The Tipping Point

» Posted by on Nov 29, 2012 in Blog | 6 comments

A certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. Haruki Murakami

“It doesn’t go!” Tony yells down at me from his somewhat precarious perch.
“What do you mean, it doesn’t go?!?” I bellow back.
“There’s a featureless, exposed slab followed by a few moves on an overhanging chalkstone; I’m not comfortable soloing this.” He shouts in return.
“Argh! Fuck!” I’m not frustrated at Tony rather at our communal albeit unintentional decision to put ourselves in this desperate situation. We’re nearly at the top of the Loft Route on our way to the summit of Longs Peak. We hoped to skip the more often used class 3 exit ramp, instead continuing in a more direct line straight up the gully. From our previous vantage point, it looked like we could cross a short snow field, ascend 15 feet of near vertical ice and get into a short pitch of easy mixed low 5th class terrain. We disposed of the apparent crux quickly, but are now unable to proceed without putting ourselves at serious risk. An ostensibly straightforward cliff band rises to my right. I know we can pull the visible moves, but have no idea what lies ahead. Following the seemingly doable line is what got us stuck in the first place. Our only choice is to downclimb.
In the couple of minutes spent discussing our options, the cold has crept into our fatigued bodies. We’re both shivering, hands and feet numb, as we methodically pick our way back down the 40 feet of mixed rock and ice. At every step, my shoe is close to coming off as the lanyards of my crampons tug at my heels. Sharp, ferocious gusts of wind, rip down the gully, tensing our grip on the granite and our tools, while spindrift fills our eyes, nostrils and mouths.
Back to safehaven, we both sit for a moment sheltered under a large rock fang protruding from the headwall. Gale force winds, frigid temperatures, high altitude, exposure, fatigue, all contribute to the dramatization of our situation. The fleeting moment of desperation is completely gone. I find it hard to rekindle that feeling. I want to though. What is this ultimate need for self-preservation? Is it fear guiding me to retreat or logic?

I think back to my lowest point at my most recent race at la Diagonale des Fous. I had a similar internal dialogue when I first considered dropping. Should I proceed? If pressed for survival could I go on or would I still surrender? Am I truly at my limit or have I simply chosen to be in the context of this event? A race, or in this case, the pursuit of a mountain’s summit offers an arbitrarily defined framework to push oneself to one’s limit. Truly though, that limit is a matter of perception. Until death, there is always more to give. The question then is how much is one willing to sacrifice? Does this endeavour hold enough meaning to be seen through regardless of the consequences?

When I was pursued by a cougar last year on the Wonderland Trail of Mt. Rainier, I was faced with a direct threat to my life. After more than 18 hours of running, I was exhausted, dehydrated, sleep-deprived, the thought of just rolling over, letting this animal take me, definitely crossed my mind. Rapidly though, my survival instincts kicked in. I brandished sticks above my head, shouted and determinedly fled. This was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life yet it was also strangely empowering. Once I resolved to survive, I came into what I can only best describe as a heightened state of consciousness, of absolute commitment to the task at hand. In this state there is only feeling, only instinct and a sensation that failure is simply not an option. While this type of focus mainly seems to be brought out in me in moments of desperation, one can harness this energy at will in any aspect of life. Everyday, in every task, I’m given a choice to be there or go through the motions, to fully commit or timidly retreat. More often than not, I find myself taking the passive option. Occasionally though, a situation presents itself where my full focus and commitment are needed. And then, for a few moments I exist in a certain type of perfection.



  1. This brings to mind Frankl’s idea of Logotherapy. Very nice post sir!

  2. Very nice piece, Joe. One of your best.

  3. I agree with Matt – and how do we know who we are and what our limits are until we’re out of our comfort zone?
    Most of us are still at the wondering stage, and may never get any further.

  4. I encountered this twice this year. Once in an avalanche, once while traversing a lingering summer snowfield that turned into an uncontrolled slide.

    The acceptance is first, ok this might be it, a moment later the survival fight kicks in hard. Hyper focused… adrenaline coursing… feel no pain.

    It’s an amazing instinct to tap into, that you never want to use.

    • A true statement from someone who has seen the realities of an avalanche. I agree, the darkness was what enabled me to realize true focus, focus I will never forget, but focus I never wish to experience in such a context again. Life is filled with inconsequential choices, but the rarity of those that involve your life show you the power of instinctual direction.

  5. I want to see pics when you guys go for the Diamond! Enough of this fringe scrambling stuff;) With a light rack and rope, you would cruise the Casual Route.

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