Interview with Ice Climber and Alpine Mountain Man: “This is where the adventure starts”

ice climbing

As part of our new interview series, I recently sat down with a co-worker of mine, who also happens to be into “alpine mountaineering”, a dangerous combination of high-altitude hiking and ice climbing. 

EB: Steve, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Steve: I went to college and was interested in philosophy. I was interested in being a philosophy professor and taught philosophy while at Clemson University, but it did not pay very well, as many people know about the academic job market. I left that and moved to Portland, Oregon without any clear job prospects. I ended up working in digital marketing and in a sense Portland was what got me eventually into Alpine mountaineering. I was a big hiker and backpacker and suddenly I was living around these big glorious, glaciated volcanoes and it didn’t take very much time for me to realize that people climb to the top of these things.

Is that something you had done before and were looking to get into again, or is it something where you met somebody that invited you along? How did you get into it?

I am an outdoorsy fellow and before doing this I was heavily into hiking and backpacking and my idea of a good vacation was packing a week’s worth of things on my back and going deep into the woods. What really got me into it was when I went to Olympic National Park for a week-long backpacking trip with my girlfriend and we hiked the whole river trail, which is a very long trail that follows right along the river. There are biting flies, it’s hot; it was kind of miserable. It’s so far into the terminus of Mount Olympus and the Olympic mountains, which is a really beautiful glaciated volcano. It takes several days of hiking and you camp along the way.

So as we were hiking along we kept running into people who were also hiking and sometimes they would pass us and we would pass them and we got to see the same people. After about three days of finally getting to the base of Mount Olympus, this was the end of the trail for us so our plan was to stop and have a nice lunch and enjoy the view. Then we ran into the people that we kept seeing and they arrived at roughly the same amount of time; rather than stopping to get lunch they open up their packs and they pulled out boots and crampons and ice axes and helmets and ropes and harnesses and they put out all this gear. They walked out onto this pristine beautiful blue glacier. And we were sitting there and I had an epiphany, I thought “oh my God, this isn’t the end of the adventure. This is where the adventure starts.”

“This isn’t the end of the adventure. This is where the adventure starts.”

So you were pretty much wrapped up at that point and then you see these people getting ready to continue on.

Exactly. So I thought getting to the glacier was the end of the line for these people, these three days of hiking. This was just an access trail to the actual event. So my girlfriend and I both knew that we were going to learn how to climb mountains.

high alpine mountaineering
Steve Climbing Ingalls Peak, Photo Credit: Andrew Holman

That’s that’s quite a leap because the hiking world is a world in and of itself. But it’s a completely different concept of alpine mountaineering.

It’s a hazardous and dangerous sport. It’s also a sport that’s not for everybody because it involves a lot of physical suffering. At a high elevation the air gets thin so it’s difficult to breathe, it’s steep and you’re climbing, so you’re laboring very very hard. For a lot of people who have thought about it or even tried it they think it takes a certain special kind of moron who likes to get up really early in the morning and then suffer that badly. To go do something like that. And of course there’s something about the kind of person who finds value in that, which I think is kind of interesting that a lot of people think is a foolish thing to do.

When you decided to start doing this what sort of steps did you take? How do you even start something like that? Did you join a group?

The way I started was we started with a large objective. Most people start with smaller mountains, work their way up to bigger things. My girlfriend and I both decided that we were going to climb Mt. Rainier which for the Pacific Northwest is certainly one of the bigger mountains and hazardous. But the advantage of that is in Rainier National Park, there’s a regular guide service that you get. We basically hired professionals. We signed up they had guidelines about physical conditioning to try to get you in shape to do it. They had gear and all that kind of stuff, so it’s really a matter of can you get yourself in good enough shape to do this. This is the kind of thing that requires a lot of training; probably 50 percent of the people who try to climb it are able to get to the top. And a lot of them can’t do it because it’s too physically demanding for them.

So I started training. I was completely paranoid about not being in good enough shape so I spent six months getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and going on the treadmill, or a stair climber at the gym, and also hiking in the Columbia Gorge on the weekends. Every weekend we would do a climb in the gorge on Saturdays. I climb in the gorge for six months to try to get in shape for this. I think we started out with 14 climbers and four of us made it to the summit. Those 10 or 14 didn’t make it on their own volition, and they paid a lot of money to do this.

What was going through your mind during that first climb? Did you ever get doubts halfway up?

That was my paranoia. The other thing is it’s a common thing for high elevation, anytime anybody is above say 10,000 feet, a lot of people are susceptible to acute mountain sickness and altitude sickness. A week before the climb, there was a place called Camp Muir that’s right around 10,000 feet. Before you get to the technical parts on Mt. Rainier, a lot of people like to hike up to camp here for that view, then it’s back down. Just to get a sense of the mountain we decided to do a conditioning hike. When I got to camp I was sick. I was nauseous. Swimmy-headed. I had the early signs of altitude sickness. So my big fear was that I was not going to be able to do it because, despite training, despite having the will to do it, my body would rebel in some way that I couldn’t control and I would get sick and I would have to turn around. But thankfully that didn’t happen to me the second time when I climbed but some of the people who did not make it to the top, that was their issue, they started getting sick. When you feel really awful with altitude sickness it takes the bite right out of you. You’re done. That something is that you can prepare for, or you just hope for the best. Part of it seems to be genetic; I mean some people are prone to this and some people are not. Good things you can do is try not to climb too quickly and acclimatize a little bit. Stay hydrated, make sure you’ve got plenty of food and all of that kind of thing for really big objectives.

People who climb Mt. Everest, there is a climate. You can go to base camp and spend some time getting used to that level and a little bit higher as well. The air is so thin that you don’t have enough oxygen and your body will compensate by creating more red blood cells to carry oxygen. But of course this takes a lot of time. So that’s how you do it.

Tell me a little bit more about the doubt factor. What percentage would you say is mind over matter?

Quite a lot. Climbing is suffer-fest; it is not for some people, and some people question the point of voluntarily making yourself suffer. That can be kind of a tough thing but I think that’s part of the reward. Just to give you an idea of what Alpine mountaineering is like: you don’t want to be climbing in the heat of the day when the sun comes out and the snow melts, the ice and rock loosen up. They start tumbling down the mountain towards you and that’s a hazard. So you want to go when everything is cold. What this means is when you climb you usually will get a few hours of sleep and then you’ll wake up at around midnight, one o’clock in the morning and get up out of your camp, put on all of your gear and start climbing. So you have a nice view and then get off the mountain as fast as you can before things get mush.

Imagine you’re sleep deprived, you’re messing around with your own body clock, you’re getting up at a time that is not normal for you, you’re disoriented, you’re tired, you want to go back to bed. Then you exercise at a physical limit that goes beyond anything you normally do and you’re doing it at elevation. So it’s just a brutal, brutal thing to do for yourself. So the mind over matter aspect is huge. It really is. And perhaps this is the appeal for people who like this. This is a test of will. And so your body says no. And you say, “We shall proceed.” What  motivates you to decide to pursue this and to be part part of it: part of it is there is this sense of accomplishment and basically sort of a test of the will, mind over matter. I’m going to test my limits and I’m going to see how far I can push myself, which is a danger as well because climbing is dangerous so that very thing that causes you to push yourself to be able to succeed is also the thing that allows you to push through dangers and often kill yourself. And then of course the history of climbing is littered with bodies. 

Are you naturally the type of person where you’re an adrenaline junkie or is this something that you had to learn?

That’s a really great question. There are a lot of people who like adrenaline sports, say skydiving, bungee jumping, high slack line and things like that. For me at least, and I think for a lot of climbers, it’s really not about the adrenaline. It’s not. And actually if there is high adrenaline, if I’m doing this and my my heart rate is elevated and my pulse is high and I’m full of adrenaline and I’m freaked out, I’m in a really dangerous place. So when I’m doing these things a lot of times it’s sort of in really hazardous conditions, the point is to try to keep your cool. You have to stay calm. So it’s really not wild. While it has the potential to be an adrenaline sport, the adrenaline part is not the part here. So it’s something else.

You hear a lot that stress is actually a really good thing because it keeps you from making poor decisions and gives you kind of a natural warning that something is dangerous. 

So you’re saying that by the time you get to this point, you really need stress to not be a ruling factor.

I would say that it’s kind of a tightrope that you’re walking because clearly part of the appeal of the sport is what makes it an adventure; is that it’s there’s danger. So you’re pushing your limits, you’re purposefully pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. 

What you don’t is to push yourself to the part where it’s a high adrenaline sport, where you’re freaking out. Because that can be really, really dangerous. You don’t want it to be so comfortable that it’s not interesting. That’s boring. You want to be pushing your comfort level. Everybody’s comfort level varies based on your personality and in climbing. When I started out something that really freaked me out as a beginner now would be boring to me, would put me to sleep because I’m more technically proficient. So I want to sort of push my grade a little bit. And this also is the danger of climbing, is that what happens as you become more and more technically proficient: you keep pushing the envelope and pushing the envelope. If you’re the kind of person who’s trying to test your limits, mountaineering only lets you find the limit one time and then you’re dead.

Have you ever been in a situation where, in some of your earlier days, you did just start freaking out and you had to really pull it together?

I had just taken some climbing classes and had just finished an intermediate climbing skills school. It was a really great course, like an eight month long course. I had suddenly a repertoire of a lot of technical skills, but still not a whole lot of experience. So a highly skilled person without a lot of experience, and so of course the skills allowed me to really start pushing the envelope for myself. And so I climbed a route called the Couts glacier on Mt. Rainier which is very steep and it has a high elevation at about 11,000 feet. There was maybe a 70 degree pitch of like solid ice where you’re ice climbing up a hill that was really high. Climbing up that was fine, but we came down. You’re walking down something very very steep, you don’t want to slip and fall because it’s so steep you’re going to tumble down and die. This is death, and we’re trying to get to a spot where we could build an anchor and I sort of fell down. And I had my freak out; I suddenly became very aware of how serious the situation was. And I had this internal conversation with myself, this panic situation and said “what course of events and what sequence and stupid decisions did you make to put yourself in the situation? You know you don’t have to be here; you volunteered to be here and now you are at death’s door. This is foolish.” And I remember bargaining with myself thinking if I can get off this mountain alive I’m just going to sell all my stuff on e-bay and in the end take up golf. I was terrified. That was one of those moments where this panic really increased my danger level because when you’re panicked like that, that’s when you’re going to make a mistake.

You have to keep a calm head and you have to be sort of like a jet pilot right there. No matter what’s happening, the plane’s going to crash and they’re going to die, but they’re on the intercom. They’re cool. That’s kind of what you have to be to be a climber. I was able to get it together and get off of the mountain and several days later forget about the panic.

Now in my memory is just a grand adventure. It’s always great to look back on it and see that accomplishment. You cheated death. So that’s exciting. This is an interesting thing about climbing as well, is that it’s a sort of suffering. And there’s a saying among climbers that it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun. I heard a great saying from a climber who said climbing isn’t fun at the time. Climbing is fun after. Then the memory is fun.

I don’t think there are a lot of hobbies like that. What about it is rewarding for you?

I go back to Sir Edmund Hillary and people like that; there’s always the question why climb mountains. And nobody has a satisfactory answer for that. And for one thing it’s not very defensible. One could say “I’m going out and I’m risking my life but I’m not making the world a better place. I’m not saving people’s lives. I’m really putting myself in harm’s way and on purpose for no real point.” There’s a lot of value in climbing. I think of climbing as kind of a metaphor for life. I think that the the skills and the adversity you have to overcome in climbing are directly applicable to all the kinds of obstacles you have in life. There’s a self-discovery aspect to it that you learn something about who you are. So this is one of the things that’s interesting about beginning climbers: you meet people and they haven’t climbed a whole lot. And you think, well these people are perfectly reasonable, smart, competent people. But I wonder how they are under pressure, and this is something I think for all of us that until we’re under pressure we often don’t know ourselves. So when we’re under pressure we see how we perform. We discover something about ourselves in the moment that we didn’t know until we test ourselves.

I’ve climbed with people who would just have a mental breakdown and you would have to try to guide them off the mountain and they would be a sobbing mess and so on. What’s interesting is to be in that kind of situation, to be in cases where things go sideways and things go wrong. And now you’re in harm’s way and you’ve got a problem to solve and there’s every reason to panic. There’s every reason to freak out and you deal with it and you problem solve and sort of get off the mountain. You’ve learned something about yourself, and then in life when something comes at you you realize a little bit about what you’re made of. I’ve had ample experience under all sorts of stressful situations. I mean literally life threatening situations where if I don’t keep calm I’m going to die. Can I handle that? I could handle that. 

Living in America, we live a very comfortable life, especially compared to a lot of people around the world who face trial every day almost at a point where they become numb to it. Why do we have this need to challenge ourselves? I think what it comes down to is it’s in our blood. It’s in our history as humans. If we don’t challenge ourselves I think we begin to actually lose a piece of ourselves. We begin to live this very quiet, stale life.

I think I think that’s right. I mean I think in a certain regard to have a meaningful fulfilling life you want to have challenges and you want to try to overcome those challenges, you want to have adventures. I don’t know what it is about evolution or our history or our past, but this seems to be how we’re put together and I think this is one of the appeals of sports like climbing. Unless you live in a war zone or you’re a soldier or something like that or in law enforcement you don’t have these sorts of life or death things. And in some regard you want to avoid these things because we want to live a comfortable life. I’m on the other hand. Life has become so civilized and so safe that I relish the appeal of going out for the weekend and climbing and putting yourself in harm’s way where you can die. I think life has become safe and I want to have adventures. And so I’m going to make it an adventure.

This is a morbid question, but if you were to die, would you would you be OK with going out like that?

I would be fine with that. There are a lot of beginning climbers that could do climbing that isn’t all that dangerous and that’s perfectly fine. But people who have climbed for a while and start to develop their skills get climbing to a level where there are so many objective hazards that it’s actually a very dangerous sport. And so you get to a point where you have personal relationships with friends who have died climbing. There’s people I’ve known and been friends with who’ve been killed climbing. You know in some ways maybe it’s a rationalization. Climbers will say “well you know you take your life in your hands every time you drive your car.” But statistically the odds of you being killed in an automobile accident are much smaller than they are climbing and doing Alpine mountaineering or ice climbing or rock climbing at a high level. On the other hand I think being killed going out on a grand adventure, to my mind that’s preferable than having a heart attack in my living room watching television on a couch. You really want your life in your hands. You have control of it and you’re doing something that you love to do.

There are climbers who are young and single and do all this sort of stuff and then they get married and they have children and suddenly now it’s like well do you want to make sure children your children end up in an orphanage? So a lot of times that’s that’s an occasion for a climber to say I’m going to back off and I’m not going to climb very hard anymore or I’ll just abandon the sport. This is this is an unacceptable hazard at this point for me. And of course that’s everybody’s personal decision as well. But this is something that I think is interesting. People are interested in playing Ultimate Frisbee or something like that. They don’t have to make these kinds of decisions. But for their sport and for climbers that is the case; I mean there’s this significant risk that I could kill myself doing this and at a certain point that cost benefit analysis they do in their own head. But it doesn’t play out any more.

As you mentioned earlier a team really impacts your climbing and what that looks like.

The team means everything because as you climb with them more and more, your teams get smaller and smaller to the point when you are climbing at a really high level. The team is usually a team of two. You don’t want to climb those things alone. You want to be roped up; you want somebody to be able to, as you’re climbing, placing protection with a rope. You want somebody on the other end of that rope protecting you.

“A single person can ruin a climb. A single person can also kill everybody.”

A single person can ruin a climb. A single person can also kill everybody. So one of the things to think about climbing is that when you’re on glaciers and things like that, you are literally tied on a rope to everybody. If one person sort of slips and falls they can take the whole team. So in a certain sense climbing is almost like suicide.

I’m trusting you because if you screw up you’re not just going to kill yourself, you’re going to kill me too. So this is very interesting about sort of the brotherhood and sisterhood of climbing as well. These people tend to develop fast deep friendships because you go out on the weekends and it’s rare for people to go out with a friend on the weekend and then actually put their lives in the hands of their friends. So that ends up being sort of a really big thing and you learn very quickly that there’s no bull in climbing. You can brag and claim you can do this or that, but either you can perform or you can’t perform because people’s lives are on the line. So when you climb with people who are not very thoughtful, maybe they don’t have technical skills, maybe they are sloppy, you notice this and you make a mental note that I’m not going to climb with this person because this person is going to get us killed. You end up carefully evaluating people, figuring out what they’re made of, whether they have calm heads or whether they’re saving face or not. And then you have your favorite people that you climb with and you have these very close friendships and you have this incredible camaraderie.

Because you climb together in these difficult situations you also develop this kind of bond. You get to the point where you’re like an integrated unit. You anticipate others’ moves. You can move along in silence without having to explain things.

Have you had any awkward situations where you had to dismiss somebody from your climbing group or say you know this is not going to work out?

There have been things like that. And what’s difficult is when you’re on a climb you have to sort of make an assessment. For instance I’ve had cases where I’m climbing with somebody who doesn’t quite have the mental fortitude for it. They like the idea of an adventure. This is usually more of a beginning climber and things are getting a little bit dangerous and they’re panicking and it’s clear that they’re not able to keep their head about them and they’re starting to panic and it’s very interesting to see people under stress. Some people behave well under stress and some people fall apart and they start lashing out, they start getting hysterical, they might get mean to people. They do all sorts of weird things and there have been cases where that’s been the case and we’ve assessed that this is too dangerous to proceed and that ends the climbing; you go home.

And then you don’t invite that person to be with you ever again.

What’s the biggest impact climbing has had on you as a person?

I think probably just the biggest thing is just a sense of confidence. When you put yourself under stress. I mean most of us don’t have the life or death stresses very often so a lot of people can go through their whole life and never really test themselves and know what’s going to happen in that kind of panic situation and how they’re going to prevail. And so in this artificial sense I forced myself to confront that again and again and again and of course if I would have learned that it freaked me out and I stopped doing that I would have learned something about myself. But to my surprise and delight I learned that I can handle this pretty well.

So I think probably the greatest thing about climbing is just a sense of confidence that when when it all goes sideways, when it’s all kind of a mess, I can handle quite a lot. And so you know in life all sorts of things freak us out. And I realized that I’m actually a pretty tough person in that I can handle a lot. And I have something to measure it against.

What’s next on the horizon? What’s the next goal?

There are a couple of things about this. So one of them is that in some words of climbing, it does get boring unless I really start to push it. I have gotten to a point where I was climbing some incredibly dangerous things. And so I have had an evaluation where I stopped pushing the envelope. So I reached a point where I’m not trying to push my game. I’ve gotten to a point in my game where I think independent of my my skill, independent my technical ability. 

I don’t want to push anymore because I don’t want to kill myself. And then another thing about it is that I’m in my early 50s now. The other interesting aspect of this sport is that I’ve never been better, but physically I’m not as strong as I was when I was in my 30s. So part of it also is that I’m not physically able to do the kind of climbing I could when I was probably younger and fitter but not as experienced. So it is a little bit different now in that regard as well. I’m not trying to compete with an athlete who’s 25 years old.

Any plans for Everest?

I don’t so. There are people who in some ways, climbing is a very goal oriented kind of thing, and there are some people who want to just climb the highest thing. I climb this big mountain and then I’m going to climb when it’s bigger and bigger and bigger and then well what’s the tallest one? I want to climb Mt. Everest. That kind of objective never really appealed to me. For me to push the envelope is not to climb higher and higher; it means to climb more technical. So for example in Portland, my local mountain is Mt. Hood. There are routes on Mt. Hood that are far too technical for me to ever climb. So rather than thinking “well I need to go to the Himalayas to push my game”, I can I can push the game beyond my comfort level and an hour from my home.

Just because Everest is taller and higher doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more technical. It’s become quite an industry. Lots of people climb Mt. Everest. A good number of those people climb Mt. Everest have no climbing skills. Well, they basically have a checkbook and a sherpa and they get dragged up so. I don’t want to underestimate how incredibly physically demanding it is and I don’t even know that I could do it, I might not be able to do it. But I’ve climbed hard things on Mt. Hood.

If people want to find out more where can they go?

For people in the Pacific Northwest there are there climbing clubs, there’s the museums here in Portland. There’s the mountaineers in Seattle. But depending on where you live there is usually a climbing club. It’s usually a nonprofit. So these are people who will basically train beginners how to climb and guide them to things they can scale. Take the first step. If there’s a place where people climb, find out what organization is involved with this and give them a call.

Steve is a the writer, photographer, cook, webmaster, social media guy, grocery shopper, and head dishwasher. You can read more of his food explorations at his Slow Burning Passion blog.

Kyle Richardson

Kyle Richardson

Writer at Electric Beach
Kyle Richardson is a graphic designer from Portland, Oregon. He is also a husband and father to 3 kids. He appreciates all things Star Wars, DIY, and outdoors.
Kyle Richardson