The Mountaineer: My 3 Most Dangerous Mountain Mistakes

Ryan en route. Photo credit: Andy Barton

By Ryan Burke

Death is not something mountaineers talk about frequently.

The micro-crimp on pitch three can be debated for hours, but discussing the possibility of our own demise is pretty much off-limits. Why? Maybe it’s superstition that keeps our tongues tied or possibly we need the overconfidence that a false sense of safety provides.

There are plenty of ways to die in the mountains: avalanches, grizzly attacks, hypothermia, drowning, rockfall, etc, etc, etc. Living in Jackson Hole, I read about these incidents frequently as the paper describes in detail their final fateful decisions.

However, what I really want to know is what happened before all the drama went down. What was the first domino that lead them to their last breath?

I don’t necessarily want the details from hours before. I want to know what happened days, months, or even years prior, that brought them to that point. As mistakes that end in the mountains usually start someplace else.

Therefore, tracing my three biggest mountain mistakes back to their origins could help save my life.

Mistake #1) Starting an Instagram Account

My rational brain is horrified by my decision-making skills when a camera is present, but it’s hard to hear common sense while my inner voice loudly debates various witty hashtags for my upcoming post.

When asked what I’m thinking about while running up and down mountains, I usually fumble out a cover story of “being in the zone” and “focusing on my breath.” While the true story is that often I’m mentally editing my future Facebook post so that it will portray me as badass but not boastful.

I know I’m not alone in selectively managing how I’m perceived, but I’m not proud of it either. 

Fact is, being overly concerned with my summit selfie has gotten me into a lot of trouble. The mountains deserve respect and if my mind isn’t where my body is, my mountaineering career could come to a dramatic halt.

One example:  If I wasn’t distracted by my ego I would have called it quits after summiting the Grand Teton, but instead I thought it was a good idea to extend my day and swim across Jenny Lake

Barely reaching the opposite shore my mind finally stopped fantasizing about imaginary “likes” as my legs staggered to stay upright. The world suddenly went dark as I hit the ground just inshore and reality caught up to me. Stirring from my daze, I stumbled towards my bike and rode back to town, chastising myself for my social media tunnel vision.

In hindsight, my mistake wasn’t trying to capture the adventure in digital form. My mistake was that my motivation for documenting had become dangerous.

I was pursuing local celebrity status and let future glory clog present judgment. I had forgotten that the payout for finishing a goal is internal growth, not external validation.

Accolades are useless when printed on a posthumous trophy.

I sought out the “perfect post” in order to connect with others but all I found was separation from myself.


Mistake #2) Celebrating My 35th birthday

I have no major injuries and I can still outrun some of the twenty years olds at the gym, but getting older is messing with my athletic vanity.

My speckled gray beard and full-time job remind me that time is running out. Often my thoughts wonder in the direction of “if not now then when.” 

From a self-diagnosis perspective, I’m exhibiting symptoms of weekend warrior disease crossed with Peter Pan syndrome. In the back of my head, I can hear the impending doom of children’s voices restricting my climbing trips and feel the future aches that will undoubtedly stall my progression.

Rushing to fit it all in before old age arrives is anxiety-provoking and downright dangerous.

In the office on Mondays, I optimistically check five different weather websites searching for the one that tells me what I want to hear. On route, I forget that there will be a tomorrow or a next year and push forward without patience.

Somehow I keep ahead of my aging psyche and return home safely, only to be greeted by friend’s wedding and baby photos that motivate me back out the door for one more lap – always convincing myself that “the next summit” will finally fill that void that complains it isn’t satisfied.

Creeping closer to athletic irrelevancy isn’t a mistake that I could have avoided, but knowing when to pass the baton onto the next generation is a skill. It is a cruel shame that right as I’m reaching my mountaineering maturity my expiration date draws closer.

However, when I meet my maker I want to tell stories of my grandchildren’s first steps and make him blush when I retell the events of my wedding night.

By then, hopefully, I will have forgotten that route I didn’t finish or the elusive summit that was outside of my aging ability.


Mistake #3) Putting All My Identity Eggs in One Basket

Growing up on the East Coast, the word “mountaineer” was foreign to me so I never imagined the label would come to define my way of life.

There is a ton of pressure that comes with the title, mainly the expectation that danger is something you’re familiar with. At dinner parties, the conversation tends to eventually gravitate towards “my next big objective.”

If my answer doesn’t elicit a startle response, then I usually feel like I have disappointed the questioner in some way. After unintentionally adding their expectations they casually go back to their meal, where as I start to fantasize about riskier ways to put my life on the line and live up to my “mountaineer” title.

My therapist would tell me to not care about what others think of me, but the look of approval from your peers is a hard drug to kick. Status is intoxicating and the desire to please others can motivate me much further than self-congratulations.

I both love and hate being known as a mountaineer. The label sometimes influences me to take unnecessary risks because that is what I’m “suppose” to do.

Other days I’m rewarded with prestige and credibility for fulfilling my role. Most of the time the danger seems worth it, but when I witness the depth of suffering that comes from a mountain death my justifications for continuing ring hollow.

When I look in the mirror I want to see more than just a mountaineer, as centering my identity around a hobby that could easily kill me is a recipe for an early death. I once read that you should spend 10,000 hours on a skill set in order to become one of the best in your field. Well count me out, because Sunday afternoon I’m going to read a book and Monday I intend to find a way to flirt with that girl from yoga class.

Mountaineering as a lifestyle is important to me, but it is a mistake to make it my everything.


About The Author
Ryan is an accomplished mountaineer who lives in Jackson, Wy. He is a former MTI Crux Award Winner.




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