How do I manage risk?

It’s something we all need to ask ourselves in the outdoors, especially as seasons and conditions change. Mitch Rennie (@mountain.mitch) and I were confronted with this difficult question this weekend just below the summit of Hidden Lake Lookout.

In the summer, it’s a fun and easy hike in the North Cascades with huge views. But in the middle of a winter storm warning with blinding snow, waist-high drifts, and wind chills in the single digits, it became a much more serious undertaking.

We were already delayed from having to hack through a fallen tree to even reach the trailhead. By 12:30 we were headed up the trail in falling snow but only had 4.5 miles to go and were making great time. A little over two miles in, we passed two parties that were day hiking, put on our snowshoes, and started breaking trail.

I’ve done this hike a number of times and was happy with how well we were staying on the trail with how deep the snow was. We were even happier when we saw a pocket of blue sky above us - but then we looked down into the valley and saw the darkest cloud I’ve ever seen racing up the slope towards us.

Within minutes, our trip went from an enjoyable snowshoe to a struggle to stay upright. We were sinking to our waists in snowdrifts and losing our vision as the snow blasted our faces. I was tracking our every step with my Garmin watch and knew exactly where we were the whole time, but we were racing daylight and our pace and ground to a crawl.

We started the discussion of turning around. It’s a difficult one to have when you’re only a quarter mile away and can see the summit going in and out of the clouds. We were still feeling strong and had all the supplies we needed. But we were also the only ones left on the mountain as the other groups had turned around, our fingers were starting to tingle, and we didn’t know how much snow had piled up across the scramble route on the leeward side of the mountain.

We called it.

It’s fun to push our limits and test ourselves in the mountains, that’s one of the big reasons why I love them so much and keeps me coming back. But we have to recognize when the odds aren’t in our favor. Weigh what can be gained versus what we’re risking - no matter what level you’re at.

This isn’t a story to garner any kind of glory - it’s hopefully the start of other conversations like we had when we decided to make the safer decision and turn around. As I look back now, I still think that we probably could have made it to the summit.

But probably isn’t good enough.