John was a mentor in our Winter 2019 Mentoring Program, in the Intro to Winter Mountaineering group. He has been climbing since 2015. Most of his experience comes from alpine routes in the North Cascades or in the White Mountains. John grew up right outside of Annapolis, MD, and now lives in Princeton, NJ. John is PhD student who researches decision making in artificially-intelligent learning systems. He is currently working at Google Brain, in Montréal Canada, trying to understand how stories can shape the ways a machine learns.
John, you were a mentor in our Winter Mountaineering Mentoring group. Can you share with us how you decided on being a mentor?
It was pretty simple, really. I felt like mentoring would be a good opportunity to connect with people. Our group had five participants and two mentors; Demetrius Pampouktsis was the other mentor. Our meetings were pretty casual, with a similar feel to a reading group. Everybody sat around a table and conversed about all things related to alpine climbing. We talked about the winter environment, different kinds of gear, training approaches, and anything else the group was wondering. People connected in other ways during the program, but these discussions were a big part of it for me, personally.
As a mentor, what did you feel was important to share to the mentees in your group?
Quite a lot. As one might imagine, there’s more to alpinism than ice axes and warm clothing. But the idea of alpinism can be somewhat elusive, since it’s not quite ice climbing, not quite rock climbing, and also not quite mountaineering. It’s sort of a nebulous fusion of all those styles. So when structuring the program, Demetrius and I made an effort to clarify exactly what alpinism was all about.
The first thing we wanted to communicate was how success rarely aligns with the desire to finish the route. During our trip to Mt. Washington, for example, it became extremely windy - to the point where our clothes could no longer insulate us from the cold. We completed the technical part of the climb, but had to descend immediately afterwards. Alpinism requires you to be flexible in that way, because the environment determines so much of what is and isn’t possible. Technical proficiency plays a subordinate role in that sense.
The second lesson introduced the unique psychological aspects. This differs from other styles of climbing, because there’s a greater presence of randomness with alpinism. To understand fully what that means, everyone needed to be immersed in the reality of a climb. They needed to feel what it was like to make an irreversible decision, such as when we committed to the steepest section of our objective, even though it was cloaked in fog, and we had no control over the amount of ice or strength of the snow, and the uncertainty of what may funnel down from above was significant. Even if we had climbed that route five times in a row, it would have been a different experience each time. Knowing what that feels like is largely what alpinism is all about. And that experience demonstrated those aspects better than any round-table discussion could.
Did being a mentor change the way you viewed friendships and interactions in climbing?
In some ways, yes. As a mentor, my top priority was facilitating a positive experience so that the participants would come away loving alpinism. In other ways, I think the program reinforced what I already believed; that climbing brings people closer together. People place their trust in each other when the trip starts, and bonds are formed when that gift is repaid at the end.
What was the most rewarding experience for you from participating in the program, and what would you say to a fellow experienced climber who may consider being a mentor?
I’ll answer the second question first. I would tell them that it’s easy to show someone how difficult climbing can be, but that’s not the same as showing them how fun it is. Mentoring should be about positivity, inspiration, and providing enough space for people to succeed on their own terms.
For me, the most rewarding part of that process came at the end of our trip, at dinner, while everyone was discussing the events of the day. To my surprise, no one was bummed that we only completed half our route. People were just happy to be in the mountains. And that was super rewarding for me, because it meant they really got it on some level: all that stuff about being flexible and making good decisions. After coming to that realization, I was suddenly flooded with strong emotions of appreciation. I feel incredibly lucky to have played a small role in the group’s first alpine experience. So thank you Megan, Andrew, Briana, Kristi, Sergi, for allowing me to share that with you all! And thank you Demetrius, for being an incredible co-mentor!