Lessons From the Field

June 1997 — We spent the overcast and wet day practicing skills.  Placing snow protection, clipping through fixed pro, traveling on a rope team, ice axe use and self arresting.  We were at the head of the valley, a small cirque with steep snow covered slopes.  Above us lay the Homathko.

I was dressed in the latest in waterproof fashion, a cagoule: a blue, knee length, pullover raincoat made by Kokotat.  It covered ¾ of my body.  It featured a fleece lined hand warmer pocket.  It rocked, I used it for years.  My legs sported black wind pants, the ubiquitous gaiters and plastic boots.  On my head a black, Peruvian style fleece hat was perched, complimented by aviator-esque glacier glasses.

After the long day was over we gathered for a meeting.  It was post dinner, our bellies were full, we were warm and ready for the ol’ dirty sleeping bag.  Our course leader, Jon, briefed us for the next day.  We were scheduled to make the move up the steep snow, out of the cirque and onto the icefield above.  “It is going to be early.  It will be a long day.  Packs will be heavy, we will move slow, you will be tired.  It will probably be raining.  Just suck it up.”

Twenty-four hours later all of the words had rang true.  Earlier that morning I had elected to go last.  Last.  That meant I stood around longer in the cold AM dawn.  That meant my load got heavier as I went up.  That meant I got to clean all the pickets (long, aluminum “stakes” that are buried in the snow to help secure the rope team to the slope.)  I thought I would enjoy the challenge.  Later, cresting on to the top, those pickets dragging from my already huge and heavy pack, I paused.  I turned around to see an empty desolate valley.  Just tracks, Bute Inlet, snow, trees and an empty cirque.  A feeling of awe washed over me.  A feeling of insignificance and aloneness.

I look back now and thick of the moment when I first “discovered” The NOLS.  I was a freshman at Unity College in Maine and an outdoor recreation major.  The NOLS catalog was perched precariously on the back of the toilet, bending over the edge ever so dangerously as magazines tend to do.  I grabbed it to flip through as I sat down.  “This is what I want to do this summer” I thought.  The next day I called my mother to discuss the possibilities.   To this day my mother will say “I knew that when you went out to British Columbia for your NOLS course, I knew I lost you to the west.”

From a bathroom stall to sucking it up and cresting onto the Homathko Icefield to 220 weeks in the field as an instructor has been a long journey.  Though I am no longer the same scared 19 year old that dug up and unceremoniously dragged pickets up the headwall, not a lot has changed.  I am more jaded now.  Older, more experienced, somewhat wiser.  But I still have to suck it up.  I still have to put in the long days.  I still get nervous and anxious before I go into the field.  And the wilderness and mountains still make me feel small and insignificant while helping me realize what is important in this world.

***

I composed the above essay years ago, back when my blog was still new.  In revisiting it, I found a timeless lesson and a truth I can not deny.  Sucking it up applies to the long tough days, the ones where at the end you don’t lie down and fall asleep, but instead keep going because it is not over yet.  Sucking it up doesn’t mean ignoring things.  It doesn’t mean being tougher or inconsiderate or rude.  It isn’t always easy to do what is right and those are the times in life when I need to suck it up.  I need to speak up, I need to take action, I need to support my fellow human beings.  It won’t be easy, I might be alone, and I might have to work hard, emotionally and physically.  That day, climbing up to the Homathko, sucking it up meant not complaining and getting a job done.  It resonated to me as a physical toughness; I didn’t connect that the body can only go as far as the mind tells it to.  It won’t go further.   

***

September 2000 — Three years and a couple months after “sucking it up” to gain the Homathko, I sat in the Wind River’s Dinwoody Cirque for the first time.  We were at the tail end of our instructor course and had just climbed our way south to north through the Winds.  Gary and I were going to join our instructor Purdy on an ascent of the Northwest Couloir on Dinwoody Peak.  There wasn’t much that was casual about the route, but our three PM departure from camp could have had one assuming such things.  Amongst the group we had two technical tools and since the leader, mostly Purdy, would be using them, I spent the morning and early afternoon using the file on my Leatherman to sharpen and enhance the points of two mountaineering axes.  “The weather is stable, the moon is full, and you guys are pretty competent; we’ll be fine” Purdy said as we questioned the lateness of our departure.  We walked out of camp and 90 minutes later we were swinging our mountain axes and kicking our crampons into the overhanging ice of the bergschrund.  

Above the crux ’schrund, the angle eased and we moved quickly up the narrowing hallway of ice and rock as early September shadows crept over the cirque.  “You can clip in here,” Gary said, gesturing to a large carabiner as he belayed me onto another hanging stance.  I clipped my locker and tied my clove before I sussed the anchor.  “Hmmm, that’s interesting” I mused as my eyes scanned our connection to the wall.  There wasn’t a lot that was text book about it: my carabiner/clove hitch were clipped to a master carabiner that in turn was clipped to the sling of a #3 Camalot.  Off to the side, a #10 stopper connected loosely to the master carabiner with a sewn runner.  

“That cam is pretty darn good” Purdy quipped.  “Besides, if it’s good, it’s good.”  I peered into the growing darkness.  The beam of my headlamp helped illuminate the solid gneiss and text book nature of the placement.  It is true, it wasn’t going anywhere.  

We topped out via headlamp, the full moon’s light not yet finding its way into the narrow gully and hoofed it up and tagged the summit.  A straight forward descent down Bonney Pass then onto the Dinwoody Glacier had us back in camp by two.  Purdy was right: we hadn’t stacked ALL the odds in our favor, but we were fine.  Nineteen years later, “if it is good it’s good” and “we’ll be fine” still push their way to the forefront of so much of my decision making.

***

May 2019 — Today, I sit and ponder what it is that scares me about the coming summer of work.  I can’t entirely place my finger on it.  Is it the routine of the office?  Is it the feeling of fear of missing out I get when I brief courses?  Is it that I dislike it when I take myself to seriously?  There is a lot I like about my program supervisor job and the life I live in Lander.  And that doesn’t diiminish the nagging feeling I get that something just isn’t right.  Should I be in the field?  Sure I miss it a shit ton.  Being in the field for NOLS is by and large the best job of which I could ever dream.  As I write this and reflect on those long ago lessons, the transferability to non-climbing situations is all that much clearer.  

NOLS has taught me a lot.  It has been instrumental in who I am as a person.  Today “sucking it up” resonates with me as a mental tenacity; summer is here, the work is plentiful, and the days are filled with the unexpected.  Today, “we’ll be fine” are the words I need to hear, the mantra I need to repeat, not because my instructor teams are incomplete at briefing or because they need unexpected levels of support, but because I’ve done this before, I have competence, and it is only a limited time.  Today, “if it’s good, it’s good” pushes me to go home, to take care of myself and trust in a process and my instincts.

Life happens all around me, all the time.  The lessons from NOLS courses keep coming and keep getting clearer every day.  Just roll with it Spaulding.

 


Featured Image:  Camp below Mist Peak on the Homathko Icefield.  June/July 1997

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A little bit less of a nomad now, Jared still likes to refer to himself in the third person.

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