Friday, April 18, 2008

Get to Know Your Guide: An interview with Mike Powers

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 Mike Powers.

Age: 49
Hometown: Bend, Oregon
Recent and upcoming trips and expeditions with AAI: I’ll admit my big expeditions are few and far between these days. I recently worked at the Red Rocks Rendezvous and look forward to leading AAI's annual three-week guide training in the North Cascades this May. I always guide for the Institute in the French and Swiss Alps in the sumer, and I'm looking forward to that too.

A Guide's Life
How were you introduced to mountaineering?
I didn’t get started that early; I was perhaps 24 when I first received some formal instruction to climbing. Then I floundered around in typical Northwest mountaineering style for a few years before I was lucky enough to see some other mountain ranges. I also grew up as a skier, and after living in Verbier, Switzerland for a few years in my mid twenties I was exposed to the Alps. I learned that alpinism is a necessary part of off-piste skiing. I also learned that mountaineering doesn’t have to mean 80-pound packs and slogging up snow slopes for a few days at a time. It really opened my eyes to the alpinist experience, and I’ll never forget the excitement and passion I had during those first few years in the Alps.

How do you stay in shape and what are your favorite training activities?
I’m a big fan of cross training and I am taking a bit more of a disciplined approach towards climbing these days. This plan includes doing intervals and maintaining specific aerobic zones, and keeping track of those targets. When I was younger, I would just climb all the time and that seemed to work. Now, as I’ve lost a bit of my height and redistributed it on my belly, I have to be a bit more careful with what I eat and where it ends up. However, I’ve always liked other sports such as biking, table tennis, skiing, and tennis and never really think of those activities as training. I will admit though, that doing one long day a week (such as a 10-12 hour ski tour) is very helpful in preparing for an Aconcagua or Denali West Buttress trip.

Who were some of your climbing partners that had an impact upon you?
Mark Houston, Ave Kvale, and Steve House probably shaped my outcome as much as most anyone else. I’ve learned so much from them, but still continue to curse them when appropriate.

What are your other interests besides climbing?
I’m equally inept at photography, cinematography, coffee roasting and espresso making, crust cruising, and being a good dad and husband. I know I’ll never be very good at any of those but I don’t mind trying.

How do you keep abreast of the latest developments in climbing and guiding?
I attend international guides conferences and periodically teach and examine other guides in the AMGA certification process. I was chairman of the AMGA Technical committee and have really enjoyed debating and developing guiding standards.

Where is your favorite place to travel? Where do you hope to travel to in the future?
I don’t really have a favorite place to travel, but since I’m guilty of spending, oh, twenty seasons in the Alps versus one in Patagonia, I guess that says something. I do like new places but going somewhere is always at the expense of someplace else. I did go to Bhutan for the month of December (with my family) but I’ll admit that that trip, followed by Nepal in January, was a bit long. This was only because my foot was acting up and I couldn’t do as much hiking and exploring as I wanted.

Some other places on my list are: Dolomites, Norway, Cody, Banks Lake, Little Switzerland, Trout Creek, Adirondacks, Hawaii, and especially those places that I never heard of but people tell me that I should go.

Describe your climbing style.
Comfortable. Usually that means having a small pack and being in reasonable shape, but that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

Is there anything you know now that you'd wish you'd known when you were just beginning to climb?
I really wish I wasn’t such a cheapskate when I started to climb. I learned from my friends who didn’t know what they were doing either. If I had a professional guide for a few days at the start, I would have learned some good habits right away and would have progressed much faster and more safely. But I don’t know if it would have been as fun…

There are a few concepts that I think are important when learning to alpine climb:

I like to think that everything comes at a cost. That means that even though small, seemingly minor motions like tying a safety back up knot on my figure eight could seem like a good idea, there are downsides like less rope available for the lead, it is slower to tie in, and slower to change the length of the rope. Also, I think it’s important to determine the likelihood and consequence of a fall and to use that to determine how to move (whether it’s putting on crampons, building anchors, etc.)

I also like the idea of managing only the risk and hazards you are exposed to and can effectively manage at a certain time. It’s easy to turn back for some perceived risk up above that may or may not come true.

To get a better sense of this please come do guides training with me this May!

When you guide, what piece of advice do you find you give most often to climbers?
Stop fussing with your gear and keep moving. In a nice way.


Tell us about some of your favorite AAI trips.
Certainly. Waddington, my first Moose’s Tooth trip, and my first Alps trilogy were great trips, although they all happened a few years ago (mid nineties). I know it’s funny to look back and say those were the good old days, since they certainly continue today (as I’ll look back 15 years from now). But all those trips I just mentioned were done with great climbers and working aside another AAI guide; we felt like we were doing what we really loved in life and also making it our profession.

Of course, none of those trips compares to a certain Red Rocks climbing trip I did in 1997. However, I don’t think the director of AAI (Dunham Gooding) will allow me to divulge the details. [Editor’s note: since more than ten years have passed, the AAI statute of limitations is in effect. There was romance with a client which evolved to a marriage. In truth, the transgression was forgiven and the marriage was greatly celebrated.]

What are your must-haves (e.g. favorite foods, equipment)?
Absolutely none. Should I have some?

Immediate family:
Wife Carla, six year-old son Sameer, and five year-old dog Shuksan

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