Table of Contents
7:30 PM, July 27, 2013
The decision to bail had been made; now we had to execute it.
We had been on the go since 3:30 that morning and were running out of time. The four of us that remained were high on the ninth sub-peak of Mount Rundle, which has 11 such summits, and now needed to get down the roughly 1600 vertical metres to the valley bottom, where the easy Goat Creek trail would take us back to Banff.
This was as far as we would get on our attempt of the Rundle traverse. It was time to get off the mountain while there was still daylight—only we would be bushwhacking and didn’t know what the route down would be like. In mountaineering, turning back from one’s objective and getting down to safety is seldom trivial—yet another lesson we were about to learn the hard way.
With the sun still relatively high in the broken-cloud-covered sky, we started descending a nearby scree slope.
In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man
And now I’ve reached that age, I’ve tried to do all those things the best I can
No matter how I try, I find my way into the same old jam
—Led Zeppelin, Good Times Bad Times
Thirty years ago today, I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, two minutes before six o’clock in the morning, in a blizzard.
Perhaps the winter storm was to foreshadow my future interest in winter outdoor pursuits, which began innocently enough with cross-country skiing, and now include 50 days of backcountry skiing each season along with a few days of ice climbing sometimes sprinkled in.
Me—and my identical twin brother born just two minutes prior—were premature and required a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. It wasn’t entirely certain that the two of us would survive (fortunately we did), nor that I’d sprout from a meagre 4 pounds 7 ounces into a wiry six foot three.
Now, on the thirtieth reunion of this occasion, I have decided to reverse the typical celebration of me receiving gifts and short birthday messages, and instead give you, wonderful reader, something lengthy to read, which I do hope will be viewed as a gift.
Youth is wasted on the young, as the cliché goes. I’ve had a few years to think about what this means now and am well into the grey area of “emerging adulthood”—no longer a teen, yet not quite an adult—so here are some ideas on life, the universe, and everything, from the perspective of a now-thirty-year-old man-child who has found exactly nothing better to do with his life than to play outside. The outdoors—and what spending time outside can do for you—will be a major theme in this essay.
Please do consider taking the two (or more) hours to read through this as there is hopefully something here that will resonate with you or otherwise be worth your while.
This brings me to my first thought: the importance of reading (yes, really). While this may seem to be an antiquated idea, especially in this age of endless digital media consumption, I will attempt to argue in the next section that reading remains as vital as ever—perhaps even more so.
(The story in the prologue continues in the Mistakes and Mentorship in the Mountains section, though this essay is intended to be read sequentially.)
Too Long; Read Anyway
During my university years, I ditched reading almost entirely except for the absolute minimum requirements of my engineering studies, which were admittedly modest compared to say an english degree. I can remember being assigned to read only two full-length novels in those four years: The Princess Bride by William Golding in an english course, and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. in a sociology course. My attention span diminished effectively to zero, and I opted to watch online videos instead of picking up a book when looking for a distraction from triple integrals (I still don’t know what those do).
This phenomenon is perhaps best captured by the online term TLDR, an abbreviation for “Too Long; Didn’t Read,” the comment that a given piece of writing is too lengthy for anyone to want to read it. TLDR may be used either by a commentator unwilling to completely read an author’s writing, or it may be employed by an author before or after his or her writing to give a concise—no more than a sentence—overview of the longer text. (No, I’m not writing a TLDR summary for this article.)
It is tempting to blame my busy university schedule for the decline in my reading habits; however, this practice persisted for a number of years after graduation. Why read? There are endless hours of online entertainment available, most of which require far less effort on my part to enjoy rather than concentrating on some tedious, windy text for an annoyingly long time. Seriously, how could reading a book ever compete with the constant, dopamine-inducing notifications of social media or the undemanding ease of watching a video?
My growing passion for the outdoors perhaps ironically re-inspired me to read. My budding mountain enthusiasm and a few visits to the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival left me energized to learn more about mountaineering’s rich and ongoing history. I met Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, the first woman to climb all 14 8,000 metre peaks without supplemental oxygen, in 2012 and was motivated by her message of finding your passion. Films were great—the cinematography in many outdoor films, often done by a small team in a hostile environment, is right up there with the very best that Hollywood can concoct—yet books were able to delve into a level of detail simply unattainable in any other form of media. Tales of true adventure in wild places, drama on the global stage over multiple decades, suffering, and mortality provided the perfect antidote to my quotidian corporate existence. Not all of my time could be spent outside, but time in the city could still be used to enhance my outside time by reading instructional texts, histories, and autobiographies.
There is a certain amount of input effort demanded by reading: dedicated time is required to concentrate on a single message or story for a number of minutes, hours, or longer. Climber and writer Mark Jenkins details the protracted attentiveness required by reading in an article in Alpinist 53:
Movies can be facile entertainment … Sit down, eat popcorn, leave. A book requires more commitment, a level of extended concentration that expects the reader’s mind to create its own imagery out of words, grasp ideas from paragraphs, sort complicated emotions through chapters. Reading is all about immersion; it’s like going on a little expedition. To understand what it all means you must remain focused for days, sometimes weeks or months, right to the bittersweet end. (99)
People often say that “the book is better than the movie” when it comes to book-turned-movie franchises. It can be nice to rediscover this again if your recent entertainment has been predominantly of the motion-picture variety.
While the act of concluding a lengthy book or series may be anticlimactic or even outright melancholic, the benefits of deeply investing in such works go beyond mere escapism. Lifehacker argues that reading fiction can make you more empathetic, curious, and better at storytelling. Non-fiction reading has the unambiguous payoff of skill and knowledge enhancement. Reading can thus yield great dividends. It could be argued that written works with higher input requirements (longer reading times or slower paces) deliver higher rewards, but that is getting rather academic. Random insights found in literature may spice up a later conversation or, if you write occasionally (and everyone should!), become incorporated into written works of your own.
If you find yourself with a short attention span, frequently refreshing social media feeds or binge-watching a new TV series online, perhaps it could be time to try deliberately engaging in a longer text-based work. Start with something light and build your way up. Fight the urge to activate a screen and instead consider finding a quiet environment conducive to reading. Make the effort to slow down and deliberately engage in storytelling and ideas that you find meaningful. There is a list of titles to read for fun at the end of this section, with some light, trashy recommendations to start if it has been years since you last picked up a book. (Or may I modestly propose this very essay—skip ahead to the Fun Times Outside section.)
Lately I have re-discovered the local public library in Calgary (it’s free now too). Now, one of the most dopamine-inducing notifications I receive on my phone is when a book on hold becomes available.
Books to Read for Fun
- Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern
- I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
- One Day as a Tiger: Alex Macintyre and the Birth of Light and Fast Alpinism by John Porter
- The Bold and Cold: A History of 25 Classic Climbs in the Canadian Rockies by Brandon Pullan
- The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains by Barry Blanchard
- Art of Freedom: The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka by Bernadette McDonald
- Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch by Bruce Kay
- Mountains in My Heart: A Passion for Climbing by Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner
- No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks by Ed Viesturs
- Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak by Maurice Herzog
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
- Chickenhawk by Robert Mason
- A Purpose Ridden by Ryan Correy
- Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande
Materialism and Minimalism
One of the things that I like most about the public library (in addition to it being free) is that items must be returned. This may sound daft, but the concept of discarding items once they are no longer useful is often overlooked in North America, where we have a high emphasis on accumulating material goods. Yes, library books aren’t technically discarded; and, yes, you may still be finding them useful—i.e. reading them—when you have to return them; but the book-returning model contrasts nicely with the read-a-book-then-leave-it-on-the-shelf-for-years concept.
Returning a book once you are finished with it means that you have gained the utility of reading the book but without having it occupy any physical space inside your home. While one book won’t make a large difference in the amount of clutter in your home, consider what a few hundred books over multiple decades would add up to. This concept isn’t limited only to books either—or physical clutter.
Fortunate to land a lucrative job as an engineer for just over three years in my early twenties, I spent much of that time collecting possessions: a car, then a better car (I sold the first one), tools to work on said car, a mountain bike, a city bike, tools to work on said bikes, a laptop computer, a desktop computer, a camera, another camera, more lenses, a tripod and other camera gear, ski gear, backpacking gear, rock climbing gear, and ice climbing gear—and this list is far from comprehensive.
At the time, I lived and worked downtown was so worried about summer hail storms trashing my car that I would leave work at lunchtime to move my car from the free street parking into an underground visitor stall in my apartment complex when a thunderstorm warning was issued.
The point, as Tyler Durden so succinctly puts it in Fight Club, is that “the things you own end up owning you.” If you have such nice possessions that maintaining and caring for them gives you anxiety, is there really a clear benefit of having such nice things? There is a certain amount of mental preoccupation that comes along with owning things, either in the form of I’ve got to pamper my fancy car/bike/computer/camera/etc. and fix it immediately when a small issue arises, or I’ve got so many things now—am I truly using each and every one of my items to its true potential? Think back to a time in your life when you had fewer possessions such as childhood. If you’ve been fortunate enough to prosper materially, are you really that much happier than before encountering prosperity?
You can take The Minimalist’s approach here and live with an absolute minimum of possessions: clothes, a few other essentials, and a small, bare-bones apartment, but finding the right balance is likely a matter of individual taste. I get tremendous utility out of owning a car and having an outdoor gear shop for a basement. While this isn’t nearly as elegant as owning a tiny house for example, it is through owning material goods that I can spend time outside (ironic, I know). Multi-day outdoor trips are perhaps the ultimate expression of minimalism: being required to carry all your gear and food for multiple days ensures packing only the absolute essentials, and on such trips concerns return to the basic—food, water, shelter, safety, community—a refreshing juxtaposition to opulent urban life.
While we can’t all become monks here, there are a few small things that can be done toward leading a simpler, less materialistic life. Create a wish list of things that you want—but don’t need—and wait at least three months after adding an item before purchasing it. If after three months you still think that you’d really benefit from owning the item, then go ahead and buy it; however, in my experience, not purchasing some new toy—and subsequently deleting it from your wish list—can be just as rewarding as the fleeting thrill of unboxing a new item and adding it to your physical and mental catalogue of possessions.
Mr. Money Mustache makes the similar argument that true financial freedom comes not from having more money but by spending less. Taking this notion to its logical conclusion actually becomes an entirely radical message. Mr. Money Mustache outlines this in his post Getting Rich: from Zero to Hero in One Blog Post:
For almost six years, I’ve been preaching a different brand of financial advice from what you see in the newspapers and magazines. The standard line is that life is hard and expensive, so you should keep your nose to the grindstone, clip coupons, save hard for your kids’ college educations, then tuck any tiny slice of your salary that remains into a 401(k) plan. And pray that nothing goes wrong in the 40 years of career work that it will take to get yourself enough savings to enjoy a brief retirement.
Mr. Money Mustache’s advice? Almost all of that is nonsense: Your current middle-class life is an Exploding Volcano of Wastefulness, and by learning to see the truth in this statement, you will easily be able to cut your expenses in half—leaving you saving half of your income. Or two thirds, or more. Sound like a fantasy? Not to readers of this blog.
What happens when you can save more of your income? As it turns out, spending much less money than you bring in is the way to get rich. The ONLY way.
And the effects are surprising: if you can save 50% of your take-home pay starting at age 20, you’ll be wealthy enough to retire by age 37. If you already have some assets now, you’re even closer than that. If you can save 75%, your working career is only 7 years.
The idea is to trim down all of your expenses to as reasonably low as they can go—and that really means all of them. Daily lattés, monthly gym memberships, cars, car insurance, phone bills, groceries, entertainment—everything should be considered. Mr. Money Mustache retired at 30, without winning the lottery or receiving a windfall inheritance, simply by not wasting money. Spending a few hours reading Mr. Money Mustache’s ideas could be one of the best things that you do today—or even in your life. This may sound like an overstatement, but it really is a brilliant message.
One example is that I switched my cell phone plan to a Koodo pre-paid plan in October 2016. Most of my time is spent either at school or at home where there is wifi, or outside in the mountains where there is no reception, so my data and minute usage are admittedly minimal. Cognizant that I am paying for every minute of call time and every megabyte downloaded (but also using all of these, instead of losing any unused balances at the end of each month), my phone is picked up less and less while out of the house. My average monthly phone bill is $24.61 at the time of this writing (there is a spreadsheet behind this calculation), and being decidedly less attached to my phone is much more liberating than any “unlimited” data plan.
As for wanting to upgrade to the latest and greatest phone, I’ve found that a great way to curb this urge is simply to swap your case every once in a while. In summer, my still-going-strong iPhone 6 sports the fabulously thin Caudabe The Veil XT case, while it gets bundled up in winter with a black Apple leather case. The change in thickness and colour give my phone a drastically different feel, similar to the temporary thrill of buying a new phone but without the roughly $900 CAD price tag.
Another example is that I bought a cheap trimmer to cut my own hair. I haven’t paid for a haircut in years now and enjoy the flexibility of cutting my hair according to my own schedule.
You may even be doing some of these money-saving things already—great!—but think about taking it even further. The point isn’t to become an ascetic, it’s to stop wasting money on things that likely weren’t making you any happier to begin with, and to bring you financial freedom well before conventional wisdom suggests that you can have it.
If material prosperity doesn’t make us happy—indeed hoarding or even its more tempered manifestations can make us unhappy and anxious—then what does make us happy?
Skepticism, Success and Happiness
It seems that many young adults who were raised in religious households in North America walk away from faith partially or completely in their teens and twenties, while many others were raised in completely atheistic households. To my very own great surprise—but nevertheless delight—I do identify as Christian again after a seven-year hiatus from the church. (There’s more on this in a previous essay.)
One of the biggest philosophical arguments that brought me back to faith was the idea that success doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness. There is a prevalent idea in our mostly secular culture that happiness is thought—perhaps even expected—to result from success. We see this in lots of advertising: you’ve got a healthcare problem, we’ve got a pill that will quickly end your suffering; get away from it all and come on this dream vacation; use our online service to find the right life partner and you’ll be happy and fulfilled, forever. The meaning of success changes according to different cultural contexts but generally means having more than either our current unrealized selves or everyone else: more money, more power, more beauty, more intelligence. Not everyone achieves success according to such contemporary definitions, which may be cause for disappointment, yet are those that do achieve success necessarily happier and less disappointed than those that don’t? I wrote about this in an essay on The Princess Bride (again, the first of two novels required by my engineering degree) for a university english course, On Fairy Tales, Success, and Happiness:
Success at [the] adult level can be defined in quantitative ways, many of which relate to societal standing and material wealth. Attaining prosperity according to these standards is the embodiment of the American Dream, which presumes that happiness follows the realization of its prescribed success. Journalist Lauren Sandler affirms this conviction: “Over generations of prosperity and growth, the American Dream has become an American Expectation—a version of happiness achieved by entitlement and equation” (73). Sandler characterizes “this dream of arriving at some destination of deep fulfillment” as being “often no more than that: a dream” (77). The simplification that happiness is achievable by meeting tangible standards parallels the fairy tale model of everlasting happiness upon triumphant conflict resolution. … The assumption that unabated happiness automatically follows success can lead to disappointment and disillusion.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis similarly argues that worldly success, even of the superlative kind, doesn’t provide fulfillment:
Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.
French alpinist Maurice Herzog, who, along with his teammate Lionel Lachenal, climbed Annapurna in 1950, the first ascent of any 8,000-metre peak, was ecstatic with their successful climb, despite losing his toes and most of his fingers to frostbite, as he describes in his 1951 book Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak:
Our mission was accomplished. But at the same time we had accomplished something infinitely greater. How wonderful life would now become! What an inconceivable experience it is to attain one’s ideal and, at the very same moment, to fulfill oneself. I was stirred to the depths of my being. Never had I felt happiness like this—so intense and yet so pure.
Contrastingly, Lachenal (who also lost his toes to frostbite) wrote in his account of the climb, Conquistadors of the Useless: From the Alps to Annapurna, that he felt only “a painful sense of emptiness.” There is a tension here: how can the same undeniably successful outcome have such conflicting attitudes towards it?
While being unsuccessful is understandably disappointing, the same can also be said for being successful. Not everyone gets to be a famous actor, neurosurgeon, alpinist or otherwise successful person—to say nothing about all the unsuccessful or outright broken, suffering people—but what can the answer here be then, besides cynicism? Whatever we do, successful or not, we can still end up disappointed. Why even try anything, if everything we do will fall short or still leave us longing for more?
It was years of this kind of cynicism that finally made me curious about faith.
In a written testimony at Timothy Keller’s Redeemer church, Kevin, a former Wall Street atheist, describes how he “realized that [his] achievements were ultimately unsatisfying, the approval of man is fleeting, that a carpe diem life lived solely for adventure is just a form of narcissism and idolatry. And so [he] became a believer in Christ.” Keller argues that a life not centred on God leads to emptiness—emptiness resulting from both unsuccessful and successful lives—in The Reason for God:
Building our lives on something besides God not only hurts us if we don’t get the desires of our hearts, but also if we do. Few of us get all of our wildest dreams fulfilled in life, and therefore it is easy to live in the illusion that if you were as successful, wealthy, popular, or beautiful as you wished, you’d finally be happy and at peace. That just isn’t so. In a Village Voice column, Cynthia Heimel thought back on all the people she knew in New York City before they became famous movie stars. One worked behind the makeup counter at Macy’s, one worked selling tickets at movie theaters, and so on. When they became successful, every one of them became more angry, manic, unhappy, and unstable than they had been when they were working hard to get to the top. Why? Heimel writes:
That giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to fill them with ha-ha-happiness had happened, and the next day they woke up and they were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.
Success, then, is hardly a guarantee of happiness—but what else is? Or is this not how the world works? C.S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity that perhaps ultimate satisfaction to our earthly desires may not actually be found:
The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. … If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. … I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.”
Anecdotally, faith has brought me joy in ways that I didn’t know were possible. Previously, much of my happiness derived from the small jolts released by repeatedly mashing the pleasure button with shiny new toys and outdoor experiences. I found the answers given by Christianity to be the most coherent, optimistic explanation of the universe and how to live within it, ultimately making the argument that even if God doesn’t exist, the joy and reduction in anxiety of practicing faith alone make it worthwhile. Alas, I can’t force anyone to drink this Kool-Aid as it needs to be an individual choice, but I do hope to lead a good life by example.
While it’s easy to be a skeptic these days, believing in a completely naturalistic explanation of reality on rarely more than subjective grounds, consider that as a rational scientist, if you wanted to objectively determine the origins of the universe—either a naturalistic explanation or intelligent design (theism)—precluding intelligent design as a possible explanation is in fact being close-minded unless you have reasonable scientific grounds to do so. The Case for a Creator by Lee Strobel argues that science points more toward intelligent design of the universe than toward a naturalistic explanation, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.
If you’ve been having thoughts like I am outwardly successful, yet something is missing in my life or There has got to be more to life than this, perhaps what you truly seek is something altogether different than worldly riches. Ask yourself why you believe what you believe in as honest a way as possible. “Whether you consider yourself a believer or a skeptic,” Timothy Keller writes in the opening to his splendid book The Reason for God, “I invite you to … grow in an understanding of the nature of your own doubts. The result will exceed anything you can imagine.”
A Canticle for Leibowitz, the second of the two novels required by my engineering degree, by Walter M. Miller Jr., recounts how after a nuclear holocaust, the fictional society gradually rebuilds itself—only to propel itself again toward its earlier mistake of self-destruction. English professor John A. Stoler discusses the role of faith as it pertains to technology in his 1984 essay Christian Lore and Characters’ Names in A Canticle for Leibowitz:
In a conversation between Dom Apollo, a Catholic priest, and Thon Taddeo, the leading new Renaissance scientist, the latter reflects on the nuclear devastation of the past and asks, “How can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?” Apollo replies, “By being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.” Apollo goes on to suggest that a study of history can help teach man the spiritual values necessary for his survival in a technologically-developing world and ideally can keep him from repeating the mistakes that once before led to civilization’s destruction and can lead to it again. (LOS 77–78)
It may be tempting to think that modern science and technology has obviated the need for religion (indeed, many secularists object to religion on the grounds that it is outmoded and obsolete); however, it could be argued that the exact opposite is the case—that technology has not come without costs of its own, nor is it a substitute for many of the values taught by religion. A Canticle for Leibowitz develops the notion that unchecked technological advancement can be detrimental to society, a message that has lost precisely no relevance today. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon that initially dismissed patients’ stories about near-death experiences as being fantasies from diseased brains—until he had a near-death experience of his own (a topic for another time)—makes a similar argument in his book Proof of Heaven:
For all the successes of Western civilization, the world has paid a dear price in terms of the most crucial component of existence—our human spirit. The shadow side of high technology—modern warfare and thoughtless homicide and suicide, urban blight, ecological mayhem, cataclysmic climate change, polarization of economic resources—is bad enough. Much worse, our focus on exponential progress in science and technology has left many of us relatively bereft in the realm of meaning and joy, and of knowing how our lives fit into the grand scheme of existence for all eternity. (152)
The advancement of science and technology doesn’t come without unintended consequences. This isn’t to say that all technology is bad, only that it sometimes comes with deleterious side effects. To counteract these, there is much to be said for the values taught by most faiths: deliberately living in community, and helping the world to flourish, be it through reducing economic disparity, alleviating suffering, or inspiring others. These can all be very rewarding pursuits compared to lining one’s wallet or owning the latest gadget.
So is spending time outside, as we’ll see next.
Comfort or Adventure
When I worked downtown, an older co-worker would often come by my workstation on Monday mornings and inquire, “So, Russell, how were the mountains this weekend?” To which I’d oh-so-cleverly reply, “Wait, how did you know I was in the mountains this weekend?” It was no secret that I regularly traded sleeping-in and weekend social plans for multi-day, sleep-deprived outdoor sufferfests of the ski, two-wheeled, and two-foot variety. My goal for a number of years now has been to permanently ditch the Monday-to-Friday urban grind—but, what, exactly is the alternative?
My family, immediate and extended, largely subscribes to a traditional lifestyle model: growing up, going to school or training, marrying, raising a family, and working until retirement, usually in a city. I’ll be the first to admit that this holds little to no appeal to me, but would the proverbial grass really be that much greener were I to swap city life for a small mountain town? (If anything, the grass would be less green due to higher amounts of snowfall, but I digress.)
I struggled to identify with many of my high-earning co-workers, which I would sometimes condescendingly wonder if the most difficult decision they’d make would be which brand of luxury German sports sedan to purchase. City life lacked adventure; the party scene never appealed to me, which must be a form of adventure to some, so I took to the nearby Rocky Mountains in search of more exciting experiences—and those, I certainly found.
On an ascent of Mount Lefroy in the summer of 2014, my party of five guys around my age arrived at Abbott Pass hut one evening, the typical starting point to climb Mounts Lefroy, Huber, and Victoria, all 11,000 foot peaks by Lake Louise. A group of eight women (including two guides) was there for their final night of a multi-day trip of guiding and instruction, and they had thus far been unsuccessful in their attempts to climb Mounts Huber and Victoria.
Although Mounts Lefroy and Victoria are quite close geographically to each other, it is actually recommended to climb them at different times in the summer mountaineering season. The easiest route up Lefroy is to ascend an up-to-40-degree gulley, which is best done around May or June when lingering winter snowpack (about a metre or so) covers the underlying glacial ice, as it is easier to kick steps in supportive snow instead of scratching up exposed ice once the snow has melted away completely later in the summer. Mount Victoria, on the other hand, is best done in August when the route is likelier to be drier overall. Mount Huber shares the start of the main route up Mount Victoria, so it, too, is easiest later in the summer. We opted to split the difference and go in July, hoping to attempt all three 11,000ers. The window for climbing Lefroy was rapidly closing, however, with wet spring avalanches of the rapidly deteriorating snowpack becoming a concern. In late spring and summer, the upper layer of the snowpack can freeze solid overnight, providing supportive fast-travel conditions for a few hours each morning, but with daytime heating the snow can turn into unsupportive mush (called isothermal snow) and becomes more prone to wet avalanches.
The women wanted to attempt Lefroy the following day—as did we. The Rockies are known for their crumbly, loose (chossy) rocks, so having multiple parties sharing a route isn’t ideal as rocks kicked off by higher climbers can be very problematic for lower climbers. They asked us if we would wait to attempt Lefroy, but we diplomatically declined on the grounds of a likely soon-to-be-closed ascent window—so all of us would be attempting the same route on Lefroy the following morning.
After pretending to sleep for a few hours, my group started our ascent in the dark, getting a head start on the larger group. Our unofficial leader kicked steps in the snow as we ascended the main gulley. There had been just enough of an overnight refreeze that boot penetration was limited to a few inches (rather than soul- and knee-destroying post-holing waist deep) as we worked our way up higher. The other group followed up in our tracks at a slower pace. We kept a running belay (also know as simul-climbing) during our ascent: all five of us were tied to eachother at equal intervals along the same rope. In steeper sections, the leader placed an occasional ice screw, with the fifth person on the rope cleaning it as he reached it. This is a perfectly acceptable technique as long as you are comfortable moving without being more securely anchored to the mountain—which some of the clients in the female group were not. They had to slow down even further and create anchor stations to belay individual climbers out while placing multiple ice screws for added protection (known as pitching it out). While pitching it out reduces the consequences of falling (falling a few metres versus a much bigger fall), the slower pace required can become a liability in the face of a shrinking time window.
We gained the mostly horizontal summit ridge just after sunrise. Another thirty minutes of gingerly picking our way across this chossy, exposed ridge found us on the summit around 6:20 AM. We didn’t linger and headed back along the ridge to the top of the ascent gulley, just as the women were starting to top out from this same gulley. The rock in this spot was quite loose, so we opted to sit and wait a few minutes for the rest of the women to exit the gulley so as to not send any rocks raining down on them during our descent. As they would then be heading along the ridge to the summit, we would have time to descend the gulley and get out of the line of fire from rocks kicked off during their later descent—only they turned around without going to the true summit.
They started descending as soon as their last member reached the top of the gulley. No one from their group was to reach the true summit that day, nor even attempt the ridge traverse from the top of the snow gulley. Their descent was to be every bit as slow as their ascent, with multiple lowers, rappels, and at least one client freakout from the exposure. They began descending right on top of us, not extending the same courtesy of waiting a few minutes for us to reach safer terrain.
“ROCK!” came the shout from above.
My group’s leader, still in the front of our rope team and now the lowest climber on the mountain, responded quickly by darting horizontally a few metres as a grapefruit-sized rock whizzed past where he had just been standing. It had been kicked loose by the other party as they initiated their descent.
The other group now decided to wait for us to descend, the consequences of rockfall acutely clear. Fuming, we booked it back down to the hut, finishing two hours earlier than the larger group.
Adding further insult to almost-injury, we had left our group’s communal roll of toilet paper in the outhouse (it doesn’t come supplied), only to find that the once-full roll has been completely used up by the other group—and we had two more nights at the hut. Fortunately, some tourists we had shared a bus ride in with would later hike up from Lake O’Hara to Abbot Pass hut (a horrible scree bash) and give us some of theirs.
We decided not to directly confront the other group when they arrive back at the hut. They sheepishly offered us some of their leftover food before descending down Abbott Pass later the same day, ending their trip unfortunately empty-handed.
The following “day”—we started at midnight—was our Victoria and Huber attempt. We got off-route in the dark and snow (this is why it’s better to wait until more snow has melted out when attempting Victoria) and wasted time climbing up the face when sticking to the main ridge was the proper route. We turned around after realizing that our pace would have us on the mountain too late in the day when the avalanche hazard from isothermal snow would be high. I suddenly had to poop but couldn’t wait until we returned to the hut. As it’s bad form to leave poop on routes like this, I scrounged an opaque white gummy bear plastic bag from someone, thus acquiring myself the nickname “Candy-bag.” Despite moving too slowly on our ascent, we made it back to Abbott Pass hut by a still-early 7 AM. With one more night booked, we put it to a vote: should we sit around all day and try again, or should we bail out early with one summit already in the bag? Three against two in favour of leaving (I voted to bail, having had enough near-misses for one trip), so we packed up and descended back down to Lake O’Hara around noon.
On the way down, we heard an avalanche. Looking up, a naturally triggered wet avalanche containing chunks of rock was screaming down the main ascent gulley on Lefroy, the very same gulley we had descended only thirty hours previously. The seasonal window for climbing Lefroy had indeed been very short for this world.
If we had waited another 24 hours to climb Lefroy, we would still have been down the gulley well before the afternoon avalanche, though the take-home lesson here is the importance of leaving a healthy margin for error. With objective hazard in the mountains, the best you can do is to be aware of the hazards that exist (rockfall, avalanches, crevasses, weather) and to minimize your exposure to them. Objective hazard cannot be eliminated, as evidenced by the relatively high mortality rate in alpinism, despite experienced alpinists using what they consider to be healthy margins of error in their decision making. If a rock comes hurtling down a mountain from above (rocks often release by themselves without human triggers), it is ultimately a matter of chance which teammate the rock hits.
Subjective hazards—lack of fitness, gear, or experience—can be managed by proper training and instruction, though grey areas can arise. With the slow, inexperienced group of women on Lefroy, the guides made the call that nobody was to summit Lefroy as they needed to get down while the snow remained supportive. Lefroy turned out to be too ambitious an objective for the group, and this scenario put the guides in the conflicting position of being paid to assist their clients up mountains but telling them no when it became unsafe to do so. From a client’s perspective, how much would you tip a guide who turned you around due to your own lack of fitness or experience? This can be a difficult position for a guide to be in. There is truly an art to reading clients’ ability levels and finding reasonable objectives for them.
This was the excitement that I so badly craved, that sorely lacked in practically every aspect of urban existence. Mountain climbing was real: decisions had serious, potentially fatal consequences, and the experiences were far more fulfilling than anything else I had encountered.
In the city, watching people flip out over coffee-order mishaps—shouting “Forget it” and storming off in a huff—only served to enhance my disdain for the concrete jungle and its inhabitants. Back to my original question, though: if not city life, then what?
Scottish writer Andrew Greig sought more adventure in his life and accompanied a climbing expedition to the Mustagh Tower in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan, which he chronicles in his 1985 text, Summit Fever: The Story of an Armchair Climber. Mal, his expedition leader, had in turn traded a comfortable existence for a life of adventure:
It’s hard to imagine now, but Mal worked in insurance in London for five years. “Then one day I looked around me, a long, slow look at all the familiar faces reading the papers or looking out the window, and I saw they were only existing, not living. And if I carried on, I’d be like that in another five years. I thought, screw that for a lark. I handed in my notice to quit that day.”
Mal went on to lead more expeditions to the Great Ranges before passing in his sleep at age 43 at Everest base camp. He had traded financial stability for a life of outdoor adventure. In the face of his early death, it would be hard not to argue that deserting a steady paycheque was indeed the best way maximize his quality of life during the years that he did have—but the number of years that we all have is always a big question mark.
Canadian cyclist Ryan Correy perhaps perfected the concept of bike sufferfests, as chronicled in his autobiography A Purpose Ridden. After riding 3400 km across Canada at the age of 13 with his father, he went on to ride 25,000 km from Alaska to Argentina; finish the sleep-depriving 4828 km Race Across America, which frequently ranks among the world’s toughest races; finish the Tour Divide, considered the world’s toughest mountain bike race; and spend a delirious nearly seven days on a stationary bike in a Guinness World Record attempt. At one point he considers accepting a “$100,000 to start” (320) job and envisions his lifestyle as a high-earning Calgarian:
I pass a 24-hour fitness facility located a couple floors up in a high-rise building. Along the exterior window, I watch a row of young professionals work out. They run in unison on identical treadmills overlooking the dark city street. I imagine what it would be like to be one among them…
After hitting the gym for an hour, we’d clean up in trendy, chic outfits, then text to meet at a nearby rooftop lounge. …
Cutting out early, I walk a few blocks home to my simply modern, one-bedroom bachelor bad. Early tomorrow [Saturday] morning, the plan is to head west to Banff with my hiking group. And then, on Sunday, I’ll take my four-legged companion out for a walk, finishing up in the afternoon at a coffee shop, sketching memories for a book on my adventures.
That doesn’t sound too bad. Not bad at all. (321–322)
He declines the job offer in favour of attempting to cycle in the Olympics.
Bruce Kirkby, a Canadian wilderness writer and adventure photographer, affirms the challenges of the adventure path, in his forward to Ryan’s book:
Ryan was eager to glean all the advice and wisdom he could from me, for twenty years earlier I’d left my own nascent engineering career to pursue dreams of adventure, photography and writing. While I gladly shared experiences and lessons learned, my fundamental message was this: it is not easy to live a life less ordinary, something beyond the invisible scaffolding erected by society, beyond the 9-to-5, with its pensions and cubicles, and vacations crammed into two short weeks. Frankly, it’s darn tough. For a relentless pressure alternatively pushes and coaxes one back toward familiarity, toward the known, toward a career and a home and a job you can explain with a single word. Such forces are strongest at times of uncertainty, when the future looks bleak. To persevere, one must choose Robert Frost’s proverbial “road less traveled”—again and again and again.
But if such a path is in your heart—as it clearly was in Ryan’s—then there is no choice but to follow it; blindly, and with faith. For despite all its challenges, such a life is deeply rewarding. (x)
Bruce concludes that “Ryan’s determination and efforts show again and again that when nothing is certain, anything is possible. His story is a reminder of the possibilities that lie within us all” (xi).
All too tragically, Ryan passed away in April 2018 from colon cancer. He was 35. (The idea to start this essay in media res came from Ryan’s book.)
For those looking to escape the confines of a fifty-work-week year, the dirtbag option is perhaps the easiest way to get a more adventure-friendly schedule. “Dirtbagging” is a badge of honor in the climbing community, and a dirtbag is someone who prioritizes climbing above all else, forgoing jobs beyond short-term gigs that raise enough cash to continue climbing. Typically they live in vans—not dissimilar to surf bums—trading a steady paycheque for the thrills of climbing. But do these thrills last forever? Climber-turned-writer Jon Krakauer (of Into Thin Air fame) describes his impoverished post-college lifestyle in the introduction to his 1992 book Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains:
I graduated from college, by the skin of my teeth, in December, 1975. I spend the next eight years employed as an itinerant carpenter and commercial fisherman in Colorado, Seattle, and Alaska, living in studio apartments with cinder-block walls, driving a hundred-dollar car, working just enough to make rent and fund the next climbing trip. Eventually it began to wear thin. I found myself lying awake nights reliving all the close scrapes I’d had on the heights. Sawing joists in the rain at some muddy construction site, my thoughts would increasingly turn to college classmates who were raising families, investing in real estate, buying lawn furniture, assiduously amassing wealth. (xii)
Krakauer went on to become a well-known mountaineering writer, though perhaps he is an exception, not the rule, when it comes to making a living outside the typical study-then-career model.
In his Alpinist 55 article, Full Value, Derek Franz similarly explores some of the downsides of the dirtbag existence:
I graduated from college in 2005 with a degree in journalism and debts that I still have to pay off. Ten years later … I needed open-heart surgery at age thirty-two. The doctors sawed into my sternum and stopped my heart for ninety minutes while they replaced my aortic valve.
I spent the majority of three months on my back. It was plenty of time to consider what I was doing with my days.
Many of my friends were established in successful careers. They’d started businesses and taken surfing trips to Morocco. They’d written books and found modest amounts of fame. They were having kids and buying houses.
Meanwhile, you could say I’d lived a soulful existence that hovered just above the poverty line. Had I spent too much time wandering in too many directions? (105)
The dirtbag lifestyle clearly has drawbacks when it comes to managing ill health, with no safety cushion of savings or assets and dubious long-term financial stability. (There is the argument that climbing and other outdoor-sport-bum lifestyles make you likelier to get injured. My view on this aligns with that of Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air: “Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.” Then again, this attitude might seem insensitive when someone young dies.)
It seems that there is good representation from both sides of the comfort-versus-adventure debate: dirtbags wishing for higher paycheques, and yuppies craving more free time and adventure. It’s easy to romanticize lifestyles alternative to our own. Falling into the (former-)yuppy category, I tend to feel envious of people living in the mountains, people “living the dream” as it is so often called among my outdoor-inclined urban brethren.
The point is that while it’s hard to make a decent living out of the adventure path, there are other ways beside the corporate grind. As with most things, and this is hardly a new message, the answer can lie in moderation. Canadian alpinist Raphael Slawinski lives in Calgary and has managed to find a balance between a career as a physics professor and high-end alpinism, winning a 2014 Piolet d’Or, one of alpinism’s highest accolades. If he can do it, then what’s my excuse? Ditching the city cannot thus be the only way to have an adventurous lifestyle.
A number of my outdoor buddies have flexible schedules permitted by careers in nursing, firefighting, emergency medicine, and even fly-in-fly-out engineering rotations. These careers do seem to offer a reasonable enough balance between work time and mountain time.
Aforementioned Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner worked as a nurse before pursuing professional alpinism. Ed Viesturs, the first American to accomplish the same feat of climbing all 8,000 metre peaks without oxygen, left his career as a veterinary surgeon to pursue mountaineering, though not without uncertainty, as he details in No Shortcuts to The Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks:
That late autumn  was one of the most depressing times in my life. I would just sit there in my basement apartment, staring at the phone, wondering, What the hell am I doing? I seriously considered going back to being a vet. When I glanced up, I could see my framed diploma from Washington State, staring down at me from the wall. It was not only depressing—it was a truly scary time. I was thirty-four years old, I’d abandoned my profession, and for all the expeditions I’d gone on, I could see no way in the future to make my living from mountaineering.
One day I was sitting there with my head literally in my hands when the phone rang. …
“[Mountain Hardwear wants] you to be our key sponsored climber.”
Ed went on to finish climbing all the 8,000 metre peaks and then went into motivational speaking and writing, which seems to be path that many successful adventurers follow later in their careers.
Other successful climbers exit the game completely. Pioneering Canadian alpinist Brian Greenwood, responsible for establishing many of the harder alpine routes in the Canadian Rockies in the 1960s, moved to Vancouver Island and transitioned to sailing. Sean Isaac, another Canadian alpinist known for hard mixed routes in the Rockies, became a musician.
As I argued in the previous section of this essay, becoming extremely successful is no assurance of sustained happiness, as in this scenario of becoming a famous adventurer. There is much to be said for being grateful for what you do have. As we have seen, it’s easy to want what you don’t have—for example, to idealize mountain-town life while feeling stuck in the city—but it is a tremendous fallacy to make your happiness contingent upon realizing your dreams.
I can relate to the tedium of office jobs but couldn’t quite bring myself to quit mine, mainly due to a lack of a backup plan. In the industry that I worked in, every man-hour was tracked and counted for including vacation time, which accrued as a function of hours worked. Far too many employees hadn’t used part or all of their annual vacation allowance in years—I will never understand this—and thus had a massive bank of paid time off. I always took vacations as soon as my banked hours would permit, which could include up to three days of negative banked time. When company layoffs forced my hand, I “retired” from engineering with a nine-week severance package, three weeks for each of the three years I had worked, minus the negative banked hours I owed.
Early retirement as defined by aforementioned Mr. Money Mustache—he retired at thirty—is predicated on the notion of having better things to do besides work. Sadly, it seems too many of us lack meaningful pursuits beyond chasing the dollar and accumulating wealth, which come with their share of pitfalls as I have argued. Oscar Wilde’s hackneyed quotation captures this thought: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” Similarly to how I fail to understand people content to hang out in the city and do nothing more adventurous than try a new restaurant, I suppose that many wouldn’t understand my preference to wake up in a tent during a blizzard instead of my own bed—You just don’t know what you’re missing! Alas, the outdoors isn’t for everyone; “Different strokes for different folks,” to continue with the worn-out phrases.
All I know is that when I get caught up thinking—perhaps overthinking is more accurate—about things like this, nothing resets the mind quite like spending time outside. It is a return to the simple, to managing basic needs and spending time either alone or with becoming-closer friends. The absolute best conversations I’ve had have been outdoors, so I will continue to spend time outside, while trying not to craft my image entirely in my pursuits as they aren’t going to last forever.
If city life works for you, great. If you live in the city and seek more adventure, spending time outside is the best way I’ve found to satisfy that craving—just start slowly and deliberately expand your experience level, a topic I’ll address next. If you’re already an outdoorsy city dweller and entertain dreams of jumping off the corporate bandwagon, remember that the adventure lifestyle isn’t without its own challenges. Apply Mr. Money Mustache’s radical early retirement message and you may find yourself with more freedom sooner than expected. And if you’re a ski bum and want more money—well, there’s always the lottery.
Mistakes and Mentorship in the Mountains
3:30 AM, July 27, 2013
After not sleeping a wink in the Goat Creek parking lot near Canmore, Alberta, we set off to attempt the Rundle traverse. We—a ragtag group of six newbie climbers—started hiking up the East End of Rundle (EEOR) off under a clear, dark ski. Our first mistake was our group size: six is double or triple the size you want for an objective like the Rundle traverse, a huge day covering the 11 individual summits of Mount Rundle between Canmore and Banff with a few pitches of technical climbing.
I had met two of the guys in our party on an introductory mountaineering course earlier that summer. With a few additions our Rundle traverse team had expanded to six, with two unable to attend a meet-and-greet session at Wasootch slabs a few days beforehand (which served as my cursory introduction to trad climbing). This was our second mistake: not knowing each other well and not having previously climbed a less ambitious objective together.
Hiking up the easy scramble route on lower EEOR, our group split up due to differences in pacing and routefinding decisions. At one point I regrouped with two other guys, with the other three nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, with cell coverage, I was able to call someone in the other group, and we were all able to regroup higher up the mountain.
We summited EEOR just as it was starting to get light out. Next we headed north along Rundle’s undulating summit ridge. After a few hours of easy hiking, we came to a section in the ridge that required downclimbing a chimney. One member wasn’t comfortable downclimbing it without a rope, so we set up a body belay for him, paying out rope connected to three of us acting as an anchor rather than wasting time building a proper anchor in the nearby choss (loose, crumbly rock) that also comprises so much of the Rockies. The three of us that formed the anchor then downclimbed the chimney, and we all continued along the ridge at a pace that was clearly starting to be too slow—our third mistake: not moving quickly and efficiently.
Further along the ridge, we encountered another notch, a vertical cliff that we would need to descend. One guy started downclimbing the middle of it only to find that it steepened and became vertical—if not overhanging—below the bulge that had been visible from above. This time we set up a proper anchor and lowered the first climber and two others down the cliff. The remaining three of us looked around and found an easy downclimb to the east of the cliff, thus bypassing the vertical section and taking all of our trad gear with us (as opposed to leaving some of it as a rappel anchor). This was another mistake: poor routefinding and wasting time rappelling when an easy alternative was available with a bit of investigation.
By now it was mid day, and we were not as far along as we would have liked to have been, having made it past the sixth summit to the low point between the sixth and seventh summits. In skiing and climbing teams, group decision making can be an interesting study in psychology. When things don’t go as planned—and they often don’t in the mountains—it’s easy to point fingers and cast blame, particularly on weaker members. In our case, we suggested that two members, one being the guy who wanted a rope to descend the first chimney, abort their attempt and descend down the nearby drainage to Goat Creek then walk back up to their car. They agreed. (They made it back to their car around 10 PM.) Sometimes there can be very bad blood in outdoor teams, causing bitter, multi-decade-long conflicts like the case of Walter Bonatti on the 1954 Italian K2 ascent, where he accused his teammates of abandoning him, while they in turn accused him of trying to sabotage their summit push. While this Rundle traverse attempt wasn’t such a case, it does demonstrate the importance of selecting team members who are compatible both experience wise and personality wise.
Group drama behind, the remaining four of us summited the seventh sub-peak of Rundle, its highest point. A lingering snowpatch in the ascent gulley provided a drip to fill our water bottles. There had been a few easy fifth-class (falling is not recommended) moves to gain this summit, but the real fifth-class section isn’t until the tenth peak. Moving down loose, exposed terrain, we came to the top of another cliff on the eighth peak. Applying the lesson we had learned hours earlier about looking for easier alternative descent routes, we searched around for different ways down, but found nothing obvious. A previous party had left a rope hanging at a high anchor. It had been swinging in the wind for perhaps a few seasons, rubbing against the jagged limestone below, and its outer sheath had worn off in places, showing its fraying core strands. The rope was clearly no longer usable, though our own rope wasn’t long enough to re-use the same anchor. Fortunately, there was another chimney lower down, allowing for a shorter rappel with our rope.
Past the summit of the ninth peak, the four of us agreed that it was time to bail. Ascending the tenth peak required climbing a fifth-class chimney, and there would be another fifth-class headwall to climb the eleventh and final peak. If we could get up these peaks, then the descent down to Banff would be along the easy West End of Rundle (WEOR) hiking trail; however, we were moving too slowly and weren’t in amazing shape to tackle this upcoming crux (the hardest part of the route). With about 1600 vertical metres between us and the valley floor, we started descending a nearby scree slope that led downhill. Even if this was an easy descent, we would still likely run out of daylight.
The big, chunky scree gradually turned into a large slab. A water-worn drainage channel formed the obvious descent route, which we followed. A common issue with descending unknown terrain is that you can end up stuck atop a cliff—getting “cliffed out.” While we were actually prepared to deal with such a scenario thanks to the light trad rack that we had used multiple times already, we did not want a complicated, slow descent with multiple rappels, given that there were known scramble routes elsewhere on the mountain.
The slab steepened but never got so steep that it couldn’t be descended by friction. Past a couple of fortunately dry “waterslides,” we re-entered treeline after quite a few hours high in the alpine. Bushwhacking down hundreds of vertical metres of forest sucked, though I have now come to appreciate suffering in the outdoors—perhaps a bit too much sometimes.
12:30 AM, July 28
Finally reaching the Goat Creek trail at valley bottom, we stopped for a brief rest. One friend crawled into the fetal position. Five kilometres still separated us from the edge of Banff. This one-hour hike ended at the Banff Springs Golf Course, where we all crashed and dumped our packs, thus ending our 22-hour ordeal. A car approached us that turned out to be driven by a night security guard, the first person outside our party that we’d seen in over 24 hours. He saw how exhausted we were and let us stay where we were, perhaps a refreshing encounter for him compared to chasing away the usual Saturday-night troublemakers. We called a cab to drive us the remaining few kilometres into Banff.
We reached downtown Banff, where the party that is high-season Banff was roaring away. Our first stop was to get pizza, which we found at a local convenience store that served that crappy hours-old pizza from those glass warming ovens. It might as well have been a club given all the crowding drunks and blaring tunes. To this day, I have never seen anyone talk as fast and furiously as the cashier in that store. High-season indeed.
Earlier we had glossed over the detail of what we were going to do when we got to Banff—crash in town or somehow drive back to our car—and it was now a more urgent concern. I called a number of hotels, who all answered to their credit, but there was exactly zero vacancy in all of Banff. We didn’t have sleeping gear and thus couldn’t comfortably bivy in the bush anywhere, so we called another cab that said they could drive us back to Goat Creek.
Waiting for our cab outside McDonald’s, a wasted tourist in a bright yellow Arc’teryx jacket approached and befriended us. Too tired to make any effort to either converse with him or to shoo him away, we passively listened to his drunken chatter, a two-track monologue that alternated between bitterness in response to his father’s opinion of his sartorial colour selection—“Fuck you, dad. I’m not a fucking banana. This is a great jacket.”—and contentment over other remarkable moments in his life—“It was siiick. It was fucking siiick.”
The cab driver requested $80 in cash before driving us back to the Goat Creek trailhead. I had exactly $80 in my wallet and paid him. We got back to my car while it was still dark, drove down the hill back to Canmore, then crashed in a hotel parking lot to sleep for a few hours.
Though we didn’t get to climb up the fifth-class terrain on the tenth and eleventh peaks, we would likely have taken too long to do so safely. Years later a guy at a party said that he did these fifth-class sections without a rope and had never felt so sketched out in his life. Granted, more experienced alpinists regularly solo such fifth-class terrain without incident, though at that point in our alpine careers, climbing that terrain would likely have been a struggle. These days, the Rundle traverse sees multiple heli-rescues each summer, with unseasoned parties calling for a bail-out when they get spooked, often at these locations. It was a good decision for us to bail when we did, one standout good decision among quite a number of inexperienced ones. Looking back as I write this five years later, it amazes me how slowly we moved compared to how fast I know I can cover ground now.
Inexperience in the mountains can have very serious consequences. It’s easy enough to go and whack around a golf ball without having the first idea how to golf. Worst case you might tweak your back or get some other minor injury, but a lack of experience is rarely a deadly ingredient in golf or many other organized sports. Applying this same approach to the outdoors, however, can—and does—result in serious injury or death, to borrow the overused words of safety waivers everywhere.
Even something as trivial as hiking people seem to mess up regularly, calling in helicopters when they wander off route and get cliffed out or otherwise bite off something bigger than they can chew.
On a fall day in late September a few years ago, some of my experienced outdoor buddies and I hiked up Mount Temple, an easy enough scramble up to over 11,000 feet that attracts its share of clueless tourists. We had to call in a helicopter rescue for a young woman near the summit who could no longer walk due to a sore hip. Her gear consisted of those old three-pin cross-country ski boots and a light golf rain poncho—sorely inadequate for even the easiest Rockies 11,000er. (Another oblivious couple from Texas summited Temple that day, after Googling which hikes to do on their Canada road trip. While they got away with it that time, they would have been ill-prepared for anything less than perfect conditions.) The guy who made the call, a general surgery resident, sensed reluctance on the part of the rescue staff to perform the rescue—“What do you want me to say? She’s not walking down.”—but ultimately convinced them to come.
The chopper came and staged from nearby Minnestimma Lake, long-lining the girl and a rescue technician off the mountain. She was given a free sandwich at the Chateau Lake Louise (probably worth something obscene like $30) while her two partners hiked back down Temple. Later that day, we saw her walking in a parking lot in Lake Louise, and she was reportedly on CBC Radio the following day explaining how, though she was scared, there was a nice view from the helicopter.
While it’s easy—and quite appealing—to cast armchair judgement here, you must appreciate that everyone who has gone through an outdoor apprenticeship long enough to become moderately competent can look back at sketchy situations in his or her own outdoor career where harm due to ineptitude was narrowly avoided.
Canadian alpinist Barry Blanchard—now the Associate Director of Yamnuska Mountain Adventures—describes such a time early in his career when he climbed the Calgary route on Mount Yamnuska, in his autobiography The Calling: A Life Rock by Mountains:
I led everything and we were doing OK, and then we entered the squeeze chimney that forms the top four ropelengths of the route. I fought. Knees pressed to stone, elbows paddling backward over black rock and bracing the bones of my forearm, like a wooden truss in a mine shaft, against the flattened flesh of my palms, my fingers fanned out and pasted down the wall. …
Gray [his partner] couldn’t climb the chimney. “Keep the rope tight!” he wailed.
A current of bewildered fear crackled on his words like radio static and then he fell. … He fell five more times, and then just sat on the cable taut rope for ten minutes. …
… Two hours later Gray pulled onto my stance. He’d ascended the ropes by tying an overhand knot into one, stepping his weight into it, and then tying a higher overhand in the other and stepping up into it. …
At 2:00 a.m. I slapped my cold and swollen hands onto the water-washed limestone shoulders at the top of the route. … I’d eaten the last of my food, a box of Smarties, at noon the day before, washed them down with the last of my water. …
… For hours we groped and stumbled down the descent trail, down the scree. … Toward tree line we began to catch glimpses of headlights darting up and down the road to the parking lot, and red and blue flashers.
By 9:00 p.m., the night before, my mother had become frantic with worry. She called Gray’s mother, then she called the Calgary City Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Fire Department, and the Banff Wardens. … Soon the Calgary Mountain Rescue Group called her. John Lauchlan [a leading Canadian alpinist at the time, who later died soloing Polar Circus at 27] had to put down his beer and leave the party he was at.
Dawn came slowly. I finally found the road and fell from the forest into the ditch. I was totally fucked, shattered. I stood slowly and shouted back to Gray. He tumbled out of the forest just as the RCMP cruiser charged to us and ground to a stop, wheels locked, dust swirling. I folded back onto my ass in the ditch.
“You two are in a whole lot of shit,” the officer bellowed, stepping from the driver’s side. But then Don Forrest, the leader of the Mountain Rescue Group, was there and he barged in front of the Mountie and squatted down on his haunches and looked me in the eye and kindly asked, “How are you boys?”
“I’m thirsty. I’m really thirsty.”
John Lauchlan thumped his pack down beside Don. Nothing dangled from the outside of the pack. John had on Galibier Super Guide mountain boots, gray knickers, and a Peter Storm sweater. I felt like a fake in my battered blue jeans. He handed me a red aluminum water bottle with a wired stopper. I sprang the stopper and greedily guzzled half, then handed it to Gray who was talking with Don and the Mountie. John’s intense blue eyes bore into me from behind his teardrop glasses. I shifted my gaze to the dirt between my feet and then raised it to meet John’s.
“I’m sorry for making you be here, man,” I said. He smiled and told me that he had done the exact same thing on the Grillmair Chimneys route once upon a time.
“No shit?” I asked.
It has been said that good judgment is the result of having survived bad judgement—the trick here is getting through periods of inexperience and outsized ambition. Ed Viesturs, in his epilogue to No Shortcuts to the Top, discusses this learning process:
There’s a big difference between realizing that you can get yourself into trouble and just blindly stumbling along without a clue. “Ignorance is bliss” means that you don’t even know what you don’t know.
Inexperience inevitably leads to accidents. If you get away with making mistakes, it’s crucial to learn from them. I’ve seen too many climbers who seem instead to have the blind conviction that “It won’t happen to me.”
One of my favorite sayings is “You don’t just pick up a hammer and build a house.” In the same sense, you don’t just pick up an ice ax and climb an 8,000-meter peak. You need to start with the basics and work your way up the ladder. That means surrounding yourself with people who have more experience than you do.
Becoming experienced isn’t a simple binary transition. It’s not as if one day you wake up and are suddenly highly competent at a new skill. Psychology describes four stages of competence, from blissful ignorance and having the wrong intuition, to easily performing a skill with the correct intuition:
- Unconscious incompetence: not knowing what you don’t know, e.g. having no concept that avalanches exist
- Conscious incompetence: being aware of what you don’t know, e.g. knowing that rappelling in climbing is an option but not knowing how to set one up
- Conscious competence: knowing what to do and how to do it but doing so slowly and with concentration
- Unconscious competence: second nature
Interestingly, a lot of armchair judgment in climbing fand skiing can come from those with intermediate levels of experience. When one has a few years of experience, it’s easy enough to cast judgment and condescension onto newbies of the sport who make exactly the same mistakes as those further along the learning curve previously had. (When you get to this stage, you, too, earn the right to be a contemptuous asshole toward novices! Just kidding—but I can guarantee that you will experience attitude if you do this stuff long enough.) At the high end, with notable exceptions of course, many alpinists are humble after been through so many near-misses—or worse. I found Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner to be quite approachable despite her success, perhaps due in some part to the numerous climbing partners she’d lost over the years.
There is no room for ego in the mountains; however, this is more readily preached than practiced. I have spent enough time outside now to see multiple doctors and lawyers spazz out in the backcountry while attempting objectives beyond their abilities. While I don’t mean to single out these professions, they do tend to attract Type A personalities, the kind that doesn’t like to back down from challenges.1 While assertiveness and self-confidence—dare I say ego—may get you quite far in a controlled environment like the city, there are exactly zero substitutes for a long, deliberate apprenticeship in the outdoors. I can sit here and repeat this ad nauseam, though you may not be convinced until you actually experience it—just please think about what you’re doing before getting into trouble. There is also the angle that the long hours required by such professions cut into training time, thus contributing to poor fitness, which is never an asset outside.
“Don’t be an idiot,” writes Phil Tomlinson in the disclaimer to his excellent Mountain Wagon blog, “This shit is dangerous and fucking hard. Learn before you go and remember it’s better to turn around and come back another day than push on and die.” The quickest way to develop competence is to learn from experts. There is no shame in this, as in the case of hiring guides to take you up easy mountains. Everyone has to start somewhere, and it’s certainly not worth your life to cheap out on instruction or gear when it comes to the outdoors.
Mentorship is thus mandatory in outdoor pursuits. There are no substitutes for a long apprenticeship in the outdoors, in which you slowly and deliberately build up your experience, fitness, gear, and level of acceptable risk. It takes years to do this stuff properly.
So You Want to Backcountry Ski?
You might have seen my photos or videos of skiing up and down mountains and across glaciers and want to do likewise.2 Perhaps you yearn to escape the crowds, expense, and often icy conditions of resort downhill skiing and instead slay backcountry powder. A common lament I hear is “I’m a strong enough downhill skier (or snowboarder) and want to get into backcountry skiing but don’t have anyone to go with.” Now that you’ve met me, you’ve got your in…right?
First I need to scare you. Like the slopes you want to ski, the learning curve in backcountry skiing is steep (sorry). As it likely took you years of downhill skiing to slowly build up from skiing the bunny slopes to being able to crush double-black diamond runs without a hint of fear (if you aren’t yet here in your downhill skiing career, please wait until you are as weak ski ability is an underappreciated liability in the backcountry), the learning curve with backcountry skiing can take just as many years—if not quite a few more—to master.
It takes a season or two to figure out your gear. As an overview (and this is by no means comprehensive), the backcountry-skiing learning curve comprises: getting your gear purchased and optimized; learning how to transition your bindings, boots, and skins from ski to walk mode and back efficiently; learning how to assess snowpack stability (decidedly non-trivial); learning how to balance while making kick turns in the uptrack; knowing how to break trail and create good uptracks; practicing your transceiver, probe, and shovel skills in single- and better yet multi-burial situations; getting your clothing layers right; understanding group dynamics and being able to voice your opinion in front of others; and organizing your nutrition. Additional topics include snow-avalanche climatology (knowing the snowpack characteristics in coastal, intermountain, and continental climate zones), wilderness first aid, permit systems like in Canada’s Glacier National Park, glacier travel and crevasse rescue, winter camping, whiteout navigation, and alpine skills like rappelling. To master all of these skills, budget a solid five to eight years. While harder to qualify, developing a strong mental game takes time too.
There is even more bad news when it comes to evaluating avalanche hazard. As I expounded previously, ignorance in the mountains is asking for trouble, but even expert backcountry skiers aren’t immune to triggering avalanches. Snowpack assessment, the topic of many books and courses, takes multiple years to become proficient in, but even then, the binary ski–no-ski decision of an avalanche slope doesn’t always provide immediate, unambiguous feedback: if you ski a slope and it doesn’t avalanche, does that mean that you did your assessment correctly—or did you just get lucky? Conversely, if you determine a slope to look sketchy and thus avoid skiing it, would it necessarily have avalanched if you had skied it? It is often ambiguous with such calls, owing to the complexity of avalanche risk, as Bruce Kay describes in Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch (this is mandatory reading for everyone who backcountry skis; it dives deep into the psychology of group decision-making in avalanche terrain, a fascinating topic that all backcountry skiers should have a basic awareness of):
Avalanche risk is what is termed a “wicked problem.” Every problem encountered is uniquely variable, seldom fully understood and ever-evolving. Positive outcome is critical, yet solution is not conducive to a process of trial and error. Judgements are often made and committed to without adequate validation, and you better get it right because there is no trying again.
Kay describes a time during his work as a ski patroller at Blackcomb when even unambiguous feedback proved misleading:
The last thing to do before opening was to position myself at the top of Showcase Chute, a permanently closed, northeast-facing bowl leeward to the storm winds. A quick look showed a perfectly placed bomb hole that the helicopter crew had delivered an hour previous to an otherwise virgin slope of immaculate powder. It was by design that I found myself there, as Showcase is among the best lines on the mountain and a fitting prize for a job well done before a well deserved breakfast. I dropped in and stopped before committing. As was my habit, I did a quick review of the day’s work, looking for error or cues that I had missed something, that my assessment of good stability was false. Nothing. Skies were blue, snow was fine and I could practically taste the bacon and hash browns.
Then, without thinking, I ski cut to the right. [Ski-cutting is stability test that deliberately tries to safely initiate an avalanche on a suspect slope.] Instantly, a fracture shot a hundred feet in front of my skis and my prize slid away with a hiss. It first went airborne over the first rock band, then loudly roared over the next, finishing dramatically with a big boiling powder cloud filling half the valley below.
Sonuvagun! My control partners joined me on the slope with wide eyes, no longer thinking of breakfast. We muttered a few Hail Marys and then descended the bed surface to survey the damage. A good size 2.5 it was. What was remarkable was that the morning’s bombing hadn’t triggered it. But there you go: a rare but not impossible post-control avalanche. An outlier to the norm. The unforeseen. Bad luck or, as it turned out this time, good luck.
So even if we had the luxury of bombs in the backcountry, absolute avalanche hazard would still be impossible to predict. What I discussed in the last section about becoming unconsciously competent at a new skill and developing intuition doesn’t apply so straightforwardly in snowpack analysis. Even with a high degree of skill, snow can behave in very unintuitive ways. The answer here is risk awareness—knowing the warning signs of avalanche hazard and how best to mitigate it—and applying as healthy a margin for error as reasonably practicable while accepting that risk cannot be completely eradicated.
Still interested in backcountry skiing? My intention here isn’t to scare you off but rather to bring light to what, precisely, you are considering getting yourself into.
There is a waiting list of resort skiers and snowboarders that want me to teach them backcountry skiing. As I’m usually evasive and noncommittal when it comes to making ski plans with someone less experienced, please hear me out with this more nuanced explanation as to why I hesitate to take you skiing. Were we to go out backcountry skiing together, you almost certainly won’t have the gear, fitness, or experience to keep up to me (the importance of fitness in backcountry skiing cannot be overstated: if you are out of shape, backcountry skiing will destroy you; I train almost every day to maintain a high level of cardiovascular fitness for this reason). This can be a compromise for both of us: I get stuck doing something too easy for me and freezing while I wait for you, while you’ll feel guilty for holding me up (this has happened on more occasions than I can count now). This isn’t a great situation in the backcountry in winter as there is usually no nearby hut either of us can go into and wait, nor is splitting up a good idea in avalanche terrain.
I have a crew of backcountry skiers that I have known and skied with for years now—some of whom I have helped mentor—and am not often looking to expand this network, particularly for newbies. There is an unspoken rule among us that newbies—say someone wants to bring a less-experienced friend or significant other—are not permitted without prior screening, as this can throw group dynamics and compromise the overall objective.
A guide once told me that the average Calgarian only gets three days of backcountry skiing each season (I average 30 to 50). Though this may be an unreliable statistic, the point is that you need to have reasonable expectations as to what you’ll be able to ski in the backcountry and when you’ll be able to ski it, starting out as a beginner. Lots of people are keen to learn backcountry skiing, but with the substantial learning curve, not everyone progresses to more advanced levels—at least not at as fast a pace as they envision. It’s not something that can be learned in a day or even a season.
I realize how condescending all of this sounds, that I likely come across as an elitist snob who is too good to ski with you, but I’d rather hurt your feelings than have you actually get hurt on my watch. Given how much I’ve harped on the dangers of ignorance in the outdoors, consider that from my perspective, given a choice, I would unequivocally select more experienced ski partners over newbies any day, thus distancing myself from inexperience. Skiing is unfortunately like trying to get that first post-college job: everyone wants to see five years of experience on your résumé—when all you have is a few months of vaguely related summer internships.
There is some good news, however. While I can’t promise to be your sole mentor on this multi-year apprenticeship beyond the occasional introductory ski day—indeed, I really don’t want to spend many days training you only for you to become disheartened by the learning curve and end up skiing the median three days or less per season—I can promise you this: if your heart really is in it, you will find people to ski and gain experience with. Your ski network will grow in the most organic way possible, starting with a friend or two, then expanding to the point where you have more ski buddies than you can keep tabs on.
If you’re a newbie who wants to tag along with a more experienced ski partner or group, appreciate that it will be on their terms and understand that they are being very accommodating. Be gracious, show up on time, offer gas money, and buy beers. Basically all ski partners will require you to have taken an AST 1 course before going skiing with you. AST 2 is a nice asset too. Guided trips, and Alpine Club intro days are also good ways to gain experience and get connected.
The friendships you’ll make, the adventures you’ll go on, and the way that opportunities to attempt progressively bigger ski objectives will present themselves to you—and they will, given adequate alacrity on your part—are truly fabulous. This is saying nothing of the mental and physical toughness you’ll gain over an extended alpine apprenticeship, the likes of which I have elsewhere only found in army men and women.
Problem-solving in outdoor environments, answering questions such as Is this slope likely to avalanche and kill me? or My shoulder is dislocated, and I’m in a slot canyon outside of Las Vegas—how do I deal with this situation? (this happened to me a few years ago, due to my own foolishness; always get appropriate travel insurance as I did), can change your perspective. For affairs ranging from the inconsequential, such as my earlier example of people spazzing out over coffee-order blunders, to the more crucial, such as managing health-care concerns, backcountry skiing and other alpine pursuits teach a unique brand of pragmatism. Long days in the skin track, managing avalanche hazard and remote outdoor winter conditions over extended distances, can help you to take just about everything else in, ahem, stride too.
Fun Times Outside
These short stories had nowhere else to go, so they are included here to highlight some memorable outdoor experiences from the last few years. Some of them may also connect with this piece’s theme of immature adults.
Get Off My Lawn
The first time I skied Mount Field, my trail-breaking shift ended up being the final push to the summit. Mount Field is an easy one-day ski for those with a solid year or so of backcountry-skiing experience. My party of four had leapfrogged with a group of split-boarders on the ascent, all of us working together to create an uptrack all the way up the mountain. Cutting a fresh uptrack—called breaking trail—is hard work for the leader as his or her skis sink into the snow with each step, while followers can shuffle along with relative ease. Taking turns breaking trail ensures that no one person gets too exhausted compared to other group members (assuming similar fitness levels).
There is an art to creating good uptracks: they are not too steep and make effective use of terrain while managing avalanche hazard. At this time in my backcountry-skiing career, I was still figuring things out. Nonetheless, we had chosen our objective in accordance with the daily avalanche bulletin and gotten an early start.
After exchanging celebratory fist-bumps with the split-boarders when they arrived at the summit, I was offered first tracks down the mountain, an honour usually bestowed to the one who did the most trail-breaking. While I didn’t necessarily do any more trail-breaking than anyone else, my final push to the summit made me the likely candidate for first tracks, which I unhesitatingly indulged.
Skiing down from the summit, I encountered a party of two climbing our uptrack. This is quite routine as following an existing uptrack is much easier than creating your own, and many popular backcountry-ski locations have established uptracks throughout the season due to high traffic (snowfall may partially or completely bury old uptracks, requiring new ones to be made). I stopped to chat with the group of two, an old man and a young woman, as travellers in the backcountry are usually pretty friendly.
“Are you part of the ACC [Alpine Club of Canada]?” the old man demanded without saying, “Hi.”
“What, no, why?” I replied, taken aback by his discourtesy.
“Did you make this uptrack?” the old man continued interrogating.
“Well, yes, I did contribute to parts of it,” I answered, still unsure of where this exchange was going.
“It’s no good: it’s too steep, it wanders all over the place, and in some places it actually goes downhill. What were you thinking, making an uptrack like this?”
At that point a friend in my party arrived on the scene and picked up on the direction that this “discussion” was taking.
When I’m unsure of how to react to something or someone, I usually respond by not reacting. I said nothing.
“You should listen to him,” the old man’s young female ski partner added, “He’s been doing this for thirty years now—wait, actually it might be closer to twenty-five.”
Still nonplussed, I couldn’t think of what to say next. Despite our less-than-perfect uptrack, the old man was clearly butthurt that we had scooped him on the route, and he was now asserting his dominance in front of his young female companion. My mind was struggling to come up with something feeble about how he was welcome to create his own uptrack—when my friend spoke up.
“Well, thirty years of experience, that would be quite respectable. But twenty-five? Come on, that’s really not all that many!”
It was now the old man who was at a loss for words.
The young woman let out a burst of laughter as my friend and I took off down the mountain.
30 Going on 13
A few seasons ago, me and three other thirty-ish-year-olds skied the local Bow-Yoho ski traverse, a mostly horizontal ski across glaciers and other mountainous terrain, usually done over multiple days. This traverse, itself a variation of the very popular Wapta traverse, had become increasingly popular in recent years, and the new Guy hut had just opened, complementing an existing network of five huts in the area (Peyto, Bow, Balfour, Scott Duncan, and Stanley Mitchell huts).
The weather in late spring can still be quite variable, alternating between wonderful bluebird days and active winter storm cycles that deposit a few centimetres of new snow. Our first two days had been relatively uneventful (generally desirable on such trips), with good weather and easy routefinding conditions for our first two nights at Bow and Guy huts.
The day we were to depart the Guy hut, which we ever-so-maturely took to calling the “Gay” hut, and head to Stanley Mitchell hut, now referred to as “S&M” hut, started as a whiteout. While huts must be booked well in advance, inclement weather can delay or otherwise affect intended schedules, so huts are sometimes stuffed beyond their capacity as parties overstay their booking and wait for a more favourable weather window. Staying an unscheduled night at a hut is hardly a cardinal sin and is definitely preferable to getting into trouble. With this in mind, we had no qualms about spending another night at the Guy hut but grew bored with the unimproving conditions and set off mid-morning into white nothingness.
The route began with a ridge descent onto the des Poilus glacier. In a proper whiteout, visibility is reduced to a few metres, and being on the broad, low-angled, snow-covered des Poilus glacier felt like being inside a ping-pong ball. You could see nothing. I’ve unintentionally skied off a couple of (fortunately) small wind lips in whiteouts now—you really can’t see anything beyond your ski tips.
I took the front position for this section, responsible for routefinding, and picked my way slowly down the low-angled ramp formed by the glacier. I had my phone GPS app to use but no exact tracks to follow. According to the map, the glacier gradually descends down to a lake, where the route then forks into two different options: a more direct route up and over Isolated Col, or a flatter, lengthier route around a feature known as the Whaleback.
Skiing slowly in the whiteout, I could start to see something ahead—a wide, fairly flat horizontal shape. Inching my way forward at this point, the shape became clear: a cliff! I was standing on top of the 10-metre cliff formed where the glacier calved off into the lake below. Regrouping, we roped up. Skiing downhill while roped up for glacier travel is incontrovertibly cumbersome and awkward, but this tradeoff is preferable to someone skiing off a cliff. Needing to get around the cliff and down to the lake, we had a choice between left and right. We chose right (west) arbitrarily as it was a 50:50 chance of choosing the best option. (On a later summer trip in same the area with much better visibility, it became clear that left/east would have been a slightly easier option.) We made it down to the frozen lake without further incident.
The going was slow as the whiteout continued. Gradually we followed the drainage from the lake down into treeline (the Whaleback route), where whiteout navigation was much easier as trees gave texture and depth. There was a day-old skin track in this section of the route that we followed to Stanley Mitchell hut. Along the way, we crossed a large path of avalanche debris, including hundreds of toppled old-growth trees, many of them snapped like matchsticks. Old trees in avalanche debris is an indication that avalanches in such areas occur very rarely, allowing trees to grow tall in the absence of avalanche activity over multiple decades. Earlier in the winter, an historic avalanche cycle had affected much of the Rockies, with large, destructive avalanches wiping out many hectares of old-growth forest. Conditions had appeared to stabilize for our trip, though we were wary of a large cornice overhanging part of the Whaleback route and didn’t linger underneath it. At no point during the day did the storm relent. We made it safely to Stanley Mitchell hut around dinner time.
Also staying at the hut was a guided group organized by a local Alpine Club chapter. It was their day-old skin track along the Whaleback that we found. They numbered about 15, including a ski guide, apprentice ski guide, hut coordinator to help with cooking, and paying clients, many of whom had flown in from the States.
It was at this point in the trip that the effects on our GI systems of multiple days of eating sugary junk, pepperoni sticks, and dehydrated food started becoming evident. In a word: gas. Similar to the increasing relaxation of digestive sphincters, so, too, did verbal filters progressively soften.
Farting became celebrated. Indicating for everyone nearby to shush up in anticipation of something important about to be said often preceded the decidedly audible release of pent-up gas. Better yet, let one rip mid-sentence and see who could keep a straight face. In the city, this might seem juvenile, but after three days in the wilderness, it was pure delight. Dinner-table discussion included waffle stomping, the act of stomping feces down shower drains.
After enough well-timed farts, I asked one of my friends if he regularly practices due to his prodigious ability to deliver farts on demand. His response was an anecdote: one day he had been hanging out with an ex and her dad (one stops questioning how such situations arise after a while) when he let out a high-pitched squeaker of a fart. Her dad responded in kind with a lower-pitched rumbler and the calming wisdom that “One day your butthole will loosen up too, son.”
One of my friends chirped a client in the guided group wearing a camouflage outfit: “Look, the army’s in the house!” It turns out that they actually were army fatigues. Mercifully, there was no ass-kicking involved.
Even with female representation on this trip, fart jokes maintained their dominion in our conversation. The one woman’s brother had recently left the country to become a dairy farmer with his new wife overseas (they met while he was travelling). It was to be a permanent departure as, right before leaving, he bought two new pairs of skis on a credit card that would never be paid off. Leading up to the departure, he had been living with his sister and her husband, and she observed that whenever she left for long enough, the two men degenerated into grunting at eachother while playing video games without pants.
We discussed ski conditions with the guides. To their clients it was presumably a clashing disparity to see us intelligently converse about snowpack conditions and routefinding after spending the last two hours behaving like belligerent teenagers. I felt vindicated: guides—either my own or those guiding other groups—have often shown me condescension, but with experience comes respect.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for many of the paying clients. They had traveled great distances, often from places nowhere near mountains, and needed the services of certified ski guides to safely undertake this multi-day, hut-based ski trip. Not so long ago did I myself enlist the services of ski guides, before taking my apprenticeship into my own hands.
My perspective has changed: what was once—and still is to many—a singular, grandiose mountain adventure, has become a local, extended-weekend outing, now with its share of poop jokes.
We skied out after two nights at Stanley Mitchell hut, completing our traverse, and bought cheeseburgers.
A Creepy Tenant
On top of Black Rock Mountain in the Ghost wilderness area there is an old fire lookout. Built in 1928, it has been abandoned for a number of decades now. Black Rock lies at the very eastern edge of the Canadian Rocky mountains and offers quite excellent views of the front ranges, foothills, and prairies, with skyscrapers in downtown Calgary (about 100 km away) visible on a clear day.
After spending a mostly sleepless, windy night on the summit in April 2016, I was nonetheless delighted with the photographic opportunities of the fire lookout and returned in May 2017 to shoot engagement photos for some friends. Our idea was to hike up before the sunset, spend the night, and wake up in time for sunrise, thus getting two instances of golden hour to take photos.
Upon reaching the old fire lookout at sundown, we found an open, mostly eaten can of beans, among other trash in the dilapidated old building. No windows remained, nor did the roof provide complete coverage from rain, though we had scheduled a rain-free night for the purpose of the photos. My friends, the couple, crawled into a shared, sealed bivy sac, a cocoon from which they weren’t to emerge until the following morning. I set up my sleeping bag on an air mattress, without giving a second thought as to who might have been eating the beans.
Higher-end headlamps used in outdoor applications offer a red-light mode in addition to a white lamp. Such headlamps can be selectively switched from bright white light to a dim red light, which can help maintain your pupil dilation and thus night vision while not blinding anyone else in close quarters, such as in a tent or backcountry hut. As anyone who has tried falling asleep in a crammed hut while some gumby haphazardly blasts the room with bright white eye-scorching rays can attest, red-light headlamps are indeed a clever backcountry innovation.
A rustling sound began a few minutes after I crawled into my sleeping bag in the fire lookout. Having dealt with mice in dodgy student rental houses before, I knew exactly what this sound meant; however, not anticipating critters this far above tree-line, I had left my food in a waterproof dry bag on the floor.
I switched on my headlamp—in red-light mode, naturally—and crawled out of my sleeping bag and suspended my food bag from the roof. My friends’ food was also secure off the floor. Thinking this would deter any further scavenging from critters, I crawled back into my sleeping bag.
Not two minutes later, the rustling resumed. This time it was coming from my backpack, stashed in a corner, lying on top of my hiking boots.
Switching on my headlamp again, I once again crawled out of my sleeping bag and walked a few paces over to the corner where my backpack lay.
I lifted up my pack, and, staring back at me—in diabolical red illumination thanks to my headlamp—was a packrat, every bit as large as one of my US-size-12-men’s hiking boots. His beady eyes looked especially demonic in the dim red glow, and his corpulence was clearly the result of him gorging on trash left by others.
Whaaaah. I threw my backpack at him, empty of food but not of heavy camera gear, and he scampered away.
I hung my boots and backpack from the ceiling, leaving exactly nothing on the floor except my sleeping pad.
For the third and final time that night, I crawled into my sleeping bag and switched off my headlamp.
Light and Fast
In May 2014 I went on a climbing trip to Squamish, BC, with two friends. We spent the first few days working on some easy single-pitch trad climbs and bouldering, slowly learning to trust Squamish’s grippy, solid granite, which was an entirely refreshing experience compared to polished, chossy Bow Valley limestone.
Trad climbing, short for “traditional” climbing, involves the use of removable pieces of gear that fit into various weaknesses in the rock like cracks.3 There are quite a few different pieces of removable gear that can be used, so, not knowing exactly which pieces to use, we had brought everything: a set of Metolius micro cams, Black Diamond Camalot cams up to size 4, nuts, hexes, a few tricams, and at least 10 alpine draws. Our gear was an amalgamation of another climber’s old track rack and some of our own additions.
On the final day of the trip, we decided to attempt an easy multi-pitch trad climb, Banana Peel, rated at 5.7. I remember seeing an online report about a dad who had taken his two daughters up the climb. We figured that if they could do it, so could we. Though it’s a popular route, no other parties were climbing it when we arrived at the start in the morning.
With our party of three, two half-ropes, and extensive trad rack, we started the climb. The first few pitches ascended a relatively low-angle slab (around 40°), which was climbed by smearing flat-footed against the rock using friction. My friends alternated leads, exchanging many pounds of gear at each belay station, while I was happy to be belayed up on top-rope.
We stitched our way up the route, placing gear as frequently as possible, and clipping at least one fixed bolt.
After the second 5.7 crux (pitch 6), the climb ascends some water runnels toward the finish. Sitting at the anchor station with my one friend, both of us carefully paying out rope to our leader as he slowly made his way up higher, we heard a voice.
“Hey guys. Do you think your leader will mind if I pass him?”
A young man, similar in age to the three of us, had just then reached the anchor station. Typically, upon reaching the anchor station on a multi-pitch climb, a climber will attach themselves to the anchor (creating it out of gear if necessary) via a carabiner connected to his or her harness (known as a personal anchor) and then set up a top-rope belay for his or her climbing partner—only this young man didn’t have a harness, rope, or climbing partner.
With no gear beside approach shoes, a chalk bag, and headphones, this man was free-soloing the route, as insouciantly as someone out for an afternoon jog.
“Go ahead,” we told the soloist, unsure of the protocol in this situation and whether or not to shout a heads-up to our leader.
The soloist made his way past our leader without incident, his light-and-fast approach contrasting ever-so-conspicuously to our leader’s jangling hardware store of gear.
An Alternative Super Bowl Sunday
On Super Bowl Sunday in February a few years ago, I went ice climbing with a friend, Franz we’ll call him. He had been ice climbing lots and had become quite good at leading steeper ice. Our objective was to climb A Bridge Too Far, a four-pitch ice climb in Kananaskis Country.
The first pitch—the crux—usually goes at WI 4+, a ten-metre step of near-vertical ice.4 As backcountry skiing has been my primary winter outdoor pursuit for a while now, my ice climbing sucks, and I was quite happy to have a stronger partner to rope-gun me up something that I wouldn’t be able to lead.
Franz, a built European with a slight gut, had become the strongest ice climber in my outdoor circle. We made fun of him for eating too much strudel—though he regularly professed to not liking or eating it—a joke no one remembers starting but that got progressively, er, sweeter, the more we beat it to death. “One day he ate too much strudel and could no longer fit into his lederhosen,” we teased.
We hiked in the relatively short approach only to find another party of two already on the first pitch (the bane of climbers everywhere), an older couple. As the next pitches were separated by some horizontal distance from the first one, thereby reducing the hazard of falling ice from above,5 we decided to wait for the first party to finish climbing the first pitch before starting up it ourselves.
Franz led the first pitch without much trouble. He disappeared over the bulge at the top of the vertical ice—often transitioning from vertical ice to flat ice is the crux in ice climbing—and kept going. We had two 60-metre ropes, which I kept paying out with my belay device. Franz kept climbing, and I watched as the remaining rope dwindled down to a few metres—and then ran out completely.
I was tied into both rope ends, but Franz was still climbing and hadn’t yet set up a top-rope belay. He had climbed the full 60 m of both ropes—and was still climbing. Way further up the waterfall, Franz was well out of earshot, so we couldn’t communicate. This wasn’t the first time that I’d been unable to communicate with my climbing partner, and we both knew that the procedure in such situations is for the leader to reach or build an anchor, then set up a top-rope belay to bring up the second climber. As the second climber, you wait until the anchor is complete and the belay established by feeling the rope connected to your harness gently being tugged upward.
Now that my belay device wasn’t doing anything since there were exactly zero additional metres of available rope to let out, I grabbed my ice tools and started swinging.
Fortunately, after about 1 metre of ascent on some low-angle approach ice, the rope tension relaxed. Franz had found an anchor. Within a few minutes, he had set up a belay, and I felt the rope being gently pulled upward, my sign to start climbing.
Again, I’m still a greenhorn ice climber, so I had to work to get up the vertical WI4+ wall, even on toprope. Swing, kick, kick. Repeat. Try not to swing or kick too hard—I’d previously lost the toenail game by bashing my feet into ice too aggressively, a rookie mistake that I wasn’t about to repeat.
I made it over the bulge just as some passing clouds moved beyond the sun, allowing its rays to warm me, a delightful reward for making it up the pitch. Past the crux, I climbed some easy wandering ice up to Franz’s tree belay.
We waited for the other couple to finish climbing the upper pitches. At one point, Franz was approaching a tree-anchor already in use by the other couple. The man suggested that Franz make his own anchor—which is entirely possible using two or three ice screws but not nearly as convenient as slinging a tree—though Franz “respectfully” declined as the other party was about to vacate the tree-anchor.
The other party topped out and rappelled back down the same way. Now with the route to ourselves, we in turn topped out and started to rappel back down.
After rappelling back down to our bigger packs, I offered Franz some of my energy bar. He declined on the grounds that he didn’t eat junk food anymore and instead bit into a Safeway Lumberjack sandwich. When I inquired as to the inspiration behind this new diet—expecting him to want an end to the strudel taunting—he explained that his girlfriend had convinced him that type of a calorie was actually important. He’d been skeptical, believing that a calorie is a calorie, whether from sugar, protein, fat or carbohydrates. After finally relenting to her pressure, however, he’d eliminated junk food from his diet—and lost a few pounds of fat to his own surprise. “If I’d known this ten years ago,” he concluded, “I would have fucked so many more girls.”
Despite waiting for the other party during the climb, we made it back to the city in good time. I showed up for snacks with my family just in time for the fourth period of the big game, when somebody had just struck out, and the score was 30-Love or something.
A Quiet Romantic Getaway
On a summer weekend morning a number of years ago now, a few friends and I were gearing up for a trad climb on the front side of Mount Yamnuska in the parking lot around 9 AM. The parking lot was also used by hikers as Yamnuska is a very popular scramble (a non-technical climb), and it was just starting to get busy with day-trippers from Calgary, including a number of young families and hiking groups.
An unoccupied black car remained almost exactly in the middle of the narrow, one-way parking lot. The car, a junky, small, modded import, had been hastily painted black all over in a Batmobile-esque manner—not the typical car that you’d expect among weekend hikers or dirtbag climbers. The owner had clearly forgotten to pull the handbrake or leave it in gear (it was a manual transmission), and it had rolled a few metres backward from its original parking spot.
A steady stream of cars were now arriving in the parking lot, which frequently overflows with parked cars on sunny summer weekends, so an enterprising group of middle-aged hikers made their way over to the car in an effort to locate its owner.
In a small clearing just to the side of the parking lot was a tent, covered in an opaque rain fly.
One of the hikers approached the tent and asked, “Hey, is anyone in there? If you drove the black car, could you come out and move it as it has rolled out into the middle of the parking lot.”
Enough time passed that it looked like the tent was empty. The hiker walked back to his group—when the fly suddenly unzipped from the inside. Somebody was home, after all.
Out of the tent emerged a high-school-aged boy, who had some serious product in his hair, and his skinny blond bae.
She stepped to the side as the group of hikers, my friends and I, and numerous other onlookers watched the young man self-consciously walk toward his car. His plans for a quiet getaway with his date had been derailed by the masses of hikers arriving in the parking lot—and now he had to deal with the embarrassment of his car blocking traffic.
Firing up the engine, he roared it in a last-ditch effort to save face in front of his girl as he pulled forward the two metres into his original parking spot.
He made sure to pull the hand brake this time.
A few years ago I took the vacant spot of someone who could no longer make a ski trip to Wheeler and Asulkan huts in Rogers Pass. One friend and I skied near Wheeler hut and stayed there a few nights before the day came that we were to head farther up the valley to the Asulkan cabin, which is usually booked solid many months in advance.
Touchy avalanche hazard and stormy winter conditions—suggesting whiteout navigation and all its associated fun—gave us ample reason to waffle over attempting to ski in to Asulkan or to bail and go elsewhere.
At some point, my friend or I—nobody remembers who now—made a seemingly innocuous comment about how bailing wouldn’t be a terrible option:
“If we can’t get in to the Asulkan cabin, we could go and get some nachos!”
A skier in the only other party at Wheeler hut that day made the unfortunate mistake of laughing at this, so my friend and I were left with no other option but to repeat it after everything that we said like obnoxious five-year-olds.
“We may not get to spend tonight at Asulkan, but we are going to go get NACHOS!”
“Though it’s too sketchy to ski any steep, open terrain, it isn’t too sketchy to go eat NACHOS!”
“This ski trip hasn’t been a total bust because soon enough we’ll have NACHOS!”
We bailed on going in to Asulkan, as did the other party of four. Before heading back down the roughly 1 km trail to the parking lot, the driver in the other party double-checked that he had his car keys before leaving the hut—only they were nowhere to be found.
Emptying the main, outer, and top compartments of the driver’s backpack and searching all his clothing pockets yielded no car keys. We tore apart the entire hut, a large enough space that can hold up to 30 people, which was fortunately empty of people and gear, but still found no keys. There is cellular reception at Wheeler hut—if you stand in the right place and perform the correct signal-boosting dance, that is—so the driver called up one of the Calgary Subaru dealers and was discussing his options for getting an outrageously expensive new key. I had room in my car and offered to drive someone to Golden or Calgary if necessary. My friend and I waited for the other party to decide what they were going to do so as to not leave them SOL without a drivable car in winter.
Finally, someone had the brainwave to check the hip belt in the driver’s backpack. Many larger backpacks have small zippered compartments in the waist belt, good for securely and accessibly storing small items like cell phones and snacks—or in this case car keys. Naturally, they’d been right in front of us the whole time, after an hour of searching.
With the key fiasco resolved, my friend and I left the hut.
“Ready to go yet? It’s time to get some NACHOS!”
We drove to Golden that afternoon and bought dim sum.
Just kidding. We bought nachos, obviously.
Me, in a later text: Hahaha maybe this is where the nachos joke came from!
Friend: Or this one… haha.
As I’ve alluded to previously, the outdoors can be a great place for deep, meaningful conversation. We discuss sophisticated topics, maintaining a high standard of respect and political correctness, 100% of the time, without fail.
Me: Male bears have been known to eat their own bear cubs. They knock up a female bear, don’t participate in the upbringing of their own offspring, and then eat their own cubs as a snack. That’s just rude!
Friend: It gives whole new meaning to the phrase “Having a bun baking in the oven,” doesn’t it?
Friend, as we tried to find the Playground dry-tooling crag on Grotto Mountain for the first time: I sure hope we find this stupid crag soon. Otherwise, this has been a long fucking hike to fucking fuck.
Me, chirping a friend for prioritizing his job over outdoor fun, to another friend as we all planned a backcountry ski day together: The rare beast known as [Friend 1] is rumoured to be making an appearance on this trip.
Friend 2: I know! I’m bringing a camera.
Friend, texting me about an early season ski day, in which I used my rock skis, a crappy old pair of Rossignol B3 skis: How was the ski?
Me: Let’s just say that my skis got B3at.
Me, getting all philosophical on risk, loss, reward, and living: That’s where the title of One Day as a Tiger [John Porter’s book subtitled Alex Macintyre and the Birth of Light and Fast Alpinism that describes the life of Alex Macintyre, an aspiring British alpinist who died at 28 while attempting a new route on Annapurna] comes from: “It’s better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.”
Friend, without missing a beat: I mean, I suppose it depends on which Welsh farmer is fucking you.
Me: You should write your own philosophy book some day.6
In late spring one year we attempted to ski Miner’s/Town Gulley near Canmore. We bootpacked up the Ha Ling hiking trail, then strapped on our skis to drop into the gulley. Despite relatively low avalanche hazard according to the bulletin, the snowpack cracked—a major warning sign for slope instability—when our first skier made his second turn. He climbed back out of the gulley, and we bailed back down the hiking trail, a terrible non-ski down.
Friend 1, as we were eating bagels in Canmore after our unsuccessful ski, on the restaurant’s ambience: Ugh, I just hate the sound of screaming babies. (To Friend 2, a French Catholic, from a large family:) You probably have a boner right now. French-Catholic freaks!
Friend 1, in an email chain organizing photos from a trip: thanks guys. russ you got some great shots with your gigantic lens haha.
Friend 2: The bigger the tool, the better it is, right?
Friend 1: that’s just common sense.
Me: Just make sure you don’t cut yourselves when viewing my pics. As far as glass goes, that’s a sharp lens.
Friend 1: [Friend 4] approves of your pun, again!
Me: What can I say? I like stuff that’s cutting edge.
Friend 2: sigh…
Me: Aw c’mon. This has been a slice!7
Friend 1, in an email chain planning a trad climb up Grillmair’s Chimney on Yamnuska: Are we then climbing on your halfs [half ropes, as opposed to single ropes]?
Friend 2: Yes… I guess you could say it is Half Time.
Friend 3: puns are russ’s and only russ’s specialty.
Me: Yes, only I’m allowed to do that. Now take a two-minute penalty.
Friend 2: Wow I wasn’t expecting to Russell so many feathers here
Me: “Ruffle?” That’s a loose malapropism. I usually go right for the classier homonym pun. Often imitated, never duplicated.
Friend 1: Cam we get back to the more important discussion about gear, or are you guys just gonna sit around and compare your nuts?
Friend 3: russ, you now have campetition.
Friend 2: You can’t just sling your puns around like that, [Friend 3]. You have to anchor them within an otherwise sensible sentence.
Friend 3: hahaha. i got nothing. hats off to you.
Me: Yes, lettuce get this conversation back on track. If that doesn’t strike a cord with you guys, we won’t be able to harness any focus.
Friend 2: I feel like this conversation is on the ropes. We aimed high with it but hit the Vertical Limit.
Friend 1: You’re going to kill the joke! Cut the puns!
(Nuts, cams, slings, cord, harnesses and anchors are all used in trad climbing.)
Friend, in a detailed planning email for our Victoria, Lefroy, and Huber attempt:
- 4 - Lunches
- 1 - Trail mix and/or nuts
- 1 - Granola bars
- 1 - Candy or Cliff Shots
- 1 - Pepperoni/Cheese Slices (protein)
- 1 - Flask o’ Something
- Tea & Coffee
- Don’t bring Bitch sauce! We are climbing Mt. Victoria this time not hiking to Aster Lake.
(We had previously bailed on a Joffre attempt due to rain and ended up not leaving our base camp at Aster Lake, despite our friend’s claim that it was “bluebird.” Thereafter stormy days were referred to as bluebird.)
Friend 1, in a group chat planning a winter ski ascent of Mount Joffre:
I woke up this morning with a cold. I am going to see how I feel tomorrow morning but there is a high chance of my stubbornness outweighing logical thought even if I feel worse. That being said you may not want to share a tent with me, does anyone have an extra winter tent?
What about a summit of Cordonnier as well? It’s on the same ridge and is rated an easy scramble in the summer with mild, brief exposure. Thoughts?
In the meantime I will be drinking lots of tea and sticking ginger and echinecea up my butt to get better. That’s how you do it right?
Friend 2: should work
Friend 1: the summit of Cordonnier or ginger butt plugs?
Friend 2: either or. will the ginger butt plugs make your farts less rank? because that would be ideal
Friend 1: unlikely
Friend 2: well shit
Friend 1: exactly…
Friend 1, in a group chat: Hey all. Time for another rope workshop. After conversations with [Friend 2] and [Friend 3], it seems like one thing we really need to focus on is anchor building and multipitch transitions. So. Let’s practice this stuff. U of C climbing gym, Thursday, at 6 PM. Let’s also bring a few ropes so we’re not monopolizing the climbing gym’s ropes. Beers at the LDL [Last Defence Lounge] to follow.
Also bring a prussik cord, some locking biners, and a reverso-style belay device
Me: I’m in
Friend 4: [Friend 5] and I are in Whistler. Any chance we could do wednesday? Otherwise we’ll catch up with you guys next time.
Friend 1: Wednesday is possibly an option for me if it works for everyone else
Friend 3: Yeah should be OK for me
Me: Wednesday is good for me as well. I’ll probably climb Thursday too
Friend 1: so let’s do wednesday instead then
Friend 4: awesome, thanks guys!
Friend 6: Can’t make wednesdays, see you next time!
Friend 4: look what I’ve done…
Friend 3: Typical [Friend 4]
Friend 1: What a dick
Friend 4: guys, I’m right here
Friend 1: Quick guys, use bigger words so [Friend 4] can’t follow the conversation
Friend 2: can’t make wednesday. you need to book me at least a week in advance with my secretary.
Friend 3: … I have a name [Friend 2]
Friend 2: there is a difference between chum and secretary. how many times do i have to tell you that? there is a reason why you haven’t made the leap from chum to secretary.
Friend 1: It’s spelled with a “p,” [Friend 2]
Friend 6: secretaryp?
Friend 3: Hahhaa I think [Friend 6] wins
Friend 2: what am i? a secretary? i can’t be bothered with proper spelling all the time.
Friend 1, a few years ago when mobile-dating app Tinder was becoming the talk of the town: What is this “Tinker” thing that I keep hearing about?
Friend 2: Yes, we are absolutely calling it Tinker from now on!
Friend 3: Sometimes when you’re bored, you just need to go and Tinker a little bit!
Friend: I need to sharpen these crampons.
Me: You make a good point.
Friend: Dull crampons aren’t my first pick.
Me: That’s one to file for later.
Friend 1: When I become a dad, every one of my jokes will be a dad joke.
Friend 2: Yes, it’s becoming quite a-parent. You really shouldn’t take your jokes any father.
Friend, examining an AirBNB’s spice collection: “Non-salt” salt? It says that it’s made of potassium chloride. Isn’t that still technically a salt?
Me: I think it’s assault when you hit someone.
Friend: Did you hear about the climber who fell and lost the left half of his body?
Me: Let me guess—he was all right?
Friend: There wasn’t much left. He’s a bit one-sided now.
Friend 1, referring to a black leather bill-fold: Whose wallet is this? It’s a dude wallet, but none of the guys have claimed it. It’s certainly not [Friend 2, the only girl on the trip]’s.
Friend 2, girl: Oh, there’s my wallet!
Friend, digging through his top-loading backpack: We’re starting with our climbing skins on, like basically every ski tour ever. Naturally, my skins are at the bottom of my backpack, and I’ve got to take everything out to get them.
Me: I guess you should have thought more than skin deep.
Like I said, nothing but classy, intelligent conversation.
How to Find Out What to Do With Your Life
Throughout my twenties, I have had a few different careers. Immediately after high school, I completed a degree in civil engineering in four years. My first full-time job was working as a structural engineer on an oil-sands project for a large company. With no disrespect to those that work in this industry, it was not for me. Then I tried scientific research, working on a Master’s of Science in Biomedical Engineering. While this had a slightly more flexible schedule than the corporate world (where every single hour was tracked), the slow pace of research was challenging to get excited about. In my free time, I have learned outdoor and wedding photography, web design, writing, basic stock-market investing, and outdoor pursuits—all fields that do offer career opportunities. I thought that by my mid-twenties I would have established my career trajectory—and would most certainly have been on track by the old age of 30.
Gone are the days of getting hired by one company and working there for your entire career. Us millenials will likely work for a number of different companies, organizations, or clients throughout our careers, perhaps including some drastic industry changes.
How do you find out which career or industry to pursue?
This is a topic that could easily be another essay all by itself—see Tim Urban’s Wait But Why article How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You)—though I wanted to include a few brief ideas here to inspire other career searchers.
I worked through the brilliant The Story Of My Work process, run by Wayne Jones here in Calgary. The idea is that to do good work, you must find your core motivating factors—things that motivate you at a deeply fundamental level. Furthermore, these answers can already be found in your own life stories, without requiring radical soul-searching like traipsing across exotic foreign lands à la Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love.
You start with stories of accomplishments in your life that are meaningful to you, the things that you talk about when telling stories to other people. They can be things you believed you did well, you enjoyed doing, and gave you a sense of satisfaction or achievement, but not achievements that were important to others but not you.
My stories included backcountry skiing and outdoor pursuits; writing; photography; and web/graphic design, including my annual calendars.8 There was little in the way of science or engineering.
These stories were then assessed using the MCORE software, an online survey-based assessment tool that “scientifically identifies your motivations in seconds,” to determine my motivational blueprint. My top three motivating factors and a description of each are summarized below:
- Make it Right
You are motivated to do things the “right” way. You want to consistently follow certain standards and principles that you bring to all your efforts and involvements. You refer to these standards as guides as you progress through a job, assignment, responsibility, or creative activity. In your mind, the success and/or validity of your own work and the work of the people around you is measured by how well it matches the right way. The standards you adhere to may be learned and commonly acknowledged criteria of correctness, propriety, or excellence in your profession, your trade or the society in general. There is probably a quality of permanence to them, and people in your realm of activity show a common respect for them. On occasion you may develop ideals that are exclusively your own and calculated to serve as an expression of your individuality and distinctiveness. With maturity the way you define what is right will likely grow more complex and creative, particularly as you work with a wide variety of people.
You enjoy being involved in efforts in which people work together for a common purpose. You want to be part of a team or group, to participate in its activities, and to contribute in some way to its success. You may be attracted to and seek to join groups that reflect your own values and/or interests or support causes you believe to be worthwhile. It is possible, on the other hand, that you adopt as your own the goals and identity of the group in which you seek to belong. In either case, you want to play an active role in furthering the interests of the group or organization and to help it to realize its objectives. Your satisfaction comes in knowing that you are accepted by the group and that your participation in it and what you have to offer are needed and important.
Your motivation is satisfied when you are able to gain complete command of a skill, subject, procedure, technique, or process. You want your knowledge, execution, or control over the intricacies and details involved to be flawless. The focus of your attention may be a sales technique, production procedure, or a core method employed in a trade or craft. You might want to master a sport like golf, tennis, or skiing9. It could be that you concentrate on the principles behind an engineering problem or on some economic, scientific, or philosophical concept. You may seek command over a system, the variables of a process, or the various elements of a multi-faceted job responsibility. It may be some element of your character or your nature that you seek to perfect. In any case, your achievements are full of such examples. Your thinking and talents are oriented toward mastery, your goals toward perfection.10
In short, I like to do things properly, preferably with equally highly qualified collaborators, and I absolutely love acquiring new skills and becoming proficient at them in short order.
Russell is a talented, educated guy who is keen to do good work, but disillusioned about finding something truly engaging. He has enjoyed hobby pursuits like photography and backcountry skiing, but has struggled to engage his passion within a working field.
In everything he does, Russell brings a strong analytical and creative posture to master and excel at the subject. With such a strong skill set, why did his varied work options seem like such a grind?
We identified together that Russell’s stories revolve around him creating products and mastering and iterating the design and function of the final goal. …
Russell needs to place himself in engineering or technology environments where he can build, design and develop with quicker iteration timeframes. He would be fantastic at creating software/products that require design, beauty, lots of learning, and will result in an end product. …
Russell will get stuck if there is not a creative element to his job, if he does not have a team to bounce ideas off and there is not a chance to learn and master new sets of skills. He wants to create products to show, not reports.
In his oft-cited 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, Steve Jobs asserts that truly good work can only come out of a deep love for doing it, echoing this idea of finding work that aligns with your fundamental motivations:
Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.
In my own words:
Working through The Story of My Work process I came to deeply understand the underlying reasons behind what motivates me to do good work—and became better at articulating these reasons. Specifically, I discovered that I am motivated to create beautiful things, by myself or with other skilled collaborators, while achieving mastery of the skills involved in creation. Creating a tangible result is a strong motivator for me—something that was missing in a former corporate role.
I came to realize that many of the jobs that previously sounded appealing to me had only a superficial attraction (lucrative, prestigious, or flexible schedules). I learned to consider potential career options from different angles such as geographic location, schedule, lifestyle, and corporate environment and how to think about which of these aspects to prioritize. …
I gained a lot of clarity through the whole process of thinking about stories and achievements in my own life, writing these out, analyzing them, and discussing them one-on-one.
The Story of My Work gave me some good ideas on careers that could appeal to me, that might not have occurred to me earlier in my twenties.
Like all kids with decent grades in high school and undergraduate studies, medicine appealed to me as a career. It still does on occasion11—though I can’t help but wonder if I’d become bored after mastering the learning curve of whichever area I’d choose to study. Edmonton-trained Drs. Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka left careers in medicine to create video-games, prioritizing “creativity and storytelling,” ultimately founding BioWare. Writer-surgeon Atul Gawande describes in his book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, how surgeon Barry Lang switched careers at the age of 50 to become a malpractice lawyer:
For twenty-three years, he had a successful practice as an orthopedic surgeon, with particular expertise in pediatric orthopedics. He’d even served as an expert witness on behalf of other surgeons. Then, in a turnabout, he went to law school, gave up his medical practice, and embarked on a new career suing doctors. …
He entered law practice, he said, because he thought he’d be good at it, because he thought he could help people, and because, after twenty-three years in medicine, he was burning out. “It used to be ‘Two hip replacements today—yay!’ ” he recalled. “Then it became ‘Two hip replacements today—ugh.’ ”
When I spoke to his wife, Janet, she said that his decision to change careers shocked her. From the day she met him, when they were undergraduates at Syracuse University, in New York, he’d never wanted to be anything other than a doctor. After medical school in Syracuse and an orthopedics residency at Temple University in Philadelphia, he had built a busy orthopedics practice in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and led a fulﬁlling and varied life. Even when he enrolled in night classes at Southern New England School of Law, a few blocks from his ofﬁce, she didn’t think anything of it. He was, as she put it, “forever going to school.” One year, he took English literature classes at a local college. Another year, he took classes in Judaism. He took pilot lessons and before long was entering airplane aerobatics competitions. Law school, too, began as another pastime—“It was just for kicks,” he said. (92–93)
The Boston Globe reports that Lang changed careers “simply because he had run out of things to learn about.”
Certainly, I can cherry-pick examples such as these to show that not everyone who studies medicine ultimately spends their careers working in it. My point isn’t to knock medicine or those who wish to pursue careers in it, but instead to suggest that, despite attractions like prestige and the paycheque, medicine isn’t the only career choice for talented people. There can be other options that align with your core motivating factors.
With all of this in mind, I’m going to try to working in software development next. Software has an ongoing learning curve that would keep me interested, instead of being a skill that, once mastered, could become routine and repetitive. The web development work that I have done, such as this website, has been rather enjoyable, and there seems to be strong demand for web and software developers these days. The possibility for remote work is enticing too. Then I’ll do my absolute best to follow aforementioned Mr. Money Mustache’s strategy and see how just how few more years I actually need to work.
They say your twenties are for finding yourself. Here’s what I have found: I absolutely love being outside and have been truly blessed to explore the mountains in ways that few ever get to. Photography and perhaps now writing are my preferred means to share these experiences. I hope to inspire others to be physically active or to go on adventures that they might not otherwise undertake—with the proper training and preparation, that is. Seriously, start out small and work your way up as one ignorant move could be your last.
The mountains are a source of inspiration to me and many others. They are the main subject of my photography and frequent topics I discuss in conversation or writing. It can be challenging to articulate why “mountains [are] so powerful and inspirational,” but alpinist Renan Ozturk offers his thoughts in an interview in the Winter 2017/18 issue of Coast Mountain Culture:
I don’t know if it’s something that you can describe. I think that’s the question everyone wants to know the answer to. If you could answer it, I think many of us would be without a job. That’s what we all try to do, and you always feel like you just scratch the surface. You try to paint it. You try to climb up there. You endure to catch it with a picture or with a virtual reality camera and make films about it and all of those things: they’re just the beginning of trying to explain it. It’s endless. That’s why it’s kind of cool, because it’s an endless well of inspiration. It’s always changing and coupled by the cultures and interactions, with so many stories there. That’s why it can get stressful, because you can only do so much. (100)
Spending time outside is a means of both experiencing adventure in perhaps its most genuine form and of building resilience that can apply to other facets of our lives. Maurice Herzog famously concluded Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak with “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men,” calling his readers to step up to life’s challenges, a message that remains pertinent so many decades later. I would argue that with all of today’s wonderful luxuries—accessible food, high technology, digital entertainment—those that actively pursue outdoor adventures lead much more interesting lives than otherwise. Only try not to let it get to your head if you do become experienced in outdoor pursuits as nobody likes arrogance, and keep in mind that not everyone is fortunate enough to have the good health or financial means to go outside.
As with my last ultra-long-form essay, this one took quite a few months to write and refine, and I loved every bit of it. This format helps me to get my own thoughts organized, and I write these as much for myself as for those of you that actually read these essays all the way through—thanks for hanging in there if you have! Writing is very much an introspective process, one that can shine new light on old experiences, as Philip Yancey describes in his book Soul Survivor, in the context of Dutch priest Henri Nouwen’s writing:
“Somehow I believed that writing was one way to let something of lasting value emerge from my little, quickly passing life,” Nouwen once wrote, a sentiment that expresses what every writer feels. Writing was an act of discovery for him as well as for his readers:
Most students think that writing means writing down ideas, insights, visions. They feel that they must first have something to say before they can put it down on paper. For them writing is little more than recording a pre-existent thought. But with this approach true writing is impossible. Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals what is alive … The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know.
(From Reflections on Theological Education) (298)
In starting to write this essay a number of months ago, I wasn’t entirely sure of the direction that it would take, or that I’d be digging up old emails and group chats—but oh what fun it was! Sometimes I’d go days without writing, though ideas and inspiration would often come away from the keyboard, either in discussions with others or in spending time outside—or both at the same time. Some of you may recognize ideas in this essay from conversations or experiences that we’ve shared—hopefully you’ll agree with my interpretation of the events—just know that I truly do appreciate your ideas, wisdom, perspective, and friendship. Perhaps discussions or experiences we share will make it into a future essay.
While my age may increase in years, I do hope to maintain my child-like, curious spirit of adventure. I hereby pledge to continue doing car donuts in frozen ski parking lots until I can ski no more—and even then I’ll probably still be able to keep doing car donuts anyway!
After entertaining multiple theories on why he chose the number 42 as the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,” Douglas Adams eventually fessed up that “It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense.”
The point is that while there isn’t a simple, magical answer to the big existential questions we all face, there are some things that we can do to have a good life:
Read often, think twice before spending money, honestly consider what you put your faith into, find out what fundamentally motivates you before choosing or changing careers, and go the #$@! outside!
- Indeed, there are plenty of counter-examples of both responsible outdoor doctors and lawyers and irresponsible climbers without legal or medical training.↩
- For non-backcountry skiers, backcountry skiing or ski touring refers to skiing outside of ski resorts with specialized skis, boots, bindings, and climbing skins that allow you to ascend ski slopes before peeling off your climbing skins in order to ski back down. It is not to be confused with cross-country skiing or resort downhill skiing.↩
- As opposed to fixed bolts used in sport climbing. See this explanation for more.↩
- See Waterfall ice grading.↩
- Waterfall ice is usually very brittle and regularly breaks off in chunks the size of dinner plates—or much larger—when you swing ice tools into it.↩
- If you don’t get it, see this.↩
- Due to reasons unknown—certainly not due to any one individual in particular—horrible puns somehow mysteriously became the preferred form of humour in one of my climbing circles. Weird.↩
- People often ask me which service I use to make these calendars. There is actually no service. I create them in Adobe Indesign and use Calendar Wizard to create the basic table layout before heavily customizing it. There’s a steep learning curve, but the end result is highly original. I then send a print-ready PDF to Digital Headquarters Imaging Centre, the printer that I’ve been using for five years now.↩
- How did it know?!↩
- Me? Perfection? That doesn’t sound right—no sir, not one bit!↩
- The even-temperedness I have acquired in the outdoors would likely be quite useful in medicine.↩