Sunday, October 11, 2015

Little Fish

Karl Birkeland is the director of the National Avalanche
Center. Colorado Snow and Ava Workshop. 10/2015
Dad doesn’t fish a lot, but he has always had wise words about fish and ponds. Specifically, he uses the fish-and-ponds-and-their-relative-sizes metaphor. I remember nothing specific about his fish and pond advice, but I know what has sunk in. Be careful when you start to feel like the big fish in a little pond. That feels good, but life’s real growth comes when the little fish has to scramble for scraps in the big pond.

Now, ego is what it is, and feelings are what they are. While very nice things have been said about me, it would be hard to defend the idea that I’ve ever been a big fish in any size pond. But I have taken recent months to intentionally put myself in the position of a tiny fish in a variety of big ponds. And it’s hard as heck. It is quite the lesson in humility to be the full-time, respected professional at the bottom of the heap. If the humility growth is significant, however, it is all the other lessons that are absolutely huge. My dad isn’t the only one to recommend being the dumbest person in the room, but he’s the one I respect the most. All these smart people know that learning and growth accelerates through the roof when one teams up with the more experienced and stronger. 

Who wouldn't jump at the chance to teach alongside Tommy
Caldwell? ROCKProject 10/15

What does that look like for a mountain guide and professional climber/skier? That’s a good question. I’ve lived much of my life directed by my father’s fish and pond admonitions. That intentional search for mentorship and inspiration underlays much of what I do. If I could build my entire annual schedule around educational opportunities and mentored experiences, I would. However, I must also make a living. Education and apprenticeships are expensive, at the very least with the opportunity cost of not working. The trick, therefore, has been to balance paid work with new lessons and terrain and to find ways to receive compensation while also working under more experienced practitioners. This year, 2015, I have, better than ever before, minimized my ichthyological size while maximizing the bodies of proverbial water I'm swimming. 

To get the lessons and growth, you must give things up. First, let go of familiarity. In 2015 I have on-sighted more terrain, both on the clock and off, than ever before. I skied, for work and for play, on new terrain in Canada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and even California. On known terrain, on skis, one can generally go closer to that avalanche hazard line, and go a little longer. New terrain offers lessons, but requires conservatism. Climbing is similar. Climbing and guiding unknown routes is slower and more mentally taxing. That mental stimulus, however, is rewarded with a skill-improving response that makes one better and better. 
Josh Beckner. School for International Expedition Training. 6/15

Next, give up some pay. I worked in Peru this year, under the amazing supervision and mentorship of expedition guru (and good friend) Josh Beckner. I made considerably less than I could have made in another setting, but my professional growth was exponential. The mental stress of on-sighting was there, and the financial compromise is stressful, but the overall advancement was well worth it. In other instances, primarily the last couple weeks this fall, I have forgone paid work in the interest of volunteering, co-teaching, conference attendance, and formal professional development. This latest binge of non-paid time has been taxing. I woke this morning with my body and mind feeling the same sort of relief and satisfaction that follows a big stint of guiding, without the financial reward that those big stints bring. Basically, over the last two weeks I have received no compensation, but have gotten up before dark more days than not. I have climbed precious little. As the lessons and experiences continue to sink in, however, the value will overcome the financial stress. I am a better climber, skier, and professional because of time spent volunteering, studying, and trying these recent days. 

Finally, let go of the pride. I worked for almost ten years in the Sierra. In that time I put myself on the top of the heap, so to speak. Other than company owners, I was the most experienced and well-trained guide in the entire range. I had clients coming directly to me, by reputation alone. I had other guides in all stages of their careers come to me for advice and guidance. Climbers and skiers sought out my intimate terrain knowledge. The experience and terrain familiarity I developed there will go no where. But my “status” there is gone. That status means nothing to
The Exum guide team holds an amazing depth and breadth of
experience and knowledge. Grand Teton, 9/15
anyone but me. But it was valuable. It mattered to me, it turns out. To switch gears this summer made sense, in a variety of ways. Going to the Tetons to work for Exum was closer to where my wife would spend her summer. The Teton region is one in which both Meagan and I can envision spending at least the next stage of our shared life. The Sierra is not. However, pulling up Sierra roots and being the “new guy” on the Exum roster was a challenge. Thankfully Exum is full of experience and history and institutional power. My position at Exum is very much that of the tiny fish in the huge pond. It is a friendly body of water, welcoming and supportive. But the big fish are powerful and experienced. I have much to learn from the Exum and Teton community. I can’t possibly live long enough to develop the terrain familiarity that top Exum climbers and skiers have. 
Talking avalanche rescue with the big dogs.
LouDawson on the left, Bruce Edgerly on the right.
A-Basin, 10/15.

You have heard this sort of thing before. But, if you’re anything like me, general advice like “surround yourself with challenge and strong mentors” is a little vague. As a general life philosophy, it is sure to guide you in the right directions. Having that guidance rattling around in the back of your mind will help steer choices to the path that encourages rapid and significant growth. When it comes to the guiding and mountain life, hopefully my few examples here will suggest at least slightly more concrete options.  

The original fish in a new pond. Dad, his jeep, and immense Moab cliffs. 10/14

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