Monday, February 9, 2009

Highlights, Lowlights, and Everything In Between

As many who know the Institute well may have heard, I (one Coley Gentzel) am leaving my post here as Program Coordinator, Guide, water and whipping boy, life counselor, physical fitness coach, data entry guy, cook, sled-dragger, copy machine fixer, gear sorter, and confidant.

As the generic, lifeless, and impersonal auto-responder on my email account currently says, the last 9 seasons here at AAI have been the most meaningful of my life, and it is with many mixed feelings that I have come to the decision that my future path and full time employment with AAI would not continue along the same course. First, before we get too far into the mushy gooshy stuff, thanks to all that have given me the opportunity to serve them in the office and the field, to those that I have had the chance to work along side and work for, to those that I have had the opportunity to learn from and to teach, and most of all for the memories and life changing experiences that have gone hand in hand with all of these interactions.

Coley and Andy on the summit of Dragontail Peak in the winter

What initially attracted me to AAI, above and beyond getting to go climbing a lot, was people. Not to go so far as to say that I knew may folks here when I started, I most certainly didn't, but my main motivation in leaving the corporate world for a mountain based lifestyle was the deep and inescapable desire to connect with like-minded individuals with the same passions, interests, values, and motivations that I was just starting to grow into. People are exactly what has given this job, this place, and our cause the meaning that it has. If I were to sit down and make a list of all of all of your, well let's just say you wouldn't want the read through all of the pages. So, again, thank you.

Andy Niskanen taking it all in, Picket Range, WA

The last few days have been strange for me. As you might imagine, after a handful of years in a give a given place, doing a certain thing, you start to get used to the things around you and develop a certain comfort with the way things are. Part of this leaving process has included cleaning out my desk area here in the offices of AAI. Something that as I carried out, I realized, I had never really done before. I am not just talking about messes here, there were more than a few of those tucked away in the corners, but it was a fun walk back through time to scroll through old post cards, reports, photos, letters from past clients, guides, friends, and get to revisit some of my early days here.

Coley and Gary Kuehn have an impromptu "guide's meeting" on Denali

I will try and share a few of these, recently relived memories with you on my way out, and in doing so, hope that you all have the chance to continue making memories in the mountains.

Many of my favorite memories from my time here at AAI have to do with firsts. One of my favorite things in climbing, and I think one of the things the draws so many to the pursuit, is the opportunity to see new and beautiful places.

My first "real" climbing trip was the the Enchantment Lakes area with a few co-workers. Andy Bourne, long time Program Coordinator and currently guide for AAI, myself, and a few other folks had planned a week off of work during the busy time at AAI. When I first started, one of the main concerns that the current administration had was that Andy and I would try to take too much time off at the same time. Of course we both assured them this would not be the case, and no more than a month later we were off on this trip. Somehow it worked out.

Our goal on this trip was to climb the Serpentine Arete on Dragontail Peak and the West Ridge of Prusik Peak. Up to that point in our collective climbing careers, we hadn't done much more than a few multi-pitch cragging routes,and so the prospect of a 2500-foot route up a big face with notoriously loose rock was fairly daunting. I won't elaborate on the details of the climb, but instead say that getting back to camp just as the sunset was lighting up the face in alpenglow, and looking back up at the route we had just completed was one of the best feelings I could remember having. The end of that day was particularly unfortunate for one of the team members who had left his boots at the base of the climb and had to walk down the snowy Asgaard Pass route in his rock shoes..cough, cough...Andy, but I won't mention his name.

Hiding from the elements in an ice cave on Mount Baker with Andrew Selby.

Next, a picture of a fellow named Mike Layton appeared in one of the many piles on my desk. The picture was of Mike's face, barely visible through a tangle of greenery, buskwacking deep in the heart of the North Cascades. Mike and I had gone in to climb the Direct North Buttress of Bear Mountain, one of the few long and relatively high quality grade V rock routes in the Cascades. AAI guide Alan Kearney had put the route up back in the 70's and until the last handful of years, the route hadn't seen many ascents really at all. That summer was perhaps the best climbing summer of my life. I was fortunate to somehow scrape together enough change to take trips to the Bugaboos, the Sierra, and climb nearly every weekend in the Cascades. Erik Johnson, AAI guide, and I completed the Northeast Buttress of Slesse Mountain and the Beckey-Chounaird route on South Howser Tower that summer as well, and all of these climbs still rank among my most memorable.

The happy birthday wish that the AAI crew pasted all over signs, cars, and campground in Leavenworth, WA

The first few weeks, even month or two here at AAI went by in a blur for me. I started at the beginning of the busy season and it was a whirlwind of people, places, new experiences, and of course work duties. Sometime shortly after I had started, AAI had it's annual company party...

Let me back up a bit. Before I started at AAI, I had been growing gradually more unsatisfied with life in the city and had been gobbling up up every piece of climbing literature that I could get my hands on to help me while away the time and dream of far off places. Fairly late in that process, not too long before I finally quite my job and moved to Bellingham to work for AAI, I remember reading a particularly moving article about two climbers who had set off to climb the Moonflower Buttress on Mount Hunter's North Face in the Alaska Range. Some 4,000-feet up the route, the author's climbing partner was struck and killed by a snow mushroom that collapsed on him. I remember reading the account of the author's epic descent, cold, alone, running out of gear, and having just lost his partner and dear friend. I don't know what it was about that article that really grabbed me. Perhaps the tone, perhaps the experience itself, perhaps because it was the first time that I had really stopped to ponder the consequences that can be part of the alpine game, how alone you can be high in the hills and far above the ground.

AAI guides ascent of the North Ridge of Mount Baker.

So it was at this company party that I first got to meet the author of this article, shake his hand for the first time, and come to the realization that now, here at AAI, I was in the company of greatness. The people that have been a part of this company, over the years, have shaped the modern guiding and climbing world, and to have been a small part of that has meant the world to me.

Happy climbing and I hope to see you in the hills.


Coley and his fiance Lara enjoy the view from the top of South Early Winter Spire, 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You will certainly be missed, but I'm sure that we'll meet again in the mountains. BTW, I'd heard that you painted your toe nails, but didn't believe it until I saw the photo in this blog entry.
Art Huseonica
Denali Ice Agers
Maryland, USA