Skip to main content

Hiring a Mountaineering Guide

Although this post will begin wrestling over concrete activity in a specific location, I hope to progress to the more general. Is there any better opportunity to take this approach than when climbing a mountain? Human nature loves a physical challenge, but as the viewpoint becomes grander and grander, the climber naturally wants to entertain "bigger thoughts," that is, wider perspectives that transcend the trivial "jostling on the street," that William Blake referred to.

The Little Valiant One surmounts a 13,000 foot pass on his 13th birthday.

A superstar traveler would come into a place like the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado and "knock the ball right out of the park." He would aim "high" at some completely new level of experience, or at least a completely new sport.

But I was aiming at a solid base hit instead of a home run. One of the benefits of becoming wise old men is that we get a little better each year at choosing reasonable (non-romantic) expectations. In my case that meant turning mountain biking in the San Juans from a 5% success to a 10 or 15% success.

So how was I supposed to get out of my rut? Any of the mountain towns have a variety of outfitting or guide-services businesses. So I went into Lake City, shopped around for a reliable expert, and finally hired a mountaineering guide. His name was William James.
In Professor Bain's chapter on 'The Moral Habits' there are some admirable practical remarks laid down. Two great maxims emerge from the treatment. The first is that in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. [1]
I started off in temper tantrum mode, just as I did for "stream walking" a couple years ago, written about last time. There are nambie-pambies, loyal followers of squishey pop-social-science, who see Anger and Hate as "negative" emotions. That's like saying that fire or sharp-edges-on-metal-tools are negative things because they can injure people. In reality, as long as such things remain a servant and do not become your master, they can be positive tools.

In an explosion of rage I started pushing my mountain bike up a mountain near Lake City, CO. There was no guarantee that it would be possible to ride the bike very often. And the descent might be unsafe. No matter. Yes, it all seemed pretty weird, but also overdue.
This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all. [1]
There is something relentless about climbing a mountain; something stubborn and almost fanatical.
The second maxim is, Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up: a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again.
Only the smallest-thinking athletic nerd would see climbing mountains as the outdoor equivalent of working out on the StairMaster, at the gym. The obsession with getting to the top causes the human imagination to reach out.
As Professor Bain says:— "The peculiarity of the moral habits, contradistinguishing them from the intellectual acquisitions, is the presence of two hostile powers, one to be gradually raised into the ascendant over the other. It is necessary above all things, in such a situation, never to lose a battle. Every gain on the wrong side undoes the effect of many conquests on the right. The essential precaution, therefore, is so to regulate the two opposing powers that the one may have a series of uninterrupted successes...
But a philosophically-dreamy reader might object to besmirching his noble thoughts and exalted sentiments with raw sweat. He is making a mistake. There is an interaction between our minds and our bodies. Intellectual vanity and pretentiousness are the motives for believing that Truth exists in an antiseptic world of Mighty Thoughts alone.
A third maxim may be added to the preceding pair: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make...
It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new 'set' to the brain. No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one's sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one's character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.
When a resolve or a fine glow of feeling is allowed to evaporate without bearing practical fruit, it is worse than a chance lost: it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge. There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility, but never does a concrete manly deed.
The act of climbing a mountain seems to be the perfect embodiment of these thoughts of William James (and Professor Bain.) Even better, it's a pictorial representation of his ideas.

Wrestling with the Bigger Thoughts while Resting at the top.

Everything was working so well as I kept pushing the mountain bike up the hill. Although Anger was effective at the beginning, it started to wear off. Now what? What could I replace it with? I'll conclude this series next time with the answer to that.

[1] William James, "Talks To Teachers On Psychology; And To Students On Some Of Life's Ideals," the chapter, The Laws of Habit. Downloadable for free from


XXXXX said…
Lots of truth from your famous mountain guide. The sad part is that such advice seems sadly out of range for most folks. Don't know if he felt his words largely fell on deaf ears in his day as well. I went to a Catholic school for 10 years and we were drilled, drilled, drilled, and made to behave and I can see that these habits have done me a good service throughout my life. It does apply to much more than mountain climbing. Reminds me of our previous conversation about extroversion/introversion; the making of a habit of the mind through enforcing and drilling a habit of the body.
I like the comment about rage/anger, normally considered negative, as working positively for us as long as we control them. It certainly is enjoyable to be consumed by an activity, 100% dedicated to it, to the point that one is not hungry, tired, etc.; just reaching the goal is all that matters.
I do often wonder if people developed higher values many decades ago when life was harder, more physical, when it was necessary to push oneself in many ways just to survive and make a better life. Or were people really just the same as now but more was kept hidden, unreported, etc. and folks just didn't really know many of the indiscretions that were occurring all around them.
Michael said…
I've got a couple of related maxims I want to share. Here's one I wrote about 5 years ago to pro adventurer Andrew Skurka before his 7000 mile solo trek around Alaska.


Outdoor adventurers are constantly pushing themselves to more and more remote or risky places. I noticed myself going deeper into the wilderness each time. I also noticed that each year experienced Sierra Club acquaintances would end up killing themselves. Not a year went by that I would not be shocked and saddened to learn someone I knew slid off an icy slope. These were situations that all of these people had plenty of experience in.

I came up with this theory when I first started the Sierra Club's Wilderness Training Course. The question arose, "How do we know when we've passed our threshold of allowable risk?". My answer was that we need to teach the risky activity to much less experienced people on a regular basis. That way we are reminded of the basics and not to get over-confident. We'll see mistakes and poor thinking modeled before us that might not occur to us otherwise. We'll recognize risky situations that we've become conditioned to overlook.

I had heard that scuba divers are required to teach every so often. I'm not sure if this is accurate but it sounds like a good idea. I met the renowned climber Lou Whittacker at Mount Rainier National Park last August and I asked if my theory was sound. He agreed "teaching" keeps people on the edge safer. So when preparing for your Alaska trip, my gut feeling says, I hope can build into the logistics to teach someone much less experienced than yourself to do something of similar circumstances.
Michael said…
Maxim #2:

Repeating DABDA Visual Model
Copyright ©2004

DABDA, (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance) is described as frequently repeating or perhaps even the stages being mixed when it comes to dealing with trauma. My theory is that the repeating DABDA is actually like an ever narrowing spiral path up a cone shaped obstacle leading to an apex of understanding, resolution and departure. Just like a path switch-backs up a mountain, frequently crossing the same rock fall but to a lesser degree each subsequent time as the avalanche of debris narrows from its point of breakage at the higher elevation. Soon we'll be at the mountain pass ready to move on and with a grand view in all directions. We can use patterns in nature to describe many abstract scenarios because the shear volume of repeating fractal patterns everywhere around us both inside and out is evidence that to follow them is likely to be instructive.


Death and Dying pioneer Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. passed away Tuesday, August 24, 2004 at her home in Arizona of natural causes. Dr. Kubler-Ross is known worldwide as the foremost authority on the study of death and dying and has authored many books on the subject. Her 1969 groundbreaking book 'On Death and Dying' became a best seller and introduced the world to her theory that the dying go through five stages of grief -denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This theory is now taught in college classrooms worldwide.
Yes the guide's words DO apply to things in general. What I liked about the mountain climbing context was that it's a good pictorial representation of his advice.
Interesting and scary about the guys sliding off the icy slopes.

The comment about the teaching started me down a track of thought. Haven't finished it yet.
edlfrey said…
I'm not certain that I have this rhyme quoted correctly but it is what I remember and what I have experienced.

If you want to learn
then learn by teaching.
If your going to fail
then fail by reaching.