For the vast majority of the population of the planet, a glacier is a theoretical entity. It’s something that you learn about when in high school or college geology classes, something else that you study for a minute or two, take a test on, and forget about. The same is true of what we learn about how mountains are made. Most of us look at maps, accept that there are these tall bits that look snowy, cold, and steep, and go to the beach instead.
However, there is a small percentage of humans that, when confronted with a mountain, go through a very different thought process. Generally, no matter how long we try to put it off, or rationalize it as strange or weird, this small percentage of us end up with crampons on our feet, ice axes in our hands, and ropes attached to our harnesses. And we find ourselves eventually on top of these mountains, breathless and exhausted but exhilarated beyond our own ability to describe.
Over the past month, I’ve struggled mentally and physically far beyond my usual comfort levels. I’ve learned knots, and safety systems, and communication protocols. I’ve been frustrated by a pair of gloves, found my own breath frozen on the inside of my tent, fought hot spots and blisters, accepted misery so far beyond that which I usually face in my life, and seen the world from thousands of feet above.
What can’t be really explained, no matter how often you read books about mountaineering, or climbing, or trekking, or backpacking, is how that moment actually happens. You read ABOUT the moment, of course – you wouldn’t dream of doing this had others not said how transformative, how ethereal, how fulfilling these moments can be – but no one, regardless of their ability with words, can describe how all of the struggles, pain, hardships, and labor fall away when you look down on the world from far above it, with no sound in your ear but the wind and your own furiously-beating heart. Everything disappears, except that which you have fought for. In that “moment of Zen”, it’s all worth it.
Being lucky enough to learn these kinds of things in a controlled and accelerated environment is phenomenal. Having instructors who are patient, understanding, encouraging, and are blessed with a great sense of humor makes it all the more wonderful. I’m one-third of the way through this Mountain Maniac Semester (as I’ve grown fond of calling Yamnuskaʼs Mountain Skills Semester). I’ve thought on at least a few occasions that I just couldn’t possibly keep going, or go farther, or go higher. But that stubborn little person in my head just pressed on, and I have done all of those things. I can look back on my first month and see accomplishment – something that I’ve struggled in the past to see.
We are, through the course of our lives, introduced to people who can change the way we live, change the way we think about ourselves, and change our worlds. It is up to us to allow ourselves to accept the ways our lives can change – and up to us to allow these people to change our worlds. In this past month, four gentlemen, four mountain guides, have been working very hard to do these things for myself and for my team. Nick Sharpe, Jesse de Montigny, Mike Trehearne, and Jason Billing have all made the choice to share with others their love of high places and getting up (and down!) safely from those places. It is their willingness to share with novices like myself all of the wonders of the mountain world that makes a program like this so successful. One can purchase books, and gear, and go climb. That’s easy. What isn’t easy is learning the proper ways to do things, and doing them methodically and properly every time. Having a group of dedicated, intelligent, and thoughtful guides while you work hard to learn them is something that cannot be measured in value. As thankful as I am to be able to stand on Mt. Yamnuska, Mt. Baldy, or Boundary Peak, I am all the more thankful that I have people there with me that can push me when I need it, laugh with me, and make sure that I don’t do something catastrophically dumb! The best part is that all of these guys are helping me to learn for MYSELF how not to do something catastrophically dumb.
No matter where I go, whether I continue to follow a life high in the mountains forever, or just for a little while, I shall forever be indebted to Yamnuska for being my door to a world I’ve looked at from afar for years. It is astonishing to me that I can look today at a photo of myself, in full-on mountaineering gear, huffing my way up a glacier. I made the decision to do this for myself, on my own, for no one but myself; the longer I work on this course, the more I feel that this decision has been the perfect one.
Written by Jonathan Brown
Current Student on Yamnuska’s Mountain Skill Semester