January-February 2013

Jack Strickland, ADA and mountaineer

Having twice ascended Japan’s Mount Fuji as a boy and after spending years as an “arm-chair” enthusiast, I decided at age 55 to set aside my fears, get off my butt, and try some real climbing. In the subsequent 15 years, I have now gone on to summit peaks in Alaska, Canada, the Alps, the Cascades, and South America. The decision to go to the mountains has changed my life in innumerable ways—mostly for the better.
    On my 66th birthday, I flew into base camp on Denali, North America’s highest, coldest, meanest mountain. Talking with other climbers during the ensuing 23-day climb, I was invariably asked: “Hey, aren’t you the dude who just started Social Security?” (Climbers, who after all are mostly in their 20s, say “dude” a lot.) After enduring an earthquake, several too-close-for-comfort avalanches, 5 feet of new snow, and a white-out with an accompanying wind chill of –92°, reaching the 20,390 foot summit of Denali remains my proudest accomplishment in the mountains.
    In addition to big-mountain alpine climbing, I spend a week or two each winter ice-climbing in Colorado and Canada and have now scaled 100 frozen waterfalls that range from 60 to 1,100 feet in height.
    Mountaineering, with its inherent sufferings and risks, is not an activity that most folks care to pursue or profess to understand. But I submit that it shares some characteristics in common with trial practice. Successful climbing, like litigation, requires meticulous—some might say obsessive—preparation. Alpinists compulsively weigh everything in our packs, calculating the totals and discarding the superfluous items. Who amongst us knows (or cares) that high-altitude mittens weigh 8.1 ounces, thick mountaineering socks weigh in at 4 ounces, and that the cardboard center of a roll of toilet paper tips the scales at 0.2 ounces? I do, that’s who. And just as is true of trial, the climb itself teaches you to be very, very attentive to details, particularly when the consequences of a moment of carelessness may be a long fall with a sudden stop. Climbing, like trial or oral arguments, demands that you make difficult, game-changing decisions quickly and while on your feet.
    Contrary to popular opinion, most climbers are neither suicidal nor crazy. That is not to deny that climbing involves inherent risks, but there are both avoidable and unavoidable dangers in climbing. Part of what you strive to do is strike a balance between the two. Most climbers indulge their vertical passion not because of the dangers that attend the sport but rather in spite of them. Thoughtful climbers focus on the many admirable aspects of climbing rather than the negative ones.
    What climbing does do is pose an intense physical and mental challenge, regardless of the size of the mountain, difficulty of the route, or weather. When climbing a mountain or a frozen waterfall, you are forced to face your own physical shortcomings, capacity to endure cold and deprivation, and willingness to confront and manage your fears. It concentrates your mind wonderfully.
    Neither the mountain nor other climbers care the slightest about who you are (or who you think you are), how much money you earn, or what you own. Respect on the mountain must be earned, and the criteria for earning that respect are uncomplicated and uncompromising: Can you maintain a balance between prudent caution and paralyzing fear? Can you keep your wits about you when the snow hits the fan? If the climber to whom you are roped falls off one side of a knife-edge ridge, will you automatically and without hesitation jump off the other side to halt his fall—and hopefully your own? Obviously, you can never know the answers to these questions for certain until you are on the mountain and confronted by the circumstances.
        —Jack Strickland