In the wee hours of 30th October 2016, the Arthur’s Pass Lodge rang with a cacophony of alarms. Would-be ascensionists rose from their bunks in a pre-dawn stupor, pouring caffeinated beverages into their gullets in an attempt to instigate a mental spark. The cavernous interior of the Great White Van had been loaded the previous night with daypacks containing all the accoutrements necessary for an alpine ascent. All that remained was to drive and put boots on the ground.
The headlights of the Toyota Hiace penetrated through the ethereal mist which clung to the road as we passed the Arthur’s Pass Store and onto the winding mountain road. Before long, they illuminated the sign denoting the trailhead of the Coral Track. From here, the ascent would begin, tracing a steep line up Rome Ridge toward the summit of Mt Rolleston.
Headlamps were donned. Backpacks were shouldered. Four climbers disappeared into the near-impenetrable beech forest and were lost to sight. I jumped back in the car, returned to the Lodge and dropped back into a fitful slumber for another four or so hours.
So ends my trip report. My biggest achievement that day was the consumption of 5 coffees without the onset of fatal arrhythmia. I sent some emails, I wrote some things and, finally, I retrieved the climbing party when their mission had been completed.
There is a great deal more to being an instructor or a guide than we see in the brochure, and most of it isn’t glamourous. It’s not all beer and skittles. It’s a job like any other with moments of elation and moments of frustration.
I would have given anything to have been on the hill that day, but that wasn’t my role. Ironically, the less sexy aspects of the job are also those which are the most vital. As we used to say in the Army, “No comms, no bombs”. Without the men and women on the radios, folding the blankets, driving the trucks and filling out the paperwork, progress comes to a grinding halt.
The Mountain Training School* is no different, and nor is any other outdoor education or recreation company. It takes the work of many folks with many different skill sets to ensure the success of an expedition. This is something that often goes unappreciated (or at least underappreciated).
This aspect of guiding and instruction is one of the hardest mental barriers that students face when making the transition from amateur to professional. Many can find it hard to wrap their head around the concept that they may not always be skiing or climbing the gnar. If you expect to be at the cutting edge of athleticism during your entire career, you don’t have a dog in the fight of professional outdoor education.
I’ve spent the last two months in New Zealand facilitating a Mountaineering 402 course, which for those playing at home is a roadtrip of sorts which places most of the onus for planning objectives on the students. As such, I’ve travelled around the vast majority of the South Island and I’ve climbed a lot when the opportunity allowed. But I’ve not gotten on a single route which added anything of substantial merit to my resume.
That, after all, is not the intent of my role. My role is to effectively help the students towards their goals, not steer them towards mine. I am merely an occasional vessel for tidbits of wisdom and a glorified chauffeur.
And I’m cool with that. The fulfilment that one seeks as a climber is very different from that which one seeks as an instructor. As trite as it may sound, one can gain immense satisfaction from seeing students grow, learn and get stoked about climbing.
When we first began climbing here in New Zealand, we had one student who was less than stoked on climbing… she wrote a short piece about her journey a little while ago which you can read here: https://mountainguideschool.com/fear-rock-climbing-people-matter/
Abby hated crag days and was afraid of the sharp end. Her gifted skiing didn’t translate to gifted climbing. She realised that her fear of climbing was irrational given that clipping bolts is arguably safer than speeding down hills on a pair of wooden planks, but that didn’t diminish said fear in the slightest.
So we worked on it. We climbed together and we debriefed afterward. We picked out suitable objectives and we worked on some simple drills. Lo and behold, when all those pieces came together, climbing became fun for Abby. The difference between her headspace as both a sport and trad leader is chalk and cheese when contrasted to the beginning of the course. She now enthusiastically picks lines that challenge her and that she also finds enjoyable and rewarding. It’s an incredible progression to have witnessed in the mere span of 2 months.
Having had a small part in that progression is a real privilege for an instructor. Just as I was mentored (and continue to be mentored) by climbers better than myself, I was able to offer this same simple service to Abby. Skiing might always occupy the largest spot in her heart, but I think I managed to drive a little wedge of climbing in there also.
So yeah. I may not have come away with any righteous sends or gnarly ascents. But I did make a difference for at least one student. I truly mean it when I say that it is an experience more valuable than any summit.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.
*Note: Since writing this article, MTS has gone belly up and will now be filing for bankruptcy. Although I’m temporarily unemployed, the lessons learned from this episode are still valid and will serve me well in my continued outdoor career.