Monday, March 31, 2008

Get to Know Your Guide: An interview with Kurt Hicks

Every week, we take the reader into the interesting and ever-changing life of an American Alpine Institute guide. Every AAI guide is very experienced in alpine and rock climbing, and all have received professional training in advanced guiding techniques and rescue. Collectively they have one of the highest levels of wilderness first aid, avalanche, and Leave No Trace training among the world's international guide services. For profiles on all AAI guides, please click here.

This week, we interview Kurt Hicks.

Age: 25
Hometown: Bellingham, Washington
Recent trips and expeditions with AAI: Ice climbing in California, Denali Preparation courses, Avalanche Level 1, Red Rocks, and alpine climbing at Snoqualmie Pass alpine

A Guide's Life
How were you introduced to mountaineering?
I guess this is where I have to acknowledge that I began my climbing career in a climbing gym, when I was in the third grade! After that, I climbed my first mountain (Mt. Thielsen, in the Oregon Cascades) at age 11 with my dad, brother, and some family friends. I got increasingly serious about my climbing while an undergrad in college. Eventually, it overtook all my other outdoor activities in terms of my commitment level to it and the enjoyment I get out of climbing.

How do you stay in shape and what are your favorite training activities?
I ran cross-country and track from elementary school through college. Because of this, heading out for a trail run (the muddier, the better) always seems to help get me into reasonably good cardio shape, even if it is only a psychological increase in fitness. In terms of climbing shape, I rotate with the seasons – splitter cracks in the summer, alpine rock routes in the fall, ice and mixed climbs and some skiing in the winter, and a mix of those in the spring.

Who is the most inspiring person in your climbing life?
I get a lot of inspiration from the climbers who are on the courses and guided climbs I lead at AAI. Seeing their motivation to learn about climbing makes me want to be a better instructor and climber, so that I can help them develop more fully. Seeing them psyched makes me psyched!

What are your other interests besides climbing?
I’m supposed to have interests outside of climbing (he laughs)? I prefer to spend my leisure time with family and friends doing a variety of things; there’s nothing quite like an late-afternoon barbeque, a game of Frisbee golf, a couple dark beers, and a comedy movie with friends. Come to think of it, I actually enjoy being ‘domestic’ once in a while…washing dishes, doing laundry, and working on home improvement projects, but I guess that probably comes from my active personality and lifestyle.

Where is your favorite place to travel?
I’ve always been enamored by the Canadian Rockies. I just love to spend time there in the winter, climbing ice and watching the wildlife. Watching sunrise from a few pitches up is pretty amazing. I’ll be traveling to Europe for the first time this fall, so I’m excited to finally see and climb in the French Alps.

On the Technical Side
Describe your climbing style.
In a word, I’d characterize my style as “conservative.” As the saying goes, “there are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old, bold climbers.” Sure, some people get away with it, but I tend to gravitate towards routes that can be reasonably well protected, especially if I am climbing near my limit. In the alpine, I like going as light as possible, because it allows me to move faster, climb harder, stress my knees and back less, and (usually) be able to sleep in a bed at the end of the day.

What has been your most technically difficult climb?
A recent climb that comes to mind is “Mixed Master,” a classic route on the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies. The route climbs a couple moderate ice pitches (up to WI4) before starting a mixed pitch of 5.8 rock (in crampons) that eases off into a cool snow arĂȘte. Above that, another really fun mixed pitch (m4) leads to a narrow WI5 ice runnel that finishes the route nearly 300m above the highway. With excellent climbing and a ten-minute approach, it’s a hard climb to beat.

What is your biggest strength as a climber? Biggest weakness?
I think that my “off the couch” fitness level is a great asset. That, combined with the mental strength that I developed from years of running, has enabled me to go out climbing on a moment’s notice, even if I don’t feel particularly fit, and still move fast and climb reasonably well. My biggest weakness is probably my tendency to only head out on a climb when there is a reasonably good weather forecast.

A Guide on Guiding
Is there anything you know now that you'd wish you'd known when you were just beginning to climb?
I wish I would have known how consuming my climbing would become. Also, although I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the years, learning how to be more frugal with my money at an early age would have been very beneficial; it really helps when trying to fund a road trip or an expedition.

When you guide, what piece of advice do you find you give most often to climbers?
Know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

What qualities do you think are most important in a guide?
Patience, flexibility, effective communication, and a constantly analytical mindset.

Name a few guide"turn-ons" (for example, what makes a good climber on one of your courses?).
I enjoy working with climbers who are internally motivated, and are able to stay in good spirits when faced with the challenges of an alpine environment (bad weather, heavy packs, long approaches, etc). A solid repertoire of general backcountry living skills is always appreciated.

Describe a memorable event that has occurred while guiding for AAI.
Just a couple weeks ago, while guiding at Snoqualmie Pass, I had to employ a shovel during a particularly strenuous soft-snow approach! It was pretty hilarious digging a head-high trench up to the base a rock climb.

What are your must-haves (e.g. favorite foods, equipment)?
As a self-described ‘gear head,’ I could create a laundry list of my must-haves for this question! However, I think it’s very important to have a system that works for you. All too often, people get caught up in brand names or new products, but often times those products are not the best choices for them or their activities. Find something that works well, is light and somewhat durable (since those two criteria are generally mutually exclusive), and fits your climbing style and body type. For me, some of those items include Dermatone sunscreen, a Buff, a Jetboil, and my mp3 player.

Describe your achievement of which you are the most proud.
I’m really proud of the direction I chose for my life. I love going to work every day…not everyone can say that.

Any closing comments on what you're looking forward to in the next year?
Spring is coming…see you in the mountains!

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