Mistakes In The Outdoors Can Be Our Most Valuable Learning Experiences

DISCLAIMER: Some of the hyperlinks in this article discuss various climbing and abseiling/rappelling techniques. They are linked so non-climbing readers can follow the context of the story without drowning in technical jargon. Readers must be aware that climbing and mountaineering are sports with a danger of personal injury or death. Do not attempt these techniques without appropriate coaching or training. Participants in these sports must be aware of, and accept, these risks and remain responsible for their own actions. Disclaimer paraphrased from the recognised BMC Statement.

Mistakes. We all make them. Nobody is immune and, if you think you are, you clearly need to address some narcissism issues.

Now I’ll precurse this article by saying I don’t think mistakes are good. By their very definition they are acts or judgements that are wrong. But they are valuable. They’re valuable if you take the time to reflect back on them, see where you went wrong (sometimes our natural embedded self worth, or unconscious or conscious incompetence, means we need somebody else to tell us that bit), and learn from them so we don’t make the same mistake in the future.

Nowhere could this be more relevant than in the outdoors. I’ve had (and continue to have) the privilege of learning from some of the UK’s, perhaps even the world’s, most-experienced adventurers and all of them reflect back on poor judgements they’ve made in the past as valuable learning experiences that got them where they are today. Often we have to get out there and cock something up or run into conflict to see what we could do better in the future. Because we’re in the outdoors making those mistakes can sometimes mean dicing death or injury. We have a little more to lose than just making a bad sale or cooking a tasteless meal for a fancy dinner party.

A sequence of errors on a climbing trip…

One mistake I remember as a valuable learning experience happened several years ago when two friends and I decided to go climbing in the UK. Because they’re now established and respected professionals in this fairly small and close-knit industry I’m going to call them ‘Jack and Jill’ so as not to undermine them.

Jack and Jill were committed members of the climbing community. Jack had climbed for about eight years already and was leading Trad E-Grades, Jill about two years and leading at HVS. I was the least-experienced climber having only started a year or so earlier and not quite caught the bug yet. I could lead a grippy Severe on a good day or a VDiff/HVDiff most of the time. At the time I really only climbed the minimum amount to pass the relevant modules on my Outdoor Education BSc. I’ve since done considerably more climbing both personally and professionally but trekking, SCUBA diving, paddlesports, bushcraft and the many facets of geography/geology/ecology remain my ‘preferred’ disciplines.

So, in an effort to drag me out and teach me about how great climbing could be, Jack and Jill declared we’d go for a day on Idwal Slabs.

“Rich, I think the main reason you don’t see its appeal is because single-pitch climbing doesn’t give you the same sense of adventure that summiting a mountain or diving a shipwreck do, so we’re gonna introduce you to multi-pitch climbing. It’ll feel more like proper mountaineering”, was the jist of what they said to me.

It was a chilly February but a fairly bland winter for the mountaineering community. There was no decent snow or ice so we’d be doing ‘summer’ rock climbing. We decided to do a route graded at VDiff. Due to the big holds and grippiness of the rock we chose to ascend in solid winter-mountaineering boots rather than tight climbing shoes. This was within all of our climbing competence.

We set off from Liverpool just before 9am and made a short stop on the way. We got to the Ogwen Valley and hiked up to the base of the slabs by about 11:30am.

Now, any climbers reading this may already see the red flags. It was nearly lunch in a month where the daylight hours are shorter, and we were about to multi-pitch. Due to my relative inexperience (we’d trained to multi-pitch in uni but I hadn’t done it ‘in anger’) we’d decided not to simul-climb. Instead Jack and Jill would take it in turns to lead pitches, bringing me up between them. This adds a little time to the process but we estimated we’d still be fairly fast because they were both exceptionally quick and I was pretty confident at that climbing grade too.

Jack set off first and we made fairly good progress initially. We got a few pitches done just as efficiently as planned. But then my climbing endurance started to waiver and we got considerably slower. Every time Jack or Jill had to belay me their hands started to stiffen up, meaning their progress became slower too.

We decided to anchor up and have a quick lunch at about 2pm. That was when we realised, if we continued at this speed on the current plan, we’d be descending in the dark. Not the end of the world; we’d all done plenty of night navigation and it was somewhat of a specialisation of mine after doing it regularly for the preceding few months whilst attempting to join a fairly tough military reserve unit. A quicker option was preferable though.

We changed our plan. Originally we were going to ascend the full route then descend down the mountain on foot but Jack mentioned there was an abseil ‘escape’ we could take about 3/4 the way up.

“There’s usually a line up there to drop off on”, he said.

So we pushed on. It was hitting dusk as we topped-out on the grassy ledge leading to the abseil a bit further around the mountain. The wind was starting to pick up and we were getting chilly.

At this stage I felt pretty done-in. I wanted nothing more than to be down off the hillside, walking back to the car ready for a hot meal and celebratory energy drink. Despite usually brandishing a stoic mindset, I found myself vocalising how I felt.

We made our way around the ledge to the abseil point. It was dark now and we’d got our headlights out. To our annoyance we found the lines we’d been expecting weren’t there. Looking over the precipice was vast blackness. We couldn’t see the bottom.

“Right, we’ll have to ab off and see if we’ve got enough rope. We’ll be cutting it quite fine I think. If not, prusik back up and we’ll look at our options” Jack declared.

We decided I’d go first. Jack set the system up and I knotted the end of the rope so I couldn’t accidentally plummet to my death if the rope was too short, then tied my prusik. I didn’t particularly want to have to ascend back up; not only was I feeling pretty done but prusiking up a rope can be bloody hard work!

I started to lower myself over the edge, the black void wide open beneath me. I shifted my prusik farther down the rope and fed it through my bug. I gained some confidence and descended pretty quickly. To my joy, the ground appeared beneath me and I felt my feet settle on terra firma.

“SAFE!“, I shouted as I removed myself from the rope.

Jack and Jill followed me down and we retrieved the rope. It was time for the fairly simple task of hiking to the footpath that would lead us out of here.

We got one of our maps out and consulted it. We decided our route and set off. About fifteen minutes into the walk the terrain around us no longer matched what it should have done on the map. Despite all being fairly competent at Night Nav, a combination of fatigue, urgency to get off the mountain and complacency meant we’d gone wrong.

We got together for a chat.

“Well, we’re not trying to navigate to any precise spot. We know we’re heading in the right direction to hit the tourist track, there’s no more particularly dangerous terrain other than a few short rocky steps we might have to lower down, and it’s already dark so time isn’t of particular concern as long as we grizz it out for a bit longer”, one of us said, I can’t recall who.

It was a fair argument. We estimated we were probably 50-60m from where we wanted to be. It was too dark to accurately relocate quickly so we decided to press on and see what we came across.

As expected, we hit a few rocky sections and did some quick ropework to lower off them. After some time (I forget specifically, perhaps about forty minutes) the track came into view. It stood out fairly prominently – a white scar across the black landscape, softly reflecting the ambient light of what had turned out to be a gloriously clear and starry night.

We were ecstatic! The slope in front of us opened out to a shallow, grassy descent and we accelerated towards the prominent footpath. Finally, we reached it. It was all plain sailing from here. The Llyn Idwal path is one of the most touristic in the UK and an easy, rapid descent back to the car park for anybody that knows it. We reached the car soon after and looked back at what an ‘epic’ it had been. Over all, a climb and descent we estimated would take four or five hours had taken us about ten.

As you can see, a considerable sequence of errors was made that day. It will be very easy for more intrepid readers to criticise a lot. I don’t oppose them in doing so. We learnt a lot and have never made the same mistakes. For example:

  • The decision to go when we did. In hindsight, doing that route in February requires a very early start to make the most of the daylight. Starting a multi-pitch when most people would be getting ready for lunch, in the tail end of winter, meant finishing in the dark was almost inevitable.
  • The way we chose to climb. Climbing with three people on one rope is inefficient the way we did it. Simul-climbing is a rapid way of ascending with more than two climbers linked together but is known for being quite dangerous and isn’t for beginners. The climbing method we were using works best in pairs. Ideally we should have invited a fourth climber so we could climb in two pairs or I could have declined the invitation so Jack and Jill could go and zoom up there in their own time. Or I could have gone with just one of them. There was a range of arguably better options.
  • Physical preparation for the climb. It was a mistake on my part to not prepare more thoroughly to go multi-pitching. Due to the aforementioned military training I possessed considerable strength and endurance at the time but, in an ideal world, I would have been able to climb much quicker and longer with a few weeks hammering the indoor walls or single-pitch crags first.
  • Some good calls we made. Choosing to cut our losses and escape the route when we topped-out on the main slab was a good call. Imagine how long it could have taken to continue climbing the next (more difficult) section before navigating our way down the mountain. Beyond that – the inconvenience of setting up our own abseil wasn’t an error, though we would have endured less stress knowing we had a longer rope. One should never rely on the thought of a line being fixed and we hadn’t – we had the right equipment. Knowing the rough size of the abseil and the length of our rope meant we knew we’d be close; we physically had to test it out to see if we could get all the way down. It was well ingrained in all of us to ALWAYS tie a knot in the end of the rope so we could never accidentally abseil off it.
  • Getting complacent in our navigation. Whilst it worked out for us this time, it was a reminder to never get complacent or lazy with navigation. Always check exactly where you are. Never set off without truly knowing. The ‘educated guess’ method has its place to an extent on a glorious summers’ day in easy terrain where features are easy to find and relocation is quick and simple, but certainly not at night when under moderate stress and fatigue. Many good, competent mountaineers and hikers have died because they made simple navigational errors when they were tired or became complacent.
  • Don’t celebrate until it’s over. We were all extremely well versed in the Llyn Idwal footpath, knowing it like the back of our hand. It was like a second home at the time and I’d be confident in saying going wrong once we were on it was pretty much impossible. To that end, we dashed down in a great mood. We wouldn’t have done so elsewhere. Reaching a footpath does not mean you’re in the clear. Take a wrong turn on many routes and you can end up on the other side of the mountain from where you want to be, or on some routes you could still walk yourself to your death (the ever-popular Snowdon is particularly renowned for some hidden killers next to major tourist tracks). Reaching a path should change nothing in your commitment to navigation unless you really know it inside-out.

Over all, I can say I learnt a lot during and after that long day on the hill. Whilst I cringe and cower at the thought of some of our decisions that day, as I imagine Jack and Jill do too, I’m glad for the experience.

Since then I’ve engaged in climbing considerably more and would not repeat the same errors. I no longer let the young bravado or cockiness of ‘winging it’ carry me through in my navigation (or anything else I do in the outdoors). I’m known these days to be a fairly calm character under duress but that is only because I plan and prepare everything to a much higher standard beforehand and have learnt to adjust or adapt my plans accordingly when a situation changes.

Reflecting on every experience in the outdoors – good or bad – is arguably the most critical stage of the learning process. We can assess what went well or where we went wrong. For some that could mean taking notes and reviewing them intensely. For others, a chat or moment’s headspace whilst nursing the post-summit pint will do the trick.

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Thanks for reading!

Rich