Climbing big mountains is partly based in science (physics, math, meteorology, geology, etc.) and partly art. As guides, our goal is to help facilitate the best possible outcome for whatever situation presents itself. Most of the time we can achieve that goal, but some days the weather, the mountain, your health, my health, your preparation, or any other number of factors will prevent us from arriving at the best possible outcome, and we might just have to settle for the best of a number of not-so-great outcomes.
It’s important for each climber on a Denali expedition to understand some of those factors that bias our decision-making and can often lead us into a situation without any good outcome. At Mountain Trip, we train our guides to recognize a variety of human factors that can influence our choices, and we feel it’s important to share some of these lessons with you before you head up on Denali. We’ll try not to get too far out into the weeds, as this can be heavy stuff. But it is important.
Summit Fever. We all want to reach the summit. While we love being in the mountains and embrace the journey of an expedition, ultimately we want to stand on top! That desire can be a source of strong motivation and can help us to dig a bit deeper into our reserves, but it can also have a direct and potentially negative effect on our decision-making. It can lead a climber to not share potentially relevant medical information when applying for a position on a team, or to not be forthcoming while communicating how he or she is doing for fear of being “turned around.” It’s better to turn back one day and try again a few days later than to have a souvenir of frostbitten fingers or toes.
Be honest with yourself about your motivations for climbing Denali. If you don’t get a shot at the top, do you think you could still have a great time camping and climbing on a big, cold mountain like Denali? We’ve often thought it might be a good exercise to have each climber write a short paragraph on how you think you would feel if you don’t get to stand on top. Put the paper in an envelope, seal it, and tuck it way. Hopefully, you’ll not need to open it, but it might be interesting to compare your projected thoughts with how you actually feel should you not be able to stand on the summit.
Why don’t we do what those guys are doing? This is a classic heuristic trap—assuming that because another climber or team is doing something that it would be a good choice for you or your team. Who knows what factors are influencing their decision? I’ve seen some wacky choices made on Denali and more than a few really bad outcomes that resulted from decisions I surely would not have made. If you’re on a guided team, please trust that your guides want to summit, but that they want to do so in a fashion that will hopefully yield the best possible results for you and your team members. If you want to summit at all costs or feel it’s acceptable to get frostbite while attempting the top, you should probably be on your own program.
My teammate __________ isn’t as committed, didn’t train like I did, got sick, smells funny, is a jerk, etc. The key word in any variation of that statement is “team.” In a perfect world, we’d all have more than enough time to train, spend years honing our mountain skills, and be super friendly to one another 24/7. We’d also get to do exactly what we want to do at each point of our lives and especially on our expedition! Dreamy, eh? Remember the cliché, “There’s no ‘I’ in TEAM.” This kind of ties in with our advice above about being honest with yourself. Be honest with your teammates about your level of fitness, training and experience. Guide companies do their best to screen prospective climbers so that they’re comfortable with everyone’s skill level, but ultimately, it’s hard to make certain that someone who says they are comfortable employing French Crampon Technique can actually walk pie en canard. Guides will discuss fitness levels with teammates and work with them on their personal training program, but not everyone will show up in possession of Herculean fitness and strength.
The beauty of a TEAM is that it enables us to be stronger collectively than we could possibly be as individuals. If you’re having an off day, the team can help you get the day’s work completed. Working as a team gives us many more options for having a good outcome. It also means that sometimes the needs of the team could outweigh the needs of an individual. Do your best to remember that you elected to be part of a team, regardless of what situation might arise. Rather than put energy into becoming increasingly frustrated by a teammate’s __________ (apparent lack of resolve, lack of training, stinky feet, etc.), ask yourself and your teammates/guides how you might help in a manner that will elevate the entire team. This comes back to something we repeat over and over: communication. Communicate your thoughts with your teammates or guides, so they can help form the best possible solution to whatever is affecting the team.