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