This week, we interview Coley Gentzel.
Hometown: Bellingham, Washington
Recent trips and expeditions with AAI: Denali, Mount Baker, Avalanche Level 2
Upcoming trips and expeditions with AAI: Denali and other Alaska Range Mountaineering courses
A Guide’s Life
How were you introduced to mountaineering?
I was introduced to rock climbing as a high school student in Wisconsin. A family friend and youth group counselor, Joel Sandager, took a gang of us rock climbing at a place called Devil’s Lake and I was hooked instantly. As a child, my parents were always dragging us along for camping trips and adventures in the outdoors. I have always had a love for woods, rivers, and hills. Rock climbing seemed like the perfect outlet for my energy and passion in the outdoors. At that age, I could not have dreamed the places that climbing would take me, and the life changing experiences that the pursuit would make possible.
I went on a few more rock outings, including a youth group trip to the Tetons, and became increasingly interested in the activity. As a 17 year old with no car and a 5 hour drive to the nearest rock of any sort, the learning curve was pretty slow at first.
When I graduated from high school, I took an internship at a real estate company in Seattle. While in the area I did a ton of research on climbing and mountaineering and I knew that I had to come back for good and start learning how to climb. Instead of returning to Wisconsin to the school that I had enrolled in ( I had already signed letters of intent to play collegiate sports), I got home, packed my bags, and loaded up my recently purchased Plymouth Sundance for the drive to Seattle. The rest, as they say, is history.
My first real mountaineering experience was on the Mazama Glacier, I think, on Mount Adams here in the Cascades. I say “I think” because to be honest, I had no idea where I was going or where I was at. I wandered around for a while, found my way through some funkyness on a glacier, and eventually found the summit. I somehow survived a few more of these types of experiences before connecting with some skilled and knowledgeable folks who were able to channel my youthful enthusiasm into constructive channels.
How do you stay in shape, and what are your favorite training activities?
To me, 'training' is a 4-letter word. I hate it. I hate hiking as well, which may seem strange because in the average year I log hundreds of miles on trails. I have to train through doing and I need to have fun in the process. I got into mountain biking a few years back and have really developed a passion for that sport. My original idea was that I could use it to stay in shape for climbing. Somehow that turned into racing at a semi-professional level and yet another multi-thousand dollar hobby. I really enjoy ski touring and try to get out quite a bit in the winter for ski mountaineering trips. I also volunteer at the local YMCA which has a rockwall, and so that helps me maintain a very low base for rock fitness.
For my personal climbing trips, I usually wrap my mind around an objective well in advance and train accordingly in the months leading up to the trip. This often involves time at the gym, which I really don’t enjoy. If it wasn’t for episodes of the Daily Show on my Ipod, I would probably go bonkers in there.
Who is the most inspiring person in your climbing life?
To be honest, it is really hard to think of one person that has had a profound effect on my climbing career. When I first got into some serious alpine climbing, I read and re-read Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism book and completely devoured the concepts, energies, and ideas in the book. I really used those thoughts to shape my personal alpine career in the first few years.
One of the best and most meaningful aspects of climbing, for me, has been the camaraderie and relationships that come from testing mental and physical limits in the mountains. I am very selective with whom I choose to get on big routes with, and the folks that I have shared these experiences with will always be near and dear to me. I have probably shared the majority of my mountain experiences with Seth Hobby, Erik Johnson, and Andy Niskanen. I try to learn something and glean knowledge and skills from every person that I share the rope with, whether they be a peer, a less experienced climber, or a superior. I think that climbing, like life, should be a constantly evolving process where we learn from the past and equip ourselves for the future. Mike Powers has helped shape my thinking and technical skills and I really appreciate his open minded and easygoing approach to guiding and climbing.
What are your other interests besides climbing?
One of the things that has kept me from achieving a high level of accomplishment in any one area has always been a love for too many things, or so I like to tell myself. I have always prided myself on not having too many nicknack sort of things in my life, but on my most recent move, I couldn’t believe how much gear I had collected over the years. I am an avid mountain biker, fisherman, rock climber, mountaineer, ice climber, skier, and boater. I am a sucker for a few hours of downtime after a good butt kicking, and can usually be found searching for the perfect bottle of beer, wine, and a good movie on those days.
Where is your favorite place to travel? Where do you hope to travel in the near future?
On of my biggest regrets so far is not having traveled abroad very much. However, this will be my sixth year climbing and guiding in Alaska and my adventures there are all among the most memorable and meaningful of my life. The mountains are truly inspirational and combine all of my favorite things in alpine climbing. I have climbed in pretty much all of the alpine venues in the US and southern Canada and I really love the remote corners of the Sierra, Coast Range in BC, Wind Rivers, and of course, my backyard, the North Cascades.
On the Technical Side
Describe your climbing style.
I have always considered myself a master of mediocrity. I can usually lead 5.10 on gear off the couch, but have only lead a handful of pitches of 5.11 in my life. Same with water ice; WI4 usually feels good at the outset of the season, but I haven’t pushed it past safe WI5 and don’t feel the drive to do so. I really love climbing all day routes with a ton of moderate terrain. Long alpine rock and alpine ice routes are without a doubt my favorite. I like to feel like I am climbing, but not be at my technical limit for pitch after pitch. I love covering a lot of ground and working towards improving efficiency and speed on moderately technical terrain. For me this is usually WI/AI3 and 5.7 to 5.8 in the mountains.
For a while, I was really into long solo adventures that pushed my endurance limit, but that didn't necessarily toe the line of falling in the mountains. Some of my proudest outings in that category include the Frostbite Ridge on Glacier Peak (14 hours), West McMillan Spire (12 hours), the Ice Cliff Glacier on Stuart (12 hours, 23+ miles), the North Face of Shuksan in winter (11 hours), and the NE Buttress on Colchuck in winter (8 hours). It has been a while since I have given myself one of those spankings. I might be getting tool old for that stuff!
What has been your most technically difficult climb?
The Harvard Route on Mount Huntington in the Alaska Range. This route called upon all of my past climbing experiences. It involves steep snow, ice, pure rock, aid climbing, and true mixed climbing - all on what many call one of the most beautiful peaks in the world.
I have had many defining moments and climbs in the mountains. The earliest of those was probably the Backbone Ridge on Dragontail Peak. I had been enjoying a summer of alpine climbing and knew just enough to get in over my head. Another AAI guide and I set off to do the 3000 foot route in a day in October. The route, an alpine rock climb rated Grade 4, 5.9, was covered in a dusting of snow from a recent storm. We made the call to start up it and see how things went. By the time we figured out we shouldn’t be climbing the route, we were too far up to go down. This was my introduction to the concept of failing upwards. We finished the route by rappelling into a couloir and climbing 65 degree ice with crampons strapped onto tennis shoes and one mini-axe a piece, reaching the top at 10:00pm in a storm and stumbling back to the car at 8:00am the next morning, 30 hours after having originally left. I have recently written a detailed account of that experience and all of the lessons contained therein.
What is your biggest strength as a climber? Biggest weakness?
My two biggest strengths have always been a bulldog-like tenacity and a drive to finish the objective. I have always had the mindset that you should keep going until you find a real reason to turn around. This has gotten me up many, many routes in the face of seemingly adverse conditions. I see so many climbers throw in the towel based on speculation or reasoning that is based on unknowns. I don’t mean to say you should push the safety limit, but poke your nose into the situation to see what is going on, and when (and if) you find a good reason to turn around, make the decision then and there.
My biggest weakness would be my unwillingness, perhaps inability to dedicate the time and effort it would take to be a really good climber.
A Guide on Guiding
Is there anything you know now that you’d wish you’d known when you were just beginning to climb?
To be honest, not really. Exploring, learning, and developing in climbing and mountaineering has been a fantastic process. Initially, I wish I would have known more about the dangers involved and how to mitigate them. I feel like I got pretty lucky wandering into the mountains armed with very little knowledge and skill. At the time, I felt like I made good decisions, but looking back, I was one unforeseen circumstance away from a bad situation. I wish I would have known how to navigate in the mountains, and perform rock and crevasse rescues long before I actually learned them. Many, many climbers continue to put themselves into increasingly committing situations without ever having gone through some very basic hazard mitigation and rescue training. It is just a matter of time before this catches up to you.
When you guide, what piece of advice do you find you give most often to climbers?
Take everything with a grain of salt, and think for yourself. There is an infinite amount of subjectivity in these pursuits. A quick read through any accident report or thread about a mishap on an internet chat board will quickly and easily provide a clear picture of this. So many things in climbing are open to interpretation and there is often no one “right” answer. One person’s sketchy is another person’s casual, one person’s “in” is another person’s “out” and so on. I try to seek out objective information from trusted sources and then make my own decisions accordingly. I never rely on one person’s advice for feedback solely or as my sole decision making factor. Outside of some concepts and basic rules, making decisions in the mountains is a skill that can't be taught, it has to be learned and developed based on personal factors, observations, and opinions.
What qualities do you think are most important in a guide?
The ability to relate to and cater to specific styles and methods for diverse populations, an absolute love for what you do and the natural environment, and a passion for both teaching and learning - this includes the desire to help others better themselves and the desire to develop and grow personally.
Also, a short memory span and high tolerance for, even enjoyment of suffering is required for alpine climbing.
Name a few guide “turn-ons” (for example, what makes a good climber on one of your courses, ascents, or expeditions?).
I really enjoy answering questions. It seems like a lot of folks are scared to ask or “pester” a guide on various things, but I see questions as a sign that I am getting through to you and the climber is trying to understand, digest, and process the information or situation. Of course there is some concern for the appropriateness in timing for these questions! Running through the slide path of an active serac isn’t the best time to ask about makes and models of boots.
I like to keep things fairly light and entertaining and appreciate a good sense of humor. I tend to take things pretty seriously in the heat of the moment, and have a hard time relaxing until we are out of the business. Around camp and in the downtime I need to laugh a bit and have a good time, and so a good sense of humor and willingness to employ it is always a big benefit to me personally.
Describe a memorable event that has occurred while guiding for AAI.
Every time I go out there is a new and equally spectacular event or set of circumstances. I think that is why I keep coming back to the mountains and living this style of life. A more recent memory was made on our descent from the summit of Denali last year. Our team was welcomed back to high camp, after a long hard day, by an incredible sunset. We all walked along in virtual silence in total awe of the view from the top of the continent. It was a magical moment for me and it came at the end of an amazing day with a truly remarkable group of people.
What are your must-haves? Favorite foods or gear?
Hmm. Favorite food? That is a tough one honestly. Eating is a giant pain in the butt that I would prefer to not deal with. If I had to pick one thing to eat, it would be a big greasy pan of hash browns and bacon covered in cheese with cheese on top and a side of cheese. I call this one the Denali scramble, and I save it for a few select mornings on the trip when everyone needs a physical and mental boost.
Describe an achievement of which you are proud.
I have never broken a bone. This is pretty amazing to me, seeing as how I have been falling off of, down, and bouncing off things at high speeds my whole life. Oh wait, that probably isn’t the best thing to inspire confidence in my guiding and climbing abilities! I have never fallen or had a close call climbing, only in my hobbies outside of that pursuit.
I have never had the chicken pox either.
When I was young, my Dad told me that you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you shouldn’t pick your friend's nose. That has always stuck with me.
Also, don’t poop where you eat. That applies on many levels, as it seems like more and more people are looking for places to eat these days, and poop seems pretty abundant. As a society, I think we need to start paying a lot more attention to sustainability and leaving less of a mark on the planet and it’s inhabitants.