Failure to communicate is not an option when you are dangling on a rope, tied to a partner at 18,000 above sea level. Toastmaster Art Huseonica enjoys the many parallels between his worldwide climbing adventures and his Toastmasters experience. Recently back from a speed ascent of Washington’s Mt. Rainer with accomplished American climber Ed Viesturs, Huseonica says leadership, preparation and precise communication are essential for survival both in front of an audience and on top of a mountain.
Taking Toastmasters to New Heights
From the Toastmaster magazine, January 2009
By Julie Bawden Davis
Art Huseonica’s idea of fun takes his breath away – literally. When he’s where he wants to be, this Toastmaster is climbing in thin air at 17,000 feet, and he couldn’t be happier.
“People say I’m crazy, but I like the mental and physical challenges of high-altitude mountain climbing,” says Huseonica. “Even though I’m breathing hard and it feels like I’ve got cellophane over my face, the experience is exhilarating.”
Huseonica, a member of the Kritikos club in Odenton, Maryland, has been involved in extreme sports for many years, including skydiving and hot-air ballooning, but he didn’t begin serious mountaineering until four years ago. Since then, he has reached 17,200 feet on Alaska’s Mount McKinley (also known as Denali – “The Great One”), turning back from its 20,320-foot summit because his guide was ill; climbed the Andes in South America twice, and scaled Mount Rainier four times.
When Huseonica joined Toastmasters in January 2008, he did so to improve his presentation skills, but he soon discovered significant parallels between the skills needed in his club and climbing.
“Good communication is critical with mountain climbing,” says Huseonica, who serves as vice president public relations for his club. “When faced with extreme physical situations, it’s important that you communicate precisely and concisely and are very articulate so as not to waste your breath.” He has seen other climbers suffer from conditions such as altitude sickness because of reduced air pressure and oxygen. This can affect the brain and lungs and even lead to death, so it’s important that climbers pay attention to one another’s body language.
“If another climber gets wobbly legs and starts walking like he or she is drunk, that’s an indication that something is wrong,” says Huseonica, who notes that climbers watch out for each other. “At times, in order to conserve oxygen, we’ll use a simple thumbs up or down to check on each other’s well-being.”
Huesonica notes that many aspects of the Toastmasters Promise also apply to mountain climbing, and he has done a speech on the subject.
“Seven out of 10 of the Promise items relate to mountain climbing,” he says. “For instance, Number Two is to be prepared. In mountain climbing, physical and mental preparation are key. Physically, you train and get all of the right gear, and mentally you psyche yourself into the climb.”
Number 10 also applies, he says. “Maintaining honest and highly ethical standards during the conduct of all activities can be seen through the ‘leave no trace’ standards that climbers strive to meet by bringing down all solid waste and only leaving their boot prints on the mountains they visit.”
Fellow club member Anita Hoffman enjoys Huseonica’s speeches about his climbing expeditions. “He’s a very good speaker who is comfortable with his audience, and he has thrilling subject matter that keeps us all on the edge of our seats,” she says.
Coley Gentzel has climbed with Huseonica on several occasions. He is the program coordinator and a guide for the American Alpine Institute, a Bellingham, Washington-based company that conducts mountain tours. “People like Art are in a category all of their own,” says Gentzel. “He’s very passionate about climbing and great at sharing his enthusiasm with other climbers. He was instrumental in spearheading the Denali climb, which consisted of climbers who were almost all over the age of 50. Known as the ‘Ice Agers,’ they took a slightly less aggressive approach up the mountain. Art facilitated the group’s correspondence in the months leading up to the 24-day trip. He and another climber even created logos and T-shirts.”
Huseonica’s wife, Karen, feels that her husband’s involvement with Toastmasters has positively affected his climbing. “His membership has reinforced his confidence and self-assurance, making him even more careful and prepared when he climbs,” she says.
Known as “Base-camp Karen” by everyone who climbs with Huseonica, she talks with her husband via satellite telephone during his adventures and then e-mails her reports to friends and family.
Huseonica’s climbing mentor is Ed Viesturs, America’s leading high-altitude mountaineer, and the two men have twice scaled Mount Rainier together.
Though he enjoys all of his climbs, Huseonica especially looks forward to his treks with Viesturs, whom he met during the famous mountaineer’s travels across the U.S. promoting his IMAX-format film, Everest. “Ed and I got to talking at some of his book signings, and I gave him some suggestions for his Web site,” says Huseonica. “Eventually he invited me on a climb. The best part of climbing with Ed is that I learn something new every time.”
On their most recent climb together, on Mount Rainier, they did a speed ascent in order to prevent altitude sickness. During that climb, Viesturs took the picture of Huseonica holding the Kritikos Toastmasters logo.
Huseonica suspects that the urge to climb mountains has something to do with his upbringing. He grew up in Homer City, Pennsylvania, an isolated town of just 200 people in central western Pennsylvania. “My father worked in the local coal mine, and we had outdoor plumbing,” he says. “The town was so small, there was just one store, one gas station and a small post office. From that experience I learned about self-reliance and depending on family.”
After leaving home, Huseonica served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years. Adventure comes naturally to him; he spent a lot of time at sea and in isolated shore stations, and was trained to fly aircraft and work on submarines. Since retiring, he has worked in higher education administration and is currently a Web consultant and part-time teacher for the University of Maryland University College and warehouse manager for a school supply company. He also regularly uses his Toastmasters training to speak at local organizations and recently published his club’s Web site.
As for future climbing, Huseonica has been offered a 2010 spot in a Denali climb, and he is waiting for word about another Mount Rainier expedition with Viesturs. “I’d also like to go back to the Grand Canyon with my friend Ray Bellem and do that climb again,” he says. “It’s a beautiful area, and we have a great time climbing together.”