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Sean Johnson

12,000ft on Mt. Thor in the Northern Chugach, Alaska: March 18th, 2016 (Day 7)

Every gust of wind leaves me feeling like I’m standing too close to a passing locomotive. My goggles rimed over with ice hours ago and after multiple attempts to thaw them I didn’t have the heart to try again. Snow and ice crystals pelt my face as the harsh wind launches tiny barrages at high speed, every speck feeling like metal pellets against my exposed skin. Simon stops and faces me, I see his large towering stature through squinted eyes. The silhouette of his body creates a stark contrast to the intense white backdrop. There is a concern and fatigue in his body language which is probably echoed by mine as we stare at one another. Simon is one of my only climbing partners that I can consistently get an accurate read-on.

Resting in the path Simon has created by trudging through the knee deep snow, I feel the frigid air seep through all of my layers. The intense cold drains the energy from the core of my body. I plunge my ice ax into the snow beside me until it’s anchored and secure. I start swinging my arms in an arching motion front to back. As I continue beating my hands against my legs to regain the feeling in my fingertips, Simon calls out to me. His hands are cupped around his mouth and he shouts over the gale.

“Hey!………….. I think we should all regroup here!”

I’m unsure what volume is the proper amount for him to hear me, as I shout in response “I agree,….. I’ll tell Terrell and Fallon!…….. How are you feeling?!”. Simon’s response is as I expected “Eh, so so…… Cold…….. You?!”. Keeping our interaction short and concise is key “I’m good…… A little tired,……. my hands are fucking freezing!”. 

I begin to realize the sensation in my fingertips is barely there and come to grips with the possibility I might sustain damage to my nerves. This isn’t the first time I’ve exposed my hands to harsh temperatures and conditions, after the last time I lost the feeling in both my middle fingertips for two months. Putting the thought out of my mind I turn around and wait for Terrell to get close enough to hear me. The four of us are on two separate rope teams, Simon and myself make up the front team and Terrell and Fallon are the second team. As Terrell gets within a few meters, I feel confident enough to speak to her in a normal tone without having to shout over the blasts.

“How are you guys doing?”

Terrell responds the way I expect her to, she’s a strong partner who has suffered harsh elements in the past. There’s an underscore of worry in her voice.

Terrell: “I’m good, my hands are cold and I can’t really feel my feet. Are we taking a break here?”

“Yes. Simon wants to regroup and talk. How’s Fallon?”

“I think she’s ok but these gusts of wind are really knocking her around. Let’s just talk when we regroup.”

“Alright.”

After a few minutes Simon has shoveled out a platform on the snow slope just large enough for the four of us to stand on flat ground for a change. Before I start walking towards him I swing my ice ax against the sides of my crampons to knock off the thick snow that’s balling up on the bottom. Simon belays me in to the platform and I plunge my ice ax into the slope. The fluorescent yellow webbing tied securely around the head of the ax is tethered to the carabiner clipped and locked to the belay loop of my harness. After Terrell and Fallon arrive at the platform they clip in the same way Simon and I have. Relieved to finally take a long rest, we all drop our heavy packs and clip them to a snow picket buried in the slope to ensure we won’t lose our gear.

I pull out a honey packet from my internal pocket of the layer closest to my body. We all begin to rehydrate and eat whatever small snacks we have to boost our energy again. At this point we have been kicking steps in steep snow slopes, moving little by little against the harsh blows of the storm for over 12 hours. There’s a silence in the air and I pull the GPS out to see exactly how close we are to our goal. The GPS pings back a weak signal, unable to pierce through the towering cloud layers that engulf us and extend through the troposphere. Finally there’s a response, the blip on the screen puts us around 250 feet below the summit but still nearly half a mile away. The distance seems trivial to all of us as I read it aloud, I glance up as Simon takes a photo of me with my buff that I used to cover my face, now appearing to be more of an ice mask. The fabric has frozen stiff due to the condensation of my warm breath against the cold air. I search everyones faces as we all let the severity of the situation sink in. 

Before anyone says anything I already know the answer, we are going down without the summit. The danger is too high, the storm is only getting worse and it’s been hard enough for us to see at this point. If we choose to go higher and leave the ridge we may never be able to find our path back down. Our boot trail is being covered up behind us from the strong wind and new snow being deposited in the steps. There’s a brief depression that washes over me, perhaps it’s the reality rushing through my thoughts or the exhaustion manifesting itself. We discuss the options, those words fading in and out as I come to grips with the descent that lies ahead. Down, I think to myself, The only safe decision is to get down now. 

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Reflection

Over a year of time has passed since I was on that trip with my three friends. From time to time I have thought back to the time spent tent-bound at the base of Mt. Thor high on the Sylvester glacier. For weeks after the trip I found myself thinking about what went wrong and ultimately led us to be in the situation we were in. I finally decided it was best to write down my experience and search for the answers there to allow me to learn from this trip. In order to benefit others I would like to share my insight, as it can be applied to a multitude of trips that deal with group dynamic and emotional intelligence.

Immediately after the trip, former APU professor David McGivern gave a speech on emotional intelligence. To this day his words resonate within me. I can remember sitting in the uncomfortable chairs of the presentation room of Carr-Gottstein hall, my eyes swelling with tears as he spoke about a friend of mine who had passed away and what went wrong on that trip. Then, my eyes swelling further as I realized it felt like he was speaking directly to me and the mistakes I had just made on my outing.

I sat quietly with reddened-eyes transfixed on Dave's every word. My windburn face felt redder as I became self-conscious that people could see the pain in my eyes. Throughout the entire speech I felt out of my body, I was still sleep deprived from the days before and hadn't seen a single other student since I returned. My partners were in the room looking as haggered as I was and I felt like we were the elephants in the room that no one was addressing.

Once Dave finished his speech, I rose out of my seat in order to talk to him. I stood slowly as my sore feet and ankles did not allow me to move with a sense of purpose or urgency. Intercepted by fellow students asking questions about what happened, I felt myself growing impatient and uneasy. I felt like I was suffocating, I wanted to get out of that god-forsaken room and away from everyone in it. I finally managed to catch Dave before he was heading out the door and was able to thank him for the insight.

We went to the Blue Fox afterwards for a few beers and I chatted with Dave about what happened and how his speech resonated so deeply within me, that I was unsure of how I felt about it all and what to do next. He encouraged me to write it down and have some self-reflection time to digest and process it all. This was single-handedly one of the best things I could have done and I want to share that story in order to potentially help others in the future when faced with similar circumstances.

What went wrong? What went right? How did we come to the point where we had to make that call to turn around? All of these things stem back to a variety of factors that compiled throughout the trip. What's important to understand in any situation like this is that there is no single incident or factor that ultimately brings you to that moment. There is always a breadcrumb trail of mistakes or lapse in judgement that leads to one larger issue. My goal here is to explain this trip from a critical standpoint in order to help future adventurers with their decision-making.

From my perspective, when I think back to this trip it truly all boils down to emotional intelligence. Using the four pillars of emotional intelligence as a guide, I am able to better see the faults and flaws throughout our trip. Using this approach has helped me greatly in the time since that outing and I continue to use it to this day. The concept of emotional intelligence can be applied to all aspects of life but can play a pivotal role when assessing a trip when dealing with group dynamics.

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Self-Awareness

The first and quite possibly the most important of the pillars. Understanding exactly where it is you stand on certain issues, feelings and decisions. Realizing who it is that you are and what you are capable of physically, mentally and emotionally. Knowing yourself is an important piece of the puzzle when dealing with group trips.

The Mt. Thor trip was my first trip of that kind with friends. I was equally excited and nervous about the trip. I felt physically prepared however, you always feel like you could have trained a little harder no matter where you go. My confidence was high with the amount that I had looked over maps and gear before our departure.

During the trip I felt my self-awareness start at a high point and then begin to slowly dwindle throughout. I was having a hard time keeping my thoughts or emotions in check during the walk-out. Attempting to come to grips with what had all transpired over the last few days. I was upset with myself over choices I made or agreed to, felt disdain towards my partners from time to time and ultimately was questioning if I knew who I was. 

Self Control

The second pillar of emotional intelligence played an overwhelmingly huge role in how this trip went wrong. Stemming for the first pillar of self-awareness you must then apply it and create personal boundaries and parameters for the task at hand. After having a debrief with the group faciliated by Eeva Latosuo we got to the bottom of the issues that occurred on this trip. Unamiously we realized they originated with a lack of self-control. We had all set parameters for ourselves prior to our departure and yet throughout the trip either unknowingly or blatantly ignored them and continued on. This failure to maintain self-control creates a dizzying whirlwind of issues and mistakes on a group trip. I want to highlight the key areas where self-control was lacking and how that played in the overall outcome of the trip.

On the second morning of the trip one of my partners was feeling sick. After a series of dry-heaves and puking it became obvious they would not continue on. We sat quietly as a group until the decision was made they would not continue on. A group of snowmachiners drove past and we asked they would take our partner out. They agreed and we began to pack up our camp in order to continue on as a team of three.

As we left the camp our sick partner had a change of heart and decided they could make it and carry-on. I felt the pressure to say no, I felt it swelling up inside me to tell them it was too late and the decision had been made. We woud be jeopardizing the trip and each other by having a sick partner and ultimately putting them in danger. Yet, amidst this clear decision in my mind to veto their decision, I was unable to make the words come out of mouth. My self-control was slipping and I stood quietly as we divided gear back up into the two sleds and carried on. The tension of the group began to build from that moment, but it was silent and unspoken throughout the remainder of the trip.

After three and a half days of travel we reached our base camp at the base of Mt. Thor around 7,800' on the Sylvester glacier. Until this point the weather had been spectacular, bluebird skies with the spring-sun pouring it's warming rays down onto us. However, once we reached camp the conditions began to shift for the worse. Clouds slowly trickled in until the sky and glacier around us began to blend into a seamless white abyss. Visibility dropped until we could only make out the two tents in camp and the faint skin track that led into our tiny box on the glacier.

Conditions worsened over the next two days as high winds and snow bombarded our camp. As a group we would only get out of the tents to shovel snow away or relieve ourselves. Otherwise, we were tent bound sleeping or reading for the duration of that time. When the storm finally broke on the sixth day of the trip around 5pm we emerged from our tents with spirits high. We made food and began discussing what would happen next. In my mind this was the moment where we all lacked serious self-control. As the clouds parted and the sky cleared we decided if it looked better by 7pm we would grab light summit-packs and head up the ridge. Sure enough that is what happened and we began our climb just after 8pm.

After 10pm the northern lights were dancing across the sky as I stared in awe from 10,000ft on the North ridge of Mt. Thor. Initially we rejoiced in our decision, carrying on higher and higher until the storm returned. It came slowly, first with the flurries of snow and a slight breeze until the winds picked up to their original fury from earlier in the day. We spent hours wading through the new snow and bracing against the wind. The whole time knowing that turning around was the smart decision and yet higher we pushed.

Finally after hours of being bashed by the harsh blows of the wind and having our faces pelted with tiny shards of snow and ice we decided to regroup. We made the long overdue call to turn around and head back down to camp.

On our way back down the ridge we became disoriented and rappelled into the wrong gully. After climbing back up and sorting out the mistake we made our way back down to the glacier. Crawling back into our tents after 23 hours of non-stop movement we drank water and all abruptly passed out.

The decision we should have made was clear to us all but we were blinded by our desire to climb. When the storm relinquished it's hold on our camp we should've packed up our gear and headed back down glacier without ever having the discussion of climbing. As a group our lack of self-control took us all the way up to 12,000' feet in the dark during a storm before we finally saw the faults in our decisions.

Having the self-control to simply stop and re-assess when the situation worsens is an incredibly valuably trait. The ability to practice proper self-control is pivotal on trips when dealing with group dynamics and a shifting environment. This is the pillar of emotional intelligence that I feel I was lacking in most.

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Empathy

The third pillar of emotional intelligence is crucial when dealing with other people. The ability to understand our own emotions is important in the first two pillars but also plays a role in this third pillar. You must put yourself in the shoes of your partner to understand what they are experiencing. Understanding where someone else stands emotionally during a certain situation allows for a better group flow and chance of successful communication.

Personally, when looking back on this trip I realized at multiple times I was selfish and unempathetic to my partners. However, this ability to look back on this trip allowed me to realize the amount of empathy that was shown as a group and yet still, where we lacked as a whole.

After returning to camp from our climb the high winds and snow began to rush back over our tents. The furious flapping of tent fabric and rattling poles woke Terrell and I from within our tent. A pole had snapped in both of our group tents and we decided it was time to leave and head down glacier. During our descent in a nearly total white-out we navigated an icefall to the lower glacier. While we were skinning down glacier Fallon brought it to our attention that her feet were in pretty bad shape. Walking was becoming more difficult for her as her ski boots rubbed her heels raw with every step. We stopped several times and adjusted sleds and group gear to help her as much as possible. I realize in this moment we as a group showed a fair amount of empathy. However, in the same instance I can see how hard we pushed at the end to get out and the damage that was doing to her feet. The situation finally came where walking out seemed nearly impossible for Fallon with her feet in that condition.

The decision finally came near the toe of the glacier when we made the group decision to use the satellite phone to call for a pick-up. Initially, we called a snowmachiner, Andy, who we had met on our way in who told us to give him a ring if we needed help. He was unavailable so we called our good friend Betsy to come and get us. Betsy's level of empathy far outweighed ours as she packed up her snowmachine into her trailer and drove over an hour to get to the pull-out and drive solo on her machine for 16-18 miles to get to us around midnight. I am eternally grateful to Betsy and Andy who just so happened to be out their grooming trails. They pulled us out with their two sleds all the way to the highway. 

Group Dynamic

The fourth and final pillar of emotional intelligence is group dynamic or sometimes called "social skills". In any group trip this is a highly important portion. The ability to start a trip with a positive group dynamic and to maintain it throughout is key. This is a difficult aspect of most trips due to the fact that stressful situations and a shifting environment can lead to emotions arising that you do not typically see when not in the backcountry. The true nature of who someone is may come out of nowhere when you are 30+ miles deep in a mountain range or rafting down a remote river. Choosing partners and choosing them wisely is important.

I was once told there are two ways you pick partners for a trip and to this day I try and follow this code. First you decide what is more important the objective or the person you are going with. Let's say for instance you choose a hard objective, then you would only accept a partner who is up to the challenge and can hack it when push comes to shove. Having the ability to tell less experienced friends they can not come along is a hard thing to do but ultimately necessary in that situation. The other option is that you choose a partner who is maybe less experienced and from there you choose a goal or objective that is befitting for both of you ability levels. 

Personally, I feel our group dynamic was off on this trip and that led to a series of other issues. We were not honest with ourselves and could not in turn be honest with one another. This made every tiny decision or detail difficult to agree on during our trip and was the cause for a lot of personal strife throughout the nine days. Had we been honest with one another from the beginning we could have avoided a lot of miscommunication.

Ultimately this trip had a serious impact on me as a person and how I conduct myself on trips that I am a part of. Prior to embarking on a group trip I always have the four pillars of emotional intelligence in the forefront of my mind. I am a firm believer that if you are planning a group-based trip or adventure of any kind you will highly benefit from this system.

I would just like to extend my thanks and gratitude for my wonderful partners on this trip Terrell, Fallon and Simon. No matter the outcome it was a trip that has changed me in a variety of ways and for that and you all I am grateful. I hope our attempt of Mt. Thor can be a lesson for everyone who reads this article. Our experience is one we share but can be a valuable tool for others to learn from in the future. Thank you.

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