Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Alpine Mentors

About a month ago in early April I volunteered for a new program organized by Steve House called Alpine Mentors.  Steve was showing up in Canmore with four participants for two weeks of ice/alpine climbing in the Canadian Rockies.  Steve had been talking about this program for a couple of years and had put a lot of work into setting it up as a non-profit and obtaining some initial sponsors.  His idea came from similar club funded programs in France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and Slovenia.  Steve and I had witnessed some of the culminating trips for these programs in the Karakoram in Pakistan.

Steve started Alpine Mentors to begin building a similar program in North America for aspiring young alpinists.  His initial group of four participants was small, but given limited resources it seemed like a good size to beta test how something like this could work on this side of the Atlantic.  I had never participated in anything like this before and when Steve and his group arrived I wasn't too sure what I was supposed to do.  To get a better idea of what this was about, I checked out their website and found what seemed like a mission statement :

"Alpine Mentors promotes alpinism by encouraging, coaching and climbing with technically proficient young alpinists who aspire to climb the world's greatest mountains in a lightweight, low-impact style"

As one of the mentors it seemed like my job was to go climbing with the participants and provide some coaching and encouragement.  It seemed simple, but I would discover that I had a lot to learn.

Colin Simon and Marianne van der Steen on the route Nemesis
The AM website further described the program as follows:

Alpine Mentors is designed to operate on a two-year cycle where mentors help the group organize trips that advance their climbing skills with an eye towards being able to complete technical routes in the high mountains. Along the way we help connect them with different mentors. Our goal is not to build the best alpinists, but rather to help young climbers get the most from their climbing experience. 
AM is organized as a non-profit group and currently the mentors and climbers fund all the program's operations from our own pockets and community donations. 


Marianne van der Steen leading the crux pitch on Nemesis

I had heard that the four participants went through a rigorous selection process, and that they had been together on a successful trip to the Black Canyon in the fall.  I read on their blog that by the end of that trip some of the teams were doing linkups of long multi-pitch rock climbs.  I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to offer much to such a strong group, and after a few days in the Canadian Rockies, I found that these young climbers were physically stronger and more technically proficient at certain things than I would ever be.  But as a result of how they had learned to climb, I could also see gaps in their skill set they would need to fill in order to be safe and proficient alpinists. 

Buster Jesik leading on the AA Gully route on Mt Andromeda

When I started climbing 45 years ago, I was taught basic mountaineering skills on peaks with low technical difficulty.  This early instruction gave me a broad, but simple, understanding of the mountain landscape that included route finding, glacier travel, basic rock climbing, and preparedness for adverse weather over multiple days.  Because of how I learned, my knowledge and confidence in complex mountain environments was equal to or greater than my strength and technical skills on steep rock and ice.  To do harder climbs I needed to learn how to be a better technical climber.

Today most climbers start their apprenticeship by learning to be technically proficient in controlled settings like indoor gyms, sport climbing, or the ice park.  Many climbers are happy to enjoy only this type of climbing.  But for those who want to be alpinists, their technical skills on steep rock and ice often exceeds their knowledge and confidence in complex mountain environments.  To do harder alpine climbs they need to learn how to be better mountaineers.  In other words, the order in which they learn to mountain climb was the reverse of how I learned.

 Steven Earl van Sickle on the summit ridge or Mt Andromeda

In my opinion, one way of learning is not necessarily better than the other.  We just need to acknowledge the differences and alter our instruction and mentoring programs accordingly.  I'm excited about the prospects of what these younger climbers will be able to accomplish with such a strong foundation in technical climbing.

I discovered that it was difficult to mentor young climbers who had such a different learning history than me.  It was hard for me to not assume that someone with strong technical skills already had considerable mountaineering experience.  I could get impatient with a participant when they didn't move quickly and confidently on moderate mountaineering terrain after demonstrating that they were capable of climbing steep technical rock and/or ice.  I don't think it was until the program was over that I really understood that a lot of the climbing we were doing was relatively new to some of the participants. 

Colin Simon leading on Asteroid Alley on Mt Andromeda
This program provided a good opportunity for the participants to fill some of the gaps in their experience and be proud of what they had learned and accomplished.  I think the quote from Steve House sums it up well.

“Ultimately, Alpine Mentors is meant to become an open framework, one that can change with the people who come to fill it with energy, inspiration, and action. Alpine Mentors is a way for mentors to interact with younger, not-as experienced, climbers. Those of us who dedicated our lives to climbing mountains learned much. This is where we can share that knowledge.”

We need to build more capacity in our climbing community for programs like this.

More information on this program can be found at http://alpinementors.org.