hiker scrambling up rocks near a ledge
(Photo: Cavan/Getty)

A Near Miss Changed My Perspective on Outdoor Mistakes

Witnessing a friend’s dangerous fall prompted the author to reevaluate the way she talks about outdoor blunders

hiker scrambling up rocks near a ledge

from Backpacker

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The friend I was scrambling with on May 8, 2023, was one of the most experienced outdoorswomen I know. On top of that, she’d done the route we were on—an exposed, sandstone ridgeline near Boulder, Colorado—dozens of times. Which is why it never occurred to me that she could fall.

In anticipation of the heat, we met up early, just after sunrise. I leaned against my friend’s truck in the parking lot as she tightened her shoes and slapped on some lotion. I remember the morning sun glowing through the long grass and the rustle of the breeze in the plum bushes. It felt like a day from childhood summer, the kind that could stretch on forever.

When my friend was ready, the truck’s taillights blinked to show it was locked, and we took off, moving easily up the familiar switchbacks, chatting and laughing. She’s the kind of person I can tell anything. When we hike together, the miles seem to fly by, no matter how fast we’re going.

This morning, we were moving particularly quickly. We reached the ridge in record time and rolled straight into the technical portion of the scramble without skipping a beat—and without pausing to recalibrate to the new terrain.

A few minutes later, I carefully executed the route’s hardest move, a spooky step over an open gap with nearly 1,000 feet of exposure. When it was done, I scooted left to a good stance and turned to watch my friend pull the same move. Chatting casually, she grabbed the lip of rock with both hands, stepped high—and then slipped.

My heart stopped as she fell, one foot dropping back onto the sloping ledge, the other kicking out over empty space. Her right hand was still on the rock, but her left swung wildly, grasping for purchase. It all happened so fast—I didn’t have time to extend a hand, cry out, or even register that my friend was teetering on the edge of a fall that’s killed at least three climbers in the past.

Finally, her fingers latched hold of the rock, and she managed to catch herself just in time to avoid the 1,000-foot plummet.

I stared at her. She stared back. The sky above us was blue and silent, but the hammer of my heartbeat roared in my ears.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I’m OK.”

“Do you need a minute?”

She shook her head.

“I think I need to do this move before I have time to think about what just happened.”

I nodded. If panic set in now and she couldn’t complete the stepover, we’d either have to navigate a perilous descent or call for a helicopter pluck-off. I watched as my friend reset her hands and feet. She took a deep breath, then pulled the move easily—just as she had dozens of times before.

The minute we were both on stable ground, we grabbed each other in a hug.

“I’m so glad you’re alive,” I said.

“Oh my god,” she said. “Me too.”

We turned to carry on, anxious to get to the top of the ridge where we could take a real breather. Just then, another woman scrambled past us. We both recognized her as a longtime local guide.

My partner looked at me, wincing with embarrassment, afraid that the guide had witnessed her nearly deadly blunder. But then, instead of trying to play it off, my friend did something that surprised me.

Debriefing can help us learn from mistakes—and stay safer in the future. (Photo: Ascent/PKS Media Inc./Stone/Getty)

“Hey,” she shouted over to the guide. “Can I tell you something?” The guide, perched on the ridge about 50 feet to our left, turned and nodded.

“I just fell,” my friend blurted. “I messed up, and I fell, and I almost died.” The guide’s face softened.

“Yeah,” she said. “I saw.”

A few minutes later, the three of us gathered at the top of the ridge, sitting on the rocks in the morning sun. We took turns sharing stories about near misses, rookie mistakes, and near-fatal accidents. In sharing my stories, I realized I wasn’t just trying to comfort my friend. I was also comforting myself.

When I first started adventuring, I was sure that if I ever told anyone about the mistakes I made—forgetting to bring water on long hikes, starting up alpine summits too late, refusing to turn back in bad weather, almost getting hit by rockfall—my adventure partners would think me incompetent and never want to do anything with me ever again. So, for years, I kept all my mistakes secret.

Apparently, so did everyone around me. It was a vicious cycle: Because I never heard about other people messing up, I was certain that I was the only one capable of failure. That made me even more embarrassed and secretive. It was isolating, and it fed my insecurities.

But on this morning, perched high above Boulder, trading stories with these two women, I finally understood that no adventurer is 100 percent competent all of the time. I also realized that in keeping my mistakes to myself, I’d failed to fully absorb their lessons. After all, it’s hard to learn from things you don’t let yourself think about.

In this ad hoc group debrief, we were able to talk through all the factors that had contributed to my friend’s slip: her lotion-greased hands, the hot weather, our reckless speed, and our failure to pause and recalibrate when we entered a no-fall zone. This was a kind of debrief I’d never had. Instead of justifying her fall as a random freak accident—or reassuring herself that it was skill and not dumb luck that had saved her—my friend listed her mistakes one at a time. Then, she learned from them. In sharing that process with us, she likely saved not just her own life going forward, but ours, too.

That day, I learned that being a mountain woman isn’t about never making mistakes. It’s about facing your failures with grace, learning from them, and coming back wiser.

We’re human; we all slip sometimes. Even experienced outdoorswomen. Even professional guides. The next time you mess up outdoors, remember that. Making mistakes isn’t the worst thing you can do. The worst thing is keeping those mistakes to yourself.