Leading Up … and Back Down

In Class, November 2014 These thirty eyes carry weight. What was a mixed burble of chatter and various announcements of arrival—dropped backpacks, bodies being wedged into desks, heavy sighs—ends abruptly. Nearly at the end of my final, chalked sentence on the board, I glance over my shoulder. They are all looking at me. “What now?” I think, and then, because there is really no other option, I turn fully to them and begin.


In Class, November 2014

These thirty eyes carry weight. What was a mixed burble of chatter and various announcements of arrival—dropped backpacks, bodies being wedged into desks, heavy sighs—ends abruptly. Nearly at the end of my final, chalked sentence on the board, I glance over my shoulder. They are all looking at me. “What now?” I think, and then, because there is really no other option, I turn fully to them and begin.

“What,” I ask, “did you think of Odysseus’s decisions, now that, after ten years of trying, he has reached the shores of Scheria from which he will soon be conveyed home?” Books shuffle open; some eyes drop to Homer’s pages, others to formica desktops. The expectancy of their weighty collective stare dissipates. Once again it’s a usual November day at school. Nominally, I am in charge of this hour of this day. Where, I wonder will I lead this group?

No trouble ensues. We are two months settled with each other, and, with help from my natural scatter of attention, I am able to track my charges in their moments of focus and meander. We get to some insights; no one gets lost or left behind. To an outside observer, the 60 minutes may have looked relaxed and conversational. And still, as the final student departs, I find that, once again, I am exhausted. Leading this class has been no walk in the park.

O, and Odysseus? King and wily hero, classic top-down sort of guy, he has gotten a thorough hiding for his failed leadership. “Pffft,” said one student in summary, “he comes back with no one. He’s lost everyone and everything. Some may have been necessary sacrifices, sure, but if he were less concerned about his reputation as the Big O, he’d still have had some his crew and boats, and he would’ve been home a lot sooner.”

Perhaps. We do judge our leaders, especially the ones who insist on being seen as such, by a higher standard, and when something goes wrong, we tend to focus on their decisions and actions, while paying less attention to those they lead. Odysseus’s crew, his followers, contributed plenty of chuckleheaded moments to their demise, but mostly, readers and listeners say, He lost Them.

Tuckerman Ravine, March 2014

I could have opened this piece with another cast of travelers, at a very different decision point. It is mid-March, and the sun shifts west and down. Six, skilled backcountry skiers form a loose affiliation and climb from the top of the Gulf of Slides, past Boott Spur and over to the spring skiing mecca of Tuckerman Ravine for the day’s last run on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. Atop Hillman’s Highway, a long, angled 1,500-foot drop to the ravine’s floor, they pause to assess what slopes away sharply before them.

The day in these two east-facing ravines has been a glorious one of climbing and then skiing sun-softened snow that has tamed the 40-degree steeps to sheer pleasure. As the six skiers peer down the Highway and talk over its line and advisability, three hikers emerge from its throat; one wears crampons, the other two stub the claws of their snowshoes into the slope. As the slope eases, all three sigh. It is a sigh of heavy relief that says, we have climbed way beyond comfort and skill; we are glad to be done with this route. (Though later they will require rescue from Washington’s summit cone.)

The six skiers know why. The afternoon sun has shifted, and, as it has, shadows have taken over the ravine, dropping the air temperature with a thermal thump. What had been forgiving corn snow has gone back to frozen granular, which, all eastern skiers know, is another term for ice. Hillman’s Highway has become no-fall skiing. The skiers gnaw on the decision before them: should they ski the Highway, or should they shuck off their skis and put on their pointed crampons and take the deliberate, long way down? What, if you are an expert skier, would you do?

Hindsight answers, and I can offer summary that comes from an extraordinary public exchange of letters on the Mount Washington Avalanche Center’s website between Jon M, who would ski the Highway second, and Chris Joosen, US Forest Service snow ranger (and lead rescuer) in Tuckerman Ravine at that time. Not far into his run, Jon fell. On the hard ice, he couldn’t self-arrest, and his fall became a battering slide nearly to the base of the run. When his companions reached him and secured him so he wouldn’t slide farther, they knew he was hurt badly. They went for help.

The base of Hillman’s Highway isn’t far from the USFS outpost at Hermit Lake, and help in the form of snow rangers arrived soon. Their quick assessment and work at trying to stabilize Jon confirmed that he had life-threatening injuries. Joosen called for a helicopter from Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, and, given the blessing of good weather, which allowed landing, it got there quickly. That speed and rapid treatment saved Jon’s life, even as he needed a full month in the hospital to get ready to return to his usual life.

In Extremes—On Mount Madison, February 2015

Steve Dupuis says that the wind coursing just overhead is “the loudest I’ve ever heard.” Dupuis is no novice. On this sub-zero February midnight, he is team leader for four Mountain Rescue Service volunteers, all adept technical climbers and mountaineers, who hope to find a missing hiker high on the north side of Mount Madison, north of Washington. Dupuis has been climbing and guiding and rescuing for decades; if he says this is an extreme, it’s way beyond the rest of us. Facts and figures assembled later will bear him out: northwest winds steady at 90+ mph, with gusts well above 100, temperatures nosing down toward -30 F, windchill, beyond imagination.

Dupuis and his three companions are also off trail (intentionally) as they seek the location of a beacon signal issued some hours back. The lost hiker may be in this thick, dwarf spruce, also thick with unpacked snow. At the site of the coordinates, shouting to be heard, Dupuis organizes a grid search, which, after some hard minutes, turns up no one. How does one impose the order of a grid on such a maelstrom of weather and terrain?

Through the scrub and wind and darkness, the four rescuers work back to the Valley Way, where they confer with two New Hampshire Fish and Game Conservation Officers who are their support. Should the six of them climb higher into this night and try to reach the coordinates of another beacon signal received earlier than the one just checked? The heavy wind will be at their backs, and so they’re certain they can get there. “But what,” Dupuis recalls in a later conversation, “about getting back?” Then, this tsunami of wind and cold will be in their faces. Will they be able to walk and crawl through it? Already sapped by the night’s search, at 1:00 AM they decide to go down. The sergeant coordinating the rescue at the trailhead says later, “When they got out, they all looked like zombies, ice hanging off them, exhausted.”


Can we make any useful generalizations about leadership in and from these three episodes? It is a notoriously slippery subject. Handling it is akin, perhaps, to hauling a big fish on board your small boat and finding that you can’t corral and make use of it. It may sink you.

Why slippery? Despite a whole publishing genre of helpful advice about it, leadership in practice remains a variable, hard-to-define and difficult pursuit. Much of that difficulty roots itself in the popular paradigm that blooms in our minds when we say the word. We met it at this essay’s outset. It’s a central subject of Western culture’s two great ur-poems. Both The Iliad and The Odyssey are rife with leaders who get it wrong. Either they are self-absorbed and greedy (Agamemnon), overly proud (Achilles—and just about everyone else named), manipulative and self-promoting (Odysseus), not forceful enough (Menelaus) and so on. A host of lesser leaders scurry about the poems trying to repair whatever damage the big kings have done or visited on each other. From Homer’s point of view, there is one ideal leader, the Trojan prince, Hector, and he must be killed (after fleeing three times around his doomed city) by the fire that is Achilles.

Still, these millennia later, not much has changed. The image of the leading king or queen persists. He or she raises a sword, points across a field, then sets out on the run or gallop toward some other that must be conquered. We roar our assent and follow.

We suffer under that old paradigm—daily it seems—and, just as it persists in the front country of our lives, in its politics and economics, it shows itself in the backcountry too. Even as we go to the woods and hills to get away, we bring our need for and thoughts about leadership with us.

Though I am oversimplifying in doing so, I’m going to suggest two models of leadership as possible descriptions of what you’ve read thus far. Here, I am in debt to a teaching friend, Mike Pardee of the gcLi Leadership Lab for his clear, concise summary of Ronald Heifetz’s conception of leadership, and to risk-writing friend Ty Gagne, author of Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions and the Final Climb of Kate Matrosova.

Exchanges with both friends have clarified and reinforced Heifetz’s work for me in ways that may help us see some of what good leadership looks like in the backcountry. Heifetz’s poses a traditional leadership, which he calls “technical” (We know the answer we want. Just follow the recipe. I say; you do.), and a second, harder to define one, “adaptive leadership.” In this leadership iteration, the titled leader plays a number of different roles and adaptive leadership depends also on those, who, in the technical model, would be called followers. You sense now, I’m guessing, a certain slipperiness.

Pardee offers this partial summary:

This concept is similar to the ancient wisdom that Lao Tzu expressed in his oft-quoted maxim that “a leader is best when people barely know he exists. Of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: ‘We did this ourselves.’” A Heifetzian adaptive leader accomplishes this delicate balance by the way he or she “paces and leads” followers. Successful adaptive leaders thus share the burden and place the work of exercising leadership “where it belongs.” That is: among the people being led. The task of adaptive leadership, Heifetz notes, is generating capacity—not dependency—among one’s followers as well as oneself. By promoting such an ethos of learning, collaboration, creativity and resilience among their followers, the best leaders ultimately make themselves expendable and dispensable.


Think about each of this essay’s three early scenarios, and think also about the leadership, or absence of it, outlined. Then, decide what sort of leadership each asks.

Here, briefly, are my thoughts.

I opened in a flatlands classroom because we’ve all been there. Also, if you have taught—and I mean that broadly in a way that includes most of us—you have experienced the need to track a number of people and make seemingly small decisions constantly. If you would lead so that each person in the group would learn and feel self-sufficient doing so, you were engaged fully on many fronts; you were always adapting to what was before you. Sometimes you were the questioner, sometimes you were silent, sometimes you let unruliness creep in; sometimes you said simply, “I don’t know. You figure it out.” You were an adaptive leader, and as such you were also dependent on those in this room with you.

Any longtime teacher/leader knows the fragility of what’s in such a room. A little too much acting out, or outright refusal, and the whole soufflé of learning collapses. Only the sad reversion to threat—“okay, this will be on the test”—remains. That’s part, but only part, of what you are watching for; that’s part of your exhaustion at hour’s end. Power, which has been assigned to you, really rests in those “being led.” If they won’t lead with you, lead themselves, the class fails. So too, I would posit, a mountain trip.

When the six skiers gathered atop Hillman’s Highway, they were a pick-up group, joined only by their being there that day and their expert ability. In the aforementioned exchange of letters between Jon M and Chris Joosen, Jon reflected on the moments before he chose to ski:

What has stuck with me the most since the accident are two things: the errors in judgment that my group made that led us to actively decide to ski a run that held so much potential for disaster, and our unwillingness to speak up about nagging doubts we had while preparing to drop in. While mulling over mistakes is normal behavior for anyone who has survived a traumatic event, it has deeply affected me, because, prior to March 13, I had prided myself on being an overly cautious and responsible member of the backcountry community, who always went to great lengths to discuss risks throughout the day with my companions.

Absent a designated leader or leaders, the group slipped back into the hesitancy of someone deemed “expert,” even as he may be troubled by the challenge at hand. No one wanted to say, “Hey, this looks iffy, dangerous.” Among physically capable athletes, it was a classic situation where each might ask himself to “man up.”

Here, a traditional leader skilled in reading risk would have had a better chance of making a good call. Here, casting ahead to the last scenario, it would have been good to have Steve Dupuis at this rim. Perhaps an adaptive leader would have helped the group arrive at a better decision, but I think that unlikely. Adaptive leadership grows from familiarity and trust, both of which ask for time spent together. Two months of classroom time allows (though doesn’t guarantee) such development; meeting on or before the fly on a mountain doesn’t. Mountain trips and their like, especially for groups thrown together by circumstance, ask a traditional leadership akin to what a mountain guide offers paying clients: “Just to be clear,” she or he might say, “I’ll talk over what’s going on throughout this climb, but I’ll make the final call on any crucial decision. If I say we’re turning around or going down, that’s what we’re going to do. If you can’t sign on to that relationship, don’t come on this trip.”

For the six rescuers high on the side of Madison, leadership is clear. And blended. Dupuis is the “team leader.” The conservation officers from New Hampshire Fish and Game have also been told by their sergeant that they are to follow Dupuis’s instructions. He has told them to wait on the trail as support. Within the group of four Mountain Rescue Service members, there was room for discussion. They are all experts from the same group, and joining that group means training together and signing on to its ethos. In the wild world of that night they could be adaptive; the trust and ability necessary to be so were there in abundance. As fallback, however, they also had hierarchy of command. For me, the MRS group represents an ideal. Each climber is skilled and self-led; each also has signed on to a group structure and ethic that allows subsuming of self for the group’s goals and good.


As may be clear by now (I hope) making decisions and leading in the backcountry require complex work that begins well before anyone or ones venture out. How do we get better at this leading of others and self?

In April of 2019, I read a Trail Runner article by Doug Mayer entitled “Running to Extremes.” In it Mayer traced some of the evolving merger between trail running and technical climbing—see, for extreme example, Killian Jornet’s recent speed record ascent of Mount Everest—a version of boundary-pushing found throughout our mountains. Mayer wondered, among many things, how these runners proposed to manage risk, and in that wondering, he cited Colorado trail runner Hillary Allen. Allen is a professional runner, and so, though only 30, she brings a lifetime’s worth of experience to her mountain thinking. Deep in the article, she had this to say: “I engage with my intuition. I listen to it. I don’t have summit fever. I can turn around and think, ‘Hey, the mountains will be there another day. Some days it doesn’t feel right and that’s okay.’” Sound stuff.

Readers seeing the word “intuition” may think it a special, almost magical gift, a natural sixth sense that only a few are given. But research into decision-making by Nobel Laureate Danny Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggests otherwise, and in his and others’ insights may lie a route to wisdom for those of us who would run or ramble where most won’t go. Kahneman identifies intuition as being the child of experience. Put plainly by psychologist Herbert Simon, “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.” It offers an instantaneous reading of a moment or situation that is speedier than rational thought’s slow linkages. And, says Kahneman, it happens for those who have so much accrued experience that they can recognize when something is amiss even before they can explain it.

Cross Kahneman’s thinking with Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours as the necessary commitment to become expert, and you get intuition as the gift of experience. The old-fashioned word for this commitment is apprenticeship. Such a relationship involves both mentor(s) and land; both are an apprentice’s teachers. Such learning also takes time. Even as our online age offers ready access to reams of information and advice, there’s no shortcut to the kind of experience that adds up to having intuition’s understanding of a mountain moment.

Allen’s many hours and trails in the mountains give her a library of patterns and experiences that add up to such an apprenticeship. Most of us don’t have and haven’t put in the time. It’s good then for us to know what we don’t know and factor that into our backcountry choices.


It’s another leap to travel from this essay’s mountains to the narrow, coastal plain of Maine, but that’s where I live and where I’ve worked through these thoughts. The other night, I attended the annual meeting of our local land trust. The centerpiece of that evening was a presentation on the history of the trust’s signature property, the 300+-acre Crystal Spring Farm. The farm, now more than 200 years into continuous cultivation, lies only a mile outside of a busy, expansive town. New development keeps gnawing at the town’s landscape. But the trust’s bold decision to commit to buying the farm when the trust was young and “flush” with only $3,000 in its accounts in the early 90s, has given Brunswick a gift it would take a book to unwrap.

Within that package, central to it, however, is a working farm that hosts a weekly farmer’s market. At the meeting, we heard from Seth Kroeck, the farmer with a long-term lease at Crystal Spring Farms: “When I first arrived at Crystal Spring as a 32-year-old, I walked the land and I saw a lot; I already knew a lot too. I had big plans. Fifteen years later, I still walk the land each week, and I keep learning from it. Now I hope I don’t make a big mistake.”

Captured within that disarmingly simple statement is the way one becomes a grounded leader of self, who can then assume responsibility in a larger enterprise. The more you learn and know of a place, of a landscape, or yourself, the more humility you develop in your plans and pressings-out into that land and self. Though they walk different landscapes, Seth Kroeck and his mountain counterpart, Steve Dupuis, strike me as siblings in leadership, once-apprentices who have become masters. Each goes out to meet a mission, and each reads carefully the land and day he is in; each adapts to that land and day. Then, drawing upon long experience, each leads the way.


Gardner Carney Leadership Institute (gcLi) Leadership Lab. gclileadership.org/portfolio_page/leadership-lab/

Ty Gagne, Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions and the Final Climb of Kate Matrosova (Conway, NH: TMC Books LLC, 2017).

The Woodblock Prints of Matt Brown

Sandy Stott, Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2018).

Matt Brown uses the traditional Japanese Hanga method to create his colored woodblock prints. For each image, he carves ten or more blocks and inks them separately with pigments, water and rice paste. Then, with a baren, he hand rubs each print from the multiple blocks onto cotton rag paper. I love the look of these prints, he says; the clean carved edges juxtaposed with the soft look of the watercolors. I love the simple materials of wood and water. I love the fact that though the artist makes the blocks, it is the blocks that actually make the prints.

Photo: David Anderson