6 Leadership lessons from being part of a mountain guiding team

This was my tent and view of the Mt Baker

Over this past weekend, I had the opportunity to be a part of a guiding team that led a climb up the Easton Glacier of Mount Baker here in Washington State.

My wife and I have been learning the skills needed for leading trips and climbs for the past 3 years. So far, we have learned how to lead on ice, glaciers and rock in alpine environments. This past weekend was an opportunity for me to be able to do some of the leading and instruction with the supervision of a trained mountain guide.

I walked into this experience not knowing exactly what to expect. I enjoy mentoring, teaching and being in the mountains but I wasn’t sure how I would respond by teaching mountain skills to actual clients. I also wasn’t sure how I would react to being the one to lead the entire party up the mountain.

But let me back up a few steps. We left Seattle early Friday morning to meet up with everyone at a Park n Ride in Sedro Wooley, WA. I had the opportunity to meet the two guides (Kyle & Hisham) for the trip along with the clients that we were going to lead up the mountain.

We made our way up to the trailhead and got all of our gear together and started hiking. I was asked to take us up the trail and set the pace. After adjusting my pace a bit slower than I normally travel at we all hit a pretty good rhythm.

We took two breaks along the trail and made it up to basecamp in just a few hours, 4 miles and 2600’ of elevation gain. What I realized from the hike up was it doesn’t matter how fast I can go if the people I am leading can’t keep up. That was Leadership Lesson #1. If no one is following you, you aren’t leading you are just going for a walk.

The decision was made to not go for the summit on Saturday morning but rather wait until Sunday morning. Reason being, none of the clients really had much experience being in a snowy, glaciated mountain environment. 

There are times when Snow School can be taught at the end of Day 1, but Day 2 turned into Snow School instead. This would ensure that we didn’t rush through teaching the skills needed to reach the summit.

It became apparent that it was more important to meet everyone where they were at, rather than trying to force them into a potentially uncomfortable situation, Lesson #2. Because we took the time to explain everything without any pressure to ‘get it’ quickly, we had a better chance at an enjoyable climb.

We woke up at 1am on Sunday to prepare for a 2am departure. The wind had picked up over night and the temperature had dropped a little bit as well. But the weather was still reasonably stable so off we went.

The plan had been to climb for an hour and break for 10 minutes. Then climb for about another hour and break for 10 minutes, and so on. Our first break was after 1 hour exactly. It was still a bit on the cold side, but the upside of that was traveling on the Easton Glacier was relatively easy because everything was frozen.

We had gained about 1300’ in the first hour. 300’ over our goal of 1000’ per hour. Our ten minute break was not difficult to adhere to given the wind and temps, so off we went on the next section. When we took our next break about 75 minutes later we had gained another 1200’.

At this point, the wind had increased and the clouds were starting to build around the summit. There was a concern that it might not be a great weather window to summit but we continued up until we reached the crater rim and decided to reassess there. 

We reached the crater rim around 6:45am well ahead of our planned turn around time of 8:00am. At this point the wind was still whipping pretty hard but the clouds were starting to burn off as the sun was rising higher in the sky. 

It was cold and windy, a full on mountaineering experience, type 2 fun as we like to call it. Checking in with everyone, the stoke was still high and everyone wanted to continue despite the weather and cold fingers and toes. Leadership Lesson #3, don’t assume that everyone is going to follow you just because you have a leadership title. Check in with people to make sure that they are still with you.

We could see blue sky patches starting to get bigger by the minute. We were going for the summit. We switched the order of the team and Kyle left the crater rim area around 7am and made our way up the Roman Wall, a steep wall of ice and snow with switchbacks craved in to walk on. We were in a cue of about 10 rope teams and we were somewhere in the middle.

It kind of felt like a traffic jam, where you would move a few steps and then stop. Then move a few more, then stop. Some of the rope teams that were going up were not moving very quickly which by itself was part of the slowness. Add to that, downhill traffic that was trying to come down the way we were going up which created a lot of confusion. 

It would have been really easy to lose control and get upset at the things unfolding in front of you, but it can really pay off to have a sense of acceptance of the nature of things. Which leads me to Leadership Lesson #4, we don’t have a lot of control over the events that happen around us, but we do have control over our response to them. Losing control in that kind of environment would only have made a bad situation worse. 

At 7:45am, we reached the summit of Mt Baker, well ahead of our turn around time by over an hour. Our second rope team was only about 10 minutes behind us. We all posed for a pic on the summit, that’s me in the bright green puffy parka.

Climbing party on the summit (L-R):Harshraj, Nick, Hisham (one of the guides), Me, Sidharth, & Josh. Photo taken by – Kyle (our lead guide)

Leadership Lesson #5: Success happens if you have a plan and truly lead your team to help them stay on track and on time. The entire climb we were encouraging each other, and helping each other maintain the schedule we had set before we left camp. And it paid off. 

The last Leadership Lesson was that although it is important to have a plan, you must be willing to make a change if the situation requires it. Mike Tyson once said “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.” We need to have plans, yes, but we can’t stick to them so rigidly that we put ourselves into unnecessary risk. The weather was a potential factor that could have turned us around, or one of the climbers could have needed to turn around due to being cold or just too tired to continue. You have to read the situation in the moment and then decide if you should continue with the plan or change it.

I feel like I am just scratching the surface on these 6 leadership lessons, so I have decided to write a short series on them going into more detail. So be on the lookout for those in the coming weeks.

If you have been following me for a little while, you will know that a big part of my ikigai is spending time in the mountains. What you may not know is that mentoring and teaching is also a part of my ikigai.  Being able to blend those two together over this weekend was really an amazing experience.

I think it is safe to say that I will likely have more guiding trips coming up in the future. Not sure what that will look like exactly, but it will be happening. It became apparent to me that this type of experience can add so much to my quest to find work:life harmony. More to come, stay tuned.

#ikigai #climbing #guiding #leadershiplessons #worklifeharmony 

4 thoughts on “6 Leadership lessons from being part of a mountain guiding team

  1. johndavidhartigan July 12, 2022 — 7:39 am

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Happy to share my thoughts and experiences. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


  2. Hey Steve, I love the 6 lessons you articulated from your mountain guiding experience. Lesson 4 resonates with me and reminds me of ‘arugamama’ – understanding the true nature of things. Mountain guiding seems like the perfect experiential medium to feel ikigai and share it with others. I look forward to the day you lead me up a climb!


    1. Yes, I have often thought the same things about being in the mountains. I too look forward to climbing a mountain with you some day.


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