Pain: The best Teacher


Pain is the best teacher. Pain is a fact of being alive. We all experience our own brand of it one way or another. Suffering is especially infused in most aspects of climbing and alpine pursuits. Ironically, I went to the mountains to avoid pain. I ran to high places to feel freedom from the oppressive elements of society, culture and family and the pain they unknowingly created. I ran because I had no tools to navigate discomfort. I didn’t know what pain was for. But now I do.

An over simplified understanding of pain claims that it as a warning system for the body to protect itself. A hint to tissue damage so that we stop and adjust out behavior to preserve structures. This is true. But what we also know is that for muscle to grow and develop, there must be some pain filled tissue damage that is repaired and augmented to meet the new demands. Through measured physical pain we get stronger.

Athletic induced physical pain usually has community support. We collectively understand and respected that physical pain is a threshold to a different place. A barrier to the level of performance, or accomplishment we seek to inhabit, a portal from one way of being into another. A rite of passage. In accepting it, it somehow loses its grip on us. Emotional pain also requires community support for potential passage from one place to another. Yet often we attempt to traverse this kind of pain alone.

I have endured aching pain in my shoulders from carrying loads, searing blisters on my feet, and the savage burning of my hands warming up after being numb with cold. Warning system pain. I also know uncountable muscle aches that have made me stronger.

Humor has been my habitual tweaked remedy. I laugh at pain, often inappropriately. I noticed this even recently while chuckling at a person who sun burned their neck. Pain is an energy that I direct to the outlet of humour. Why has suffering funny to me? I guess I need to develop the courage to feel compassion for myself or another’s suffering. By laughing I missed pain’s message.

Pain is connected to change. It is asking for or announcing change. Change is a requirement of accessing our potential. Where there is pain we need to listen, so we can understand the request. Remove ourselves or grow. To experience pain gives us something to overcome. And as Jordan Peterson would say, overcoming obstacles makes a story and ultimately how we become real.


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A "Giant Leap" To Live Up To.

A “Giant Leap” To Live Up To

Fifty years ago, over four hundred thousand visionaries, administrators, technicians, medical personnel, engineers, mathematicians, clerical workers, and scientists helped Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins fly to, land and walk on the surface of the moon. Neil and Buzz imprinted the lunar dust with their feet, sending images back. The seeds of the mission were political, but the result was much deeper for humanity than imagined. The Apollo mission to the moon was a model, a perfect example of how to play the game of life by playing the down side as much as the up side.

One Small Step for a Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind

One Small Step for a Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind


The National Air and Space Administration (NASA) was created by President Eisenhower as a reaction to the Soviet Union’s lead in space that started with the launch of the orbiting Sputnik satellite in October of 1957.  The Soviets had the high ground and that was profoundly unsettling from a military perspective. In May of 1961, after falling further behind with the orbit by Yuri Gagarin, JFK pledged that the United States would, within the span of ten years, “deliver man to the surface of the moon and return them safely back to Earth”. With his first step on the moon’s surface Armstrong claimed that the success was “a giant leap for mankind.” I believe that it has been a giant leap for mankind to live up to the standard that the Apollo program set. Everything the Apollo program did was a model for humanity to follow. The greatest of these was courageous leadership.


Adventure is a powerful thing. As an adventurer for over thirty-five years I understand that it has the potential to be an evolutionary force in one’s life and for mankind.  Potential, because it is not a passive process as so many believe. The process of evolution is as simple as paying attention to what happens and taking effective action based on what is observed. Learning. This simple act of focusing our attention expands human potential and ultimately, reduces suffering. The Apollo missions and the hundreds of thousands of people involved lived this version of leadership (Leading to learning), and it showed. However, as simple as this process seems, humanity in general usually fails.


Apollo had a rough start. On a pre-flight test of the Command Module of Apollo 1, while still on the launch pad, engineers made a grave error which cost the lives of three crew. The capsule was pressurized to 16 lbs per square foot of pure oxygen, which resulted in a devastating fire that consumed the lives of Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White.


After the tragedy, NASA leadership did something profoundly rare in our society, They took responsibility for the deaths. They made no excuses. They accepted their failure, learned, and with deeper precision, moved forward with the open honest culture they allowed the tragedy to create.

We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, "Dammit, stop!" Gene Krantz



Apollo was what I would call an “adult” adventure. The response to the Apollo 1 tragedy cements this notion because like adults, the leadership took responsibility. This maturity underpinned the culture. They knew they were playing for keeps and that if they were going to be successful they needed to capture their failures as a means of getting better. They did this by training. Hard. Every single action imaginable was simulated and failed at, so that they got better as a team. The model for risk management that Apollo used is still cutting edge. Risk means BOTH the possibility for gain, and the possibility for loss. Risk is not something to be avoided as much as something to be managed so that success is supported. This training worked. They captured small errors before they became big ones. If big errors happened, they owned and solved them. The near tragic Apollo 13, is to some, Apollo’s greatest accomplishment. 13 had an explosion in an oxygen tank that crippled the command module. The crew used the lunar lander as a lifeboat to get home. And there was a raft of problems, but the support, creativity, and effort kicked in to bring the crew home alive. NASA leadership was accountable to the people they asked to go on the mission and supported them through the tough stuff.


On July 20, 1969 the entire world watched as Armstrong stepped out on the surface of the moon. His words, “A giant leap for mankind” were true. At no time in history had mankind ever achieved such a feat. But his words were also an invitation. The single most important factor, in getting to the moon, was the courage to accept responsibility for failure. When we accept responsibility for failure we can then make the needed correction (s). When we correct our errors we can achieve the seemingly impossible because it is the process for learning that will get us there. This single act is a the “giant leap” for human beings to make. We expect our leaders not to fail. We expect them to have led perfect lives and to never have made a mistake. Mostly, leaders hide their failures. In doing so they hide the lesson. We need to understand the “giant leap” is to harvest the learning. This is how we travel to the heavens.

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The Cruel Mountain

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The Cruel Mountain

When someone dies in a mountain tragedy it is easy to say something like "the mountains have been cruel.” To the fledgling mountaineer, it looks like they have been.

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A Lesson In Anchors


A Lesson In Anchors

I have spent my climbing career securing human lives to the mountain. In finding a climbing anchor one seeks something that will not fail during the time it is being used. Getting it right is critical. In the ever-changing mountain world, it takes being in the still point to find the immovable.



Care Filled Deconstruction

Care Filled Deconstruction


All things change. Seeing altering situations as needed transformation allows the emergence of elegance and grace, because with an open heart, we notice what is needed and craft actions to support the shift.

This week I am in the process of removing a standing dead tree. It is a strong but lifeless pole piercing the sky. Since its location is framed by two power lines, it needs to come down. Being left on its own would likely cause a deeper issue in the future. Cutting it down from the bottom is also not an option because it is close enough to the lines that if it fell erratically while full length, it would take the electricity out. The only solution is to bring it down in short sections. There was a conversation about getting a tree service in to do the work, but I studiously decided to take on the project myself, in part because it scared me a little bit and I needed to find out if my fear was rational. I promised myself that I would assess the situation and if I needed help I would get it.

Sizing up the risk was a task of building a relationship with the challenge. I needed to know if I could remove this tree with no harm to myself, the power lines or other trees. It was obviously daunting and required great care. I decided to start by simply climbing the tree and feel my way into the question.

My assessment was detailed. After fighting through the undergrowth to the base of the conifer, I found a root system that had a sound grip on the earth. This winter’s 100 km per hour winds had stress tested the former evergreen with no ill affect. It died as a result of too many hot summers. Climate change. The trunk and branches were leaning away from the wires, but still needed to be taken down with the greatest diligence and care. The climbing was easy. On my first foray up, I recognized that I needed to get used to the sway because it nearly made me sick. I have spent a lifetime in high places, but rock and ice usually don’t sway. Eventually, I climbed the tree to its top and fastened two lines; one for protecting me that would move down as I went down and another for directing the top of the tree to a desired landing after the first cut.

I removed all of the branches one by one with a hand saw about 30cm away from the trunk. This allowed rungs up the tree but clear passage to the ground for anything I cut off from above so as not to be pushed out and into the power lines. With a steel cable anchor wrapped around the trunk I was all set to top the tree with my chain saw. Before I did, I reviewed all of the steps of my plan with my friend and neighbour Nevin on the ground and asked him if I was missing any needed action. Looking at the challenge from all sides he gave a green light. I cut a notch on the west side followed by a higher cut on the east, stopping short of slicing through the trunk. I shut off the chain saw and with a hand saw made three finishing strokes and the top fell exactly where planned.

Once topped, I started taking off three foot sections of the trunk at a time, moving my anchoring systems down as I went. There is some left to do, for an afternoon this week when I feel fresh, but the risk is mostly gone now.

Why is this story important?

Human beings make a habit of resisting change. We fight for things to stay the same but, in our effort for a static predicable life we miss the elegance of the dance. Change always looks risky, seems scary and we usually want others to absorb the uncertainty before ourselves. But on closer inspection the risks are usually manageable in small bits. Just like my tree. Tiny shifts help change become a reality, without added drama.

Our energy systems as they relate to fossil fuels are standing deadwood in our society. Humanity is at risk of suffering deeply if we do nothing. If we change too fast, we will likely cause unneeded damage. Like my standing dead tree, we need to deeply respect the current reality, and take action slowly that move us toward a better situation. Every aspect of the change will seem daunting. Likely we will feel unnerved as things sway. This is a truth for all of us. But action is required before the risk deepens.

In my own life, I need to deconstruct a career I have spent my life building. For me it has run its course. In my heart of hearts I can no longer provide adventures for people because they seem to be serving no greater good at a time when we can no longer afford to play our time away. I need to see a step in a direction of change in absolutely everything I do. I believe that human beings do not need more adventure because it is only a distraction from the situation we all inhabit. What is needed is adventure’s inner half. I think we need to slow down, take stock, and discern every action we take and only then will we be able to mitigate the risk humanity and all of the other species on the planet face. It seems to me that we are missing adventure’s greatest teaching, respect for consequence. We can’t afford to miss that lesson. Our collective situation seems daunting. . . Perhaps we can wait for someone else to do it first? Perhaps we can just leave things be and let our world collapse on its own? If there is one thing adventure has taught me is that, when a risk is identified, take direct action to mitigate it in some way.



A lifetime Student of Walking

I am a perpetual student of walking. I have spent a lifetime walking in the mountains and it has taught me how to live in the world.

Photo: Pelig Levi

Photo: Pelig Levi

During the placement of my feet on a concrete sidewalk I get tricked in to believing that I can depend on the path being solid, balanced, stable and generally without grave consequence that requires my attention. It is mostly true that I don’t have to be conscious of my feet, or how and where I step in order to travel my route. I can look way down the street in expectation of a future event without being attentive and I can generally get there without stumbling, unless there is even the tiniest irregularity.

On a mountain journey the ground is loose, uneven, and often has grave consequence if I slip. Walking off trail in the mountains requires a whole lot from me the walker. So much so that I still find myself a student of this practice that I learned in principle over 50 years ago. What is it that I am practicing?

Walking up a mountain requires that I am deliberate with each step. I carefully choose exactly where I place my foot. If I don't select my placement my foot will likely land on something undesirable like a wobbly stone of a slippery root. I also position my foot with intention. How I step in the spot is critical. The spot may be flat, so I can relax and save energy, or it may be sloped and wet so I need to grip the earth with my boot edge. I make myself solid.

In order to carefully select my foot placement, I have to step from a place of balance. I centre my weight over my placed foot so that the new foot or step is not committed to unconsciously.  I can stop at any point and stay in balance. My walking is not a slave to momentum, but discernment is the rule. In the core of my body is a place of stillness that is quiet and relaxed. I balance myself.

If I look too far down the trail I stumble because I am no longer present with what is happening. Eyes cast on the summit or a future goal take my attention away from balance and discernment. I create stability by remaining present.

I make myself solid. I balance myself. I create stability by remaining present. Like all things walking is a practice. If I assume I am a master, I stumble. The greatest thing that walking here teaches me is humility, that all things in life are best when they come from within, and that walking is life.





Training for El Capitan on Goof Proof Roof. March 1988 Photo: Stuart Wagstaff

Training for El Capitan on Goof Proof Roof. March 1988 Photo: Stuart Wagstaff


My twenty-three-year-old frame hangs in a harness connected to three camming unit’s prying grip on the inside of a crack, eight hundred feet off the valley floor on "The Nose" route of El Capitan. My eyes pan across the architecture of granite and back again, then land on a dogfight between two swallows trying to out-maneuver each other for reasons unknown to me. My partner John works his way up the wide crack of the last of the "Stove legs" pitches, which will lead him to a ledge called Dolt Tower. I look up at the face above and a visceral feeling of unworthiness infuses my being. The sheer size and steepness of the rock face calls upon a feeling that this arena is for others, not me.   

A man from a party below arrived at the same foot stool sized belay stance I inhabited and said, "What are you doing?"

I replied, "What do you mean?"

He said, "I can see you are belaying your leader, but what are you doing?"

I said, "Nothing."

To my surprise he replied, "If you are not improving your situation in tiny ways every moment, you'll never make it." After he said that, I realized that there were endless small tasks that needed my attention. Re-stacking the rope, cleaning up the now unused elements of the anchor and having a snack to maintain my energy. My impromptu mentor pointed out there was always something to be done if I had a goal. Waiting to see if things turn out is not a great way to have them turn out. Practical advice for this big arena. So, I got busy and it seemed to work.

John and I made it up the Nose route on El Capitan that trip. I arrived at the top with a sense of worthiness that in the end could not have been more ephemeral. By the time I arrived back in the valley, foot sore from the snowy trudge down from the heights of the summit, I was planning something harder.

There is wisdom in taking direct action to improve one’s situation. But what situation is being improved? I have spent a lifetime chasing summits in a dogfight with myself and others, trying to out maneuver the emptiness I feel inside. Achievement never quenched my inner thirst for long, I was a slave to doing and abandoning the part of me that was happy to witness the architecture of rock or the wonder of a swallow’s flight.

Effort is worth something, but it is not the only thing. If I cannot be happy being still, then likely, I am a slave to the perceived success that comes from doing. This is dangerous. The mindset of having to succeed can negatively affect my decisions. Extrinsic motivation is not a true source of worthiness or good decisions. Loving a thing is. Doing anything from the heart is an act of creation. The act of creation connects me to my true self and worthiness. When I find and connect to source, I feel that I am enough. Working from this place I make better decisions. And then I forget. And then I remember. And so on.

Of all of the events and achievements of the Apollo missions, the single most profound impact for the astronaut’s happened when they took time away from performing tasks. Rusty Schweickart and Edgar Mitchell had life changing experiences in the moments where they looked out over the universe in profound wonder. A sense of oneness overwhelmed them. We can do that anywhere.


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Rites of Passage: THE KEY TO LIVING

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Rites of Passage: THE KEY TO LIVING

 By Ken Wylie

Future archaeologists, from whatever world they are from, will shed a tear on our bones. They will find that we had all of the pieces for creating a utopia, yet still we self-annihilated. Their tears will be shed for the scale of the waste and the obvious suffering that occurred.

The truth about the state of life on Earth is the fact that we are over-using fossil fuels and failing to shift to clean energy fast enough. We are asking citizens, and governments to reposition choices to help solve this Global crisis. This is what is required. However, rather than taking action wholeheartedly, humanity is embroiled in an argument over the reality of the situation, paralyzing needed action. Why are we arguing? What underpins the fixed positions people have? Why the resistance to change? The answer is simple, and the solution pain filled.  Western society has a population holding fast to a stage of human development well below what is needed for change to gain traction.

Harvard Psychologist’s, Robert Keegan’s research illuminates a fact that 58% of American adults, psychologically inhabit an adolescent stage of development. He calls this stage the “Socialized mind”. Keegan found that these are people who are afraid to step out of group norms because their identity is based on what the group thinks and does. This cohort lives by an unconscious belief that they are the sum of their relationships (they are defined by who they know and what they do) and have difficulty seeing other points of view.

Keegan’s five stages of adult development.

1)     Stage 1 – Impulsive mind (early childhood)

2)     Stage 2 – Imperial mind (Adolescence, 6% adult population)

3)     Stage 3 – Socialized mind (58% of the adult population)

4)     Stage 4 – Self -Authoring mind (35% of the adult population)

5)     Stage 5 – Self -Transforming mind (1% of the adult population)

While fascinating, (and it seems to explain a lot in our society) it begs the question; Why is the greatest percentage of our population only at “Stage 3 the Socialized mind”?

Western society does not ladder citizen development with a structured “Rite-of-Passage” series as a widespread cultural norm. A functional ‘Rite-of-Passage’ consciously identifies the behaviors of a stage of being human, leaves these behind and adopts another more evolved set. Western society, by all outward appearances, assumes that growing up physically, also means developing mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But this is not the case. The process of maturation includes consciously retiring behaviours like selfishness and irresponsibility and elevating ourselves to the concern and care of others and the ability to claim accountability for our actions, especially if wrong.

Of course, there are parts of our society that asks transformational change of its members in various ways. Military initiates go through a Rite to become a fighter. Doctors go through a Rite in order to practice. That is to say, “Rites of Passage” exist in sub groups, but the process of exercising conscious healthy for the good-of-all transformations at different stages of an adults’ life are not common or ubiquitous. They need to be. The benefits of such an endeavour are broad ranging. They include a practice of change which bolsters the discipline of being an “initiate” throughout one’s life, which is a mindset of humility that supports learning and change.

Applying Keegan’s observations to the climate change problem we see that group norms, in western society, are focused on specific patterns of consumption of fossil fuel. This is what we have been doing and what many of us have identified with professionally. Now to step out of that norm is difficult indeed. Societal change requires individuals that are willing to think and act differently, people who can step outside of patterned behaviour of the peer group and enact a different course. Change always requires this. But here is the rub, to make this leap one must admit that one’s behaviour has been wrong and is in need of change. This is the stumbling block that requires maturity.

Many humans are reticent to admit error, so much so that rational arguments carry no credence in the minds of these individuals. Matthew Syed points this out in his book “Black Box Thinking.” In it he underscores the consistently entrenched attitudes of the prosecution (police and legal system) in wrongful convictions. When new and compelling evidence is brought forward in murder and rape cases that overturns convictions, (setting wrongly imprisoned individuals free) the prosecution typically finds it impossible to accept that they could have been wrong, even in the light inarguable new evidence. He writes, “The theory of cognitive dissonance is the only way to get a handle on the otherwise bewildering reaction of prosecutors, and police (and indeed the wider system) to exonerating DNA evidence. - “They just couldn’t see the new evidence for what it was.”  Being wrong is painful. This pain is amplified by the fact that we live in a blame and punish society, so it is unsafe to admit error. But the point of, “Black Box Thinking” is that learning only occurs when we can embrace failure and learn from our mistakes. We need safe social settings and the courage to admit mistakes, in order to grow.

So why are we arguing about climate change? Many are completely unable to admit that the position they have held about fossil fuels has been wrong, even as temperatures climb, storms rage, glaciers recede and waters rise. This is a problem. Some men are so defiant that they have tuned their diesel trucks to burn inefficiently on purpose, black smoke belches out of their exhaust pipe and they call it, “Rollin coal”

Rollin Coal

Rollin Coal

Admitting that a position we have held, or an action we have taken was wrong is hard because takes great maturity. But, taking responsibility for our past actions, no matter how wrong they have been, is how we grow up, which is the kind of change we need. It is this kind of maturity we can no longer afford to be without.

Think about what you see happening in our society. Ponder the level of maturity of the leadership in our western society. Ask yourself, honestly, what behaviours you could leave behind, and what could you adopt in their place. This way, together, we can change the game and be free to take the hard actions that humanity and the planet need.  Climate change is a challenge we are faced with that is an invitation for us to finally grow as a species. We are not pitted against a foe half way around the globe. The problem needs us to change drastically, by embracing conscious stages of development. Will we have the courage to face the thing that scares us more than climate change? Will we have the courage to face, ourselves? We have everything we need to put all the pieces together, if we take action on our own growth. Time is of the essence.  

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Adversity Education

Photo: Heather Mosher

Photo: Heather Mosher

Adversity Education

Seven Steps



“The most human thing we can do is comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”

Clarence Darrow


Darrow helps us see that compassion, when broadly applied, needs to be both hard and soft. As leaders of ourselves and others Darrow points out that we need to understand that there is a danger to a life that resides too much in comfort or adversity.

For a great deal of North American society, life is darn comfortable. I often remind myself that the possessions I have, the food I eat, and the general quality of my life, including education and health care, far surpasses that of an Egyptian Pharaoh. For me and much of my generation here in Canada, comfort has been king. We know scientifically and in our own experience that the human spirit craves challenge. We get bored and need stimulation, which is an urge that ultimately has the potential to draw out our best selves. Therefore, it is important to engage in challenging pursuits because by their very nature, strengthen.

I know for certain that what I learned from rock climbing saved my life.  Climbing up vertical cliffs taught me to hang on and solve the seemingly impossible puzzle before me to get to the other side of it. Understanding that difficulty can be traversed or climbed over gave me a deep where-with-all when responding to emotional and spiritual conundrums in my life. The trick is to understand that the solution to physical challenges, can be applied to emotional and spiritual ones, yet very few educators are effectively facilitating this process in our left brained culture. This unearths the question, how do we facilitate “Adversity Education” effectively?


Over the past 30 years, within the context of Adventure Education I have facilitated a subset that I would now call “Adversity Education” with my students and have developed seven practices that help me help others wade into hardship and harvest nourishing results. I have never worked from formulas, but the following is a compilation of the most consistent parts of my practice. They are a model for the leadership of self and others.


Embody the Value of Adversity.

As an educator I have always lived by the credo “Never ask your students, or those who you are leading to do something you are unwilling to do yourself.”  If we are asking our students to face the seemingly impossible then we darn well better have faced our own tests too. Why? If we have been there, our students can see the result of our effort through the comfort we bring to the arena. This is true of addictions workers, counsellors, life coaches and a laundry list of others. But this concept can also work in small ways.


I remember standing at the edge of a muddy pond with a group of high school students who were about to board a dodgy raft they had built out of sticks and logs, scavenged from the forest. The experience was part of an adventure challenge course I designed for their first day of high school. The aim was to get one member of their group, the keeper of the “fire” held in a small tin pot to the other side of the pond without them getting wet and extinguishing the flame. The others could, and needed too, get wet. There was a pause with the group after they finished constructing the raft and took in the realities of the bog. I stepped into the water up to my waist, to be witness to whatever strategy they chose.  Suddenly, everyone was committed and immersing themselves into the chocolate swamp.  The most beautiful thing however, was the actions of a girl in the class who suffered from autism. She wholeheartedly engaged in the pond, the raft, the water, everything. The teachers, who incidentally were standing on the edge of the pond, said that they had never seen this student be so animated and happy. They had worked with her for years and had never been able get her to open up in the same way. If we are facilitating adversity, we need to be well versed in wading into the uncomfortable.


Get “Buy In”, Before it Gets Hard.

A great challenge of being human is to hold ourselves accountable for our decisions. Accountability is freedom. When we have no person to blame but ourselves, we suffer less and learn more. Try it. The next time you find yourself in the midst of something incredibly challenging that you’re on the verge of grumbling about just say the words, “I chose this.” Then feel the energy of the situation change and becomes less of a burden. To support this end, as adventure educators it is important to let our participants know, without adding maple syrup to make it all sugary and sweet, that the endeavour we are embarking upon is likely to be hard. You can stretch this idea too by saying, “for some of you, might well be the hardest thing you have ever done.” I often use a quote from the old “Rocky II” movie to underline this point. The character, “Clubber Lange” when asked about his forecast for Saturday’s boxing match says, “The forecast is for pain.”  This tongue in cheek quip packs a punch and when participants still choose to come, they can’t say that you made the experience sound easy. It is critical to avoid making things sound easy while at the same time being careful not to intimidate. Tell the truth by saying, “It will likely hurt but I think you all have what it takes.”

On a 6-day ski mountaineering course I was teaching, the conditions on the approach to our first alpine hut had intermittent snow and rock, requiring us to put our skis on and take them off in a time-consuming practice of patience. It was a grind physically, mentally and emotionally. I had prepped the men for a difficult journey. When it started to hurt one of the participants lashed out, but the others reminded him that I had in fact told them that it was going to be difficult. Adventure like life, can be hard and unfair but adversity and life take on more of an ease when we own the choice of doing something difficult and dangerous. Adolescents blame, adults take ownership, especially when it gets hard.


Be Grounded in Educational Purpose

When we understand why we are doing something it is easier to accept the associated risk and carry out the straining hard work of it. Our reasons for doing the difficult has to be good enough to withstand all possible outcomes. That is the vision and philosophy behind the task. Building strong people and communities can never be done by taking the easy path, but there has to be a collective understanding of the “Why” of a particular hardship.  This idea is the underpinning of a human life. Knowing that suffering is expected and welcomed transmutes the energy of it from victim to warrior. It is why Eve picked the apple. In mythological terms the story of Eve is not about breaking the rules, it is about embracing the pain of life in order to be shaped by it, to know wisdom.


In my current practice as a mountain guide and life coach, the idea I present is that our adventure on the mountain is living a mythology and if the events we go through were to speak to us in some way, as a wise elder would, what would they say to us? The question takes the experience deeper, to a place where we see ourselves as a hero in the context of our OWN story. Much of our experience with this motif is through spectating. Many of our movies and novels are based on the “Hero’s Journey” a term coined by Joseph Campbell. We watch these and wish we too could live a life that draws out our best. We can. My exercise lifts adventure events lived to another level, one that resonates with our DNA, because according to Joseph Campbell, humanity has identified that the human experience is about growth and transcendence from one way of being to another, as we yearn to know wisdom. We are meant to grow form adolescent, to adult and elder and this process helps make that journey possible.


This is the closest I will come to drawing out value from adversity FOR one of my students or clients. All of us want to be heard and we listen, we support our students in their unique process. When the answers come from them, it feels good and the lessons stick. In the thick of the pain and discomfort, projected learning and value might be an impossible sell. However, value drawn from the participants themselves, connecting to their own heroic journey, is a life saver in so many ways when the going gets tough.


Don’t Save Yourself.

A few years ago, I was on a high mountain pass in the Canadian Rockies with a group of business students.  The scholars were participants in a leadership program at the University of Calgary’s Haskane School of Business. Clouds were darkening and the wind freshened, I knew we were going to get wet and cold. I peered down the other side of the pass and saw a lovely scree slope that went all the way down to the trees, that for me personally would only take a couple of minutes to run down the gravel pile 25 degrees steep. The group numbered 10 and one was brand new to moving in mountain terrain and quite terrified. Coming down from that pass was slow. Very slow. When the storm hit, we all got soaked to the bone from wet snow and chilled from the cold wind. I was aware that I could have been down in the valley bottom in minutes. However, facilitating adversity requires that we love our participants enough that we meet them where they are at and go through the storm with them, whatever shape it takes. If we choose the easy way, they will know it and the message will be, when the going gets tough, save yourself. When it comes to adversity, a sense of community and belonging comes from going through challenges together. Working together is the key to our modern global situation.

Know the Difference Between Eustress and Distress  

On a particularly hot day this summer I was with a group on the slopes of Mt Finlayson here on Vancouver Island. I was with men who were laddering into jobs and homes after experiencing homelessness. The program was a series of days out that fed into a backpacking trip on the Juan de Fuca trail. One of the men was quite ardent about complaining. His rhetoric was centred around the idea that this hiking shit was way too hard. To complicate matters he also recently had a number of stints put in the arteries around his heart. I had to watch him carefully and it was hard to see past the noise he was making to understand what he could really do. I reduced the load in his pack and as his complaints gained in volume and frequency, I sought the truth in his eyes. While his voice was saying one thing his eyes were telling me a completely different story. I knew he was okay because his eyes never communicated distress. I have used this for years and it is powerful in pushing people just enough. Eustress is good stress. This is the place where we take a step out of our comfort zone. Distress, is another matter altogether. When in distress, we do not need to be pushed, we need to be comforted. Remember Darrow and the idea that one moment we are “the comfortable” and the next we can be “the afflicted.” Being aware of this is the key to pushing enough but not too much.


Be Willing To Be Thought of as a Villain

As educators, we can sometimes be cast as the villain by our students. One of the things that many people suffer from is a victim mentality. Sometimes even though we have nurtured “buy in” at the start, we will be criticized. It takes courage to unearth people’s potential and because the process hurts them a bit, it is likely that some of their pain will come squiring out at us. As educators we must know that it is their pain and has nothing to do with us. What we are hearing is their acute reaction to the stress the situation is putting them in. This can be the thankless part of the job and to keep the eye on the prize is important. In the end, the best teachers are the ones who push their students while at the same time carefully nurture them. Disagreeing with them is not the tool. Saying it does not hurt only invalidates their experience. Agree with them. “Ya this hurts.” “This is the type of fun that is only good looking back.” “I hear you,  this sucks, and stopping here would suck worse.”


Give Your Participants All of the Credit.

What we do as educators is our job and most times, we get paid for it. It is important work and it is rewarding to be witness to people’s growth. The most important thing is that we celebrate our student’s success. It should not be about us. It should be about them and the barriers they cross. Certainly, the effort we put in is to help them grow and we are definitely beside them, however, if we make it about us, then something is lost for them. The trick is to completely empower them, and this means that they need to be recognized for the barriers they pushed through.

There is an art to “Adversity Education.” Each person and situation unique in as much as the process cannot be a formula. The guideposts presented here are a means of being intentional and educative, bringing meaning and richness to the difficult. It is critical that we draw meaning and purpose out of the difficult for it is the difficult that has the potential to draw out our beauty.


“We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”

Sir Earnest Shackleton.

© Ken Wylie September 2018


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Initiation. The humble path to growth.

A initiate's art from another time

A initiate's art from another time


Joe Campbell teaches us that the ancient mythological tales the world over depict heroines and heroes being ‘initiated’ by a series of trials that ultimately lead to them finding their greatest potential. These ordeals were culturally accepted and understood as critical to the process of development. They are not just fables as the word “Myth” has come to mean, they were the soft-wear that informed us about how to live an expansive human life.

In many circles today, embracing the humble steps of initiation seems conspicuously absent from our language, culture and ways of living. The speed at which we live, and the ever-present distractions don’t support a slow methodical process of learning over time. Failure and struggle are often construed as weakness. And it would appear that our hope is to be imbued with knowledge and wisdom without having to welcome the adversity and pain that initiation requires. We want to be the guru, without first mastering ourselves.

Difficulty or pain is not the issue. Most of us have lives infused with challenge and suffering. Friends and family get sick, or worse die tragically. We suffer loss of possessions. Our health and well- being can fail from time to time. Few escape trials in life, but most of us complain, feel like a victim, or worst of all ignore the event entirely. I am guilty. I have felt sorry for myself, wondered why life has to be so difficult, and stepped into unconsciousness about the challenge I am supposed to welcome. I questioned my karma and even sometimes the idea of a compassionate Creator. As Deepak reminds us, “One rarely asks ‘why me?’ questions when something great happens.”  

Throughout my career in mountain adventure I have encountered a whole range events. Life’s joys, annoyances and even catastrophe have traveled across my retinas, through my mind and in time, into my heart. The February rainstorm that lasts a week to the untimely death of friends. All of it came as a naïve shock, chiefly because I made my way to adventure as an  potential escape from pain. Looking back now, I was entirely out to lunch and the joke was on me.

I eventually, after all other options were exhausted, I bowed down to the great mystical powers of life and decided to learn. But I didn’t acquiesce easily, there were no other options left for me before I would dig deep into my humility and step into the process of initiation. I learned to make meaning out of all of it. Direct lessons that were specifically for me. Ken Wylie's initiation. It was hard, real hard but it changed my life. In fact, it transformed everything into beautiful lessons.  

We watch heroes in our movies. Read about them in our books. And see them in the news. Heroism is the capacity to transform the terrible into something beautiful. We all have that capacity and it starts with our own life events, moment to moment, and throughout our lives. In school we have a lesson and then there is a test. In life we have a test and it is up to us to find the lesson. Seeing the adversity of lived events through a lens of learning, or an opportunity for growth is the stuff of Heroes.

I am not saying I am a hero.  I am still an initiate, and I aim to be my whole life.


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A deeper meaning to Christmas, a window to Adventure.

Are our adventure events a facade of something deeper?

Are our adventure events a facade of something deeper?

One of the beauties of life is that we are free to operate on all levels. Certainly Christmas shows us this every year. We have the freedom to make Christmas about the consumption of food alcohol and the stuff we give and receive to and from each other. Of course consumption can be fun. Enough fun to last a lifetime, in some cases. But if it is the only thing that happens, some of us might start to question what we are doing. As a child I was wrapped, as much as the gifts under the tree, in measuring my self-worth based on the presents I received or gave. I still feel hints of this, but I am beginning to see that who I am is not at all linked to what I get or give. It is much deeper.

Beneath the gifts, expectations and consumerism there is a deeper message for us. That message is also everywhere around us at Christmas. I am not qualified to say what that is, chiefly because I know it to be an individual journey for each of us to discover. It might be love, brotherhood, peace, sharing,  or faith in Christ. The thing about discovery is that it seems to require a mysterious element, first. We are free to make that a part of Christmas, or not. For those that do, the heart grows every bit as much as the Grinch's and our former boundaries are shattered. But unlike the Grinch, it grows a bit each year instead of all at once.

Photo: Alex Bridge

Photo: Alex Bridge

Adventure can be the same. As an ice and rock climber I was a slave to performance, consumption of adventure events and achievement for many years. And there is more. Much much more. There are those out there who are ready for the journey to discover the depth that adventure offers. It is a profoundly individual path that has lessons for us alone. Certainly depth and potential spiritual development is a subject that goes hand and hand with the idea of adventure. The Last Jedi , the latest Star Wars movie, deals with the inner adventure in spades, and since it is based on research of the human journey by Joseph Campbell there is validity to the message. And the heroine gets to choose. At every turn, Rey chooses how deep she goes into her adventure. And the adventure, is about her intrinsic experience as much as the extrinsic one. Rey is asked to face terrifying demons inside and out as she steps into the challenge and in so doing, invites us. As viewers of Star Wars, we get to choose how much we get from the movie. We can consume the experience and think nothing more about it, or ask ourselves if we are living our lives as fully as Rey, both internally and externally.

Rey, and her awakening force.

Rey, and her awakening force.

A rich life is up to us. Do we have the courage to feel? Do we have the courage to face our greatest challenges? Are we brave enough to be the person we were put on this earth to be? Do we have the courage to step into the truth about our lives? Are we willing to navigate adversity or uncertainty and come out changed? Are we willing to embrace the mystical journey to add value to our lives and the lives of those around us?

The invitation is always there. It is the journey of a lifetime. . .not something done in a week at Outward Bound, but a practice. Will we watch others, or jump in with both feet and come to know our potential on a life long journey of self discovery?




Christmas 1972

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It was Christmas in Calgary in 1972.   Christmas in our household was usually anticlimactic.  Lots of hype and hard work with little delivery.  Harsh but true.  My mother was brilliant in preparing ice cream bucket loads of treats and goodies for us to eat. This was perhaps her language of love, though I did not understand it at the time.  She was too busy trying to be the perfect mom to be the perfect mom. For me. Months beforehand she would be busy making cookies, fruitcake, perogies, cabbage rolls, and  meatballs, all for the greatest feast of the year.  Christmas Eve dinner.  This dinner was a Ukrainian 12 course affair; the one dinner of the year where we did not try to get food off of each other’s plates.  At that point there was seven of us kids.  Enough said. Eat or be eaten.

With all of the food and celebration there was still something missing - a shortage of one commodity.  Time.  Skilled time for each other. That is why Christmas was anticlimactic.  Amongst all of the food, beverages, and celebration we typically did not make real and important connections with each other that were based in acceptance, interest and the desire to understand.  The epidemic of anonymity existed in our family of nine. All of us wanting attention but unskilled at giving the kind of focused attention that leads to understanding. Parents just as needy and lost as the children. So forgivable. In a crowded house everyone was lonely.  However, the seeds of change happened for Daryl, Shauna and myself on Christmas 1972.

It was an enterprising move for my brother Daryl to offer an activity as a gift. Time together in nature. It was intrepid because, it was a change to the normal pattern in our household of sitting around the house watching T.V., killing time.  Thoreau writes, “When we kill time we wound eternity” Daryl brightened my eternity that Christmas. He was 17 and in high school. He was turned on by the bold Canadian Rockies, he had been on a school trip cross country skiing with Mr. Hergott, one of his teachers at Bishop Carroll High School. Daryl decided to spread this new found awakening to the joys of cross-country skiing to two of his siblings.

I am not sure  of the reason, but Daryl chose the youngest two for this gift.  He could have easily made arrangements with Debbie or Pat, Floyd or Peggy, but for some unknown reason he chose Shauna and I. The youngest. Easier to lead the young perhaps.

I awoke Christmas morning, like most children, early.   There was a pair of wooden cross-country skis leaning against the wall next to the Christmas tree.  Unwrapped. They were much too large so I completely ignored them. I suspected that they were for Daryl.  They were used.  Perfect. With so many people in our household the space under the tree was heaped with gifts. Piles of miscommunications that rarely addressed a precise want or important need.  Inanimate lifeless messages, intended to convey love, but more often conveyed a lack of understanding . . .almost without exception for me. Feigning appreciation for these items deepened the rift. Does our human penchant for tools rob us of the real connection to all things?  Is it possible to use stuff to convey love? 

The skis however were promising.  They represented an activity. They had a note on them.  “To Shauna and Kenny love Daryl” Written in Daryl’s nearly illegible handwriting.  This was baffling.  How were Shauna and I to use these large skis?  And there was only one pair.  Daryl explained that they were his skis and they were there to represent the day out we would have together and that he would rent us skis in order for us to go. I nearly short-circuited. The best part was that we actually went. Now this was my first real Christmas gift.

Walking into the Norseman cross-country ski shop to rent skis is a foggy memory for me. Except for the smell of pine tar, and the feel of purple kick wax. The pine tar smells like both the words in its name simultaneously. A vegemite kind of smell-love it or hate it.  I also liked how the wax created strings between my finger and the wax stick? when I touched it. I still play with ski wax. We sized the skis to the vertically extended wrist, poles to the armpit and boots with thick wool socks on. Daryl paid the rental fee for skis, boots and poles, which was a few dollars each set and went clattering out the door. This was the first of what was to become a lifetime of trip logistics for me. Now that I am a mountain guide I understand that these were not mere tools.  They were a vehicle to my soul.

The drive out west to the mountains is as clear and crisp in my memory as the day was.  It was the first trip in my working memory of going west. West into the bold Canadian Rockies.  We were in Daryl’s first car.  A Rambler sedan. It was cold.  Really cold, and the car strained through the thick -20˚ air.  At Scott Lake hill we were all lurching forward in our seats in an effort to help the car make it up the hill. We passed Morley and as we were walled by the mountains on either side of the road the anticipation of the day enveloped me. The tall and striking summits on either side of the car carried strength yet at the same time were inviting. Daryl knew some of the names of the peaks, which I found impressive. Their names hinted to a history which gave them character.

What I remember most about the drive was the park gate.  For a boy of seven, with a natural draw to the outdoors, this was the equivalent to the gates of heaven.  The log architecture of the booths at the gates fit with the landscape and reached out to me.  They still do today.  When we crossed the threshold I remembered feeling like I had come home for the first time in my short life.  It was then that I realized that life could be magic. Really magic.  It was that moment I learned, though I could not articulate it in words at the time, that natural places have great power.

We were going to Johnston Canyon. The Inkpots.  I did not know what an inkpot was.  Daryl reminded me of the ink well holes in our desks at school.  I had seen the holes but had never seen an inkpot.  I asked,

“Why ink?” 

Daryl said, “because they are deep pools of water and because they are deep they are dark blue or black”

We arrived at the parking lot with the car tires squeaking on the cold snow as we slowed down. Decreasing in pitch.  Having been growing up in AlBUUURRRta Shauna and I needed no instruction from Daryl on how to dress and keep warm. Daryl did however explain about the equipment and waxing.

“The wax allows the snow crystal to penetrate which gives us grip for going up hill. The harder the snow the harder the wax” “ We have to get the wax hardness right for the snow temperature. Too hard a wax and we get no grip. Too soft and the wax will pick up too much snow.” “ I should have a thermometer but I don’t” “It is better to start out with a “colder” softer harder wax and then move to something softer if need be”  “ You can’t put a hard wax over a soft wax”  “ We use different colored wax for different conditions.  Warm colors for warm conditions”

“ So how do we slide?”

“With speed, the friction warms the snow enough so the wax no longer grips”


“You rub it on like this.  And then you use the cork to smooth it down in one direction.  Tip to tail”

We each applied the green wax in the rubbing motion Daryl had demonstrated .

This was brand new experience. I was first required to observe nature and then take an action that enabled me to work in concert with it.  Waxing is an art because it takes time to sense all of the conditions that nature is presenting, and it demands that we throw in a little bit of our intuition because there may be elements of information gathering that we are unable to quantify.  So there is no real answer or repeatable formula.

Shauna and I put our skis on and Daryl showed us how to test the grip of the wax by pushing off a weighted ski and seeing if the other would glide.  They seemed to both grip and glide, so we started up the Johnston Canyon trail. In those days the trail was above the canyon.  Glimpses and overlooks into the canyon allowed some privacy for itself and the critters that live there. Today the trail is right in the canyon, with sections of platform bolted to the wall it now lacks the same, mystery, privacy, and intimacy. Paradise paved.

Daryl showed us how to slap our skis against the snow lightly then hold our foot still in order to get the wax to grip as we went uphill. This was my second coming home of the day. Human power. Moving uphill is as natural a communication with the mountain and ourselves as one can get.  Secrets about the mountain, and ourselves, are only released with personal effort.  Such is life.  What secrets have we been robbed of releasing by mechanization or the failure to take the requisite time? The natural movement of cross-country skiing was “just like walking”. But so much more.

The rhythm of movement was a little awkward though.  Today, although I am not a great skier but have skied for a long time, I joke that my mother gave birth to me by ski-section.  She had to be cut to get the skis out.  But that is not true.  I had to learn how to use skis after I was born. Just like everyone else. And it took a long time. My mistake on this trip was to stare at my skis.  They were called Gresshoppa Finse. I remember the name because I looked at them all day.

Mine were brown and they had a snowflake like pattern on the tip.  Shauna’s were blue.  I would watch as each ski overtook the other in a rolling rhythm of momentum. Uphill.  I was trying to put a little hop in my step like Daryl did in order to get some glide but it did not really work for me. I am sure I looked like a dancing bear because I had an incomplete weight shift.  Also, because I was looking down at my skis, my balance was poor.  That is what the poles were for I thought. Daryl encouraged us to look ahead on the trail and we would have better balance.  I found this difficult.  Eventually, after enough striding, I would stop and look around and allow myself to be enveloped by the place.

It was the invitation of the place that kept us fueled.  The magic of the soft blue light cast on the trees, with long winter shadows, that were dressed in snow. The trail with two sinuous tracks impressed in the snow and countless ski pole holes, winding through the trees, taking the natural line that fits the terrain. The promise of sights ahead. The notion of adventure.  The hope of discovery. The stillness that invited self knowledge. Yielding, allowing the place to consume us.

We kept warm, for the most part.  Shauna’s toes and mine got a little cold from time to time, numb in fact, and it was cold enough that we also had to be mindful of our nose and ears. At one point we stopped, took off a boot and warmed our toes. The cold does bite and warrants respect, but we learned quickly that movement was the best way to stay warm and cozy. If cold, move faster, if warm, move slower.  People around the globe know and adhere to this principle.

Our path eventually brought us to several waterfalls.  Winter waterfalls; water taking much much longer to join the creek below than in the summer.  They were frozen.  Anyone who has visited a mountain waterfall in summer knows that they are things of beauty.  Winter waterfalls, or waterfall ice, are an order of magnitude greater in beauty to summer ones, in my opinion. Ice refracts the blue/green spectrum, which gives them more colour than in summer. As we drank in the view of these water cathedrals, Daryl said another thing that was to change my life.

‘People climb these”

The wonder of that statement captured my imagination. 

“How?” I asked

“With ice picks, ropes and screws”

I stood there trying to imagine what ice climbing must be like.  I knew I would like to try it.  Someday.

The immediacy of -20˚C pushed us onward and eventually to the Inkpots.  There were white spots in a meadow, I thought.  Big deal.  We came all this way for this? This was my first lesson in discovery.  You can’t plan to discover.  It just has to happen unexpectedly. We found a spot in the meadow for lunch.  We took our skis off and immediately sank in the snow up to our waists. Rockies snow pack. The cold inland air takes all of the snow’s strength so it can’t support the weight of a person.  I learned right then how desperate winter travel would be without skis in the mountains. I was building respect.  Cold + distance from the car+ no skis = Bad news. Discovery.  Daryl taught us to keep out of the snow by stomping a hole for our feet and to sit on our skis so we did not sink into the snow.  When we had made our spots we brushed the snow off of ourselves in order to keep ourselves dry. We did not take long to eat lunch because the cold crept into our bodies.   We put our skis back on and began our glide back to the car.  But there was much more to it than that.

I can still hear Shauna’s giggles today in my mind’s ear as she and I made our way down the slopes of the Johnston Canyon trail.  Daryl was ahead and I have little memory of him being there at all.  I am sure he was near but perhaps he was ahead just enough to hear our laughter but stay out of our way.  Out of harm’s way. Rockies ski trails are really summer trails with snow on them.  They are not designed for skiing.  But that is what makes them fun.  Narrow, fast, trees lining the edges, long steep sections with 90˚ curves at the bottom, bumps, roots, icy corners.  The heli skiing companies today make a big deal about teaching their guests tree skiing by telling them to look for the open spaces and head for them.  If Shauna and I had not employed this concept in the first 30 seconds on our own accord, I am certain we would have been maimed that day.  The take-home message for me was. . . speed-is-good. I have lived it ever since. Whistling past the lodgepole pines was exhilarating to say the least.  Our only breaking mechanism was to fall.  We did not know how to snow plough.  Or stop. The floppy Nordic equipment made it all the more challenging. So we fell, flopped, peeled out, and tumbled our way down the mountain,  narrowly missing the trees as we crashed, occasionally getting tangled in the Labrador tea bushes. Our red faces still gleamed with delight as we picked ourselves up from fall after fall. Once in a while we had a thrilling ride that ended victoriously on our feet, which made it all worth it.  Through it all we discovered another element to the landscape.  Gravity. It seemed as though we were just becoming weary when the welcome sight of the parking-lot came into view.  The mountain had shown us all a great time.  And I was hooked.

I don’t remember the trip home all that much.  I do remember the frustration of trying to find words that captured the day when explaining it to others.  Impossible.  Adventure on the landscape is like subscribing to a secret language that can only be decoded through direct experience.

What was I hooked on? The priceless part of the day was making friends. I had made several good friends that day.  I grew in admiration and closeness with Daryl because of his ability to be with us and also let us do our thing. He also mentored his connection to wild places, not by his words but by his reverent gaze at his surroundings.   I grew in closeness with Shauna because of  her ability to handle the struggles of the day with good humor and delight. I became good friends with a portion of Banff National Park and the Rockies which is a friendship that still exists to this day. I became a better friend with myself because I began to know what kinds of experiences fuel my spirit.

This was the first lesson in boldness that the Rockies had to offer me in my life.  Their bold nature had inspired Daryl to embrace all of the risks of taking his two young siblings out for a day in Banff in -20˚C temperatures.  Lots could have gone wrong.  We could have been frozen, hurt, killed or worse yet, we might have hated him for it.  None of those things happened.  We loved him for it.  We loved him for the time he took.  We loved him for being connected to us. We loved him for introducing us to skiing, the mountains, Banff Park, and each other.  We loved him for providing a shared experience.  We loved him for making us feel special through his undivided attention. We loved him for creating common ground. To this day I believe that the three of us have connection that is rooted in this day together. 

Daryl was also inspired to be socially courageous.  He broke the pattern of inactivity.  He broke the pattern of valuing only work. He broke the pattern of the purchased expression of love.  He expressed it directly with the gift of time . . .and adventure on the landscape.

This lesson has helped me understand Christmas and what people need.  We do not need more stuff.  We need to be bold. Bold enough to take the time to make memories with family.  Bold enough to be challenged so that we are presented a window to our character. Bold enough to take physical risks. Bold enough to tell people not only that we love them but why. Bold enough to embrace each other.  Bold enough to embrace the landscape and the challenges it may present. Bold enough to truly live. All of this made possible by simply exploring a Rockies ski trail.






"The state of being whole and undivided."

Traversing unbroken ground.

Traversing unbroken ground.

Last week I was instructing one of my rock climbing courses to a group of students on Quadra Island just east of Campbell River BC. The rain kept us undercover for the better part of a couple of days. When the students were done with learning technical systems we changed gears and challenged them with the classic "Spiders web" problem.  The task is to pass your entire group through the web without anyone touching and alerting the "spider" of your presence. The web in this case was a matrix of cords tied together to simulate a human sized web. With all of the safety rules in place, like. . ."no diving through the web," my co instructor, Graeme White presented a final challenge to the students when he said, "Your job is to self police yourselves and monitor your own performance around touching the web." The students enthusiastically accepted the task.

It was a difficult web and the students began to feel like the task was impossible to get everyone to the other side. At one point, with two thirds of the crew through the web, one of them touched and had to be sent back to the starting side to be passed through again. The challenge was that only one person saw the web being touched. Every other member of the group of 8 thought it was a clean pass. I could see the individual, who had called the team out, begin to squirm but he held fast to his truth. Then one of the participants said, "He is lying" in a desperate effort to have the group succeed. "But why would he lie about something like that? I queried.

Being passed through the web

Being passed through the web

I remember being a young climber and lying about a greater success on a climb than I had actually achieved. Wanting so badly to be a person who was perceived as being a success I fabricated a story. I carried that lie for years at great personal cost. What is it about getting through by any means possible that is so alluring? Why is our integrity so easily scrapped for false achievement?

Recently I was at the Volkswagon repair shop and I said to the mechanic something about the recent challenges the company was going through as "cheating". He said, "I don't see it that way." I asked, "How do you see it?" He replied, "We send students to university where the culture is to do what is necessary to get the best grade possible. Then we put them to work where they need to solve problems and they do what is necessary to solve the challenge at hand. We have taught the members of our society to win and it is not seen as cheating."  I nodded thinking that it is a cultural construct rather than ill will. But it is still dishonest if it is not something we can be transparent about.

The problem is that when we cash in our integrity for false achievement we exchange something profound. Self love. It is impossible to love ourselves if we are not honest because we are not in line with our best self. We all look in the mirror every morning and if we have been impeccably honest, we like who we see reflected back at us.

The dictionary's first definition of integrity is about being honest and having strong moral principles. The second definition is the state of being whole and undivided. I think one leads to the other. If we are honest, we become whole. Being whole is the best success in such a fragmented world.






A Practice in Worthiness

Towering El Capitan

Towering El Capitan

A Practice In Worthiness


My first journey up the vertical granite world of El Capitan was in the spring of 1988. Hanging from my climbing harness at the belay anchor low down on "The Nose" route I looked up at the face above and a visceral feeling of unworthiness infused my being. Without words spoken the sheer size of the rock face communicated, "What the hell are the likes of YOU doing here?"

With the sun beating on my bare shoulders I panned my eyes across the expansive wall and back again noticing the swallows dive and turn as my partner John worked his way up the first of the "Stove legs" pitches. A man from a party below arrived at the same postage stamp sized belay stance I inhabited and said, "What are you doing?"

I replied, "What do you mean?"

He said, "I can see you are belaying your leader, but what are you doing?"

I said, "Nothing."

To my surprise he replied, "If you are not improving your situation in tiny ways every moment, you'll never make it." After he said that, I realized that there were endless small tasks that needed my attention. Restacking the rope, cleaning up the now unused elements of the anchor and having a snack to maintain my energy. My impromptu mentor pointed out there was always something to be done if I had a goal. Waiting to see if things turn out is not a great way to have them turn out.


John and I made it up the Nose route on El Capitan that trip. I arrived at the top gifted with my own humble sense of worthiness. Not granted from the monolithic place or the experience, but from the thousands of small and large efforts that expanded my capacity. The wisdom stuck with me. I dig deep ice climbing where cold can win and direct action must be taken to create heat to stay warm. Building a house in Revelstoke, were countless little tasks required my action. Today, as I type each letter on my keyboard to form words that morph concepts into a story that also communicates meaning. The cure for unworthiness is focused action and in noticing the power that fuels my call to action.




What project, if I engage in wholeheartedly, would I be able to accomplish?


What tasks do I need to do moment to moment?


How am I unconsciously feeding into my own unworthiness by hanging out?


Do I heed the advice of others or do I chronically fail because I am stubborn?


If I fail at something, who is to blame?



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I have often experienced my best climbing when there was an invitation.  Many years ago Brian Spear, Keith Haberl and myself drove into the Waiparous to climb a route called Concorde. As Keith's Black Nissan truck brought us into view of the route it was clear that the climb was not going to happen. It was streaming wet so we deemed it unclimbable. The route faces north so it was also not likely to dry off by the time we got to the base.

Without skipping a beat we turned our attention to the Prow, which is east facing and was dry but as yet the entire face was unclimbed. All we had to go by was an inviting line up the centre of the face, which we quickly cast the binoculars upon. After dumping out the Rubbermaid bin from the back of the truck and assessing its contents, we realized that we had enough gear to climb the route. There was a solid selection of pitons and enough self-drive bolts for anchors. We climbed seven new pitches that day, onsight and ironically through three rainstorms. Climbing over wet rock, and into thunder and lightning, all the while feeling invited. We profoundly eclipsed the reason for not climbing Concorde. But Concorde was not inviting us. We named our new route "The Ardent Heart" because we were following our hearts into a process of creativity.

With a firm invitation that underpins, challenges that happen along the way feel supported from a foundational place. Adversity is fun when the right energy underpins and solving problems is easier with a sense of belonging. There is less fear because I know I am supposed to be there. This is intuition and the mountains have been trying to teach me how to use it. I can and have rationalized myself into undesirable situations, and have been invited into the grandest adventures. Inside I have a fantastic system for knowing the difference between the two. All I have to do is ask is this question, "Am I being invited right now?"


In what ways have I "Shoulded" my way into an epic? I should be able to climb this! I should do this because there concrete no reason not too! What was the result?

How do I rationalize my way into making choices that don't serve me?

Has waiting for an invitation to do something worked better?


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Learning to Walk

My aim in the mountains is to cover terrain as elegantly as possible." Sharon Wood
Walking on or off trail in the mountains is different. Photo: Pelig Levi

Walking on or off trail in the mountains is different. Photo: Pelig Levi

I am a student of walking. My life path has been physically and metaphorically off trail through the mountains and walking in them has taught me a great deal.

Striding on a concrete sidewalk is easy for all of the obvious reasons and some not so obvious. It is solid, balanced, stable and mostly without grave consequence. All of these things are seemingly desirable. I can trust in these elements so much that some of the in-obvious reasons for the ease walking on concrete come to light. I don't have to think, focus, or be conscious of much in order to travel the route. I can look way down the street in expectation of a future event without stumbling. 

On my mountain path things are loose, uneven, unstable and often have grave consequence. Walking here requires a whole lot from me the walker. So much so that I still find myself a student of this practice that I learned in principle over 50 years ago.  What is it that I am practicing?

Each stride has a choice to be made. Walking up a mountain requires that I am deliberate with each step. I carefully choose exactly where I place my foot. If I don't select my placement my foot will likely land on something undesirable like a wobbly stone of a slippery root. I also position my foot with intention. How I step in the spot is critical. The spot may be flat so I can relax and save energy, or it may be sloped and wet so I need to grip the earth with my boot edge. I make myself solid.

Striding from my center. In order to carefully select my foot placement I have to step from a place of balance. I centre my weight over my placed foot so that the new foot or step is not committed to unconsciously.  I can stop at any point and stay in balance. My walking is not a slave to momentum, but discernment is the rule. In the core of my body is a place of stillness that is quiet and relaxed. I balance myself.

Remaining present. If I look too far down the trail I stumble because I am no longer present with what is happening. Eyes cast on the summit or a future goal take my attention away from balance and discernment. I create stability.

I was built for traveling where there is no path. Walking here helps me be solid, balanced, and stable in a chaotic world fraught with ramifications. Like all things walking is a practice. If I assume I am a master, I stumble. The greatest thing that walking here teaches me is humility, that all things in life are best when they come from within, and that walking is life.

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"Shame Can't Survive Empathy" Brene Brown

Photo: Ken Wylie

Photo: Ken Wylie

Shame. A painful feeling of humiliation. Hot. Searing. Isolating. Shame hits like a wave when we become conscious of our failing act. It surrounds and engulfs us leaving the idea that irreparable damage to our lives has occurred.

I know shame professionally. Missing simple processes and being corrected by colleagues. Or making monumental errors and reacting by hiding, crawling through the back window and running down the alley of indignity. Unwilling and unable to find words in the maelstrom of humiliation, grief and mortification. A prisoner trying to escape the reality of the situation. A fugitive for years, skulking through life, scrambling from one form of cover to the next. 

I know shame in my relationships. Two marriages, divorced twice and those are the ones on record. Seeking comfort from another before learning to self soothe. Being called hedonistic and knowing it is true, but also understanding that it so, so much bigger.  The isolation that comes from the daggers of judgement by self and others. The fear of celebrating a new relationship. A fugitive, skulking through life scrambling from one form of cover to the next.

There is a cure for shame. Stepping into it. Putting it in the heart of acceptance to change it. Loving myself and letting people have their yard sticks if they like. Loving myself for being in the game, exposed to life and making the most of events by grappling for threads of learning and turning it all into experience. Knowing what things are really like on the battlefield of work and relationships and seeing that in the end I have chosen not to run from the battle inside myself. Becoming conscious and improving who I am despite profound and utter failure or perhaps because of it. Knowing that I have done my very best to live and then bravely face my humanity.

I subscribe to Julie North's idea that we choose our challenges in this life before we live them like they are a course to be learned from.  "Mid life poverty 101. Self loathing 405. Shame 201."  I know that one of the experiences I chose was to know and overcome shame through compassion for myself. Master shame or become a slave to it is my mantra. Master shame by bringing events in to be loved. 

Ken Wylie

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Challenging Path to Bliss


Recently a story crossed my path. A seemingly harsh narrative about a teacher who held his young Monk's head under water while asking, "so, is focusing on your breath boring now?" There are two lessons here, one about breathing being a gift that we take for granted, and the other about forgiveness of the teacher. In life and our relationships, the journey is often to transcend judgment and embrace the lesson no matter how it comes. Sometimes we lose the lesson in the apparent violence of a person or situation. In this case the Monk risks losing the lesson about breathing in the act of the teacher. In my life I risked losing the gift of learning about breath from the seemingly harsh snowy mountain environment that I was buried in. Here are my memories of being under the snow from "Buried" (2014):

 "Light from above filters down through my snowy grotto, forming countless shades of blue and turquoise as it refracts through the varying thicknesses of lumpy snow. There may be a series of connecting air pockets leading to the surface but I cannot be certain. Thin areas in my clothing begin to produce cold, damp places at my lower back and my knees, neck and right wrist, but there is nothing I do can fix the problem. I feel strangely calm and relaxed, as if it all were familiar. But my pulse and breathing suddenly race when my mind registers the words: “I’m BURIED.”

I grapple for self-control. My mind flashes to my clients; all of them are in this snowy catastrophe. I am their guide, helpless to assist them. A wave of grief overcomes me while I cycle mental images of the snow hitting them, their legs flailing as they remain attached to their skis. With these pictures rolling in my mind, my heart thumps. I breathe heavily and feel the air become lifeless. My lungs scream for oxygen. I gasp but can’t satiate them. Panic looms closer. I have to surrender. I place my head on my left arm, feel the deep weariness in my body, embrace it and let myself pass out."


Surrender. For many years I blamed my teacher. The man I was working with. I was angry at the mountain for dealing such a harsh lesson. I hated myself and felt guilty for my choice for being there. I forgot about the beautiful awareness about breath by focusing on the delivery.

There is a helpful notion that as a being floating through the universe, I choose the lessons I will try to learn here on Earth before even being born. Like a contestant on a game show that chooses the level of difficulty. This idea is helpful both for the student monk and myself. We are responsible for all of it. The young monk chooses to be a student and embrace all of the lessons that come their way. I chose to traverse into a life of being in the mountains, and all of the lessons that they present. I can't love what happened to my clients because I played a role in their demise. I can love how the experience has shaped me, to become the person I have always dreamed of being. That is the best I can do.

Today, whenever I focus on my breath I am taken to my snowy grotto, a seemingly horrific situation that holds such gifts in the awareness of my sacred breath.

Some would say, that I should let go, forget about the past. I now know this in the core of my being,  it is too beautiful a lesson to let it go.



Stepping Up Our Game



Markers as a guide.

Markers as a guide.

Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.
Ramana Maharshi

We inhabitants of this planet are in the midst of re-imagining our lives and how we lead them. Every single industry that existed in the middle of the last century has or is being asked to re-conceive itself and grow into this new millennium. Changes in technology have sparked great shifts in music, entertainment, communications, and now the energy and the automobile sectors are under massive overhauls through this movement. With the movement has come innovation, collaboration, human growth and greater sustainability. Great leaders are emerging to show us the way. People like Elon Musk who are not only innovating the auto industry, but sharing their technical breakthroughs so that the goal of filling the roads with electric cars is realized. It is not only about making money, it is about, becoming our best selves. These leaders have identified that we need to share the spoils so we can achieve larger goals for humanity. Certainly this was the statement when Musk released his electric car innovations for the world to use. It is as if "beating the other guy" is out of fashion and that is one of the most beautiful things to happen in over a century because what is being communicated is the notion that we are in it together. Happiness through human (as opposed to industrial) growth is emerging and many of us are choosing to be on the boat.

A recent study by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the USA positioned Outdoor Recreation ahead of pharmaceuticals, motor vehicles, and fossil fuels. Annual consumer spending for this sector is posted at 887 Billion. Outdoor recreation is huge in the USA and, by cultural sibling-hood, we can assume for Canada. At long last there is an identifiable new work force, wool collar workers or people who work outdoors. And we wool clad set can be taken seriously because it is about money, right?  As we step into this new knowledge of the power of the outdoor sector's contribution to the economic engine it is important that we take a good look at ourselves to understand who we are and where we are going. We are now under the spotting scope and can no longer hide in the back woods. How do we fit into this new global "Us" paradigm?

Some of the assumptions we wool collar set make about ourselves is that we connect people to nature, are stewards of wild places and that things we do are sustainable. These mantras are not entirely true. The most obvious target is our sacred cow, the helicopter ski industry. The fuel consumption alone for a bell 212 helicopter is, on average, 425 litres per hour. For a six hour day, an operation burns 2,550 litres of fuel simply for the enjoyment of three or four groups of 11 guests. One of the larger operations has 12 lodges. They burn 30,600 litres of fossil per ski day. How can we possibly defend this in a world where climate change is bearing down on all of us? Like many industries the defense is money. Lots of families put bread on the table through this work. But this is what industries around the globe are facing, the need to change. The Polly Anna view of heli skiing is that we are connecting people to nature so the fuel consumption has purpose. But are we? The report to me from many guides is that their guests don't even look at the view or care about where they are. For many, it is about how much vertical terrain is consumed, ever deepening the reach of gross consumption into wild places in order to prop up our underdeveloped selves. I am as guilty as anyone and perhaps that is why I see it, because I have lived it.

Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company leads the way in activism, sustainability and fair trade. Their mission statement starts with:

" Patagonia grew out of a small company that made tools for climbers. Alpinism remains at the heart of a worldwide business that still makes clothes for climbing – as well as for skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running. These are all silent sports. None require a motor; none deliver the cheers of a crowd. In each sport, reward comes in the form of hard-won grace and moments of connection between us and nature."

Outdoor organizations all need to be more like Patagonia. Their used clothing initiative shows that they see beyond the next sale and are doing what is best for all of us.

But what about outdoor experiences? Bill Plotkin's Animas Valley Institute helps people connect to nature and themselves. Their programs are outdoors but are not adventure sport based. They help their participants develop "ecocentrically" that Plotkin knows leads to psychological maturity, true adulthood and elderhood. Their aim is; "a model that ultimately yields a strategy for cultural transformation." If any organization in the outdoors is connecting others to themselves and nature it is Animas Valley Institute, chiefly because they take the requisite time to slow down enough to facilitate a bond. Unlike the high speed "stone skipping" approach of much of the outdoor industry, where the aim is to go as fast as possible so that nothing deep is experienced.

Like the colleague of mine Butch Greer, I would maintain that the world does not need more rock climbers, mountaineers, skiers, and paddle sport enthusiasts. I perceive that our participation in them may in fact have little value for humanity. Except for one thing. If we reflect on these powerful events we have, we have greater potential to develop as humans, moving humanity forward to a place where we are our best selves. Many may scoff thinking that achievement should be pursued at all cost. But the two are not mutually exclusive. Reflection aids in the development of our minds and our capabilities. Alex Honnold this week showed that climbing is much more than a physical pursuit with his free solo ascent of El Capitan. Clearly there was a spiritual transcendence for him. I call his ascent as being a climbing equivalent to "walking on water." 

Very few guiding companies offer powerful human development process work coupled with real adventure. The once towering Outward Bound is a mere echo of what it was on the human development landscape. Though their programs are good, the organization is on the fringe of the outdoor community where it was once the hub of everything outdoors in the 1970's. The best in the industry were employed at Outward Bound and this is not the case any longer. Today the organization employs primarily entry-level practitioners and so experiences are softer than in the past. The reasons for this are varied and can be debated. But human powered, educational, adventure experiences could develop into the highest reaches of our outdoor community, given the right support and leadership.

Human values need to develop beyond the notion of the self to include the greater community. The mountains and wild places in general are a powerful mentor for this purpose. Our journeys on this one wild earth are meant to have a lasting impact for the greater good. The call to action is for highly skilled people and organizations to unleash the human development potential from this incredible crucible of learning. What if we walked our talk? What if we faced our fears? What if we actually connected to nature? What if we listened to what nature is asking us to do every time we see a reflection in a lake, to be still, and to listen to the innate wisdom of life? The future of adventure, if it is going to survive at all is to see our journeys as sacred.

One of my students once asked me, "Ken why do we have to do this reflection shit?" My answer was, "So we are more than our gear. You see, the gear goes on the journey, up the mountain, down the mountain, sees everything we see and does everything we do, and the only thing that can happen to the gear is that it wears out, gets old and is thrown away. Through reflection we invite the opportunity to grow and develop. We are much more than the objects we use. " In maturing into our full potential we bring best self to the world and the challenges we face. This is my call to action.

As a practitioner I am well on my way with Mountains for Growth. My larger commitment is the development of a private college that nurtures outdoor practitioners to turn the tide in their careers by helping them foster regenerative adventure education. This project needs a band like minded passionate supporters.