Why Did I Turn Back on my Last Climb?

Lhotse Face Climbers

With no hope left, you drop like a sack of rocks into your chair. Your eyes focus on the wall, then the 100-yard stare begins.

You thought you did everything right, but as you near the top of your mountain, you hit the wall. Bang, dead in your tracks. Left with no choice, you turned around and now are back home, filled with doubts. I’ve sat in that chair back home too many times, to be honest. 

I believe that five areas deserve an in-depth, honest review to learn from your experience.

  1. Training 
  2. Fuel
  3. Pace
  4. Acclimatization
  5. Mental toughness

Let’s take them one at a time seeking to identify your specific areas of improvement.


Training is a distinct area to inspect. Did you train well enough for the scope of the climb? Note, I’m not asking if you trained “hard enough,” but rather, did you train “smart enough.” 

Physiology experts and climbers themselves, Scott Johnston and Steve House, have developed an entire culture around smart training. In their book “Training for the New Alpinism,” Scott puts it bluntly:

“The days of working out until you puke are over, thankfully, for climbers, and may well be for any athlete.”

One thing is clear, to climb mountains, it’s best to train in the mountains. After all, why do you think Michale Phelps, 20 time Olympic Swimming Gold Medal winner spends so much time in the pool?

Training for climbing is all about stamina, developing an efficient cardiovascular system, not bulking up with huge muscles. Take a look at Alex Honold, Simone Moro or, our friend, Steve House – lean and lanky. Do you think it was actually Sylvester Stallone who climbed that 5.12 rock wall in the horrible movie “Cliff Hanger”?

When I’m training for a big climb, I try to get three days a week: one long 8-12 hours, then two more 4-6 hour events. I try to carry a 20 to 30-pound pack, and because I’ve chosen to live in Colorado, almost all my training is in the mountains, mostly between 6,000 and 14,000 feet.

Another factor to consider while training is overtraining and low-carb diets that cause glycogen depletion, which I’ll cover next. Bottom line – overtraining is terrible!

As I’ve said often about training for K2, Everest, or any challenging climb considering your experience, when you start to get tired, you have only just begun.

To get the best result, you need to learn how to push your body to smart limits while training is the key to pushing beyond the wall in the mountains.


Our bodies are engines that need fuel: water, carbohydrates, protein, and fat. This great chart from Nutri Strategy reveals the fuel challenge:

Calories burned per hour during various exercises
Activity130 lbs155 lbs180 lbs
Rock climbing, ascending rock649774899
Rock climbing, mountain climbing472563654
Rock climbing, rappelling472563654
Hiking, cross country354422490
Climbing hills, carrying < 9 lbs413493572
Climbing hills, carrying 10-20 lbs443528613
Climbing hills, carrying 21-42 lbs472563654
Climbing hills, carrying > 42 lbs531633735

One of the critical elements is glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrates.

In general, we have about 4 hours of glycogen before we begin strenuous exercise. This storage is about 400 grams or about 1,600-2,800 calories of carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, stored in our muscles and liver at any given moment.

It’s not surprising that if we don’t replace the fuel we burn, we “bonk” before the liver begins to convert fat and protein to glucose. The symptoms include extreme fatigue, dizziness, and maybe even hallucinations. Sound familiar?

The moral to this tale is to keep the body topped off, but humans can only process about 250 Kcal of sugar per hour, far less than we expend over the same period.

I use Honey Stinger products. I like the way my body processes the natural honey, but in the end, sugar is sugar and natural is best.

Dehydration is the silent killer in the mountains. We sweat and lose water even on the coldest days. Some athletes sweat 0.5 to 1.5 liters an hour. This transparent process sucks away life and leaves us fatigued and hurting. While a few elite athletes can train their bodies to go all day on little food and water, we regular folk don’t have that capacity. I try to drink half a liter every couple of hours and always add electrolyte replacement tablets, i.e., Nuun products, to keep my body chemistry in balance.

When you think about hitting the wall, how much food and water (and was it the right kind) did you take on board the previous few hours? A simple change in habits will go a long way to improve performance. Self-care in the mountains is your responsibility.


It can be easy, or perhaps, misleading to find your speed when you are alone, but most of us hike or climb with friends and on occasion in a guided group. One of my Everest friends calls his best practice his “go all-day pace.”

Summit days can be 8, 12, 16 hours, or longer on the significant peaks. You must be able to find a sustainable pace that is neither too fast or too slow – the Goldilocks pace! Too slow will put you in danger of pure exhaustion. Too fast can have the same effect – everyone has their limits.

Professional guides try to find a safe pace, based on experience, that will get you to the top and back in a reasonable timeframe. But some guides push too fast, forcing their clients to go more quickly than their cardio-vascular system can support. Going back to our training discussion, that “fast pace” may not be too fast, it may expose inadequate training or self-care.


The human body is fantastic at adapting to different environments. However, it has to have a chance. Living at sea-level and flying to Colorado to immediately climb to 14,000-feet is asking for trouble. Make that a guarantee if you try to shortcut the acclimatization process for a 7,000 or 8,000-meter peak. 

The body begins to create new red blood cells almost immediately upon being exposed to a lower amount of oxygen. To fully adapt to a new altitude, it may require several weeks shown by most studies, and the new red blood cells will live for about 120 days.

Remember that altitude sickness can start as low as 8,000-feet! While you may think you are “unique” because you have climbed a California or Colorado 14,000-foot peak with no problem, that was probably in 24 hours. Spending a couple of weeks or longer on a 6,000 or 7,000 or 8,000-meter peak is an entirely different scenario.

The rule of thumb for acclimatization is never to gain more than 300-500 meters/900-1500 ft per day. Most guided climbs loosely follow this protocol. 

The problem is simple – look at this chart from the Center for Wilderness Safety for the “effective oxygen” levels. Although air contains 20.9% oxygen at all altitudes, lower air pressure at high altitude makes it feel like there is a smaller percentage of oxygen.

Altitude (feet)Altitude (meters)Effective Oxygen %Altitude CategoryExample
0020.9LowBoston, MA
5000152417.3MediumBoulder, CO
6000182916.6MediumMt. Washington, NH
8000243815.4HighAspen, CO
13000396212.7Very High
14000426712.3Very HighPikes Peak
15000457211.8Very High
16000487711.4Very HighMont Blanc
17000518211.0Very High
2000060969.7ExtremeDenali (McKinley)
2100064019.4ExtremeLimit of MAG-20

But the “feel-like” altitude depends on temperature and location relative to the poles and equator. The closer to the poles the temperature your body will feel the impact of “thin-air”

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This last area may be your Achilles’ heel. When I ran track in High School, one day, I was loafing through practice. Finally, my coach, in utter frustration, called me over and said: “Alan, you don’t want it bad enough.” He was right.

At one point in my climbing career, I had given up on more peaks than I had summited. I had made a lot of the previously mentioned mistakes, but more to this point, I lacked real motivation. I required a deep understanding of why I would put myself in such uncomfortable settings. I lacked the knowledge of the “why” and found it easier to focus on the “why not.”

Motivation is the key to smart training, smart self-care, smart pacing, and smart acclimatization. The best actors always want to know “what is my motivation” before they accept a movie role.

But this is another one of those “and” with the “and” being motivation and mental toughness. Marathon runners talk about “mile 23,” where their body is ready to shut down. They hit the wall. The best athletes train for this and are prepared, knowing it will happen. For climbers on a prominent peak, most of us hit the same wall.

My epiphany came after three unsuccessful attempts to summit Everest. I hit the wall at precisely the same place, just below the balcony around 27,500-feet. I was climbing for bragging rights, to stand on the summit and declare victory – that I “conquered” the mountain. How silly. How ego-driven. On my fourth attempt, I was climbing in memory of Ida Arnette, who died from Alzheimer’s Disease. It was a cause larger than my self-interests.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone has to have a “cause,” but I am saying that you have to know precisely why you are willing to put yourself in such pain and discomfort because it’s just too easy to turn around and sink in that chair.

Taking Inventory

So on the next training or big climb, take inventory when you are in trouble:

  1. Am I hydrated?
  2. Do I have enough fuel i.e carbohydrates on board right now?
  3. Was my physical preparation adequate now that I’m here and know what is happening.
  4. Do I really want this and enough and am not willing to die for it.

Questions 1 and 2 are key. The answers depend on your experience. If this is your first time at 8,000 meters, you don’t know what you don’t know. A wrong answer could be deadly. If on a Californa or Colorida 14er, the risk is high but might not be deadly. The next two questions are best for when you are safely down, especially number four.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

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9 thoughts on “Why Did I Turn Back on my Last Climb?

  1. Thanks for (yet another) very useful collection of disparate information about mountaineering. I have found your site to be a fabulous source of information over the years and once again, I’ll be referring friends to your site for solid information.

    I could not help but smile at your headline question, though. Bill Tilman had the answer:

    When a party fails to get to the top of a mountain, it is usual and convenient to have some picturesque excuse – preferably some objective reason for turning back, such as the dangerous state of the snow, the approach of bad weather, or falling stones, so that a story of failure makes better reading than one of success, while a chorus of praise resounds to the party’s display of sound judgement and unselfish renunciation of a victory easily within its grasp. If the story of our failure has lost something in the telling, it is owing to an unfortunate propensity, perhaps only temporary, for truth, and the reason for our retreat was the more prosaic and not uncommon one – inability to go any further.

    H.W. (Bill) Tilman, Snow on the Equator (1937) in The Seven Mountain Travel Books at 42-43 (Diadem Books, 1983).

    Please keep up the good work.

  2. What about snow conditions and weather?…some of the best climbers have turned around mostly because of this. This is a major key.

  3. Nice read, thank you!
    Anybody on here to spend the winter and spring season in Chamonix? Will arrive around Christmas and stay until mid May.

  4. Well thought out, Alan. This problem vexes every climber at one point or another, you’ve identified the key elements in one reasonable list.

    When I reflect on the how-or-why of my most recent successes and non-summits, it boils down to one or two of your points. And yeah, we all got to be honest with ourselves summiting or not.

  5. I enjoyed this article and think it was very well written. Thank you for so much helpful information.

  6. Very relevant, and demonstrates how important to be self conscious and well prepared. For me the weakest point is mental, even though I have a strong why I seem to be absorbed by the events that unfold, and difficult to step back during those moments. Any additional advice in this area would be very helpful. Thanks Alan.

  7. correction, fat isnt converted into glucose, its broken down and burned as acetyl co A , thats the problem if you dont eat enough carbs or sugar, your brain has to have glucose for fuel and without stored glycogen, or enough carbs or protein coming in, it will break down your muscles into glucose… fat can only be burned at a limited rate, hence the bonk, you cant exercise intensely by burning fat alone..

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