Diversion: this thing is back. Here’s why.

Hello Earthlings with the internet,

It’s been a minute. I’ve spent less time than I would like writing lately, which might be the universal complaint of the non-disciplined writer that isn’t constantly employed at a keyboard. This post is an exploration of why.

My gigantic, whiny list of excuses that nobody wants to read (which is not available, even by request) dissolves into three major problems that bear mentioning: the removed ability to think through outdoor situations by writing about them, and the side effects from monetizing and job-itizing the writing I’ve been doing, and the people who have read my work, appreciated it, and want more.

Blogging was and remains my first outlet. Free from the benefits of an editor or the need to create content for sponsors, I just wanted a container to put my thoughts and adventures into. Those pure iterations developed into style of writing-as-thinking about the trip I was blogging, and thus did I better understand what had happened, what was cool about it, and how I could improve later on. Readers benefited from getting into that perspective as well. In not blogging as much, I’ve lost that retrospective rumination. Reason number one to kick this thing back on: I miss chewing on these experiences post-facto.

The strange aspect of all that processing was that it was valuable. I want to thank the folks that see monetary value in what I write—it’s super cool to be paid for one of the things I love to do. I’ve been given the key to audiences and containers that I would have never cracked on my own, and I continue to enjoy the support of editors who better my writing and push me to hone my craft, to develop my inklings into legible pieces.

But, making money off of something that’s a part of your heart requires care—and I didn’t manage that care very well. My relationship to writing changed: it became paid or rewarded content. It became a necessary part of my job, a line on my to-do list. I still wrote what I cared about, but it got squeezed into something I did when I was getting monetarily rewarded to do it. Other writing still appeared that felt good, but it wasn’t related.

Then my life moved on from a full-time focus on creating things that had marketing value. I’ve happy about that: it’s good to show up for work as a guide or salesperson or freelance writer and then leave the tools, the stress, and the to do list finished at the end of the day, to be picked up later. My thoughts went like this: “writing all the time for my blog or anyone else was a thing I did when I had the time—now, I needed to go to bed to get up to guide.”  Or, alternately: “I just want to go play, and get out of my head.”

Writing should be done because it’s what I want to do. Writers, first and foremost, should have something to say. The best part of this post is that it is procrastination: some writer’s block has slowed me down on a paid piece I care about, and here I am venting with words that flow easily, freely. Sorry Matt; I’ll get it done. Thus, reason two to return to the blog: writing is something I love. Some part of that love needs to be completely separate from work and money. I owe that part of me a chance that’s all its own.

If I were a storyteller in some village a hundred years ago, these kinds of thoughts might have been spooled out by the well, or maybe in a dingy tavern over the soft clinking of tankards at the bar. I’d look people in the eye as I said things, feel their reactions, appreciation, boredom. Instead, convenience makes this available nearly anywhere on a screen. You can read this at your leisure. I’m afforded a spectacularly large audience, many of whom I’m lucky to know, but can’t see their reactions. I write, it goes out, and I hope that it’s worth the time that people spend reading. I sometimes wonder how much time my friends and complete strangers have spent reading this blog. I wonder how many came back to read more. And recently, I’ve heard from a few of those folks saying that they want me to stop sitting on my hands. Thanks for the kick in the ass, you wonderful folks. Reason three: the people who spent their life force reading my ramblings demand yet more. David should not argue with these fine people.

It’s spring. Ski tracks and big, ursine paw prints once again crisscross the blanched dreamscapes of our local hills. Can’t go unprepared into this new season: it’s time for some more skinning with bear spray.

Cheers,

David

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Closing the gap: the community’s role in outdoor learning

Every activity, for every one of us, had a starting point: where we were wandering in, excited, and looking to make a good start at something new. And to make that start easier, many of the sports or activities out there have quite a bit in terms of structure. Coaches, leagues, a team or group of similarly minded people, referees to watch the rules—these are familiar things to our broader society.

Many outdoor pursuits have their similar share of organized entry points: scout troops, university clubs, climbing gyms, mountaineering groups. Maybe an uncle introduces you to rock climbing or a family fascination with the outdoors teaches you to backpack or ski while growing up. Parents impart their knowledge, and you learn from them what to pack and when to turn around because of weather.

But unlike soccer or speech and debate, most of what we do outside doesn’t require a membership or any kind of organization. There are some rules, but largely, it’s free form. Even with no prior experience, you could drop the coin for a trad rack or downhill bike right now and proceed to kill yourself with it this weekend. It’s a bit harder to pull that off with a soccer ball in a rec league.

Thus, the dark side of the freedom of the hills is that an uninformed beginner faces a vacuum of knowledge complimented by risk, without a mandatory community or the safety net such a community can help to provide. There’s a gap between experience and excitement.

It’s very possible to bumble and luck your way to some level of experience in nearly any activity outside; I’ve certainly done my share of it. However, I’ve had plenty of situations that I look back on as excessively risky. Margins of safety got too thin. I trusted things to work out, and they did. But the byproduct is that I want my risk-taking to be calculated, not just the product of chance and hoping. Decisions about risk, for me, should be the result of knowledgable processing that considers and knows the factors involved whether it’s travel in avalanche terrain or making decisions about what to pack for a backpacking trip.

Getting better requires an open mindset—we have to admit that we make mistakes, that we can improve. That’s the first step. Any veteran will tell you that they are constantly learning and applying new things, as the risks dictate that those who don’t won’t last long in the mountains. An open and engaged mind is the most essential piece of gear you’ll need, even though it’s never listed in the buyers’ guides.

The second logical step is that, just like in soccer or any of the organized activities in this world, it falls to the skiing, climbing, or whatever outdoor community to close the gaps in people’s experience. Once you want to learn, you need people to teach you, challenge you, and push you to build your skills and enhance your decision making whatever your level of knowledge.

There are the schools, guides, or clubs that can get you going, and there’s much to be said for groups and professional instruction. I’ve spent two weeks this spring learning from professionals (a three day AMGA Single Pitch Instructor course with KAF Adventures and an eight day Wilderness First Responder course with Aerie Backcountry Medicine) and every single minute was very well worth the expense and time. I’d highly recommend both of those companies to anyone interested in what they offer.

However, you shouldn’t live your outdoor life paying to be constantly guided, or doing things only within the comfort of one organized group. It’s important to own the experience and make the decisions that determine success and failure, because without doing it yourself, those the trips, ideas, and successes aren’t truly yours.

The best way to own those experiences and learn outside, to my mind, is to participate in that outdoor community. I’ve made explicit the general, informal structure of how my outdoor world works in hopes of creating a loose model for understanding how we play different roles for different people. My theory is that when we identify these categories, we notice who we need to spend more time with, who might be missing from our experiences, or grow to understand our own place within the community of our less formal sports or activities. These roles break down into three broad categories that anyone can occupy, sometimes simultaneously—while you read, think of who fits these spots for you, or where you fit for other people.

Cohorts

These are your buddies, often about your age: the co-conspirators on speed dial. They’ve got a similar bent, similar amounts of experience, the same goals. These gals or guys send you pictures of ski lines or new singletrack that get you dropping house chores to get in the car. Maybe the ones you ditch your boy/girlfriend/spouse for, or if you’re lucky, they include your significant other.

Without them, you’ve got no belay, no shuttle driver, and nobody to share the experience when you puke and have to walk out in the rain. They want to learn, just like you. You watch their back: you ask to check their harness or you want to dig the pit they want to skip. They watch yours: took their Level II avie cert or swift water rescue in guide training, and since you’re definitely coming with, you’ll practice crevasse rescue at camp tonight. They push you to learn, call you on your faults, and genuinely care about you and what you’re doing together.

This group can never get big enough. You want cohorts with similar schedules. You want people who are your skill level in every activity you want to do. Easier done in SLC or Boulder then in Podunk-hasn’t-blown-up-yet-but-the-touring’s-sick (this is where I live). Introduce yourself, share your beer, be friendly/outgoing at the campground/trailhead, and don’t forget to grab numbers so you can follow through on that idea you realized you both had. I’ve met a ton of my cohorts while out in the middle of nowhere.

You can spend, as far as I can tell, as much time as you want with your cohorts outside without feeling the drain of teaching/being taught.

Skip the jerks, the batshit insane, and the ones you don’t trust. This goes for every group, but definitely don’t let them into this circle.

Mentors

These are the people you respect. Often, they’re older than you. They’ve been around. Been placing passive pro since long before you were born. Skied everything you’ve been drooling over in the Chuting Gallery. Since some of their Cohorts have probably died out there, they’re more careful than you, and manage to have just as much fun.  They don’t like to suffer like they used to, so they got efficient and went lightweight.

Most importantly, they have to want to pass their knowledge off to squids like you. Not all of them do, so when you find one, keep up, learn fast, offer to carry the heavy stuff, and curb your inner, puppy-like enthusiasm when it annoys them. Introduce your Cohorts to them, and add to the learning and fun.

If you’re a Mentor, the inexperienced are your opportunity to give back. You’ve made it this far, and you know the joys and sorrows of doing what it is you do at a high level. In my mind, getting to know such joys means I owe it to people looking to learn to help them raise their personal bar. You the don’t want the future to place cams wrong, ski without their avie gear, or—heaven forbid—take up soccer instead. So dive in and help them get there.

Find Mentors who understand and respect your limits, and will gently push you to better them occasionally. Believe in yourself when they do this.

You’ll learn more from these folks than you ever will in a book. Listen, watch, and ask intelligent questions. Pay for gas, coffee, whatever it takes, and for the love all the adventures you have under the wide sky, thank them.

You might be the best XC rider around, but if you’re headed out climbing for the first time, it’s good to listen to Mentors—who may be younger than you. This goes for any switch in activities: it’s a great opportunity to get humble and remember what it’s like to start out.

Mentors will probably teach you life lessons too. Things like how to check in with your wife. When the housing market is better. How to organize having kids and still crushing you on the skin track. Maybe they’ll even get you your next job.

Be wary and skeptical—mentors can and have made mistakes before. Do your best to understand what they’re thinking, and if it’s consistently outside your comfort zone or downright wrong, find somebody else. A good mentor welcomes questions and clues you in to their thinking.

Respect that Mentors are probably doing less difficult/rad/interesting activities so that they can bring you along, and that too much of this may drive them a little crazy. There’s an ease to playing with your cohorts and peers, to not explaining everything, that sometimes doesn’t happen in the Mentor/Up and Comer dynamic. Thank them, and don’t feel slighted when they want to go and do things that hit more on their level.

Anyone with experience can be a Mentor. Teaching what you do helps you learn it better. That said, be damn sure that what you are teaching is dialed, and that you know enough to teach it properly.

Up and Comers

These are the friends or acquaintances who haven’t been out the backcountry gate. Maybe younger than you. Only climbed indoors. Never backpacked, but done a couple day hikes. Maybe they’ve no experience at all, but are keen to try it out. They’re slow, they’re clumsy, and they don’t know this yet, so be patient. They stalk your Instagram or heard a story about you and wish they could do the same cool stuff.

So if you’re a Mentor, cool your jets for a day, help them sort the gear, and take them out. Pack the lunch. Carry the rack. And somewhere between the trailhead and top, you’ll realize that, as a Mentor, sharing what gets you so stoked is a thrill just as cool as doing it yourself. When they unlock the crux or safely make the summit, you got to contribute to that look in their eyes. You want to change someone’s life? Want to change the world for someone? Help an Up and Comer do the things they dream about.

Success builds on success. Good experiences keep Up and Comers coming back excited, while bad ones nip fun in the bud. If you’re a Mentor, keep this in mind during your trip planning. Don’t push them too hard, but don’t slight them either. Pick good weather. Ask dumb questions to make sure they brought the right stuff. Be extra dialed to allow for their junkshow.

Up and Comers need their Mentors to focus on their experience, so a Mentor can’t be too personally invested in making the top or sending five projects that day. Encourage communication, consistently check in, and if your bizarre idea is too scary or wild or too far outside their comfort zone, you need to be willing to turn around.

Up and Comers: too much time with Mentors will drain you, tire you out, or maybe even lessen your enjoyment. Maybe they simply go harder than you ever want to. Notice this, and be sure to form your own Cohorts that are on the same page.

To me, a healthy, multi-activity outdoor life includes active participation with Cohorts, Mentors, and Up and Comers. It’s the best way to receive and give back to the communities you play in. Anything else seems like poor stewardship of getting to go and do these kinds of things—it seems like hoarding the gift.

However, there are plenty of people who want to be in their little clique, don’t want to share what they do or where they go, and aren’t interested in the broader community of their sport. I disagree with this ethic, but I do respect people’s time and personal relationship with the things they do outside. So when you meet folks who don’t want to be part of the broader community or won’t let you in, just know they’re having less fun in their little corner and keep marching on.

This post is dedicated to all the Mentors who have spent their time and energy and money to teach me their cagey ways, the Cohorts who called my bluff or pushed me hard or believed in my crazy idea, and to all the Up and Comers for flashing those grins and sharing the stoke when they made that little breakthrough with big results. I would be dead or way less happy without all of you. Thanks to all of you for making this outdoor life so much sweeter, and here’s to the next time we get out.

Diversion: on limits and an old, white van

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Back when I was in high school (in 2006), our local ski hill announced they were opening a day earlier than planned. This would have been heartening news, but it was a Friday. Which meant school. Luckily, my parents gave me permission to take, in my mom’s words, a “mental health day” off so that I could be there. Parking my minivan in the nearest lot the night before and getting up at 5:30am to line up for first chair was my natural reaction. Once up top, with not a single skier in front of me, I vividly remember how the drifts were so deep as to flip me over as I dropped into the backside, howling with joy.

Thankfully, the local newspaper photographer recorded the moments just before that first chair went uphill. Maybe it’s that we were so excited. Maybe the stoke carried through. If so, it was enough to land my friends and I on the front page of the Saturday edition. More than one of my teachers called me out when we trooped in for class on Monday—and most of them knew that things that make smiles like the ones the paper captured are worth ditching some of life’s responsibilities.

At least a small bit of the joy captured in those photos came from the fact that I was, in fact, not at my desk at school. And for those who come from a lift-served ski background, uphill skiing can be a similarly liberating feeling. Snow and partners have become my main questions, instead of waiting for opening day, spinning bullwheels, and purchasing passes or parking. An impressive widening of the ski “season” has resulted. It’s like knowing just one country only to realize that there’s a whole globe of other possibilities to play. Anything with enough snow is fair game, with the attendant extra questions of safety, experience, and knowing where and when to go.

Yet, there’s something to anticipation created by limits. Waiting for gifts parked under a Christmas tree makes unwrapping them sweeter. Rough conditions and dry spells yield a serious euphoria when soft snow returns. Maybe appreciating those waits is part of growing up; I don’t know. But the night before the lifts spin still feels like Christmas Eve to me—all that pent up anticipation cresting. The morning comes, likes this past Saturday, and it’s a release of excitement. Listening to the snow phone. Seeing friends in the parking lot. Loading up on a chair that deposits me a long ways uphill only to swoosh and swish back down.

That I remember it now, almost a decade later, demonstrates how much that day meant to me. There’s a stark contrast too—I’d put in over two weeks on my skis, all of that touring, before I sat down on a lift this past weekend. Because I’m not limited by lifts, because I’m not waiting anymore, it doesn’t mean as much: the low crescendo of anticipation, the megawatt explosion of joy don’t have the volume they once did.

A recent read helped to elucidate that people (like me) who are more progressive in their politics tend to see less value in restrictions or rituals or traditions. Instead, we tend to opt for freedom, for good or ill. Ski touring has allowed me to sidestep the constraints placed on lift skiing life. It has opened up so many more avenues to enjoy, explore, and grow on my skis. Yet in that new freedom, I’ve lost some of the intensity created by the limits I abandoned. Maybe this is just a case of finding a new lens for a feeling I’ve known.

Regardless, I want to mark it for myself. It’s also worthy of a Diversion, for me, because it typifies a particular vein of thinking I’ve found useful in examining my own life and those of my peers: what is being given up to arrive at an achievement? People have to make choices, and the things that seem so desirable in the isolation of social media or our own overflowing wanderlust take a bit of tempering from the experience of understanding sacrifices made. For the freedom to ski whenever, I lost some of the joy the limits provided. That kid who slept in the van isn’t waiting anymore, but he has the occasional twinge of remembering how much more the simple joy weighed before he set it aside to walk uphill. 

Diversion: poems and mountains

Doing two Diversions two weeks in a row wasn’t my plan. However, I really want to keep this blog interesting for anyone who’s out there reading and also for myself, and this is what I’ve been thinking. Hence the following.

This weekend, the recent Wingsuit BASE deaths of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt have been swirling around my mind. My thoughts are with their families, friends, and those whose lives they touched. Personally, I first saw the news on Facebook, and swore loudly as I dropped into the frustration of yet another person I looked up to leaving us too soon. It took going for a run later to get some perspective. For more on how it made me feel, there’s a post from the fall worth checking out. There’s been a serious outpouring of well justified social media condolences. To my mind, the folks at Alpinist always put out really interesting, talented writing: Katie Ives’ piece Poet of Light and Air: Dean Potter is a perfect example, and easily the best thing I’ve read in the aftermath. I’d recommend reading it.

At the end, one particular line caught my eye:

“He lived his life like a poem.”

Which sounds nice. I agree with her statement. But what exactly does that mean? What is a poem? How can one live their life in that way? Given the mystery that surrounds poetry for most people, what does it mean to describe someone’s life as a poem? I want to slog into this, because this is familiar turf, both as a mountain person and also as a poet.

For me, writing poems and doing outdoor adventures are both intensely and essentially creative endeavors. They both follow a few of the same basic pathways within a giant expanse of freedom to choose.

There is the field, space, or area in which it takes place: the general idea for the poem, its form, or the terrain in which the adventure happens.

Some kind of transit is achieved: whether in the woods or on paper, you start one place and end another.

Style likewise. Be it skis or climbing shoes, there’s a method and way that said terrain is traversed. The poet’s style also follows: terse, expansive, some kind of pace unfolding in the way that they place each word, like a footstep, across the page.

Physical terrain is somewhat dictated: you can’t choose to place cliffs, forests, or slopes of snow. But you can choose which ones you want to climb. You choose the conditions in which you wish to go. You choose your partners, or lack thereof.

Poems or stories can spring from anywhere—but for me, the kernel of an idea, the central idea structure towards which I’m writing, that’s somewhat dictated as well by the initial inspiration. It’s very much like rounding a large bend in a trail and staring at a massive face—I stumble onto these ideas, and then writing is the process of fleshing them out so that other people can see how I’m looking at it.

Of course, poems can go in strange directions, and the unifying/underlying ideas aren’t as immobile as rocks or glaciers. So this fluidity to rearrange, combine, and shift can be helpful. It’s the same type of being able to choose, and just like in the mountains, you can be wrong.

Perhaps it’s a learned sense, something like knowing that you’ve turned the steering wheel enough to make the corner just right in a car on the highway, but I can feel when a poem is working. If you don’t turn it right, you’ll go off the road. In my own writing, revision is the process of correcting those turns and noticing when things don’t adhere. Playing in the mountains is the same way—given your method of travel, and the possible ways to use that to get where you’re trying to go, it’s sometimes easy to make the wrong calls and get off route.
This distinction between being on route or way off and struggling matters, because it’s how we differentiate the good life. It’s how we know clean stanzas from messy conglomerations of bullshit masquerading as eminence.

In the mountains or in poems, every move counts. Dispense with punctuation, and things become more austere (check out Cormac McCarthy to see what I mean). Bring a light rack, and you’ll be forced to run things out. Carry doubles of every piece of pro, and you’ll be slow. Decisions carry weight to determine the progress of poems or parties in the mountains, and sometimes there’s room for error—sometimes not.

When I was in school, I often felt that I’d learned about the mechanics and grammar of English only to chuck them out the window when writing poems. Ultra runners now cover in hours what once took months of siege style expedition climbing. I see the same chucking of established conventions happening outside as in writing. Some margins narrow, but some possibilities expand. The ability to draw your own boundaries and succeed within that defined scope is exactly the same.

Putting it all together, a central idea has to happen, taking good advantage of the terrain, the style involved, following the guidelines set down by the travelers given their imagination and abilities and knowledge with every move counting. Success is the objective in either case.

I waded into all of that to give some sense of how I think about poetry, through an outdoor lens. To me, poetry is not some intangible mystery to be dragged forth when people get etherial as a defense for not having the right words. It’s not soul magic. Like painting or digging a proper snow pit, it’s an art. If you’ve never dug a snow pit, you’d be hard pressed to understand much about that art. Same with poems. To be absolutely fair: I can’t explain the art of a perfect fade-away shot in basketball, or how to perfectly drift a car around a turn. Watercolors were the bane of my elementary years. There’s a ton out there that I can’t properly appreciate—but if the talk is of an outdoor life and how it relates to poems, I feel somewhat qualified.

So to live life as a poem—there’s an artistic focus, an imaginative essentiality, an ability to write your own rules based on knowledge and belief and then make proper, worthy moves within those boundaries. I find this statement apt. I find the Alpinist piece a moving, impressive tribute. And hopefully all these words give a sense of why.