Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lessons I learned in the mountains

Halfway up the Southwest couloir on Early Winter Spire in the Northern Cascade Mountain Range.
With my ice axe stabbed deep into the heavy snow I looked up the steep slot of the Southwest couloir on Early Winter Spire, unable to see how much further it was to the summit. After stealing a quick glance of the endless stretch of soaring peaks behind me I resumed the Piolet Manche, what would soon become my favorite use of the ice axe, the technique of jamming the spike/shaft of the axe into the crusted snow above your head, then gripping the pick and adze for support in order to kick steps upward.

Travis and I experience the inside a crevasse during a mock rescue. A surreal environment to be enjoyed when one is assured they will be safely pulled from this blue abyss in a timely fashion. But what I can easily imagine being a horrific, freezing cage of fear if someone were to fall  in unroped.
Spending the last 12 days in the Northern Cascade Mountain Range with an incredibly knowledgeable AAI guide named Paul I learned how to live among the mountains. More than learning knots, packing tips, different crampon steps, crevasse rescue techniques, and other essential knowledge I appreciated how so much of what it takes to climb a mountain transfers to lessons about how life should be lived regardless of elevation.

From high camp the rope is staged, ready and waiting for the impending 2AM summit push on Mount Baker (looming in the background).
If our cell phones connect us to "the world" then mountaineering connects us to life. Setting out from the trail head or starting an early morning summit push taught me the importance of being prepared. Negotiating all types of terrain has instilled in me the value of assessing the situation not from how quickly something can be done but how safely it can be done. Roping up to a team has reaffirmed the power of teamwork and what can be accomplished if a group works together to achieve a common goal. And how trusting your methodical calculations of objective hazards surrounding you is just as important as a well built T-trench.

I can also see how mountaineering has all the ingredients to showcase what a great leader is made of. Constantly watching over weather conditions, accurately assessing the morale and fatigue of the team, navigating through unknown terrain, and managing the persistent threat of objective hazards. This unpredictable alpine setting is the prefect training ground for challenges associated with making difficult decisions under pressure.

The last few days of the course consisted of a student led trip. Route finding, logistics, all of it was left in the "trusted" hands of the few of us who signed up for this course. Paul took a backseat. On the final morning we each took turns at the front of the rope. I took the last push of the climb, making it up the last part of the glacier in whiteout conditions, crevasses on either side, overhanging cornices along the ridge line to a summit the size of a dinner table. My time at the front of the rope added to the level of respect I have for guides and highlighted the strong connection between mountaineering and leadership.

Enjoying the sunset from this basecamp balcony. Our legs paid a little extra to get a room with a view.
It seems the best way to find out what's inside is to spend long days outside. I hoped this course would push my physical and mental limits. It did. Far beyond anything I could imagine  Paul did an incredible job of transforming inexperience into experiences that have inspired me to get back out there and get after it.

In addition to all the intangible info above I was in awe of the natural beauty that surrounded our basecamps, summits, approaches, climbs, campgrounds and everything in between. My camera is a little worse for the wear but I wouldn't have felt right not taking it out as often as conditions would allow. I hope a few more of these images capture a little of what I lived over the last two weeks.


Travis Nichols said...

Awesome, its so appropriate to see these shots; we skied the Birthday Tour & Silver Star around S. EWS last weekend. I'm super excited to hear that you learned so much Brad. I'm looking forward to seeing firsthand how the preparation you learned in the mountains translates to your low elevation life.

Mason said...

What an adventure Brad!! I'm so glad you're blogging again!

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