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Practice As If Your Life Depends on It

February 2014

Last summer I wrote in my blog about Big Goals and climbing Mt. Rainier as a bucket list accomplishment. Climbing Mt. Rainier was an extremely gratifying experience, and it whetted my appetite for climbing more challenging mountains. However, as a novice in the dangerous world of mountain climbing I recognize I do not yet have the skills and experience necessary for tackling challenges much greater than what I accomplished this past summer. Therefore, I have decided to focus in 2014 on gaining experience and skills for climbing safely and efficiently in the alpine environment.
Georgia State University President Mark Becker is shown nearing the snowy summit of Mt Washington
A big part of my training for 2014 is focused on continuing to build strength and endurance for the hard work of mountain climbing. While crucial, physical conditioning alone is insufficient. There are technical skills, such as belaying, rappelling and climbing vertical ice using crampons and ice axes or tools that are essential to learn and hone.

I recently used a few vacation days to travel to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for winter climbing with Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School guide Cheyenne Chaffee. My main goal for the trip was to enhance my technical skills, with a secondary goal of evaluating the effectiveness of my physical conditioning program with a winter ascent of Mt. Washington. Cheyenne was terrific in working with me to make the best use of my time and changing weather conditions to get the most out of my time in the White Mountains.
A climber at the bottom of Willey's Slide looks like a little dot at the end of the red climbing rope
Standing 6,288 feet high, Mt. Washington is the tallest peak in the eastern United States and is reputedly home of the world’s worst weather. The winter trail from Appalachian Mountain Club Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to the summit is well described as “rough” and “steep,” with much of the more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain coming in about 2.5 miles of the roughly 4.2-mile hike/climb. The challenges of a winter summit attempt can include extreme weather, temperatures below zero and sustained hurricane force winds. Cheyenne and I targeted the best weather day of my time in New Hampshire – with summit temperatures and wind speeds in the teens – and managed to move efficiently up and down the mountain.

As much as I enjoyed making a winter ascent of Mt. Washington, the highlights for me were learning and practicing new skills in climbing and descending steep and icy terrain. Learning how, and when, to climb with an alpine climbing ice ax, as opposed to two ice tools, was eye opening. Refreshers of basics of mountain travel, such as self-arrest techniques when falling down a steep snow slope, are always helpful, and new knowledge and experience gained with knots, anchors, belays and rappelling should prove to be invaluable on future trips into the high mountains.

I go to the mountains not in search of thrills or adrenaline rushes. Rather, I go in pursuit of the peace and serenity that come from tackling challenges both physical and mental in an environment that is both stunningly beautiful and dangerous. While the purpose of a trip into the mountains may be to bag a summit, the most important goal is to get down alive. To that end there can be no substitute for a solid base of knowledge and experience, which comes from practicing as if my life, and the lives of others, depends on it.
Georgia State President Mark Becker stands atop the summit of Mt. Willard

Photos provided by Mark Becker and Cheyenne Chaffee.