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Climbers on S Couloir in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; Photograph by Terry Stonich

Lessons From Conquering a Couloir

The other weekend, I climbed my first couloir. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what a couloir was. I knew it was a mountain feature—but I figured it was somewhere in the realm of too extreme for me.

I’ve always been intimated by technical mountaineering. So how did I find myself in the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park attempting such a thing in late April after a storm dumped more than three feet of snow? Well, I signed up for a mountaineering class to get my butt in gear for my upcoming attempt to climb Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France.

It turns out a couloir is a deep gully on a mountainside—a great training ground. And it was awesome. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it was all peaches and cream and kittens. It was challenging. But that’s the point.

I’m bound to learn a few lessons as I tackle this new hobby.

Lesson #1: You have to deal with what the mountain gives you.

Confession alert: I’m a bit of a fair-weather hiker, biker, camper, skier, whatever. If it looks like it’s going to rain, be freezing, or blow a gale, I’d rather not go. But when you sign up for a mountaineering class (or a mountain climb), you have to suck it up. It’s going to get uncomfortable at times.

When we started out, the wind was howling. We were snowshoeing into 50 mpg gusts that nearly knocked me off my feet. The wind chill made it feel like the South Pole. “Get over it, “ I said. “You are not going to wimp out just because of a little wind.”

Lesson #2: Be prepared to not achieve your objective. But don’t give up too soon.

Given the wind, our guides warned us that we might not be able to do the climb. We’d have to wait and see. I have to admit, a few times during the approach, when the wind was hitting me head on and I was freezing, I wondered if I was cut out for this sort of thing. But I told myself to dig deep and stick with it.

Lesson #3: It’s mind over matter in the mountains.

At the base of the climb, I looked up in awe at the craggy slopes surrounding us. “Where are we going,” I asked. The guide pointed toward an impossibly steep slope with so much snow and rock, I couldn’t see how we would ascend it. Then my mental yoga kicked in. I could have gotten really worked up, catapulting to fearful thoughts of what was ahead. Instead, I chose to take one moment, one breath, one step at a time. All I did was think about putting one foot in front of another. It’s a pretty good lesson for just about anything in life.

Lesson #4: It’s really hard to pee on the side of a steep slope wearing a harness—with guys around.

When it was time to take off our snowshoes, we stomped out a platform on the steep slope and took a rest. I can’t say it was relaxing. I was filled with nervous energy. The wind tossed clouds of snow into our faces. And I had to pee—out in the open, on a slope, in the freezing cold, with four guys standing right next to me. And I was wearing a harness. To say it was awkward is putting it mildly.

I shimmied my way to one end of the group. The harness made it exceedingly difficult to drop my drawers. The pack on my back threw me off balance. And the wind whipped snow in my mouth and threatened to blow you know what all over the place. Suffice to say, it made me want to intentionally dehydrate myself in order to avoid having to do it again. Although that would be stupid. Dehydration and mountaineering don’t get along.

Lesson #5: Mountains bring you into the moment.

Then the going got serious. Thank goodness for my ice axe. I never knew how handy it could be. As we climbed, the gully steepened, the rocks closed in on either side, and I felt like I was living and breathing the mountain. I became part of the couloir. I felt so alive and immersed in the moment. Kick, step, ice axe, rest. Kick, step, ice axe, rest. I could think of nothing but the objective before me. What a way to clear the head!

Lesson #6: When the going gets tough, your soul starts to sing.

When the terrain became more exposed, we roped up. There were a few places where we had to go on belay and use protection while we navigated dicey terrain. In one particularly perplexing spot, the guide really had to think about how to crawl around a rock outcropping surrounded by super soft snow. He disappeared around the corner in front of me and placed an anchor into the rock. I stepped out over a big snow bank and tried to dig in my feet, my hands, and my ice axe. Nothing would grab. The slope dropped at a 60-degree angle. I felt vulnerable and exposed. I could have frozen in fear, but instead, I reached for inner strength and mental calm and carefully picked my way to safety, confident that if I fell, one of my climbing partners would catch me.

Just a little bit farther, we topped out on flat ground. What a rush! I felt such a satisfying, exhilarating feeling of accomplishment as I peered down the steep gully and took in the sweeping mountain vista around me.

Lesson #7: The thrill of accomplishment makes it all worthwhile.

The day was amazing, exciting, uncomfortable, tiring, and inspiring. I had to get up before dawn, fumble with a bunch of unfamiliar equipment, push myself physically and mentally, face adversity, dig deep for courage, and place my trust in a guide I barely knew. In the end, I discovered that not only can I accomplish something challenging that I’ve never tried before, I can have a lot of fun doing it.

I set my sights on Mont Blanc to learn something new—and I don’t just mean mountaineering. I want to learn more about myself—how do I cope with this sort of risk and danger? Do I have what it takes to endure physical discomfort in pursuit of a goal? I’ve always been adventurous. But can I push myself a little harder and a little farther, put myself in a scary situation, and come out the other side stronger, more confident, and empowered?

Something tells me I can. I’m pretty sure this experience is going to be thrilling, plus a little unnerving. But I have a feeling this journey will take me to new and exciting places in the great outdoors—as well as within my own heart. What adventure are you going to undertake this year?

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on Twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.