Summit fever

The high mountains are perilous. Altitude, snap weather changes, dehydration and avalanches are among the killers.

Some of the biggest dangers come from mountaineers themselves. Much is made of “summit fever,” the rush to bag a peak at all costs. The desire and passion that makes strapping on crampons in the moonlight seem like a reasonable step can lead a party to set good judgment aside without reflection. After all, when you’re doing something unreasonable in the first place, what is the right thing to do?

A climb never ends at the summit, however. It ends safely back home, with deadened legs and a pillow’s caress of skin still tingling from the wind and the sun. The long march (or ski) down from a summit, when thirst and hunger make your ears ring, is when every footfall counts because a misstep can be fatal.

That is a lesson that must not be forgotten by the Obama administration, the Defense Department and lawmakers deciding the course of U.S. actions in Afghanistan. Gen. John Allen, who succeeded Gen. David Petraeus as the Afghan campaign’s top military officer, said this week he is closely watching to see how many U.S. forces are needed in Afghanistan, and how such requirements impact the administration’s timetable for withdrawal.

While Gen. Allen already appears to be on guard against signs of “summit fever” as the summer fighting season looms, he needs to remember the descent off the summit matters most.

For U.S. and allied forces operating among Afghanistan’s peaks, among the most perilous mountains anywhere, they know where their climbs begin, and end.