Bailing

amber ripping skins

This photo was not taken right before great turns in fresh powder. We didn’t rip skins and whoop and holler our way down. It was not a “bluebird” day with “splitter” conditions. And I was not “living my dream.”

(I actually took my skis off and walked some of the way down.)

In reality I was perched on the side of an icy slope thick with trees, skins slipping and sliding, wet slide debris from the day before evident all around me.

“I don’t like this,” I said, voice trembling slightly.

Our plan was to skin up this slope to a ridge, then ski out another drainage. We wouldn’t be able to scout out the descent on the way up, and we had to time it well to avoid afternoon wet slides as the strong March sun baked slopes still heavy with snow. I didn’t feel confident in my ability to assess changing snow conditions, but I didn’t want to ruin the day.

“I’m easy,” Amber replied, perched twenty feet up the slope in front of me. “It’s a great day for rock climbing.”

—-

In 2017, I spent the summer alpine guiding in the Cascades. My confidence swung through a wide range that season, from impostor syndrome and self doubt to trust in my ability to manage risk on variable terrain. In 2018, I spent my spring, summer, and fall rehabbing from overuse injuries, tendinitis, and muscle imbalances that had crept in over years of carrying heavy packs and canoes and walking up and downhill for months at a time. I didn’t spend much time in the mountains last year. Every time I tried, it felt like I took two steps backward. Eventually I cut out climbing completely to let my body and mind heal.

For the last six months, I have been preparing to guide again this summer, finally climbing again, training for my first half marathon, and embarking on a six month alpine climbing training plan. Strength is critical to injury prevention, risk management, and just being able to get the job done. But it doesn’t replace the confidence and competence that comes simply with time in the mountains. On that day out with Amber, I found that I need more time.

—-

We ripped off our skins and picked our way down an icy, crusty slope filled with trees. (I’ll admit, I walked down a good chunk of it. I know people typically ski uphill for the downhill turns at the end, but I usually enjoy moving uphill the most.) We made it back down to the sunny, frozen lake at the bottom of the steepest section and laid in the snow, basking in the warmth of the sun after a long winter.

“I don’t want to turn strangers in the mountains,” I realized. “I’m not ready to guide again this summer.” It felt like a relief to say out loud.

I’m newer to ski-touring. I don’t have that many days under my belt, and I need mentoring in assessing snow conditions. I can approach avalanche terrain with a beginner’s mindset, cautious and soaking up as much information and experience as I can. But I never really let myself be a beginner as a climber. Pretty soon after I started climbing, I learned how to set up a belayed rappel and started instructing. Soon after I started rock climbing in the alpine, I started alpine guiding. Immediately my self-worth became wrapped up in my climbing grades, and the joy disappeared. I want to be a beginner again. I want to climb for joy.

I sat on the sunny, frozen lake and watched Amber skate around on her touring skis, letting the decision sink into my body. I’ve always been an intuitive decision maker, trying to stay in touch with how choices physically feel once I make them. That becomes harder to do after investing a significant amount of time into a goal. I have been rehabbing, easing back into climbing, and training for over a year now, with the intention of spending another season alpine guiding in the Cascades. My brain has been steering the ship, but my body and my heart are finally overcoming the resistance.

—-

Should we have to relinquish the beginner’s mindset, though, in order to guide or teach others? Why is the guiding industry (and so many industries) obsessed with confidence and ego? Is this a way to manage risk? I’ve heard it said many times that accidents are most likely to happen a guide’s home crag. It’s too familiar, they are too comfortable, and their awareness dims. At a new crag we stay vigilant, identifying new routes, assessing bolts, making sure we know the length of rope we need for the climb. Isn’t this true in the mountains too?

I’m not arguing for every beginner alpine climber to start taking other people out. But I think the best guides and climbers are lifelong learners, keeping a beginner’s mindset and seeing familiar terrain with fresh eyes every time. They’re not afraid to let new information change their course of action, even when it means admitting fault. How can we all make space for vulnerability and a beginner’s mindset in our climbing partnerships? At work? In our personal relationships?

Anyways, I’m now looking at a bunch of time off this summer – give me a holler if you want to go climbing, for joy only!

amber basking .jpg

 


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