Six Years in the Making

My first summit, with my now wife Kristina, and our dogs Francesca and Ayer, sitting atop Rosalie Peak (13,575’) July 12, 2009. Photo courtesy of Alan Kolaczkowski.
My first summit, with my now wife Kristina, and our dogs Francesca and Ayer, sitting atop Rosalie Peak (13,575’) July 12, 2009. Photo courtesy of Alan Kolaczkowski.

“Am I ready? I’m putting in the hours… into planning, into training, into mental preparation. But am I ready?”

This is a necessary thought. Certainly, it can be destructive if you let it fester into self-doubt; but without this thought, I would argue that you are lacking a critical reflex of self-assessment. Frankly, it goes much deeper than THIS climb’s training, and THIS climb’s planning. Rather, it really should encompass the totality of your backcountry and climbing experience. Is the sum of your experience sufficient to see you safely off of the mountain? (Note, I didn’t mention the summit; the first goal is always to come home safely.)

J.M. Barrie (creator of – among other things – “Peter Pan”) once said, “We are all failures – at least the best of us are.” I take this a number of ways. First, I think it says something about the need to stretch beyond your comfort zone and to try things at which you may not succeed. Second, I think it speaks to the oft-found trait among those successful in life: they are their own worst critics.

Of course, taking the first interpretation of the quote, you really don’t want a climb to be a failure. Sure, you may not reach the summit, but that doesn’t make it a failure. The weather could have gone bad; you may have gotten sick. There are dozens and dozens of reasons – legitimate reasons – why turning around may be the best thing to do. And as such, the climb is a success not in spite of turning around but rather BECAUSE you turned around. No, a failed climb means you got little out of it – in terms of growth or comradery – or you didn’t come home safely. So, you want to push yourself, but not too far. A failed climb is most certainly something to avoid.

As for the second sense of the quote, being your own worst critic, in this I firmly believe. It is good to have a healthy sense of skepticism about your own abilities… so long as you are doing this before you climb, and thus are not frozen into inaction by self-doubt as you climb.

So, how did I come to find myself leading an expedition to Denali? I haven’t been an outdoors enthusiast my whole life. I certainly haven’t been climbing for that long in terms of years. What has gotten me ready?

At the risk of sounding hokey, I’d say two things: the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) and my drive to pull as much out of my climbing experiences as I can.

First, regarding the CMC. I entered through the same front door that many of us do, via Wilderness Trekking School (WTS). Sure, the course didn’t teach me something new with each and every lesson, but it sure did round out my skills so that I could put it all together… particularly the invaluable skills of map and compass reading. More than anything, it taught me what I needed to know to feel confident and taught me how to find additional resources to explore the topics of backcountry travel more deeply.

From there, it was on to Basic Mountaineering School (BMS) where I learned competent rope work on rock and snow. This coincided with my desire to be undaunted by more technical terrain. I was never heavily interested in traditional rock climbing, but rather I was interested in gaining high peaks. I didn’t want a rock wall to turn me around should I encounter one in an alpine environment.

Then it was on to High Altitude Mountaineering School (HAMS), where I learned the fundamentals of travel on glaciated terrain and got an introduction to expedition planning.

Throw in Wilderness First Aid (WFA), Winter Camping School (WCS), Anchor School, AIARE Level 1 (avalanche course), and Advanced Crevasse Rescue Seminar (ACRS), and I’ve outfitted myself with some core knowledge to help prepare me for big climbs.

And maybe the most important thing the CMC gave me – I found community of people who wanted to share knowledge and experiences about climbing, from whom I could draw.

That being said, I would also suggest that – like just about any learning environment – I got out of these courses and conversations what I put into them… and I put in a lot. I did all the readings. Heck, I would do extra reading on topics from the class which particularly peaked my interest. I asked questions. I surveyed peers. I talked to guides. And I practiced, practiced, practiced. I rigged my rappel set up dozens of times before ever taking it to the field. I did mock leads on ice (being on top rope while trailing what would be a “lead rope” and fixing protection placements as I go) many, many times before I ever did a real lead. I practiced rigging anchors in my basement and building crevasse rescue haul systems with pulleys. I practiced my knots – over and over again – one handed, one handed without looking, and so on.

I would say that, in the back of my head, I had the ultimate goal of being self-sufficient in the mountains. I was surrounded by passionate and knowledgeable people who were not just willing but eager to pass their knowledge along to me. But they couldn’t make me remember it, and they couldn’t make me use it once I got out into the field on my own. That was on me.

For me, being self-critical “could I have this down better? could I be smoother or faster? could I explain it to someone else?” led me to not just seek ability, but to seek mastery. That is not to say that I’m yet truly a master at any of it. But I do think I’ve accelerated my learning curve. And I’ve certainly reached the point where I can and do actively give back to others, being first a BMS instructor, then a HAMS instructor, and now the Director of the ACRS. So, I must know at least a few things.

I guess my point is this: the CMC gave me an invaluable set of resources, but it was up to me to use them to the best of my ability. And the same opportunity is available to any of you who not only want to take part in big expeditions but eventually plan and lead them (or heck, even just plan and lead local climbs).

It is the fact that I came to these learning experiences with a strong sense of humility, I think, that has made me successful. I did my first climbing in 2009. It’s now 2015. That’s only six years. But if you want it, are willing to work for it, and are willing to admit that a) you don’t know it all, and b) you don’t even know what you don’t know, then even a weekend warrior like me can learn the skills, develop the fitness, and find the partners to try to move a team of seven souls to the roof of North America.

But, to be sure, I didn’t wake up one day and decide to climb Denali. It’s been six years in the making, and they needed to be six years full of learning and experiences that I went into with a mind wide open. Further, if I want to keep advancing my climbing, I think I had better keep that thirst for mastery, as it is what keeps me open to the lessons that come with each class, with each conversation, and with each climb.

Me, rappelling into the notch on the east ridge of Mount Bancroft (13,250’) August 30, 2014. Photo courtesy of Jim Berryhill.
Me, rappelling into the notch on the east ridge of Mount Bancroft (13,250’) August 30, 2014. Photo courtesy of Jim Berryhill.

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