Friday, May 2, 2008

Get to Know Your Guide: An Interview with Danny Uhlmann

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. This week, we interview Danny Uhlmann.

Age: 24
Hometown: Boise, Idaho
Recent trips and expeditions with AAI: Bolivia 2007
Upcoming trips and expeditions with AAI: torn ACL, in hiatus for a few months

A Guide’s Life
How old were you when you first started climbing?
My first climb was a cobblestone wall in a park in Seattle. I think I was six, the wall was roughly 10 feet, and it scared me. I began rappelling out of a window in my parents house in my adolescence, and my first “real” climb outside was at 14. Thank you Tracy Wilson for taking me on that climb. Life has never been the same since.

How do you stay in shape, and what are your favorite training activities?
In the winter I do a lot of ski touring. I really dislike training of any kind, if I can have the real thing. Skiing a few thousand feet a day and then skiing down powder or chutes or faces or trees can’t be beat for the combination of cross-training for alpine climbing and the amount of pleasure my soul derives riding the mountain. Backcountry skiing is much more free form than alpine climbing or rock climbing - the mountain is my canvas, and there are a million ways to skin up and a million ways to ski down. Running intervals or trail running is my favorite way to get generally fit for climbing mountains. But just going on long runs doesn’t do it for me. Pushing my aerobic threshold through interval training in whatever type of activity I’m doing has led to the biggest gains of speed, strength, and endurance in climbing. Diversity is the key to my happiness in my climbing and guiding life, and I apply the same logic to training. If I’m not happy doing what I’m doing, I’ve missed the point.

Who is the most inspiring person in your climbing life?
Anyone who climbs because they love it for themselves. Climbing is ultimately a selfish pursuit, but I still believe that through other climber’s trials and success (and failures) we all learn and grow, and thereby climbing is bigger than just those involved. The people who inspire me the most are the ones who have the love. They are the ones you see quietly soloing a route somewhere because they had no one to climb with, or people who find all climbing fun despite grade, medium, or style. Climbing is so personal that as long as one’s style doesn’t impose on others, I think that person is climbing just the way they should be.

My friend, Gabe Coler, is a huge hero because he nearly lost everything and continues to climb. Anyone who’s had a truly dire situation in their own climbing and has felt that sharp edge between life and death has felt what it means to be really alive. “Dire” is quite relative to one’s own set of experiences. Looking over the edge can be frightening place, but I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. Those experiences happen so infrequently and usually without being planned. I also want to live to a ripe old age. My friends Karen Hilton and Susan Detweiler (former AAI guide in the late 90’s) are two who’ve taught me that life is what you make of it, which also is true in climbing. The mountains inextricably define their lives. The dirtbags with no money and no car, traveling with rope and rack around the country inspire me. They climb because they love it.

To me, the bottom line is that everyone has their own mountain to climb. For climbers, the “mountains” are features of the earth; crags, boulders, ribbons of ice plastered to mountains, glaciers, and gullies. Anyone that faces their own mountains with dignity and humility inspires me. I also appreciate humor, because climbing is inherently a very silly pursuit. But aren’t most human pursuits?

What are your other interests besides climbing?
Photography and writing. I enjoy doing both as an amateur because it frees me from having to be as good as a professional, and also from caring what other people thing of my work. Also I love playing music, and am a hack at both the mandolin and guitar. I had the opportunity to play mandolin in a bluegrass band in Antarctica this past winter, called Phat Ass Bluegrass. It was fun and we had forgiving audiences. Technically, we played an international show when we played at Scott Base (the New Zealand base 3 km down the road from McMurdo). I’m what others would call a hopeless romantic, but I don’t think its hopeless, just the opposite.

Where is your favorite place to travel? Where do you hope to travel in the near future?
My favorite place to travel recently has been Bolivia, where I got to see that people still plow fields high in the Andes with a horse, the same way it's been done throughout history. I spent last winter in Antarctica, and I spent a week in a tent on the East Antarctic ice sheet at about 9,500 feet. The temperatures of -25 degree ambient and -50 degree wind chill, constant wind, and flat white in all directions as far as the eye can see were remarkable. That was the most remote place I’ve been. I think Antarctica is one of the last physical frontiers on Earth of any grand scale and I feel incredibly lucky to have gone. I hope to work in Pakistan in the next year and a half teaching Balti porters how to climb, so that they won’t be compromised by the expeditions that they work for. I have a love for Maine and New Hampshire and hope to be there for a fall sometime soon.

On the Technical Side

Describe your climbing style
I’m not the greatest rock climber but the few great ones I’ve climbed with have left me speechless with their grace and composure. Someday I’d like to feel composed and graceful. I like to climb fast and I don’t believe speed compromises my experience with the environment. I don’t free solo, except in alpine where most climbers wouldn’t call it free soloing.

What has been your most technically difficult climb?

Tricky question because the grade of a climb and its difficulty are often not correlated. Peak 11,300 in the Alaska Range was my most difficult climb by the numbers, but I always felt very safe. On the other hand, the West Face of Huayna Potosi in Bolivia (IV 3,500 feet, 70 degree snow and ice, 19,975 ft.) is a climb that any person on any beginning alpine course I’ve taught could get through, but only if you brought them up every section and gave them a belay. Unfortunately, there really isn’t time to climb with a rope, and there is no stopping if you were to slip. Mentally that route was pretty out there, though it is a fairly standard route for the region.

What is your biggest strength as a climber? Biggest weakness?
My biggest strength is my fitness and ability to sit out cold nights without enough clothes. My biggest weakness is not climbing enough. The only way to get better is mileage on your chosen medium in life. I recently tore my ACL and that will slow me down for a couple of months. The mental and physical aspects of tearing my ACL and then rehab are far more difficult than any climb I’ve ever done. I have a whole new respect for people who have overcome injuries or personal setbacks of any kind.

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’d spent more time dirtbagging to have that feeling of freedom of climbing for myself. With guiding, you have to have a resume to get a job, then a better resume to get another, etc. So there is always this need to improve or at least maintain which sometimes taints my original feeling of freedom.

Another huge piece of advice is to not be afraid to make mistakes, because we all make them at our own relative level in climbing. Being aware of what the actual risks are in a situation is important in making a good decision.

When you guide, what piece of advice do you find you give most often to climbers?

Go for it. You can do way more than you think you can. I have to give myself that advice too, on a daily basis.

What qualities do you think are most important in a guide?

Patience, flexibility, a desire to see others succeed, social awareness, a solid climbing ability, an awareness of my own strengths and weaknesses, and the desire to improve in all areas.

Name a few guide “turn-ons” (for example, what makes a good climber on one of your courses, ascents, or expeditions?).
Anyone who is really excited about what we are doing and adds a positive energy to the group or situation.

Describe a memorable event that has occurred while guiding for AAI.
Summiting Denali for the first time on my 24th birthday. We were the only team climbing that day and left high camp at 6:00pm. Somewhere between Kahiltna Pass and the Summit Ridge I looked out and could swear that there was a huge town all lit up at night. But then I realized that the lights weren’t electricity at all, but thousands of tiny post-glacial ponds illuminated bright orange from the setting sun. It was a magical day.

What are your must-haves?

Good climbing partners and friends to share the experience with. Good energy.

Describe an achievement of which you are the most proud.
Having amazing relationships with people, some related to climbing, others not.

Any closing comments (e.g. something you’re looking forward to, memories, or advice).
I feel very lucky to be alive on planet earth.

1 comment:

Colorado Rocky Mountain School said...

Great post Danny! Your resume may show your climbing accomplishments, but no words can express what a good guy you are! So glad we reconnected!