Whether it’s an elusive summit or an injury that stops you from completing a challenge, failing an adventure will happen to everyone at some point. But as I discovered, failing isn’t always as bad as it seems.
I have a habit of failing on adventures. Just a few weeks ago I failed to reach the summit of Mt Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. I stopped just 150m elevation from the summit thanks to issues with my eyes brought on by the altitude and a touch of dehydration.
Personal experience of ‘failing’ an adventure
And in April this year I failed to complete the biggest challenge of my life – a 250km self-supported hike of the Drakensberg Traverse – which follows the border of South Africa and Lesotho.
On day two, I started getting a sharp pain in my right knee. I was carrying a 23kg pack with two weeks of food, three litres of water, plus all camping equipment. Each day was 1,000m+ of elevation on rocky, tussocky and uneven ground. And my knee didn’t like it one bit. By day five I was in agony and was slowing the group down. It was time for me to leave.
It broke my heart leaving that hike; I’d had it planned for over a year, had saved hard to make it happen, and it was my first real expedition. A challenging, remote, off-track hike that hardly anyone in the world had completed.
I was devastated and after a tear-filled, agonising, two-day hike (with no map) down to civilisation, I spent the next week recuperating and waiting for the rest of the group to finish.
After an x-ray, it turned out I had sprained the ligaments in my knee. I knew leaving was the right thing for my health and for the safety of the group. But that didn’t make it any easier. I had failed – so therefore I was a failure.
Is failing an adventure really a failure?
For Kelly Gentry – founder of SwimSwell Open Water Coaching and Swimming in the San Francisco Bay area in the USA – failing an adventure isn’t as black and white as it might seem. As someone who swims marathons and trains others to do the same, she’s seen failure happen plenty of times.
“I think a lot of people have forgotten that ‘challenges’ are called that for a reason,” she says. “If everybody could do it on their first attempt (or even second or third) would we, as adventurers, be so inclined to do it? I’d say no. I think we’re women who thrive on doing the tough things, trying again, and making it our own every time.”Kelly Gentry, founder SwimSWell
For Kelly, a lot of it is about being honest with yourself. Asking yourself ‘have I done everything I can possibly do to make this a success?’
“If I don’t reach my expected goal I ask that question,” she says. “If I can honestly answer that ‘yes’ I trained sufficiently, did everything I could, followed my plan, etc but still didn’t reach my goal that day, I would still consider it a success. Why? Because I put my all into it.”
Listening to these words makes me want to bury my head into my hands. In truth; did I train hard enough for Africa? Probably not. I’ve always struggled with motivation when it comes to any type of training that is not hiking or being outdoors. I was supposed to build core strength, but avoided the gym as I found it a lonely and embarrassing place to be. I basically relied on weekend hikes only, assuming my previous experience would carry me through. And it didn’t.
But – according to Kelly – all is not lost. “If it turns out that actually, no, I haven’t trained enough and maybe I slacked on some things, then the poor preparation was my failure. Not me. And I use it as a lesson for the future. And – if I have the fire to try again – I make a stronger attempt the next time.”
Turning failure into an opportunity
The other good news is that failure can often result in opportunities that you might not have expected. For me, I have an offer from the wonderful guys at Drakensburg Hiker to go back and do the hike with them if I want to. Oh, and I got to spend a night in a luxury safari lodge as part of my recuperation as it was the only place with availability (what’s a girl to do, huh?).
But failure can also offer far more life changing opportunities. For Natalie Oliver-Ironmonger, from the UK, failing to summit Kilimanjaro has led to a career of adventure.
“I got my ass kicked on Kilimanjaro the first time I went,” she says. “I was really unwell from day three, and just had nothing left for the summit. However, I went back four months later and as a result of that I have worked on Kili every year since as an expedition medic and leader. I doubt that I would ever have done that if I’d succeeded first time around. Going back shows bravery and determination, but only if you learn from the first attempt.”Natalie Oliver-Ironmonger
What did I learn from failing an adventure?
So what’s the takeaway from all this? At the time of writing I have another big expedition planned, a 200km cross-country ski across Arctic Norway with the Love Her Wild crew. I’ll be pulling a sled for 17 days in temperatures down to -40°c. I struggle with being nice to myself; but I have to say that I really think I did learn from my mistakes in Africa.
I’m working out every day, having personal training twice a week, learning cross country skiing, and I’m currently dragging tyre called Trevor around three times per week. I hope this effort means that I don’t fail this time. But if I do, I hope I can be kinder to myself. And I hope you can be too.