We hunker. The ambient air temperature is 45 degrees and last night’s dusting of snow cloaks Gannet and its cohorts. A cold wind whips down from the Dinwoody Glacier, pushing around our Mega Light fly, slapping it against my head, all the while pushing clouds over Bonney Pass and into the in-betweens of the dark, grey, foreboding peaks. Ngaire, Tom, and I lay cocooned in our bags, occasionally peaking under the fly to seek any changes, of which, we see none. Despite the objective conditions, I feel peace and satisfaction with the place, the process, and the routine. I have missed this place; I have missed this space. For twelve straight years the Northern Wind Rivers were a regular part of my summer existence.
In July of 2016 I finished the last Wind River Mountaineering course that I have worked. I tucked tail, turning from the mixed emotions of field work and ducked into the similarly convoluted emotions of in-town, office based work. I didn’t know what it would bring, and now, 24 months later, I am starting to get a clearer picture.
The truth is, being a NOLS field instructor is the best job I could have imagined; it is never dull, always engaging, consistently challenging, it puts me in beautiful places with good people and forces me to grow, be vulnerable, and engage in self-work. It is never repetitive and always worthwhile. Truthfully however, one–I can’t do that, stay on top, forever. The question persists, “what is the next step?”
If nothing else, the transition has drawn out more complexities of my personality, of who I am. It has diversified my interest, my learnings, and my experiences. Being in a primarily office based jobs has brought forth feelings of engagement, appreciation, growth, and contentment. Conversely, I have experienced sadness, longing, inadequacy, disappointment and grief.
Owning a home, being more rooted, and learning new skills as a result has helped me feel engaged and content with a space and a place, something that comes so easily for me in the backcountry. It has elicited imagination and creativity that previously lay dormant. Diving into hands on program work and re-rations at Three Peaks Ranch has also bolstered those feelings. Whether wiring a switch or throwing a load, I sense a growth in competence and in the complexity of my being; no longer am I just a mountaineer/climber/dirtbag. Being asked to do program work at the Three Peaks this past summer offered me a sense of accomplishment, appreciation, and growth, as did the opportunity to work in East Africa last autumn. That people had faith in me, and sought me out for a position offered a greater sense of self-awareness and understanding of my place and my work.
I cried more in the summer of 2017 than I had in 20 years. Feelings of loss, uncertainty, grief, and mundanity washed over me at unexpected times. Biking to work, buying milk, or tacking up my ride horse in the Absarokas, the onset of tears knew no limitations. Something was right; I was feeling. Letting it come, letting it be, and trying to understand its roots became a goal. It inhibited engage in a relationship; I pushed people away and treated them poorly. I grieved for a loss of identity. Not just as a full time field instructor, but for an identity as a climber, as a Patagonian traveler, as a person sticking it to the system. I didn’t return to Patagonia in the 2017-2018 winter season, something I had done for the past six years and for two trips years prior to that, much like I didn’t work a Winds Mountaineering course in 2017, something I had done for the past twelve years. Constants were no longer. “You headed south this winter?” asked innocently enough had me doubting my choices and feeling like a sell-out, for there I was, doing the nine-to-five, something that I had been rallying against for the past decade and a half.
The office space has its challenges for me. Space is one of them. I realize now, more than ever, the importance of my actual office space, the map room I have decided to use as an office. The maps, the impermanence, the open format, the flexibility, the non-conforming nature of it are all things that are vestiges of field work. I hold the people I work with in high regard; they are caring, talented, professional, and are some of my closest friends. Being at Three Peaks this summer, mixing it up, doing hands on work, being outside, has offered me insight though. I do not know if my office job is not for me, but I do know that diversity of work, being outside on a regular basis, coupled with learning and caring co-workers are things that bring me happiness. Right now, with no dependents, I supposed that ranks high on a list of things important to me.
“Every mile a memory, every step [sic] another scene” plays on repeat in my head. Returning to the Winds is like returning home. Every inch of trail, every lake, and every campsite holds tales. A water break there, sewing a tent here, waist deep slush, lessons learned, relationships born, relationships petering out, falls, winds, triumphs, and trials. Despite the terrain being the same, there is no repetitive feeling; people, emotions, weather, mindsets, all conspire to make it as new and different as the first time. None-the-less I try to clamber up new peaks, find new summits, and touch new ground, expanding my knowledge of the range and of myself.
Just because I yearn for what is lost, for who I was, does not mean I do not like what I have and what I have become. I will never be who I was yesterday, and right now, I am not sure if I want to be; life is a process. I do not know what the future will hold, but I do know that I want to expand my identity, have learning, growth, happiness, and to be filled with love and compassion.
Featured Image: Sunrise over Philsmith Peak and Grasshopper Glacier; Northern Wind River Range, WY