Bailing: Why, How and When We Do It

Bailing: Why, How and When We Do It

By Brendan Leonard

From inside Kind Coffee in Estes Park, the day looked perfect for climbing, aside from the deep, extending bowing every visible tree was performing in the wind as Mitsu and I comfortably drank coffee.

“Good bail, dude,” I said.

“What? That wasn’t a bail,” he said. “We didn’t even leave the parking lot.” True.

Fifteen minutes before we had ordered coffee, we had been standing at the trailhead at Lumpy Ridge, with the intent of getting on an easy five-pitch climb. We hadn’t gotten our packs out of the back of Mitsu’s car yet, and we were watching wind gusts shove the pine trees around, as if we expected it to suddenly cease so we could proceed with our day.

“I’m not worried about it being dangerous,” Mitsu said. “I’m worried about it not being fun.” Maybe those were 40 mph gusts. Communication beyond rope tugs would be impossible. Getting buffeted while fighting the boredom of belaying would definitely be annoying. Battling wind-induced rope drag, also a pain in the ass. I pictured myself barn-dooring out of a hand crack after a violent wind gust, backpack straps whipping my face. The hell with it.

We got back in the car and drove to the coffee shop to argue about what constitutes a bail.

I believe the origin of the word “bail,” as outdoorsfolk use it, most likely originated from its use in rock climbing. In the event of a storm rolling in, an accident, an injury or lack of sufficient climbing ability to finish a route, a party “bails,” and rappels to the nearest ground. Bailing usually requires leaving a few pieces of gear, at minimum, and can get expensive after that, so it is avoided as much as possible.

You don’t, for example, get partway up a route, decide you’re “just not feeling it today” and build a non-retrievable rappel anchor out of two Camalots ($60 apiece), two slings ($5 apiece) and two carabiners ($6 apiece). Bailing is not chickening out, or quitting because you’re lazy.

There are no hard and fast rules on the proper usage of the word “bail,” but I would submit that if you, at minimum, have left your home or tent with the required gear for your objective and you decide not to follow through with your plan, you are bailing.

I have bailed off climbing routes and peaks because of thunderstorms. I have bailed on winter summit attempts because of numb toes and avalanche danger. I once bailed on a ski day at Copper Mountain after one run because there were 300 people in front of us in the lift line. I bailed on a dayhike once because I saw two mountain lions about a mile from the trailhead, and I was by myself. Bailing, as far as the outdoors is concerned, is using good judgment to avoid certain death, irrational amounts of danger or sometimes just a shitty experience, like trying to climb while being pulled off the rock by 40 mph wind gusts or having your throat ripped out by a cougar.

I would even argue that you can bail on a jog, even if no one else accompanies you, and you tell no one your objective. If you plan to run five miles in the park and you only run three miles, you have bailed. As the tree that falls in the forest even though no one sees or hears it, you have failed to reach a goal, and should admit it instead of letting yourself off the hook so easily.

Which, of course, requires that you had an objective in the first place. If you are someone who just likes to go for a hike and get out in nature, and sets no goals, well, you can never bail. On the other hand, if you set out at the trailhead with a certain lake in mind, and you turn around and walk back to your car without reaching the lake because you’re tired or your boyfriend is whining about blisters or you have a hangover, then you have bailed. Don’t hide behind “It doesn’t matter; it was just nice to get outside in the fresh air.” That’s correct, it is — but you didn’t follow through, and you should own up to it. If you contracted to paint someone’s house and you got three-quarters done and said, “Well the point wasn’t to paint the whole house; the point was to get some new color on it,” the owner of the house would be pissed.

In groups of two or more, bailing is a four-step process:

In Step 1, the group begins to have a less-than-awesome experience: It starts to rain, you can hear multiple avalanches, you realize you don’t want to hike up a 14er with 400 other people after all, you have diarrhea, someone sprains his or her ankle, you realize you’re skinning up into a whiteout, etc.

In Step 2, one member of the party has the good sense to realize that the outing is starting to suck, and says to the group something like, “What do you guys think?” he or she means, “What do you guys think about how not fun this day is becoming?” This, in the business world, is known as “asking for the sale.”

In Step 3, however, the partner, or other group member, does not have to fully commit to “buying” in response to someone asking for the sale. He, she or they just have to commit to the possibility of bailing. Once, in very high winds, blowing snow and cold temperatures during a dayhike up Mount Audubon in the Indian Peaks, my underdressed friend Aaron completed Step 3 by saying, “Well, if one of you guys were to say you didn’t think that we should keep going, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.” Very diplomatic. Two hours later, we were stuffing our faces at Big City Burrito.

Step 4 is agreement from the rest of the party, which is usually a given after Step 3 has been satisfied. Mountain folk will suffer in silence indefinitely until they realize someone, or everyone else, is hating life as much as they are. You will notice a substantial uptick in morale at this point. Once the possibility of bailing is realized, the gravity of beer, or cheeseburgers, or whatever, takes hold and pulls the group back to the trailhead, where everyone will say to each other things like, “I think we made the right decision,” and “That mountain will be there for another day.”

Bailing is an important virtue in mountain people. It sacrifices one outdoor experience in order to make possible all the infinite future outdoor (and other) experiences you’ll have because you didn’t push onward and die on this one. In that way, it’s kind of like Jesus dying on the cross for all those Christians.

Get comfortable with it. The archives of The Denver Post are littered with stories of the dead people who didn’t have the good judgment to bail when they should have, and sometimes the selfless folks who died trying to rescue those people. True, you will never know what happened if you hadn’t turned around, but the regret of a bail hurts a lot less than freezing to death in a whiteout or getting hit by a bolt of lightning. If you took a survey, I think you’d find that at least four out of five of the world’s toughest mountaineers would prefer drinking beer and eating burritos over freezing to death.

Brendan Leonard is the Gazette’s Mountain Media editor. He lives in Denver.

The archives of The Denver Post are littered with stories of the dead people who didn’t have the good judgment to bail when they should have


We hiked that winter morning from the river to the rim, from sun-soaked beach through deep red mud to dry cold snow. From a grubby two weeks camping, past Europeans in city shoes, to the visitor center pub where Jim Croce played on the jukebox and ski jumpers launched on flat screens over the heads of Midwesterners sipping toddies. All of it, every detail, felt new and alive, nearly foreign, and snagged our attention like raingear on mesquite.

Re-entry is like the space between waking and rising, a dream-place, a passageway. People who travel overseas call it culture shock. People who work outdoors, as we used to do, camping for weeks at a time, know the familiar shock of sudsing shampoo under warm water — warm! — or easing a gas pedal up to sixty or marveling at the grocery produce section. There’s overwhelm in it, but there’s also magic: the sense of being remade.

Sometimes, of course, you’ve been made new so often it becomes blasé. You go into the woods, you come back out. Big whoop. But, this time, we’d been made really new. We’re backpackers, Laurie and I, skiers, sometimes bikers. We are not river runners. Especially not in February in the Grand Canyon. To be in your forties and cede control of nearly everything to someone else, even dear old friends, is unnerving.

We’d known our river-running friends many years earlier when we’d all toiled at a lodge on the North Rim doing lousy work for lousy pay in a gorgeous setting. We hadn’t seen them much in-between. But, as is so often the case, the kind of people they’d been was the kind of people they’d become: sun-weathered and silly, cautious and reliable, wild and gentle in equal parts.

“The Grand Canyon still has something to offer us,” the email invitation read.

So we headed off. Were we out of our element? Yes. Were we cold? Yes. Were we scared? Very. When we hit the rapids, and our boatman-friend said “hold on,” by god, I held. After two weeks, only half the river days the rest of the group would spend, I had new palm calluses. Then, in no time, the trip was done. We were back in the realm of the familiar: in well-worn boots, hiking with packs, preparing to re-enter.

I crave it. Who doesn’t? It’s like Joseph Campbell said: the call to adventure runs full circle to the triumphant return. Only this triumph comes with a heavy dose of humility. And aloneness. No one, it seems, can understand what you’ve been through, what you’ve learned, lessons so obvious as to seem mundane: how little we need for happiness, how much we have to be grateful for, the plain wonder of the world we live in and the deep responsibility we have for it. How can you explain that? You can’t.

Even as you try, as you leave the rim and drive to town, it’s slipping away like the effects of high-altitude training leeching off at sea level. You stop for groceries. You nudge the speedometer toward eighty. Pretty soon, you’re boarding a jet for home. An airplane! For this kind of shock, I’m not ashamed to admit, I require Xanax.

I’d just taken my middle seat and half a pill when I looked up at my seat mate. She was a talker. A giddy one, grinning wildly, eager, nearly desperate, to tell the story of her travels. I pocketed my headphones and tried not to sigh.

Turns out, she’d celebrated her 50th birthday with her first trip ever to the Grand Canyon. She’d planned the trip for months, but by the time she arrived in Arizona, yet another El Niño storm looked likely to keep her away. Then it happened: the snow cleared, her father took the wheel, and they showed up at the snowy edge.

“We could see the river,” she said.

I did not want to fess up. I didn’t want to one-up her for one thing, but also it suddenly seemed very private — my changed-ness, my quest — something I ought to hoard like Halloween candy or piety. But there was no way out of it now except to lie. So I came clean, and we swapped stories as we ascended. She’d seen a sunrise and a sunset, the same as me. She’d walked an icy trail gripping the handrail, the way I’d gripped webbing.

Now the plane banked, and there it was below us, the geography of our remaking, the Grand Canyon in its wholeness, end to end, as though you can digest it this way, in three minutes or six. You can’t, of course. We both knew that, my seatmate and I. You come, you stay, you arise made new. If you’re lucky, you can share it.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her new book, “Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness,” will be published in spring 2011.

Deep, Dark and Weird

As we find ourselves once again in the shortest and darkest days of the year, we turn inward to reflect on the cold and weird that resides within us all. We consider the ramifications of blue-ice impacts, anaerobic digesters and plunging into icy surf, and wait for longer, brighter days, which, sometimes, it seems, can’t come soon enough for some of us.

1) $31 million or so

Most mountain dwellers have had the experience of sitting on a parked plane (well, those who survive the TSA groping process) while it gets showered with deicing chemicals. I don’t know about you, but my first thought, after pondering a TSA legal smackdown, is about the plane staying in the air. Thought No. 3 is about salmon slugging down the glycol that was used to melt the ice. A few years back, the Portland International Airport installed a $31 million system to collect the runoff from its deicing program, only to learn that the stuff was still getting into the Columbia River and messing with the fish. The system is in its final phases of getting fixed, and experts predict those costs — a few million more dollars — may be absorbed, oddly enough, in airline fees.

2) Blue-ice impact

While we’re on the topic of airplanes, you probably need to know that there were 27 documented incidents of blue-ice impacts in the United States between 1979 and 2003. For those not in the know, a BII is a big ball of frozen crap and “disinfectant” that dislodges from airline toilets and plunges to the earth, sometimes at terminal velocity. It happens when planes have been in very cold places (like 36,000 feet), and then travel into a space that is warm enough to accidentally shake loose the ball of crap that has accumulated from tank leaks. A homeowner in Chino, CA, learned this the hard way when a BII messed up his house.

3) Cold house? Seek methane

Another thing you probably need to know is that the oft-maligned methane gas could change your world in a good and big way. Problem is, you will need the manure from 4-6 cows and your own anaerobic digester in order to heat your home and produce enough electricity for a year. If this won’t work, consider moving to Idaho, where methane-capturing plants are sprouting up at a rapid pace, and where crap, ostensibly, is king. As the nation’s third-leading milk producer and home to 550,000 cows, Idaho has several dairies already converting manure to energy. FYI, 6,000 cows can churn out enough waste to create about 1 million kilowatt hours a month. And if you don’t have cow manure, rotten garbage works nicely too. In Burley, ID, for example, there’s sufficient landfill gas to build a 400-acre methane production plant.

4) SAD in the winter?

If you’re prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, a malady that links a dearth of sun exposure to

depression (and also sells a lot of expensive lights), you’re best to stay out of Oregon, where Astoria ranks as the place in the western U.S. (aside from Alaska with the fewest sunny days per year (a paltry 50). That’s followed by Olympia, Washington, at 52, and Seattle at 58. If you really want to get down and out in the wintertime, head up to Cold Bay, Alaska, which boasts a whopping 10 days of sunshine annually — in addition to the typical Alaskan shortage of daylight in the winter. On the upside, you won’t have to worry so much about wrinkles. (And there are only 76 people living in Cold Bay to see them anyway.)

5) Vostok on the Platte

Compared to Vostok, a place on the East Antarctic Polar Plateau that has a mean (very mean) annual temperature of minus-67 degrees Fahrenheit, and which has earned bragging rights as the coldest damned place on earth, Denver is a damned sauna. But according to the Current Results website, Denver ranks as the coldest large American city, right above Chicago. Never mind that there are lots of winter days that exceed 50 degrees in Denver; there are also roughly 156 days a year when the mercury plunges below 32. And because it has a recorded low of minus-30 degrees, that makes it the coldest American City. Chicago’s low is -27. FYI: We checked out Minneapolis, which has a recorded low of minus-34 degrees, but apparently it does not fit the category of a “large” American city.

6) Out in the cold

While it’s nearly impossible to get an accurate count on the numbers of people who lack a regular and adequate nighttime residence (one of a zillion definitions of homelessness), the American West has the highest number of people without homes. Nevada leads the pack at 49 homeless people per 10,000, followed by Oregon, 47; California, 44; Washington, 36; and Colorado, 29. A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated between 2.3 and 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness, while a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counted 671,888 on a given night. Los Angeles leads the nation at 68,608 counted individuals, while Las Vegas comes in fourth at 11,417, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Denver, Phoenix and Seattle also made the top-ten list.

7) Plungers, all

The Plungapalooza is the largest polar bear plunge in the U.S., attracting more than 12,000 idiots into the Chesapeake Bay surf in late January. If you don’t want to make the trip but just have to rip off most of your clothes and drop into water the consistency of a frozen daiquiri, you’ll probably want to join the Libby, Montana, Polar Bear Club, which doesn’t just plunge once a year, but meets Sunday afternoons from October into April. Water temperatures drop into the mid to upper 30s, and about a half dozen folks are regulars. They claim that (aptly named) plunging assists blood circulation, the immune system and that all-important and sought-after vigor.

In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum

In the 2002 book, “Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment,” author Hal Clifford wrote (I’m paraphrasing here) that ski towns used to be cool because they attracted fringe elements like ski bums, hippies and artists, but then rich people found out about them, and of course, priced all the cool poor people out of these funky towns, and now they aren’t as cool (still paraphrasing). Eight years later, author Jeremy Evans has dug deeper into this issue — why ski bums can’t afford to be ski bums anymore, and thusly are dying out. If you want to lament the ski towns’ loss of character and characters, this book provides ample fodder: Evans is a former newspaper reporter and has stocked this book with interviews of ski bums past and present, facts and figures, research and personal experience. He lives in Lake Tahoe, where 70 percent of the houses on the south shore are second homes and are dark 50+ weeks a year, and the median price of a single-family residence went from $168,000 to $540,000 between 1998 and 2006 — and no one knocks on your door at Halloween anymore. You’ll read stories of the good old days of the ski bum, and the present day, which looks drastically different: ski town work forces are largely immigrants; lots of the workforce commutes from the next town over (“Aspen is alive and well … in Basalt”) and ski hills are owned by large corporations (“We’re a resort town, not a ski town”). Pro skiers and snowboarders are mega-celebrities with 6- to 7-figure incomes, and even ski porn is big business. A great read if you want to understand what’s changed in the past 50 years in the ski industry.

The Dark Side: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the fixed heel

Maybe you know this joke: “How many tele skiers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. One to do it and two to stand at the bottom and say, ‘Nice turns, bro.’” This video, made a few years ago by someone named “AT Anonymous” and sent in to in 2003, has resurfaced because a guy named Tom Kracji saved it and uploaded it to YouTube last January. It’s brilliant, discussing the maker’s addiction to backcountry ski gear and asking the tough question: should he switch to an Alpine Touring set-up instead? He shares gems like “People say it has something to do with it being more graceful or soulful than regular skiing, and I kind of agree, don’t you? I mean, this is some graceful shit right here.” And “The backcountry is a place where there are no lifts, where you find a lot of telemark skiers.” Plenty of faceplants and deadpan humor make it worth your 11 minutes.

Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America

Say you get five books in your library. I pick Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast,” “The Great Rock (and roll) Discography,” by Martin C. Strong, “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” (counts as one, because that’s how Tolkien wrote it), Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species” and now this: “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America.” In a coffee-table offering that is both awe-inspiring and relevant, authors Chris Davenport, Art Burrows and Penn Newhard have created something credible, compelling and cinematic — name another recent print product that does that! With the help of accomplished ski mountaineers such as Lou Dawson, Andrew McLean, Lowell Skoog and Jimmy Chin, they chronicle North America’s biggest and most-famous ski mountaineering faces. Some, like New Hampshire’s Tuckerman’s Ravine, have seen millions of tracks. Others, such as the North Face of Mt. Robson in British Columbia, have been skied only once. All are given the same treatment with super-short, spot-on commentary and incredibly well-picked photography that shows the character of the skiers and especially the mountains and descents themselves. Davenport single-handedly brought the storyline back to American off-piste skiing when in one year over 2006 and 2007, he climbed and skied from the summit of all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. Here, the cast of skiers happily expands, as does the number of gorgeous descents.