Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Two Sides of "Mountaineer" Matt

My self appointed title of "Mountaineer Matt" has always been a dual purpose phrase that encapsulates some of the things about myself that I hold most dear. With my blog's apparent focus on my recent spate of far-flung adventures across the Western United States, many to lofty peaks, it's easy to think of my moniker as pertaining only to the sport of mountaineering. But that's only half the story.

Mountaineering was a logical progression from the backpacking I learned in Boy Scouts and the rock climbing I learned with my friends at the Coast Guard Academy. When I found myself out in Washington State I decided to combine the two - backpacking into the mountains and then rock climbing up some enticing pinnacle. I was fortunate to find a mentor to bridge my gap in experience on snow and ice, a requisite for mountaineering in the Northwest.
Forbidden Peak, North Cascades, Washington (photo credit Trevor Clark)
I loved climbing mountains. There's something about sweeping views, physical challenge, and a little bit of real risk that made it so appealing to me. Many have written lots of metaphors and philosophy about mountain climbing and life. I don't buy into much of that. It's fun, it's hard, and "it's there."

I've been fortunate to climb some beautiful mountains: Mt Olympus, Mt Shuksan, Cathedral Peak, Forbidden Peak, East Temple Peak. I've been shut down on some difficult trips: Luna Peak, Mt Adams, and Mt Assiniboine come to mind. And one of my all time proudest personal accomplishments was the result of mountaineering - a first ascent of a previous unclimbed peak, known only as "11,430," deep in the Alaskan wilderness.   
A first ascent in Alaska (photo credit Scott Peters)
I feel that mountaineering played a tremendously important role in my development as a young man in my mid-20s, laying a foundation of fitness, risk management, tolerance for adversity, adventure, technical proficiency, and confidence. But even just five years later I've found myself re-evaluating my relationship with mountaineering. I've not climbed anything particularly bold and yet I've found falling rocks whizzing by my head, I've triggered small avalanches, I've nearly crapped my pants hearing snow "settle" underneath me, I've witnessed a helicopter rescue, I've lost feeling in extremities, I've been blown off my feet, and I've stood unroped on a small ledge frozen with fear. I think mountaineering can be pursued safely, but only to a point. There are always objective hazards that we can reduce or mitigate but never truly eliminate unless we stay home. 

I’m come to view the sport as a giant game of Russian roulette, played with a hundred-cylinder revolver. Many folks might never even approach 100 climbs, but what if the trigger is pulled on the 50th climb? The 30th? Can we ever guarantee our safety? As I move into the next phase of my life after all my unencumbered adventuring, I feel that my more selfish pursuits have run their course. My ego has been sated and I’ve got nothing left to prove. I'm eager to take on the responsibilities of career, relationships, and family and I think "hard" (a relative term) mountaineering is on some level incompatible with those responsibilities. I've read too many stories of young people taken in the prime of their life, leaving others behind. It's easy to justify that by saying they were doing something they love. And I get it. I love mountaineering. It would be a cold and lonely way to go, but still probably better than a car wreck. But I love a lot of other things too. Mountaineering is a part of me, but it's not the only part or even the biggest part. I respect and appreciate the role it has played, but my tolerance for the risks is rapidly declining. As I analyze my two remaining mountaineering objectives, I feel they are quite moderate, appealing to me more for the difficulty in the approach and distance travelled off trail just to get to the bottom of the climb instead of a daring ascent or any hard climbing itself. 

A solo mountaineering adventure in California

So that’s my relationship with mountaineering as it stands now. I thank everyone for following along on my (primarily) mountaineering adventures, and while there are a few more of those yet to come I’m eager to introduce you to the other side of “Mountaineer” Matt.

Despite a considerably lower altitude than say Colorado, West Virginia has always been known as the “Mountain State.” Residents of West Virginia, and our University’s mascot, are known as the “mountaineers,” a legacy of the frontier days when the only mountains in the country were the Appalachians and the tools of the trade were flintlocks and buckskins, not ice axes and Gore-tex.

Those of you that know me well are aware of my fierce pride in West Virginia. Despite the long distance hassle, I kept my WV ID and plates on my truck during my time in the Coast Guard. My trusty WVU ball cap has graced my head and started innumerable conversations across the four corners of America. I even have our state motto, “montani semper liberi” (mountaineers are always free) tattooed on my left arm. Even after, nay, especially after my travels to all fifty states, I’m happy to find myself back in West Virginia. Many areas of our country are breathtakingly beautiful, but they never exactly felt like home.

This is about as "alpine" as it gets in West Virginia, atop Seneca Rocks (photo credit Adam Swisher)

West Virginia has more than our fair share of problems. I’m not blind nor na├»ve. But where others see problems I see opportunities. I’m excited to build my new life here, start a second career, raise a family. I feel that my experiences and travels thus far allow me to look upon my native state with fresh perspective. Check back in a few years to see if I’ve become cynical, but I truly believe the stakes are worth the fight and I’m invested in the outcome.

Toward that end, I’ve partnered with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a non-profit group that tackles water quality and recreation issues in the state. Specifically I’m focused on an initiative to protect the headwaters of six important watersheds, dubbed the Birthplace of Rivers. We’re asking state and federal leadership to designate the area as a National Monument - celebrating the recreational opportunities of the area, better safeguarding the watershed from industrial development, and providing a much needed boost to local economies. No matter your political leaning, I don’t see why any West Virginian vested in a successful future wouldn’t want to see our leadership come together on the National Monument proposal. I wouldn’t be behind something I didn’t truly believe in, and I’m all in on Birthplace of Rivers.

Middle Fork of the Williams River in the proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument, West Virginia 
So now I hope you have a better understanding of “Mountaineer Matt.” It’s something that I do but more importantly it’s who I am. One defining chapter comes to a close as another one opens; at the end of a year on the road I’m interested in focusing more on the opportunities available in the Mountain State. As far as the future of this blog is concerned, you can expect me to write about all the fun adventures I’m cooking up within West Virginia and cover some of the issues I’d like to see moving our state forward - the other side of "Mountaineer" Matt. 

Check out the opinion piece I got published in the local paper about the National Monument. And visit the Birthplace of Rivers website. While you’re at it, go ahead and sign up for our newsletter. Thanks!