I’ve been fortunate to have made a decent living, more or less, in outdoor education for more than twenty years. First as a leader of ski trips and climbing classes, later as a mountain guide, and most recently as an outdoor educator and wilderness steward. On good days at work, which are most days, I don’t need to remind myself of how lucky I am to work in such incredible places with amazing people.
But there are, on rare occasion, the other days. The days where I wonder what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. Days where ropes are heavy and so am I. Days when lightening strikes near, snakes slither, gear drops, bugs bite, rain falls, slopes are scary; people barf. Days where kids fight, ticks bite, blisters are many and packs are heavy. Every route is too hard and there’s nothing for my feet!
While it’s a great job, often the greatest, it’s not all high cotton and easy liv’in out there. So when clients or participants or whatever we call them these days tell me what a great job I have I always agree on the outside but part of me always starts to think about some of the other days…
…Horses in New Zealand eating vital components of an orienteering course we’d spent parts of days laying out. The man in Spain who’d been frantically trying to tell me something about the field we’d rented, his regional accent too thick and my Spanish too poor to get it, finally, through our interpreter we found out that the bulls in the field, while not “the bulls from the big bull fights” where still a concern and “you don’t want to go back to your hotel with your guts in your hands, do you?” (Note to self: finish those Spanish tapes.) Back in the States, working a program for a tech firm at a dude ranch in Arizona, the proprietor asked us “do you know anything about cows?” “uhh, no…” “Good, I don’t know anything about computers so I guess we don’t have to talk.” (Also, this is the program where a participant fell backwards onto an agave, only to be saved by her Crazy Creek Chair…)
For a long while I’ve worked on occasion on the fringes of outdoor education, with a team that puts on organizational development courses for corporations and other groups. Often climbing is a part but sometimes other outdoor “activities” are part of the festivities. So, one day I found myself in central Missouri, near the conclusion of a four day program for a “life sciences” firm. On this particular program the highlight activity was a combination part treasure hunt, part raft building. The group had been divided into a number of teams, each of which had to go through a bit of an orienteering treasure hunt that we’d previously set up. The “treasure” was the parts necessary – at least in our opinion – to build improvised rafts which would then be used to float across the small inlet of a large man-made lake, after which the groups would triumphantly convene at a designated spot, somehow made all the more productive and insightful through the process of finding all that stuff (and making a raft out of it.)
We’d decided that the best components to use in building a raft would include a frame of 6” pvc pipe. I think I drove 800 miles in central Missouri that trip just to find enough 6” 90º sections to make the corners of the rafts. There were other components of course – plywood for the decks, “floatation”, which we decided could be anything that could be made to float; rope, and radios. After a day of laying out the courses and hiding the stuff I decided that Missouri was sort of like the desert in that most the plants are pointy or, if not pointy, they are poisonous. If it’s not a pointy, poisonous plant you’re watching out for, it’s ticks and rattlesnakes. But we got things set up, ran our event and finally I found myself at the glorious debrief.
They’d actually managed to find the treasure, build their rafts, (sort of) float across the little inlet, and ceremoniously come together on the far shore. Time for the debrief. A participant turned to me and, ignoring the all-important So What and Now What debrief, started to make small talk.
“So you guys do this program all over the world?” she asked.
“Well, not exactly this program but lots that are sort of like this program” I said, thinking of the ones where we do cool stuff, like climbing rocks and mountains in foreign lands.
Sinking further into the muddy shore I idly flicked a tick off my leg.
“That’s amazing” she said. “You guys are living the dream!”
That’s about when I noticed that we were in a sea of poison ivy. “Yeah”, I said unenthusiastically, “we’re pretty lucky…”
Meanwhile I’m thinking “ditch the pvc stuff, donate the plywood to the resort, pack the car, skip a shower, drive to the airport, turn in the rental car, fly home, unpack, repack, drive to the airport, fly to another program…”.
The other day I helped a father and his twenty-something son climb a big route in our local backcountry. The climb has a long approach and I had plenty of time to get into my meditative approach rhythm as the sun rose on the surrounding peaks. Maybe it was the less than perfect night of sleep, or the early start, or maybe the instant oatmeal was to blame. And it will sound a bit corny but as I trudged up the approach to our climb I though about what an honor it is to have a job helping people surmount their fears and overcoming technical challenges, to help people do things they otherwise couldn’t, or wouldn’t, to help people learn how to use wildlands respectfully and to come to the mountains as stewards and as students. As I trudged up the hill with my heavy pack, I thought, I’m living the dream!
Do you have a favorite anecdote from your work as a climbing instructor? Wanna share? We’d like to make this column a regular feature of tales from the field so if you’d like to contribute drop us a line. Thanks!