My favorite thing about being an outdoors instructor isn’t spending my working days out in nature. It isn’t in being a strong climber or an accomplished paddler or an expert backpacker. It isn’t getting up before the sun nor the exhaustion of a long, physically demanding day guiding clients. It definitely isn’t for the money.
My favorite thing about being an outdoors instructor is seeing the light in my students’ eyes when they try something they never thought they’d be doing. It’s that moment in a class when someone overcomes a fear of heights and reaches the top of a climb, or gets in the ocean on a tiny piece of plastic when they are deathly terrified of the ocean, or when a 60 year old woman rides a bike for the first time in her life.
Today, the employees from the Tustin REI got a free mountaineering class from Outdoor School. For most of them, it was their first exposure to snow travel. They learned to put on crampons, carry an ice axe, kick steps, self-belay, and to self-arrest during a fall. They spent the day in the snow working on the basic skills of a mountaineer.
Normally, my facebook post would be about how amazing of a day it was to be teaching outside. About how fantastic it was to have such a great group of students. How I was at the top of the snow slope giving encouragement and yelling tips as they slid down the slope.
But today, I wasn’t there. It wasn’t me doing the teaching or taking the group out or even just being out with them. Today, I was in the office sending emails and answering phone calls. Today, I had to sit out something I really, really wanted to be a part of.
This season, I wanted to make mountaineering happen for REI. Not just for our paying customers, but for the employees too. Mountaineering is why I got into the outdoors in the first place. I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to climb big, snow covered peaks. The Sierras. The Rockies. The Andes. The Alps. The Himalaya. There is something magical about being in snow, up in the thin mountain air, with an ice axe in your hand, and determined courage in your heart.
I wanted to share that. I wanted the other REI employees to know what that was like. I wanted to plant that seed, to give them that starting point for their mountain adventures. Even if they never try it again, I wanted them to get an idea.
This is mountaineering. It’s fucking amazing. You can do it.
Mountaineering is what REI was founded to do. We started as a co-op to bring Austrian ice axes into America in the 1930’s. It’s the reason we have ice axes on our doors. It’s the very heart of what being a part of this company means. No matter how big REI gets, I remember that we started in mountaineering.
Yeah, it’s good business. The employees are suddenly much more knowledgeable about gear and experience. Yeah, it’ll sell more ropes and harnesses and ice axes and crampons and tents and boots. Customers will get outfitted.
But I don’t really care much about that.
I care about pushing the limits of your comfort zone. I care about overcoming fear and developing courage. I care about the quiet solitude of the up-high alpine making you a deeper and more introspective person. I want everyone to become a better person through their experiences outside. Today, I wasn’t able to be there for that.
But the thing is, I set this whole thing up. I pushed the store managers to pay for it, I got the instructors, I set up the date and times, and I made it all happen. I just wasn’t able to be there in person. I had other responsibilities.
It’s part of my new role. I accept that I can touch more lives from afar. I can’t be there for every class or for every student. It’s just too big of a job for a one person. No, someone has to do all the background work. Someone has to do the coordinating and the motivating and persuading. I’m not just a single instructor anymore.
So I miss a day with the employees of the store I grew up in and in the class I am most passionate about. I trust my fellow instructors. They are really, really good. It’s part of the role I play. I am a little sad that it’s not me.
But today, I see the pictures the employees posted. The big smiles on their faces while posing with ice axes in their hands. The groups of them on snow slopes planting their axes to the mantra of, “in-balance, out-of-balance, in-balance, out-of-balance.” Their status updates and their hashtags.
They look tired. Dirty. Bruised.
But, what I see most is pride. Proud that they tried something really intimidating and scary. Proud that they got up at the ass crack of dawn and drove up to a 10,000′ mountain covered in snow. Proud to have strapped little knives to their feet and kick stepped around on snow and ice. Proud that they were able to fall head-first, backwards, down a snow-covered slope and stop themselves with an ice axe. All these REI employees, all these brand-new mountaineers, they post their status updates all over facebook. There are so many smiling faces in those pictures. So many proud status updates and proud instagram posts.
I see all this, and I can’t help it.
I feel proud of them too.