mope around like you just lost your dog.

At first you chalk it up to being tired, after all you trained for a year, pushed yourself to reach the summit, and back. You are tired. But something else is going on. You are depressed, not ally but you are really down.

I understand. I’ve been there – a lot.

Let’s look at three results of a climb: summit, no summit – your issues, no summit – out of your control


You come home and friends, families, strangers, the family dog are thrilled to see you and heartfelt congratulations are offered, drinks are on the house. Just as you get ready to talk about your proud achievement, all the drama, how you dug deep, the personal life lessons you learned, your audience turns the table on you. “Great job. You must be so happy to get this one done. So, what’s next?”

And so it begins. Of course you have pondered this question and have some ideas, but you want to take some time to reflect on the last climb before thinking about the next one.

But this is not why you are feeling down, it goes much deeper.

The last year has been all about your goal. You made sacrifices. So did your family. Your closest friends grew accustomed that the ‘climb’ was all you wanted to talk about. You denied it had become an obsession, but everyone else said it was. And now it was gone. You have a huge hole in your life.

Instead of celebrating your success, you are drawn into the “no future goal abyss”. Trying to explain it is futile, no one understands except for a few fellow climbers, your friend, your partner.

How long you remain in the hole is a big question. There are no ladders, no shortcuts out. It just takes time.

No Summit – What Happened?

This one is easier to understand. You ‘failed” (I don’t like that word used in association with climbing) and it’s your fault. You reached that point in the climb where you met yourself and you turned back. You know it. You know it deep down and it hurts.

You thought you had trained, but you knew you can never ‘overtrain’. You thought you had studied the route, but you had never been there. You planned on being self-sufficient but you depended on others. You thought you had the right gear, but something went wrong. You thought …

Rationalization is a wonderful thing. Coping mechanism at the , and worse. You struggle to explain to friends, family and the dog what happened. It’s difficult to simply say “It’s all on me.” But that’s the truth, and the truth hurts. But the dog is still thrilled to see you every time you reenter the room.

And those friends who ask how did it go? Well the conversation starts with “Did you summit?” and you respond cautiously beginning with “No, but …” and go into a lengthy explanation of how the planets align, tectonic plates, vagaries of weather forecasting, bacterium versus viruses and ….  When your audience regains consciousness they ask “Wow. So what’s next?”

Back into the abyss.

No Summit – It Wasn’t Me!

Perhaps the easiest and the hardest of our three scenarios. You have a built in excuse but you still didn’t accomplish your goal.  On the flight home, you go thru the five stages of climber’s denial: 1. Pissed off 2. Dejected 3. Heavy drinking  4. Sleep 5. Planning the next climb.

Everyone understands but no one wants to hear the details. Once again, you find yourself alone in climber’s depression.

Not summiting, or achieving your goal because someone else didn’t do their job is tough to accept. After all, their lack of ‘whatever’ was not your problem, but it became your’s.

Not summiting because nature decided to do a random act of “whatever”, was never on your radar, but once it occurred, you had no choice but to accept Her wrath, hopefully with dignity … but some days that is harder than others.

Your friends, knowing you didn’t summit, tread lightly upon the first meeting. “Tough break. You did your , but these things happen. Hang in there.” and then …. “So, what’s next?”

Back into the abyss.

So, What’s Next?

If you have ever climbed, rock, ice, foothills or the big ones, you know how it feels.

The elation of reaching your goal, the loneliness of not. After the climb is often the toughest phase. The land of “tweens”. The time of annoying questions.

And the time to pick yourself up, get on with life and to tell your entire story, in vivd detail, to the family dog …

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

Share this post:

26 thoughts on “The Climber’s Depression Abyss

  1. The thing is Alan nobody warns you about this when you embark on your journey. I might have been able to prepare more for it had I known. It hit me like a train about a week after returning home – I thought it was just me I didn’t realise it was ‘a thing’ that many climbers suffer.

    Once more I am indebted to you for your perceptive articles – thank you.

  2. Alan,

    You describe it well.
    Thanks for reminding us about the last phase in the process of accomplishment.



  3. Knowing the black dog is awaiting your return, it kinda makes sense to be aware of that (and expect it) and pre-plan some post trip stuff for your first month back. Knowing it’s coming and not planning for it suggests your total plan is not complete.

      1. Haha, no my point being that if we know now that we might feel a tad blue on the return, it might be helpful to also include planning for this low beforehand. In your case then: buy a dog!!!

        1. On a serious comment, many people complete a hard earned goal and then feel a bit down and wonder why. This is why I wrote this to share my own experiences and hopefully help others to understand that this is a natural part of a big goal. Even if you know it will happen, it may come as a surprise, imho, and it seems many others based on their comments to the post. Thanks Craig!

  4. Fabulous post! Sharing this! I’m in this due to scenario 3 right now. Expedition outfitter’s logistics totally failed me on Cho Oyu this spring season

  5. Interesting, I thought I was the only one who felt this way after my climbs. Thank you for your posts. I’m going to be there in 2017, and it would be nice to meet you.

  6. Gosh Alan, your writing is so fabulous. I know I have come down after aiming and achieving different goals but then I close my eyes and remember the wonderful experiences I have had along the way and know it was all worth it and failing or achieving the goals, the spirit of place is important and know that in oneself, one has experienced things which others may not have.

  7. I just loved your latest musings and to see you haven’t lost your sense of humour.I treat the Everest season as my personal struggle to overcome a very serious back problem. I have already had four major back operations but have never managed to get passed the Balcony.This year’s attempt involved weaning myself off strong pain killers enabling my surgeon to implant a spinal stimulator.
    I have managed to get to Camp 3 but I appear to have reached a plateau. I don’t want to climb down but seem unable to go forward.All your questions and answers fit into my predicament beautifully. My loving, encouraging friends and family ask the same questions and make the same comments as your Everest friends. I doubt all this will make much sense to you but believe me following your annual blog really does help and encourage me to go forward. The mountaineers challenge their minds and bodies whether it is a summit or fail and I think if they can do it so can I. I doubt this will make much sense to you but as I go forward I hope to be up at the Balcony by next season with a possible chance of a summit. Meanwhile, sincere thanks for this year’s coverage I really look forward to your put each year. Cheers Kate

      1. So pleased you understand Alan. Thanks for taking time to reply. Cheers Kate

  8. Not summitting is as much a part of this sport where summitting is everything, fortunately or unfortunately this is a sport where 99.99% isn’t enough – it’s all or nothing – summit or bust, make it or not, the pressure cooker this leads us to become ourselves into is a competitive nightmare and most times the competition is with our own demons.

    Thanks yet again Alan for providing another side to the mountains we deal with…

  9. Hi Alan. Not able to read your posts, I’m afraid. Using Firefox on a mac and all I get is the top part of the photo with the blog entry title and date and then the comments section. No way to reach any text and it’s the same with all your posts. I hope that’s helpful and it’s an easy fix!


    1. Hi Steve, not sure what to tell you as I have tested the posts on your exact config and it works for me. Perhaps an Ad Blocker or something is interfering? I made a couple of small tweaks so please try again.

  10. Thoroughly enjoy your writings Alan! And I’m not even a climber. Thank you!

  11. Hi Alan,

    Oh how this made me smile! I was “stormed off” Aconcagua in January this year – no summit.
    I said I wouldn’t go back …. all my friends said “When are you going back?” I thought about it as I went through the five stages of climbers denial. Think the drink helped, but alas can’t remember.
    No guesses…. I’m going back next Year!

    Thank you for another years amazing coverage on Everest and for all the good you do with Alzheimer’s.


  12. Great article Alan!
    Very recognizable! What also adds to the depression is the lack of mountains where I live..

Comments are closed.