Six questions with Sean Isaac
Editor’s Note - Sean Isaac’s been a long-time ACMG Alpine Guide that often joins us on ACC Adventures, whether it be leading our Early Season Ice course, Hut Discovery programs or teaching technical rock skills. His passion has already helped many people improve their technique and push their grade.
Sean’s known for being one of the leaders of the mixed climbing revolution in the Canadian Rockies, authoring mixed climbing guidebooks and instructionals, and his international climbing expeditions. Oh, and he’s also the Canadian Alpine Journal Editor.
In an effort to help our guests learn more about the background of their guides, we thought we’d sit down for a few short questions with Sean.
If you’re like to join Sean on an ACC Adventure, check the bottom of this post for his courses and dates!
When did you start climbing and what brought you to it?
I began climbing when I was 18. I grew up in New Brunswick and always loved outdoor adventure activities like hiking, canoeing, whitewater kayaking, skiing and snowboarding but never had the opportunity to rock climb until I went to University in Thunder Bay. I begged someone from class to take me climbing and instantly fell in love with it, as I knew I would. After two years trying to stay focused at university, I eventually quit to pursue a higher education (i.e. climbing bum).
You've had quite an extensive climbing career - at the height it, did any particular experiences really stand out?
I feel very lucky to have been able to climb pretty much full-time since I was 20: first as a dirt-bagging climbing bum, then a sponsored professional climber and now as an ACMG guide. I have always dabbled in all aspects of climbing so never really got good at any one type. When I started, I thought big wall climbing was the coolest thing - the whole idea of living on a wall and sleeping in a portaledge really resonated with my romantic ideal of what climbing was.
In light of that, I think the experience that stands out for me is the first ascent of the east face of Cerro Mascara in Patagonia. My partner, Conny Amelunxen, and I spent two weeks (13 nights) on the wall climbing and bivying through storms.
I also thought mixed climbing was the epitome of blending climbing genres: rock, ice and aid. On that note, Cryophobia, which I did with Shaun Huisman, is definitely my zenith - it’s a classy line.
Looking back, I recognize that I was very lucky to have almost a decade travelling the world and the opportunity to put up new routes in wild remote ranges. My professional climbing years were indeed a dream come true.
What made you pursue guiding as a career?
Guiding was never really on my radar but I knew the life of a sponsored climber would not last forever, so I dove into the ACMG exams. I have always enjoyed instructing, I find it inspiring work and love the challenge of trying to figure out how to break down learning objectives in order to help people progress their skills. Guiding keeps me fit and constantly learning - I can’t think of a better job.
We imagine guiding can be quite fulfilling work – do you have a story where you were really proud to be a guide?
Guiding is very fulfilling work. I get to hang out with people when they are on vacation so good times are a plenty. It is very inspiring to help people improve and attain goals as well as offer a view into an alternative career. I have clients who still remind me that I helped them make the jump from WI4 to WI6 ice leading. As guides, I think we have an important roles as stewards of the environment and promoters of a healthy, active lifestyle.
You have a trad-climbing course coming up; in your own climbing career, how has understanding gear placements help to advance it?
My first rock climbs when I was 18 was trad climbing. There wasn’t any sport climbing in Thunder Bay during the early 90s. My first multi-pitch was Devil’s Tower so also trad. Sport climbing is fun, but trad climbing opens up so many more doors - it’s the difference between skiing at the resort or backcountry skiing. There is more freedom with it as well as more problem solving.
I have been teaching trad, lead, multi-pitch and aid courses for almost two decades. Aid climbing really helped dial in my trad climbing and gear placements. If you place and bounce on your gear for every move of a 900-metre big wall on El Capitan, you not only get way more efficient at placing gear but also gain a deep insight into the subtle nuances of placements.
Closing question: If there was only one thing that you could to teach prospective climbers, what would it be?
Good decision making - full stop. Learning movement skills and technical systems is inevitable, but learning to make solid decisions requires experience and good mentors. Mountains sense takes time to develop but there are tactics and tools for helping to develop it. As a full-time guide, I unfortunately see a lot of poor decision making, which is usually a combination of a lack of training, knowledgeable mentors and unrealistic expectations. Evaluating hazards does not need to take a lifetime of near-misses and trial and error, it can be taught.