Encore: Wisdom for the Hills — John Evans and Peter Lev

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | March 20, 2013      

(Editor’s note: Originally published July 28 2011, we bring this to the front for those of you contemplating mountain safety.)

Woodcut by Peter Lev, Mt. Robson North Face,. August 1968. Lev gave this to me as a birthday present in 1979 and I've always cherished it.

Woodcut by Peter Lev, Mt. Robson North Face,. August 1968. Lev gave this to me as a birthday present in 1979 and I've always cherished.

“I want to leave ski tracks, not a skid mark.” When legendary mountaineer Peter Lev rolled out those words, at first I laughed. Then I thought to myself, “could I put my whole philosophy of mountain risk management into such a pithy one liner?”

A few years ago my wife and I were in Marble, Colorado, at an annual event we sometimes attend at the Outward Bound Basecamp up there. The event organizers invited former OB director John Evans for the evening presentation. Evans invited Lev, and we got an evening treat as two old and smart mountaineers lent us a chunk of their mountain minds and spirit.

(FYI on these guys: In his mountaineering prime Evans authored such routes as Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan and the first ascent of Vinson Massif. Lev and his partners put up the Denali East Buttress in 1963 — a monster of a route that was way ahead of its time, and in 1968 Peter and his friend Jock Glidden did the second ascent of the North Face of Mount Robson. Beyond his climbing accomplishments, Lev is known as a principle in Exum Guides as well as a long-time avalanche safety worker and heli skiing guide.)

Evans led off. He structured his talk about mountain wisdom by showing film clips of the infamous 1971 Mount Everest International Expedition. This debacle is one of the most famous Everest failures. Even though it happened ages ago, anyone who enjoys Everest history or was involved in climbing back then knows of the this ill fated event that attempted to bring individuals from 30 different countries on one Everest climb, and do two difficult routes (one entirely new). After one death and ugly dissension in the ranks of climbers, the expedition retreated in defeat.

Back then, Everest had only been summited a few dozen times.

Ancient history, yes. But as they say, those who fail to know the past are doomed to repeat it. Thus, I found John’s talk captivating as he described how important it is to choose your mountaineering partner’s wisely, or, if you can’t choose your partners, to make getting along your number one priority. This unlike the way the 1971 Everest trip had thrown a bunch of world-class climbers together, who apparently placed little to no value on getting along and working for a common goal. (It should also be mentioned that Evans was co-leader of another ill fated attempt at an “international” expedition, the infamous Russian Pamirs disaster of 1974. Perhaps it took him a few tries to get it right — but we’re all allowed that.)

We modern ski alpinists and climbers most often do shorter trips with small groups, so issues of leadership and interpersonal dynamics might not come up for us as often as they do on big expeditions. If things aren’t going well, during most trips we can just turn around and go back. But not always, and even a tiny sojourn may become a challenge in group dynamics (also known as a shouting match) if unusual challenges add stress. For example, pressure to split your group if a person becomes sick.

Evans turned the floor over to Lev, who continued the “human factors” theme by talking about how one of the best things you can do as a younger mountaineer is to find mentors — to get out with people who have more experience than you do and are willing to share their experience and thought processes. Yet just as Evans had emphasized, Lev kept coming around to just how important it is to be out with people you trust, get along with, and are on the same page as you are.

Conversely, to his credit Peter didn’t hesitate to show some slides of guys he did NOT get along with over the years. I won’t mention any names. But what occurs to me is that if Peter, and in turn all of us, are willing to be astute and honest about who we really do and do not get along with in the mountains, that can go a long ways in making our trips safer and more fun. Face it, we’re human. While pop philosophy gives us the ideal of holding a saccharin smile for just about anyone in any situation, life actually doesn’t work quite that way. Especially in the mountains.

Talk to any ski alpinist who gets out much, and if he or she’s honest you can dredge up stories of disagreements on the trail, or situations where a person in a group turns out to either push too hard through danger, or conversely, get excessively freaked out and paranoid. If the group functions well together they can work through such things. But not always. If such situations arise when you’re deep in the midst of a climb, or partway into a difficult descent or avalanche danger situation, a divisive group can be the root cause of tragedy. Thus, a huge lesson we can keep learning is that if you want a long and fruitful life as a mountaineer, pick your partners wisely.

As for leaving tracks instead of skid marks, Lev mentioned several times that what’s kept him alive in the hills was “mountain consciousness,” meaning being hyper aware of what’s around you, and listening to what your thoughts and intuitions tell you.

Lev capped that off with a self humbling story about a time he didn’t stay conscious. A time when he and his friends got fed up with a guide who was taking them “on terrain we had to pole straight down the hill on, because of the avalanche danger.” Lev and his group blew off the guide, went off on their own, and succeeded in triggering several avalanches that caught and buried one skier (who lived).

Lesson there was of course don’t let your pride, frustration, or downright anger get in the way of being conscious, or as they say “present.” Which brings us full circle.

Who you’re out with and how you get along with them is key to your safety. If you go with a guide, make sure he or she is someone you respect and get along with. If you’re out with strangers, dial back your expectations till you know the chemistry. When you go with a spouse or such know the limits of your relationship in terms of what sort of risk or difficulty you want to get involved in.

Pick good partners, find mentors, be conscious. Come to think of it, good advice for life in general.


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14 Responses to “Encore: Wisdom for the Hills — John Evans and Peter Lev”

  1. AndyC July 25th, 2011 10:59 am

    Nice discussion. I do mostly solo or duo (with my spouse) day ski trips now–no more multi-day trips. I did rafting expeditions for years (and a couple of overseas biking expeditions). The dynamics you write of so well are incredibly compounded by the diversity of people and the diversity in skills and attitudes in whitewater rafting. When bicycling, it is so much easier to dissolve a group on send someone on their way than it is with climbing, skiing, or rafting.

  2. Jim July 25th, 2011 1:11 pm

    Don’t forget the dynamics of the other teams on the mountains. It comes up on Everest in rescues, blocked routes, ropes,camps etc. But also how about the foolish guide on South Peak near Virginia Lake with her clueless clients who skiied down right on top of me. Or the rope group on Mt. Hood sliding down scraping off other climbers on their way down. With more and more back country skiiers this issue will get worse.

  3. Lou July 25th, 2011 1:24 pm

    Jim, exactly why we didn’t do Rainier summit when we were up there a few weeks ago. It just seemed like too much of a circus and I wasn’t getting a good feeling about it because of that.

  4. John Gloor July 25th, 2011 7:26 pm

    Jim, your comment about people skiing down on you brings up a topic which I am not sure of the answer. Essentially, who is in the wrong in a case like that. I know unintentional human caused rockfall happens, and it is a risk I accept. If I am unwilling to accept it, I need to get out of bed earlier to make sure no one is above me. When It comes to skiing, It is impossible to know who is below you for 3-4000′. My take is that if you want to be safe, be early and above everyone so no one can trigger anything down on you. Any other opinions?

  5. Caleb Wray July 25th, 2011 9:21 pm

    “Pick good partners, find mentors, be conscious.”

    Thanks for that tidbit Lou. The most successful people I know in all walks of life have picked partners and mentors well. The getting along part is a personality thing I feel. Some folks can do it and some can’t. Those that can’t, become solo phenoms.

  6. Lou July 26th, 2011 6:30 am

    Gloor, starting early is indeed one of the most important safety and success things you can do in mountaineering…. I’ve had that drilled into me by mentors and experience for years. It never fails to have an effect, one way or the other.

    Regarding dealing with other groups, in backcountry skiing you can almost always have the place to yourself just by doing an early morning start.

    Only problem, then you’re the person skiing down on top of folks. Tricky sometimes. Another reason why safe routes up are so important for people to identify and use.

  7. Dostie July 26th, 2011 11:50 am

    re: “Pick good partners,” et al.

    So true and easier said than done. It’s why I make more than half my backcountry tours solo and have a short list of preferred partners.

  8. doug July 27th, 2011 8:59 am

    hey, lou, i stopped by OB HQ on my way out of lead king monday, nice place!

  9. Mark W July 27th, 2011 12:11 pm

    I knew Lev was a legend (read any Montana climbing history like White Death), but Evans on Hummingbird Ridge? Amazing! That’s one of the most drawn-out, massive ridge climbs anywhere.

  10. Mike Marolt March 20th, 2013 10:01 am

    I was litterally just talking to my brother and life-long buddy Jim Gile about a recent expedition where we brought along another buddy. Great guy, super to have around, but not at the same level mentally, physically, or experiencewise. We digressed to talking about 3 other expeditions over the years where we had similar experiences. We have never had any major accidents due to this, but it has been a cause for stress and even anger. It NEVER works. But then again, I am not sure outside of one “outsider” if there is anyone that could really tollerate the likes of us three to begin with let alone for weeks at a clip. But the point in the article is clear and spot on. And what is frustrating is we have all read the bible on the topic, Jon Waterman’s Surviving Denali. Group dynamics are the basis for safty, success, and having a good trp. So yes, choose partner’s wisely. Great article!

  11. Chet Roe March 20th, 2013 5:43 pm

    about five years ago did a British Columbia hut trip with Pete …I didn’t know who he was….half the guys on the trip were these “older guys” who all had known each other for fifty years since college at CU or the service….all mellow personalities, some skiing on skinny older skis or Miller softs….anyway, one night after a couple of sips we were looking through Chic Scott’s coffeetable Canada mountaineering history book…..half the guys at the table were in the book as first ascents, stories started to flow about first ascents around the world, I was stunned at the history of all these guys that I didn’t have a clue about ….I was one of several of the youngsters that got invited through friends…Andy Arnold was the first physicain in Winter Park, Colorado…taught skiing in Alask to the ski mountaineering troops there (just died a year ago), Paul Stetner of Longs Peak/Stetner Ledges “name”……these were all that crew…each guy had a story bigger than the last guy, but each guy almost more humble than the last one……amazing to be amongst them….I didn’t realize it till the end of the week the history I was in the midst of…..they all were just enjoying the skiing, no egos, just long time buddies getting together…..more talk about family stuff than mountain accomplishments……wow!

  12. kyle tyler March 20th, 2013 5:47 pm

    Yes-Peter and I worked together teaching Level II Avay Classes on Mount Washington,N.H.—He looked at me in the field one day and stated the this may be his last time back east doing such—-i took over for him from then on but the best part was a conversation about where we went to school—Montana State–where I did–working with Doc John Montagne—Peter introduced the idea that Full Moons and Tides had an influence on Avay problems—-to this day i have a lot of his work and class outlines that he developed while teaching—thanks to Peter for spreading the word–tell him hello—kyle tyler

  13. OMR March 21st, 2013 10:23 am

    Ski solo, then you only have yourself to blame for the bad company.

  14. dmr March 23rd, 2013 6:52 am

    Excellent blog post. The human factor is indeed important in mountain endeavors as a group or a pair. For the last ten years at least AIARE courses have focused much more on the human element and group management than simply becoming proficient at beacon searches and digging pits.

    With the exception of one bad experience with a new partner trying to bite off more than we could chew on a first outing together (we never climbed again together), I’ve done well in choosing the right partners over the years. Mostly I think because:

    (a) I like to head into the mountains with friends, or if we’ve just met, someone I get along with well – I don’t look at a partner, especially for climbing, as simple utilitarian, if I’m going to spend days in the mountains putting my life in their hands, I want to get along with that person and have the desire to spend time with them,

    (b) When heading out for the first time we choose something well within our ability in order to provide the chance to work out the kinks in the partnership, see how the other performs, etc. As I wrote, the one time I did not do this led to an epic (no one was hurt in the affair, rest assured).

    But even with that system working very well for me, even when heading out with partners I’ve had and climbed/skied/etc. well with for years, I’ve realized that there is a letter (c) that I’ve had to add to my formula, and that is:

    (c) Being on the same wavelength. Sometimes with longtime partners who are also best friends, goals and one’s approach to the mountains change. This is easy to read when assessing a new partner, but not so easy when you’ve been on hundreds of wonderful outings with someone you’ve known for 10 years. When one of my best friends and I started yelling at each other simul climbing on a ridge line at 13k feet, we both looked at each other about ten minutes later when tempers had settled and basically said, “What the hell just happened?” Turned out that we were both in a different mindset for the trip.

    Anyway, I digress. Great topic. Cheers.

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