Field Notes

Mountains and Mentorship

Feb 19
Mountains and Mentorship
Posted February 19, 2015


Brian, Father and I backpacked into Emerald Lake in the Gros Ventre Wilderness in Wyoming. We were planning on a 50 mile loop to see what kind of work the trails needed for future expeditions. When we arrived at the lake we decided on a different strategy; use the lake as our basecamp and do exploratory day hikes from there. It was a good temporary mountain home we shared with the eagles, wolves and bear.  

One of the valuable lessons I have learned about mentoring is that in order to be a good mentor you have to avail yourself to the process. Be ready to learn and grow regardless of where the knowledge comes from. Like so many men today, Brian’s relationship with his father was distant and strained; they didn’t experience and share the time, natural work and problem solving of the pre-industrial world that graced our father and son ancestors. But something they had done together was studying the stars of the heavens.  When Brian was a boy his father purchased a telescope and together they learned about the constellations and stars. During those evenings in the Gros Ventre, Brian instructed and I learned more about the night sky than I had previously known; Arc to Arcturus, the Northern Cross, the teapot of Sagittarius, and red giants.

Brian had just graduated from Xavier University in Philosophy. One of his requirements for graduation was a thesis on Saint Thomas Aquinas. He was worried, nervous and intimidated by this challenge; his programmed self-talk didn’t help much.  This had been a theme with Brian. A great high school athlete, he was selected as an all-state football player. He was a linebacker on defense, and a backup quarterback. On one of the most crucial games of the year, the starting quarterback went down and Brian had to start. “I was so nervous I thought I was going to puke.” He told me. “How did it turn out?” I asked. “Great” he said, “I played well and we won the game.” This process was repeated with the St Thomas thesis; worry and nervousness on verge of illness. After he finished it, his professor returned it with an ‘A+’. “One of the best I’ve seen. Worthy of publishing.”

One late afternoon toward the end of our adventure in the wilderness, I watched Brian as he studied the highest peak; the Gros. From our vantage point it looked like it was half covered with snow, but may yield a trail to the top. “Would you like to climb it?” I asked. “Would I? I’d love to!” he exclaimed. We’ll head up in the morning.” I said. And then something happened that can cause a man to become superstitious. Father broke our only water filter and I started worrying that this was a sign that Brian and I shouldn’t attempt the  summit of the Gros. I mentioned it to him and he was visibly disappointed; and then I knew I made a mistake. As I searched my heart and mind, I fixed the water filter with some duct tape and a stick and it worked. I realized that I had let fear try to derail something important, something that Brian and I needed to do together. About an hour after the water filter incident I approached him and apologized. “I’m sorry I had a moment of doubt about the Gros. It stemmed from irrational fear. Everything will be ok.” “Are you sure?” He asked. “Yes. I know it will work out well, if you still want to go. How about it?” “Yeh, I want to do it.” He said. “Great, we will head out right after breakfast.”

The next morning we finished breakfast, packed up our gear, studied the map and the mountain, set a bearing and started to hike. “How long do you think it will take us to get to the top?” he asked. “About 4 hours.” I said.

Following about 30 minutes of hard climbing we finally came to a fairly flat boulder field that we picked our way through. We began to talk. Brian started telling me about St Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and the faith and reason he had learned from the unusually orthodox department of philosophy, in the typically secularized Catholic University he attended.  We came to a wall of rock and helped one another through the crevices up to the ledges. I had not read Aquinas directly myself. It was good to get a first-hand report. I asked Brian questions, he responded with thoughtful answers. There were long periods of quiet and thoughtful solitude as we worked our way higher in elevation and closer to the summit.

Then Brian started asking me questions; “I’ve heard you talk about leadership, what do you think it is, how do you define it?”. I began thinking and talking; “At its core I believe that leadership starts with an unyielding desire to discover the truth. A big part of that journey of discovery is to know ourselves as ‘we are known’, and our place in God’s universe. We have to realize that we as men are personally responsible for the fall and must live our lives to set things right. Have you ever heard of Stephen Covey or Peter Senge?”  I asked. “No” Brian said, “who are they?”

We scrambled higher over the rocks and at one point crossed a drastically pitched snow field where we probably needed crampons but dug into the snow with our Vibram souls, while I unpacked Covey’s 7 habits from the proclamation of ‘Proactivity’ to striving for personal mastery in ‘Sharpening Saw’.

A few hundred yards from the summit we had to traverse two narrow ridges with steep, snow covered drop offs on each side. At one point I turned around to see how Brian was doing. He was doing the bear crawl, worrying about losing his balance and falling off. I stopped and spoke “Brian, stop a second, stand up, relax, take a few easy breaths, and look around. Here we were, high above the alpine tree line. Above us the immense blue sky, around us and below us rock and snow, and further away and below we could make out our camp nestled in the pines above the lake. “Actually this is a lot safer than it looks. You’d actually have to make an effort to fall from here. You can walk erect. Its really safer and easier.” I could see Brian relax. He was starting to get the hang of this alpine athletic endeavor.

During that last 30 minutes of climbing I downloaded to Brian my esteem for Peter Senge and his 5 disciplines, the essence of understanding our actions, cause and effect relationships and their underlying laws revealed in systems thinking. 

About 50’ from the top I stopped. “The tops all your’s” I told Brian “Go for it! I’ll be up in a few minutes.” I lost sight of him as he raised himself over the last few rocks and though I couldn’t see him I heard his yell of victory. He had climbed his first real mountain.

When I joined him on top we spent many minutes in quiet, natural prayer, and  thanksgiving. Brian looked at me with eyes that spoke of complete exhilaration, confidence and life. “I have never been so far outside my comfort zone. This is the most radical thing I have ever done!”  We stood shoulder to shoulder on the summit, quietly turning a slow 360, taking in the hard earned magnificent view. Northwest of us were the Tetons pointing, snowcapped into the dark blue sky.