MYSTICISM AND MOUNTAINS-Climbing, Risk Assessment, Opinion // by Will Gadd, Photography by Brian Goldstone

All of us who have sat with our backs against a sun-warmed slab of mountain learn one thing after even a few minutes: Sunny rock is beautiful, but it’s also really hard and unforgiving. There is nothing more powerfully “real” than stone. Which is why I’m so surprised by the encroachment of the fanciful “Positive Thinkers” into the mountains. Self-help rah-rah cheering is great for some things, but in the mountains reality trumps unjustified self-esteem in short order.

If I’ve learned one thing over the years it’s this: the universe doesn’t give a shit about you, what you think, want, feel, or believe. You are, in the greater scheme of things, as completely irrelevant as a moth flying around a light at night. Rockfall happens whether you pray for it to or not. Some of the nicest, most decent people I know have taken rocks straight between the eyes and died in the mountains. Same with some real assholes. If there is a consciousness to the universe then it is clearly psychotic. A simpler explanation is that it’s up to us to do the right thing. Get it wrong and we die. To paraphrase the protagonist in Fight Club, until you know this basic fact of mountain life you are useless. You are not special and any amount of “magical” thinking is dangerous in reality-based activities.

Will Gadd: “The universe doesn’t give a shit about you, what you think, want, feel, or believe.”

This is why I hate books like “The Secret,” which claim that thinking happy positive thoughts about what you want will result in the conscious universe giving you stuff. Or that you can “manifest” outcomes by thinking about them. Anyone who talks about manifesting anything other than a good crap instantly earns the title of self-deluding nut case in my mind. When The Secret’s Law of Attraction meets the law of gravity, the law of gravity always kicks ass. Now, this sort of quasi-magical mental bullshit is cute in a three-year old, but I expect better from an adult. My kids talk about unicorns and I smile; it’s not going to kill them and an active imagination is a good thing. But even as I tell my kids there are no monsters under the bed, I try to teach them to look out for the real monsters, and to never rely on a magic unicorn or a prayer to save them. Real danger doesn’t respond to mysticism.

Thinking that somehow you are special and have the ear of the universe or some other mystical nonsense means you might not approach the mountains with the proper care. I view “spirituality” in mountain people the same as spirituality in suicide bombers; there are no virgins waiting in heaven for either, and I don’t want to be tied into a rope with anyone who thinks he or she is special. Crazy Horse believed he had magic that made him immune to bullets. He’s dead, just as are all the climbers who think, “When it’s your time it’s your time, nothing I can do about it,” and continued climbing up a south face on a warm day as the rockfall increased.

Will Gadd: “Real danger doesn’t respond to mysticism.”

The Messner quote I like best goes along the lines of, “Mountains are neither fair nor unfair, they are just dangerous.” This is a critical piece of understanding that all of us who do mountain sports ought to have tattooed onto the inside of our eyeballs as a readily accessible reminder when we’re contemplating doing something like climbing under seracs. A proper response to real danger is to get the hell out of the way.

There is a well-known mental shortfall defined as “optimism bias,” meaning that people think they have more control over a situation than they do, and that negative events are more likely to happen to others. Too much bias toward optimism is probably useful in some areas in life, but not when life itself is on the line. Whenever I read avalanche reports I’m often struck by how often the victims knew the slope was suspect, but optimistically decided it would be OK. If someone survives then magical ideas like miracles and guardian angels are often invoked. Strangely, no one says, “God struck him down like a cockroach, too bad,” when someone dies. Magical thinking in any shape rests on denying reality. Ignorance kills often enough in the mountains without adding “willful” in front of it.

Will Gadd: “A proper response to real danger is to get the hell out of the way.”

When I speak to groups about risk management I stress that the positive power of positive thinking is fine for boosting your ego before calling someone new for a date, but it’s not appropriate in situations that actually matter. What’s called for is some good solid reality-based critical thinking. Not, “We WILL make the summit!” but, “Hey, what’s the weather doing while we’re climbing? Kind of early for vertical cumulus cloud development isn’t it? Maybe this is all going to turn into a thunderstorm shortly, time to run away.” I call this situational analysis the “Positive Power of Negative Thinking.” Positive thinking fundamentally isn’t based on reality. If you’re competent then you’ll likely survive and do a good job. Just thinking, “I CAN DO IT!” likely means you’re not, and should stand down.

And this is why we need to both strip magical thinking out of the mountains in all its forms and celebrate the mountains for what they are: Extremely dangerous, stunning beautiful, deeply moving places that we love in our own ways, and that we find meaningful in a way nothing else offers. A place that often brings the best out in us precisely because it’s not a “woo woo” spiritual zone but a stunningly attractive reality where just staying alive is an accomplishment. Celebrate that beauty but watch for the hidden danger. Revel in the sun’s first rays after a frozen night out, but know that those rays are warming the face above the bivouac and that it’s time to get out of the sleeping bag and get moving.

If this all sounds depressing then you’re probably a lot like the majority of people I see wandering around in the mountains. All of us who climb, ski, paddle and fly over mountains are irrational optimists, and my realistic viewpoint often conflicts with that irrational optimism. But without understanding the game we won’t change our plans based on the reality of what’s happening around us. To be a successful climber is not to summit a peak or have fun doing so, but to survive the outing. To do that takes a hawk’s eye for detail about what is happening, not a prayer that it’ll be OK. It takes a keen appreciation of a mountain not just as beautiful but also as a hair-trigger trapdoor gallows we can hang ourselves on at any moment. And to understand that even with all this it’s still worth it, but that running away is often the best move when the opponent not only has all the cards but isn’t even aware you’re in the game.

The opinions in this piece are those of Will Gadd, a professional athlete.

THE BENEFITS OF DANGER- Editorial // by Jill Macdonald

Of all the dangers we face in the outdoors, the most difficult one is that of trust. The power of nature is something that we accept; the power of other forces over us is a conflict. Vulnerability feels like something we can control by not surrendering to it, but really we can’t. We think on it and then let go because if feeling vulnerable stays at the forefront, we become paralyzed.

Risk assessment is based on an evaluation of probability, consequence and vulnerability. North Shore Search and Rescue team leader Tim Jones volunteered a great deal of his life for others. His dedication was an example and serves to remind us of our responsibility to assume and be accountable for our actions.

“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”Emily Dickinson.

Random events occur. The benefit of danger is committing to being aware and alive and making the best decisions we can given the information we have. Life is beyond our control, living it fully is not.

Minding The Big Picture- Sandy Kobrock

No one heads out the door in the morning saying,
“Today is the day I am going to die in an avalanche.”
So how do we go from kissing our loved ones good-bye in the morning to the misfortune of being caught in an avalanche and not surviving?


An easy miss is to focus on The Small Picture instead of The Big Picture.

Backcountry: Small Picture

We take all the right actions – check the weather, make a plan, observe the snowpack, communicate with our group.  However, by drawing the camera lens back to a larger perspective, we see we shouldn’t be there at all.  There is just too much avalanche hazard in our route choice, the terrain is too complex, the consequences of misjudgment are too serious on this day.


Life: Small Picture

As humans we do this at our workplace and with our loved ones as well, taking offense over an imagined slight, a funny look, or off-handed comment.

Pull the camera lens back, gain that wider perspective, and suddenly you notice how petty the situation is.  It probably isn’t about you at all; that person is having a tough day and is not aware of your presence in their drama at all.


Why do we ignore The Big Picture?

Why do we do this? Do we get to be “right” or feel vindicated? Or maybe it’s just habit – what we’ve been taught? Or perhaps it feels easier to make our choices from The Small Picture?


The Truth

What we truly want is happiness, a fulfilled life, vibrantrelationships, and a healthy spirit.


Investing time and energy in the drama, the Small Picture, when we think about it, is not the path we want.


So often we don’t recognize that we have a choice.


Is It Worth It?

During this winter of high uncertainty one phrase kept ringing in my head:   “Is It Worth It?”


Keeping this query in the forefront of my thinking I often forewent the short-term, steep powder thrill for the Big Picture.  When I stopped and thought about it, my Big Picture Outcome was to be laughing with my family around the dinner table at day’s end.


When we make The Big Picture our natural response with our families, at work, and in the backcountry, we create our Desired Outcome: happiness, fulfillment, vibrant relationships, and a healthy spirit.


Because, if the worst happens, if the life of a friend, or loved one is cut short, was being focused on the Small Picture the choice we really wanted to make?



In the next newsletter I’ll offer some ways to move from the Small Picture to the Big Picture.



Are your choices aligned with your Big Picture? Are you trapped in the Small Picture watching your life slip past? The shift from Small Picture to Big Picture, from frustration to fulfillment, is easier and faster when you have support.


I invite you to email me with “Let’s Connect” in the subject line, and we’ll schedule a one-on-one, private, next steps activation call for you. We will connect in, hear what’s happening, and contribute to you gaining clarity about your best next steps. You will be amazed by the miracles that take place from this very special process.


Through Adventure Coaching Sandy offers life coaching focused on decisions, as it is from individual decisions that you create your life.  Whether it’s completing that book you have been putting off writing, or replacing overwhelm with peace, Adventure Coaching can help.
Sandy has trained as a life coach with the Coaches Training Institute, Enwaken Coaches Training, Radical Forgiveness Coaching. She has been  a corporate trainer, a  ski patrol director, a mountain guide/instructor, and river guide. Sandy has years of experience making (good and bad) decisions in high risk environments.

Finding Peace Where There Is No Peace 3 Effective Post-Trauma Actions- Sandy Kobrock

As I pen this missive eight backcountry mountain travelers have died this winter in snow avalanches in Colorado and twenty-five have died in the U.S.  Many of us have experienced a close call in an avalanche this winter or known someone who has had a close call with an avalanche.  We experienced two tragic backcountry deaths in two days in early March here in southwestern Colorado.  Even if you haven’t suffered a wake-up call or profound loss through a snow avalanche this winter, we all suffer losses of friends, family, pets, job, income, and relationships as an ongoing part of life.  If you listen closely, you can hear the silent wails of grief echoing from the mountains of the West.


Ironically this anguish actually initiates us into the process of healing our grief.  Experts in counseling encourage us to allow the waves of pain to flow, as they crash like waves on the beach, ebb for a while, then crash again.  This natural flow is part of our deep self-care.  Like a physical wound’s blood flow cleans the wound, letting the pain flow when our wounds are deep and raw allows our grief to run it’s natural course.

Like a healing salve protects and soothes a physical wound, actions of deep self-care soothe our emotional wounds.  Here are three soothing actions to try as those waves are crashing:

1. Light a Candle
Hold the person, or object of your loss, gently in your mind and heart.  Feel their presence, their spirit, their life, all that you cherished about them, all they brought to your life.  Write about it, share your thoughts and feelings with another person.  As you do this, light a candle as a symbol of their light in your life, a light that is not extinguished by their physical absence.

2. Take a Walk     Being outside in nature, in the sun, the wind, the snow, the rain is soothes our spirit, especially those of us who love the outdoors and wild nature.  The timelessness of nature reminds us of the natural cycles of change.  It calls to mind our place in the big picture of the natural world.  The repetitive nature of walking is grounding and calming, and physical movement assists our energy in shifting and moving, as it must do when we are adjusting to a new reality.

3. Soak in a Hot Spring     Many of us in the West are fortunate to have a natural hot springs close by.  (A hot bath or hot tub also suffices).  Water soothes and relaxes us.  Adding bath salts and calming essential oils like lavender and roman chamomile assist in drawing toxins out of our body produced by the stress of trauma.  Allow the water to support you and warm you as you let ‘what was’ and ‘what now is’ integrate in your being.


Change may be constant and unavoidable in our lives, but that doesn’t always make it easy for us to integrate those changes.  If you are experiencing shifts in your life, it can make sense to receive support.  I invite you to email me with “Let’s Connect” in the subject line to schedule a 1-on-1, private, next steps activation call with myself. We will connect in, hear what’s happening for you, talk about what shifts you are experiencing, and support you in gaining clarity about your best next steps. You will be amazed by the miracles that take place from this very special process.



In The Spirit of Adventure,


Adventure Coaching

The Pass Creek Yurt

The Wolf Creek Avalanche School

Mountain Community

We are enveloped by spectacular mountains, which many of us were drawn here by their beauty and desire for exploration. We pursue new adventures and surround ourselves with those who share the same passions.  Those people become our friends, partners, community, and family.  The mountains can challenge us which allows us to create a certain bond with partners of trust and respect. This is a beautiful relationship that happens due to the connection in outdoor adventures. We are fulfilling and enriching our lives with a calculated risk. Each day we play in the mountains must come with preparedness and awareness.