Failure on Tocllaraju

Standing at the bottom of the West Face of Tocllaraju at 3am, having left base camp at 10pm and Huaraz at 6am the day before, I felt shattered. In less than twenty hours we had climbed twelve hundred meters with another six hundred odd meters remaining. The length of the face.

The wind had been blasting us the entire time we had been on the glacier, I was cold and my legs felt weak. We were making good time, however we had to move fast on the face. Our plan was to simul-climb the face (both people attached to the rope climbing at the same time with protection placed intermittently between them), a technique which enables a fast ascent but leaves little margin for error.

I mentioned to my climbing partner Renato, a young climber from Chile that I was feeling tired. He asked what I wanted to do. I outlined my concern that because I was tired I was more likely to make a mistake. It was decided. We would go down.

Tocllaraju sits in the Ishinca Valley, a popular valley with tour agencies, hikers and climbers alike. It was the first valley I visited with my mate Andrew back in June and the mountain's West Face is the first big feature you see as you enter base camp.

The West Face of Tocllaraju as seen from Ishinca Valley.

The West Face of Tocllaraju as seen from Ishinca Valley.

It stands tall, proud, clean and utterly beautiful. It just begs to be climbed. From the very moment I saw it, I knew I wanted to be on it. Hence, making the decision to turn around at the bottom of it after finally getting a chance was devastating for me. Not only for giving up the chance to climb a beautiful line which I have wanted to try for the last two and a half months, but for letting down my partner Renato. He was just a psyched as I was to climb the face.

I spent the entirety of the descent back to base camp, and the subsequent walk out of the valley pummelling myself with questions as to why I felt so tired and made the decision to turn around.

This is pretty much how the conversation went.

It’s the end of the season, I should be stronger, not weaker! Yes, and for the most part I have been getting stronger.

Perhaps I am having too many days in Huaraz and losing the affects acclimatization? Possible but doubtful. Studies have shown the affects of acclimatization last anywhere between two weeks and six moths depending on the individual. I have been heading out, climbing around 5,550m and camping above 4,000m at least once a week since arriving here. I don’t think I would be an outlier in the spectrum.

Maybe I was trying to take on too much elevation gain in a day? No, I don’t think so. I had climbed the taller North Face of Ranrapalca and Southwest Face of Churup, both in a single day push. Both climbs required more than eighteen-hundred meters of elevation gain and involved more difficult climbing than on Tocllaraju.

Maybe I didn’t get enough rest? Again, I don’t think so. I slept well the night before we left Huaraz, had six hours of good rest at base camp and left feeling strong.

Maybe I am too dehydrated? Or haven’t eaten enough? I drank more than three litres yesterday, another litre already this morning and have eaten three big meals in the last 12 hours. Shouldn’t be a problem.

Was I intimidated by the climbing ahead? No, the face consists of moderately steep snow and a few pitches of steeper ice climbing. Terrain which I feel super comfortable and confident on. Even with feeling tired, I knew the chances of making a mistake which would result in a fall were remote at best.

Ahh ha! So why did you say you were likely to make a mistake then? Maybe to justify my decision to myself, convince me that it was the right one. You know, safety first.

This last thought got me going down a path. This was the first time I had ever decided to turn around on a climb because I was feeling tired. I had felt like this dozens of times before yet never once thought about stopping and descending. Why?

I started to recall the thoughts running through my head from the time we left base camp to the point where we turned around. Though I left feeling strong, I immediately recognized a pattern.

After the first hour, whenever I thought about how I was feeling it was negative thoughts that ran through my head. Things like “man, we still have more than one thousand meters of elevation to gain, I don’t know if I am going to make it” or “I am going so much slower than before, why am I so slow?”.

To use some positive psych terminology, I was red framing all my thoughts. Seeing the negative aspects and ignoring the positive. When we acknowledge the positive aspects it’s aptly called green framing; and there were positive aspects to acknowledge.

I was telling myself I was going slow, however in reality we were making great time. We had reached the glacier a half hour earlier than anticipated and the bottom of the face in just under five hours, leaving plenty of time to summit around sunrise. I saw the times, I just failed to acknowledge this simple fact.

On previous climbs, I always felt climbing steeper terrain was easier than slogging it up a gentle slope. Perhaps this is because you are also using your upper body to help you ascend. This is what climbing the face would offer and maybe my legs would feel better once I started? Again, I knew this pattern existed however at the time I simply ignored to acknowledge it. I laughed to myself as I thought ruefully, “the hard work of getting to the face was done!”

The link between our thoughts and physical self is more powerful than most of us think and has been the subject of many studies. The most common proof of this is of course the placebo effect. Suddenly I was questioning how much of my perceived exhaustion was physical and how much was derived from three to four hours of constant negative reinforcement that I was feeling tired. I have no doubt that those negative thoughts amplified my perception of how tired I was.

Now I was even angrier at myself! I have felt like that dozens of times before while climbing and I have never reacted like this. Why was this time different? Why was I red framing all the thoughts that routinely enter my head during a climb?

I believe complete failure does not exist unless you fail to learn from the experience. So though I don’t yet have an answer to that question, I will continue to reflect on this experience until I do. I had a strong will to climb this route however I believe this was undermined by some underlying thought which increased my tendency to red frame my thoughts. Once I identify that toxic thought I am sure a whole new ream of learnings will unravel from this experience. In the meantime, the biggest learning I can take away is to challenge myself to green frame thoughts or situations which are easy or indeed natural to red frame.

I am sure any marathon runners, triathletes or other variety of endurance athletes among you relate to this. These activities, like Alpinism are more often a test of our mental capacity rather than our physical. However, this learning extends into all aspects of life.

How often does something happen at work, at home or out with friends and all we see is red? We acknowledge and focus on the negative aspects which are staring us in the face yet ignore the positive aspects that are there too, sometimes hiding in plain sight.

Perhaps if we were to put more emphasis on green framing our thoughts it will help us to identify more opportunities. Perhaps it will help steer a conversation in a positive direction, help a friend or loved one when they are struggling with their mental health, save a dying project at work or mend a broken relationship.

Perhaps it would have enabled me to climb the West Face of Tocllaraju.

Looking to the future

My climbing season here in Peru is drawing to a close. Renato's and my initial plan was to climb Tocllaraju, then put up a new mixed route (climbing a mix of snow, ice and rock) on Urus Oeste before an attempt on the daunting West Face of Cayesh. We spied a great line on Urus Oeste and intend on climbing it, again in a single push from Huaraz (I am a sucker for punishment, though perhaps some redemption lies in doing so). After which we will either attempt Cayesh or another difficult mixed route on Vallunaraju, a peak closer to Huaraz.

No matter what happens in this final week it has been a great time here in Peru. From a climbing perspective I have achieved many goals. Notably fulfilling a five year dream with an ascent of Alpamayo, a near perfect day I will never forget; finding confidence on technical terrain at moderate altitude on a number of peaks and knowing I can push myself to do big days on difficult routes.

My time here has also enabled me to get to know this incredible landscape more intimately. It is a place which offers not only adventure, but provides the foundations for life here in the Ancash region of Peru. Unfortunately it is a landscape which is undergoing rapid and significant change, a subject which I reflect on in a later entry.

For now it's time to rest and re-focus on the next objective.