Summit Fever and How to Avoid It
My nose was running like a river. I rationed the toilet paper to two sheets per blow. That was all the 2 ply paper could handle. I had to limit the force of the blow as well. I felt like death. Why was I up on the glacier thinking I could climb? What the hell was I doing?
I had endured the flu for a few days. Feeling like I was on the verge of getting better, myself and two friends were going to charter a helicopter to fly up to Pioneer hut on the Fox glacier in New Zealand to climb the surrounding peaks.
Still feeling sick, we went grocery shopping for the trip, spending a vast amount on food. Everything was going full steam ahead. We were planning on staying at least 5 days or more. I had every hope and intention that I would get better as the days went on.
But I didn’t.
After we were dropped off at the hut by the helicopter, we sorted out our gear and looked for free bunks to make our beds in. The hut was busy with 3 other groups.
It didn’t take long till the questions came. Blowing my nose at an ever increasing rate, in hindsight I knew I looked like crap.
A few guys asked if I was ok.
‘I’m fine’ I would tell them, quickly running off to get more toilet paper to stop another bout of liquid coming out my nose.
It soon became apparent I wasn’t going to attempt anything the next day, or at all for that matter. I was getting worse. Walking to the outhouse toilet 35 meters away was difficult. I felt weak and my body ached.
That night, while my friends and the other groups prepared for their climbs, I was struggling to breath. Then, as each group rose at different times for their ‘alpine start’ at 12AM, 2AM and then 3AM, I had had almost no sleep from the constant interruptions. I felt terrible.
As the next day wore on and my friends were busy climbing their peak, I stayed in my sleeping bag, willing myself to get better. It just wasn't happening.
As all the groups returned, including my friends, I made the difficult choice to call it quits. I was suffering like I had never suffered before. The full body aches and pains, the running nose, the pressure headaches and sore throats, I needed to get out of there.
With one of the groups having an accident on their climb, they were also looking to get down. No serious injuries among them, but they were now just as keen as me to get the hell out of there. And so I was able to catch a ride and make it back down to the valley where I could rest and recover in a better environment.
WHAT IS SUMMIT FEVER?
It was my own stupid fault for going on the trip. My friends had asked me many times if I was sure I was going to go, and each time I said I would get better and be fine. I was sick and still went.
It was my first experience of ‘summit fever’, and I'm not talking about the flu either!
Summit fever can be described as the desire to make an objective, usually a mountain or peak, at whatever costs. Rational decisions and logical choices can be obscured in the veil of potential success. Its obsessive.
And it’s a dangerous thing.
It doesn’t just apply to mountains either. Any objective with potential risks and high payoff can contribute to the summit fever phenomenon. But mountains are often the main reason. So much goes into climbing them, physically, emotionally and financially, that many people will do anything to achieve their goal.
As an example:
The summit might just be a few hundred meters away, but in going there, all safety margins may go out the window with a storm front coming in hot. You may have spent $10,000 or more to be there. The weather window had taken 3 weeks to open. Do you turn around? Another chance may never come. What do you do?
A LESSON LEARNED
While I may not have been on a summit attempt, my lesson was still the same. The risks were lower, but in principle, I should not have gone. My recovery would have been much better (and faster) on the ground. Knowing the pain and discomfort in hindsight , I would never do it again. And it taught me a valuable lesson in knowing your limits, being honest in a group, and making a hard call.
It also had me thinking...
HOW TO AVOID SUMMIT FEVER
I feel there a few good rules that can be put in place to avoid potential catastrophes. It is often the collective result of many choices and decisions and failing to have systems, guidelines and rules in place to prevent faulty thinking.
The most important step is to outline the group objective. This can hard to do when the group are your friends, but heading into objective hazards territory is serious stuff. Take the time and discuss it.
Rather than making the goal the summit, it should be this:
‘Everyone comes back safe’
And to achieve that goal, these are important steps:
Setting the Rules
◘ Turn around times, weather, group ability, gear, supplies and hazards are ALL noted and accounted for. This means having a set plan in place, even if it’s just brief, to outline what the next course of action is when a variable changes.
◘ A designated leader. One person should always take charge and direct the conversations. More on this down below.
◘ Honesty about all hazards. If you spot or think something isn’t right, persist until you have a good answer from everyone. Don’t ignore the hazards or play them down. If one person is unsure, explain why it is or isn’t ok to continue. Don’t judge members of the team if they are scared. Discuss the issues.
◘ Decisions made as a group. All decisions should be made as a group involving even the most inexperienced person. Why? Because a common trap is to rely on one person to make decisions. See the section below on the common traps.
◘ A good leader doesn’t make all the decisions, they guide the group into making them. A leader should suggest and help the team get together and address issues.
◘ A good leader brings up the hard topics like turning around or calling it quits. Saying what no one wants to hear can be hard but a good leader needs to do it. People can be proud and refuse to say they need help or aren’t happy with how things are going when the goal is so close.
◘ A good leader should be equally skilled and experienced enough to recognise all the traps of faulty decision making and also be aware of what is involved in the trip. Having the experience to deal with all this is important. Good communication skills and reading the team dynamics is key.
Avoiding the Traps of Faulty Decision Making
◘ Separating the group. Never a good idea. Abilities should be matched BEFORE the trip begins.
◘ Never getting a chance again. The weather is good or the cost too high, so making the call can be tough but in the end the mountains will still be there. The chance WILL come again. Enjoy the experience as it is.
◘ Following the leader. Never assume everything is safe or ok by just following along. The outdoors demands respect and everyone is part of the team. The leader should likewise encourage contribution from each member.
◘ Tunnel vision. A focus on the goal narrowing out all the dangers will only end badly.
Following the above steps can make the difference in many cases. Just having turnaround times and sticking to them will keep you alive. And above all, try to see the trip as an experience, whether you make it to the top or not.
Whether its the real flu or summit fever, there’s always a reason to wait for another day, you just need the sense to see it!