Friday, May 30, 2008

Get to Know Your Guide: An interview with Viren Perumal

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 Viren Perumal.

Age: 26
Hometown: Collegedale, TN (at least that's where my truck is registered but haven't actually lived there in almost 5 years)
Recent trips and expeditions with AAI: I just got off a 12 day Alpine Mountaineering and Technical Leadership Part 1 course, and I am leaving for Denali in a few days. I have been basking in the desert sun all winter, guiding long multi-pitch sandstone routes outside of Las Vegas and splitter granite cracks in Joshua tree. I also did some ice climb guiding in Lee Vining (California) this past winter.
Upcoming courses with AAI: I'll be on the West Buttress of Denali for June. For the rest of the summer, it looks like my trips will include the North Ridge of Mt. Baker, the White Salmon glacier on Mt. Shuksan, a Mt. Rainier trip, and I am also possibly looking at a Bugaboos trip in August.

A Guide’s Life
How old were you when you first started climbing?
I actually grew up in Thailand, India, Malaysia, eastern Canada, and finally moved to Tennessee when I was 12. I had gone camping a few times with my parents – car camping style, but it wasn't until 8th grade in the Appalachian foothills that I went on my first overnight backpacking trip. I was a junkshow and my pack almost outweighed me. That 2-night, 6-mile trip seemed like the longest trip of my life. I ended up trying to get out and camp as much as possible the
following years in high school and also began rock climbing. That soon took over most of my free time, and I finally had something healthy to put all my energy into.

I think the thing that really locked it in for me was that early in high school I was starting to get into trouble, and actually got expelled from a school I was going to – it was that following summer that my friend Rocky took me out rock climbing for my first time and I realized this was something I could be really into and would keep me from hanging out with my friends at home who just wanted to party. Rock climbing soon consumed me and all the money I made that summer at a landscaping job went to shoes a harness and other types of climbing gear. After high school in the southeast, I wanted to climb big mountains. I moved up to go to college in western Canada, which is where I had my first exposure to real mountaineering and ice climbing.

How do you stay in shape, and what are your favorite training activities?
Uhhhh who said I was in shape??? Well I guess I just climb – always wish I co
uld climb more. And training??? Wow that sounds like a lot of work – I just go play – pull ups are fun for me I suppose.

Who is the most inspiring person in your climbing life?
Maybe Yvonne Chouinard or people like Peter Croft who are full on energizer bunnies. They still keep on climbing because they just love it. In general, the people who climb more than they talk about climbing are pretty inspiring to me. I saw Fred Becky climbing ice in Hyalite (Montana) almost two winters ago when I was out there – that guy is pretty amazing - I think he is almost 90 years old, but he loves it so much

What are your other interests besides climbing?
I love rivers and whitewater kayaking. I have also tried surfing a bit, and love that, but I get trashed pretty good when I go. I have been trying to learn to play the mandolin as well, but it is hard with the number of days I spend in the backcountry.

I also teach wilderness medicine for Wilderness Medicine Institute and will also be teaching at a University in Tennessee this fall. I guess being a more intentional and organized teacher is a current interest of mine – I can already see it helping the flow of my guide days and courses.

Where is your favorite place to travel?
I have mostly only been able to travel places where my truck can drive. But East Creek Basin in the Bugaboos is one of my favorite places in the world. I have spent some time rock climbing on the beaches of Thailand and don't have to much to complain about that, but anytime I can get my hands into a splitter crack in some remote alpine granite I am usually pretty happy.

Where do you hope to travel in the near future?
My wife Julie and I have thrown around going to Arapalies (Australia) to climb for a while next winter.

On the Technical Side
Describe your climbing style
I could say something predictable like "I like to climb fast and light" or "clean climbing is my style" but growing up in Tennessee I would have to describe my climbing style as "Git 'er Done." I like big rock routes in the mountains and sometimes you end up pulling through and moving fast – my wide crack climbing can sometimes feel like a grovel but I love every second of it.
What has been your most technically difficult climb? – I don't know. I have climbed 5.12 before but hanging on sport routes is less appealing to me than long traditional routes where numbers are not as important as the aesthetics of the line. Some of my favorites are routes like the Becky-Chouinard on S.Howser.

What is your biggest strength as a climber? Biggest weakness?
Strength to weight ratio – (you don't have to be strong if you don't weigh anything). Also, probably being super motivated to get out and explore new routes and areas. My weakness is my lack of interest in training and things like bouldering or hard sport routes – when I start falling off a few times, I am ready to go find some beautiful crack J. I suppose that my weakness is that I love crack climbing and alpine climbing so much that it makes me less of a well-rounded climber.

A Guide on Guiding

When you guide, what piece of advice do you find you give most often to climbers?
I wish I had the ability to take a climbing course when I was younger – they are super spendy, but I always tell my students that in a 12-day course most students come out knowing more than I learned by trial and error and reading books in probably five years of climbing (granted I was a high school kid in Tennessee learning to climb).

What qualities do you think are most important in a guide?
Effective teacher
Passion for what they are doing!

Name a few guide “turn-ons” (for example, what makes a good climber on one of your courses, ascents, or expeditions?).
Sometimes I teach people who are just curious about the sport, and then often I teach others who are going to take what I teach them and start leading/climbing on their own. I love to teach people like that, because they are soaking up anything I can share with them and it makes me more motivated to overload them with information.

Any memorable events while guiding for AAI?
Any trip is great when I get to teach a longer course or have somebody multiple times. I get super psyched to see the amount of change and growth in their comfort levels and skills. This is always super rewarding for any guide.

What are your must-haves? Favorite foods or gear?
Uhh . . . anything that Deals Only has on sale in Bellingham (Washington) I guess. Also, cheese is always a good thing and I have been taking these sun dried tomato tofurkey sausages up on mountaineering trips. They've got loads of calories and, well, meat out in the sun for a few days scares me. I really like to cook and eat well because I need to keep the calories up. I usually bring whatever has the most bang for buck.
Describe your achievement of which you are the most proud.
I think getting married to Julie was to me kind of like a big alpine route: really beautiful, but kind of intimidating because there were a bunch of unknowns. We were on the "10 year dating plan" when we finally decided to get married, and all the unknowns kind of scared the crap out of me, but it has been the greatest thing in the world. For my simple life, that is a pretty enormous achievement.

Any closing comments?
Life is short – many climbers have dreams that they put on the shelf until they find out that it is a little late to do all the things they used to want to do. Dream big and live those dreams – If you want something bad enough you will make it happen.

I'm looking forward to a big chunk of time off to road trip/travel/climb with Julie.

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