When should you turn back?

I’m on a bit of a hiatus from walking at the moment – in case anyone was wondering at the lack of new blog posts. It’s a combination of things, but mainly that we haven’t had any planned trips recently, and have been doing other stuff. However, I thought now was the time for another random musings type post, so have poured myself a glass of Malbec and turned my thoughts to a thorny question… when should one turn back?

I wrote in my last blog post about the joys of so called ‘boring’ hills and challenging the received wisdom among some sections of the hill walking community that you should leave these for a bad day. We don’t, and have had some cracking days out on so called boring hills. I was thinking about other issues where received wisdom isn’t always right and one of these is when should you turn back? Some sections of the walking community sometimes seem to press on regardless, or turn only when it starts to get dangerous (which in that situation is- obviously – the right thing to do). But should you turn back when it is simply uncomfortable, or not fun any more? Or press on regardless and hope for the best?

I think it’s a personal decision. Turning back can be extremely annoying – particularly when you are not that far away from the top. I’ve had a few of those – for instance I turned about 200m of ascent from the top of Cruach Ardrain years ago when I was suffering with a stinking cold, and still haven’t come back and done it. On other occasions I’ve pressed on even though I’ve felt pants and although I’ve got to the top of the hill it doesn’t usually make for a great day out. It hadn’t helped that day on Cruach Ardrain that I’d gone knee deep in bog less than an hour into the ascent!

Turning back on a ‘bogey hill’ can be annoying too. For several years, our bogey hill was Ben Vorlich at Lochearnhead – annoying as it’s not a difficult hill in any way. We started up it in our first year of hill walking with a wedding anniversary induced hangover and bailed about half way up – felt dire and the looming grey clag did not really inspire us to continue. A month or so later, we bailed with about 100m of ascent to go, in a howling gale with visibility down to about 10 metres.

That one stuck in the craw, but conditions meant that – for two beginners – it was getting to the point we didn’t feel safe. Discretion being the better part of valour, we bailed.

After that, we had two more aborted attempts before even starting up the hill – we arranged to do it with a friend, but had to bail due to a minor injury, then a bit later we intended to do it, then gave up at Lochearnhead in torrential rain without even getting out of the car. However, we finally nailed it on a glorious November day with some of the best views we have ever had from a Munro. For us, that totally vindicated the decision to wait for a better day.

Turning back part way on a walk is something we have also done. The classic example of this is the Beinn Dearg circuit of hills near Ullapool – which is normally done as a four. We have done two of them on two separate occasions, bailing out after one hill each time. Why? Well, on our first attempt we got to the summit of Eididh nan Clach Geala in pea soup clag, with a malfunctioning GPS and no obvious path. We were also completely knackered and decided that given a combination of factors continuing to blunder about in the mist was not a good idea.

Our second attempt was a bit different. It was a glorious August day… in fact it was rather too hot for an epic. We were with friends and by the time we got to the summit of Meall nan Ceaprichean – which was one of our group’s first Munro – we were knackered and boiling hot. It would have been great to go on but again sensible not to. Maybe we will manage the last two of the four in one go – but if not, then never mind. The stalkers paths are so good and the scenery ditto it’s not exactly a hardship to return.

So when to turn back? When it’s the right decision for you. If that’s because the weather has turned, and you can’t see the views any more, fine. If it’s because you don’t feel well, or for whatever reason it isn’t working on a particular day, fine. If it’s because conditions have deteriorated, fine – particularly if you are out of your comfort zone, on difficult ground or running out of daylight. Whenever it’s the right decision for you. Fine if you want to keep going; fine if you don’t.

Don Whillans said ‘I don’t mind fighting my way out of trouble but I’m f****d if I’m fighting my way into it’ and there’s a great deal of sense in that. As there is in the quote from the American mountaineer Ed Viesturs: ‘Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.’

The hills will be there another day. Turning back might smart a bit at the time – but hey, it’s a good excuse for another day out. And another post walk drink! 😀


6 thoughts on “When should you turn back?

  1. While I agree with you and the mountaineering ‘greats’, I’m not good at turning back and, to me, getting to the summit is generally mandatory. Richard is completely the opposite and has many times just said “I’m off”, turned round and left me on the spot – sometimes at the foot of quite scary mountains. Doesn’t go down well but I invariably continue (I generally look for someone else on the hill and try to zoom past them so that they’re just behind me if I run into difficulties 😉 )

    I have turned back a few times though – once on the simple Maol Ghaordaidh because I was in a blizzard and came across a line of snowy and icy crags on a hill which is reputed not to have any!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember that about Meall Ghaordaidh!! As I said its a comfort zone thing, I’m sure you would retreat if you thought things were getting dangerous rather than (say) just wet!

    We seem to have ‘bogey hills’ that take several attempts to do – Beinn Narnain was another one and we still haven’t done Ardrain.


  3. I’ve never turned back, and hope never to do so.

    My destination is, after all, the car (or the pub) not the summit.

    I’ve tried to avoid the mindset that says that a day is not complete without ticking something off. Far more fun to a day than just the summit.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I usually walk solo, so turn back decisions are a pretty individual thing. When walking with others I always work on the principle that we all stay together and that anyone can call off the trip at any time. This has led me to once retreat from about 20 minutes from a summit thinking that my companion was a big girl’s blouse – which hopefully didn’t show; and once to call off a major trip when well into it due to my ill health – doubtless this much irritated my companions, but they kept it to themselves.

    When solo I don’t mind rubbish weather: I’m not soluble; I can live with being blown off my feet occasionally; I don’t hill walk for the views; and although I have never used a GPS my navigation is passable. Feeling personally rubbish I have always considered a standard part of hillwalking 🙂 – if I don’t crawl off the hill feeling that I may never be able to walk again I don’t feel that I’ve had my money’s worth. So I don’t turn readily, but when you need you, you need to – my version of the Viesturs adage is “A good day on the hill is one where I get back to the car under my own steam”.

    I’m not sure this helps. I have turned several times, but it is a very personal, intangible thing. The nearest I can come to explaining it is to say that several times I have stopped and asked myself “If later in the trip an MRT member is asking me what went wrong, will I have a good answer?” My mental response to that has usually made the decision.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry took ages to reply to this! As you say, it’s a personal thing – I guess that was what I was trying to say. As you say, when you need to you need to.

      I guess I’m not soluble either, though I have definitely felt I might be at times – the double iPhone trashing in the Brecon Beacons being a case in point.


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