Saturday, August 31, 2019

Reflections on Mentorship

Let's go back to the summer of 2003. I was fresh out of college, with visions of big mountain travels and big mountain careers shimmering just out of reach. I didn't spend my teens climbing and skiing, but I knew I wanted to spend the coming decades that way. I spent the winter of 02-03 in Bishop, California. I fell in with the sort of climbing and skiing crowd that one dreams about. I formed an excellent partnership with a ski mentor, and glimpsed great possibilities in climbing. I was more passionate about skiing, and had a stronger background therein. But climbing, especially alpine climbing, was exotic and appealing. That summer I motored back East to reboot, earn some dollars, and spend too much time not climbing. That reimmersion into a former life only steeled my motivation to dive fully into the mountains.

Josh and Matt, high on Teewinot. 27 August 2019

I met Josh Beckner while we were both substitute teaching at the Bishop public schools that winter of 02-03. We first partied a little together and sport climbed a time or two. We were similar in age, and both from non-climbing families back East. He'd put more into climbing by that time than I had; quite a bit more. I understood the fundamentals and the mechanics, but didn't have the judgment and "soft skills" that big mountain climbing requires. He had that mojo, with trips to Chamonix, Northwest Territories, and the Bugaboos, among others, behind him already. I could place cams, read a topo, build anchors, and climb 5.9 confidently. I had acquired these fundamental "hard skills" through course work, books, and in experimenting with equal-skilled partners. Not too uncommon a path, to that point. I was ready for the next step, and ready for great mentorship. I didn't know that, at the time. Or, at least, I didn't articulate it so. I simply spent that summer of 02-03, between hangovers from summer-camp staff weekend parties, dreaming of big climbs and maybe of teaming up with Josh for some of them.

Again, Josh and Matt. This time, ever vigilant on the East Ridge of South Teton. 29 August 2019
Sure enough, Josh and I, and a whole ragtag posse of climbing bums, returned to the Sierra Eastside as temps returned to humane in the autumn of 2003. We climbed fall and winter, and dispersed each summer, for a few more years. Like the mid-20s years of most, those were special times for a variety of reasons. For my climbing development, those seasons are most memorable for Josh's mentorship.

Josh and I, planning a trip to Greenland. Spring 2007
Aside from a few specific tidbits, Josh's mentorship role was simply to be a climbing partner, with greater experience than I. He was the backstop as I learned and honed the judgment, pacing, big picture planning, progression, bailing, and other subtleties of big climbing. From the beginning there were things I was better at than he (I mean, we got lost in January on Split Mountain. He had been on the route before, and I knew better, but he led us right into the wrong couloir...), but overall there were more things that he was better at than I.

The legendary Owens River Gorge "10-10-10-10-40". Ca 2007. I'm on the far left, Josh on the far right. 

He was just a kid too. He likely didn't think of himself as my mentor. But he was definitely that. He didn't try and teach me much. When he did, it stuck. One time, early in our climbing partnership, he pointed out that I needed to figure out how to organize my harness. "You don't need to use my system, just use a system." (I noticed just this week, nearly 20 years later, that he and I still use the same harness racking arrangement...) in early April one year, on Charlotte Dome (read: remote, and quiet, with cold nights and days-long snowy approach/exit), as we climbed runout (again, off-route) granite face climbing, he simply said "remember where you are". Otherwise, it was a partnership. Without any stated hierarchy or clear roles. That is a great thing. And, likely, crucial to the development of any well-rounded climber.

Josh, ice, and Bobby. Middle Teton. 28 August 2019. No, I'm not sure what's going on here either. 
This past week Josh and I worked together, as equal colleagues, in the Tetons. Together we raced, with two guests, through the Grand Traverse. Our paths since Bishop have veered slightly different directions, and in some ways I scooted ahead of him (I finished my IFMGA certification in 2013. He finished in 2018). The Grand Traverse isn't completed very often. Its hard to tell, but I bet the full "success ratio" is less than 30%. It's a damn hard thing. My Garmin says that I spent 39 hours on the go, between 4am Tuesday and 9pm Thursday. That's action -high, hard, consequential action- for 39 out of 65 hours. I've done it before, and every time is memorable. This one will be memorable for coming "full circle" with Josh. We each called on everything we have to guide the Grand Traverse, and we did it together.

What I have done and what I can do, at least in terms of climbing, is traceable to years of Josh's mentorship at a crucial point in that development. As someone that could almost be called an "old timer" in climbing, I'm asked about mentorship with some regularity. It is an excellent, ongoing conversation in the climbing and guiding community. Our stories are all slightly different, but they all involve excellent mentorship. As you ponder mentorship, consider its value and limitations. I suggest that you learn foundational skills in a structured manner, with mentorship coming in at least two different settings. Mentorship in a formal sense, where the roles are clearly defined and the hierarchy is indubitable, has its place. Similarly, and complementing other environments, unstructured partnerships are a critical piece of climbing development. Thanks, Josh, for that.

1 comment:

  1. I still miss those college days when I was young and strong enough to do anything and go anywhere. I love your spirit in this age that you can make it through and feel that lovely young time again. This days these outdoorgearonly will help you up for anything though.