2016 Summer North Face Leadership Program
Editor's note: This trip report, from Jonathan Taylor of the Rocky Mountain Section, captures both the day-to-day experience of the ACC's Leadership Program at the General Mountaineering Camp as well as the mindset of a participant questioning motivations and building leadership skills.
The ACC's Leadership Program was developed to provide hard skills, but more importantly leadership and decision-making skills for the Club's volunteer trip leaders at our 22 local sections The North Face is a long-standing partner and supporter of the Leadership Program, supporting both the summer and winter courses annually. The ACC could not hold a program like this without the support we get from The North Face.
2016 Summer ACC North Face Summer Leadership Course Trip Report
Life is full of confusing decisions that we make with incomplete information, sometimes on the advice of people we don’t know, for reasons we may never understand. All of this came to a head for me during the ACC's Summer Leadership Course this summer on the Easy Glacier in the Northern Selkirk range of the Columbia Mountains in BC.
Something about walking across a glacier towards a peak, or crossing a bergschrund before starting a technical ascent drives an introspective series of questions which I usually dare not speak out loud: “Why am I doing this?”; “Who am I beyond a series of accomplishments or failures?”; “Am I doing this as a way to prove to myself that my insecurities are valid?”. In the words of our guide Cyril singing along to the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime: “How did I get here?”
Asking the right questions
The question that has always scared me the most has been “Why am I a leader?” I’m sure that being a leader isn’t something that’s just happened to me, but rather something that I’ve actively sought out. The reason why I became a leader for the Rocky Mountain Section wasn’t altruistic but rather selfish - I was getting tired of seeing interesting ski objectives posted on the section's website only to learn the trip was already full. That, and also wanting to be the first one to carve my name into the freshly fallen snow.
So, again, how did I get here?
The road to discovery
The logistics of how I got here are easy: On Saturday morning I drove west, past the castellated peaks of Eisenhower Tower and Castle mountain towards Lake Louise and ultimately to Golden. Castle Mountain, for those like me who only climb 5.fun looks like an impenetrable fortress of limestone, at least it did before today. From Golden, a van shuttle to a staging area and a quick helicopter ride brought me to the Club's General Mountaineering Camp.
The beginning of enlightenment
When the helicopter set down the skies were clear, but my personal fog of apprehension was thick. Perhaps it takes longer to burn off at elevation? What am I doing here? I’m a ski touring leader, not a summer mountaineer. I can’t even scramble for God’s sake.
The Summer Leadership Course, for those unfamiliar with the concept, brings volunteer trip leaders from ACC sections around the country to the GMC to share experiences and to learn from some of the most experienced guides in the country. For some of us, the hard skills were new and foreign. Navigating on a glacier may seem pretty abstract for someone who mostly leads cragging trips in Ontario, but in hindsight it was never really about the glacier, the compass or the white-out, but rather about the idea of leading, even when you’re not exactly where you had envisioned yourself in the morning.
Now, weeks after returning home, it all appears to be a course on critical thinking and leadership skills that happens to be taught in an alpine venue. And reviewing my field notes, I’m don't think there was ever a moment in the entire week where we were told the way to do something, rather than a way. Overhand, bowline or figure 8? Sling or cord? Nuts, cams, hexes or natural pro? Some people on the course (yours truly) were novices in regards to multi-pitch anchoring systems while others had led some of the most impressive peaks in the west. And no one was right 100% of the time. Perhaps the world isn’t so black and white as to assume there is a right way...
You can lead but can you lead?
The message is that learning how to lead people, and not just how to lead climb is the most important skill for trip leaders. We learned about systems to stay safe in specific environments, and through rock and ice schools and through summiting four peaks we were definitely exposed to some of the hard skills necessary to stay safe, but if you think about it, most ACC trips take place in the sub-alpine or even on the flats.
It became clear that trip leaders with soft skills of leading produce far safer trips than leaders who rely solely on technical superiority on the mountain. Learning to read your group, engage with the terrified people at the back and listening to the voices in your head asking “are we safe, or have we been lucky?” produce much greater value for the trip participants than pushing a red-point grade up a letter or two.
The mountains don't care if you're an expert
Cyril Shokoples, the lead guide on the course put leading this way: “The mountains don’t care if you are an expert; they only care about your decisions”. The mountains are a terrifying place if you’re making poor decisions, and you can get into serious trouble if your desire is stronger than your thought process.
It’s been amazing to see how much of the “touchy-feely” element of the human factor has translated from the alpine into days with the Club, and also to my days at work. I’m not sure that would be the case if the course was all about hard skills. Climbing a serac won't help me understand the variable risk tolerance of my crew at work, nor will it give me the courage to care about others.
Steps for success
Now, my intention was to write a trip report, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve done anything close to that, so I’ll give a summary of the climb that we led at the end of the week. I think that a climb, like any other challenge in life, is a series of cruxes. Leading our first alpine climb to Goldsteam Station was no different.
- Crux 1: The effective planning of the climb: get beta from the other people who had climbed it, look at pictures from when we passed by it on the way, time out the day to make sure it’s within the reach of the group. We were all so keen we even pre-tied our ropes for glacier travel mode the night before.
- Crux 2: Wake up. Where are my pants?
- Crux 3: Gathering a group of people to successfully achieve an objective is like herding cats into a pen. Ok, we’re at the toe of the glacier.
- Crux 4: The snow covered (wet) glacier from earlier in the week is now ice. Crevasses are exposed which makes them look more badass.
- Crux 5: Get cool photo for Instagram.
- Crux 6: Assess the slope on the north face of the peak. Snow looks firm, existing footprints show us we’re not lost. Climb the snow face in glacier travel mode. Get the biggest guy (Matt) to stomp solid steps traversing across the slope so our retreat is easy.
- Crux 7: Short pitch up a chimney and onto a narrow ledge.
- Crux 8: Trust the natural protection available.
- Crux 9: Convince others to trust the natural protection.
- Crux 10: How do I coil the rope again?
- Crux 11: Route find way across ledges and up a scramble of loose rock.
- Crux 12: Avoid getting crushed by lose rock.
- Crux 13: Get 14 people onto a small summit. Take a selfie to prove we were here.
- Crux 14: Stop admiring our beautiful pictures and the scenery, and start down climbing. We need to get out of here safely if we’re going to post our pictures on Facebook.
- Crux 15: Scramble down the lose rock and across the ledges, short pitch through the chimney and down climb the snow face to Matt’s stellar track. Short rope the climb down on snow until we get on the glacier.
- Crux 16: Come up with a reasonably funny story about our day to tell everyone at dinner.
Clarity is approaching
Like any day I’ve ever had in the mountains, the sum of the day is far more than the series of events that took place. Our guides opened up a bit about mistakes they’ve made and choices that would have made some of their hardest days easier. For me, the euphoria of getting to the top is tempered by the idea that the skills we acquired getting there are far more valuable than one summit. The fog is burning off and revealing a beautiful day.
The lessons we were learned are merely seeds of ideas which can help grow The Alpine Club of Canada if we continue to water them. Seeing on Facebook the incredible things that my colleagues in the course have done since then has been amazing, and I’m very confident that the future of the Club is in good hands if we allow these excellent people to lead.
The fog of uncertainty and apprehension has finally lifted and I can clearly see another level to the mountains that I never knew existed. Things that previously seemed daunting now seem fully accessible. On the way back from Golden to Canmore, I stopped in Lake Louise to get a coffee and a guide book. In chapter 11 of Banff Rock, I see that Castle Mountain is not only accessible but entirely within my range of skill. The sky has cleared and the route to the summit is obvious. Because of everything I've learned over the week, the forecast is nothing but blue skies.
A special thanks to...
I can't thank the Alpine Club of Canada, the Rocky Mountain Section and The North Face enough for this once in a lifetime opportunity. The North Face provided the participants gear, including an L5 Sending Suit which is nicer than the suit I was married in.
I also really want to thank all of my course mates and instructors for helping lift my personal fog. Rafael, Gloria, Estelle, Jeremiah, Brian, Amber, Angela, Matt and Susan, I can't be anything but optimistic about the future of the Club if people as thoughtful, understanding and intelligent as you are the next generation of leaders we'll have. Thank you all so much for an incredible week and I can't wait to see you guys at a hut, high camp or crag sometime in the future. Cyril, Nick and Derek, thank you so much for delivering so much in such a short period of time, in such an interesting way.
"How did I get here?" This much is clear now. The Alpine Club of Canada Vancouver Section facilitated my first avalanche course and first summits on skis. The Rocky Mountain Section's Rockies Outdoor Climbing Knowledge (ROCK) course put me on an outdoor rock climb for the first time, my climbing mentors through the RMS put me on my first multi-pitch climbs, and encouraged me to do my first multi-pitch lead this year.
Heading towards Banff I turn on the stereo and Once in a Lifetime is playing on the radio. I can't help but to smile knowing that there's much more to all of this mountain climbing than just climbing mountains.