A Personal Story: Volunteers' Hidden Impact

In her lowest moment as a Basic Climbing Student, a volunteer believed in Sarah Holt and showed her resilience. Years later, Sarah is paying it forward.
Sarah Holt Sarah Holt
Former Climbing Student, Super Volunteer and Current Mountaineers Staff
April 21, 2018
A Personal Story: Volunteers' Hidden Impact

It was my lowest moment as a Mountaineer, and I’ll never forget it. Evening was approaching on the first day of my Basic Winter Overnight at the old Snoqualmie property. I had done pretty well at ice-ax arrest, but I was cold, wet, and ready to head back to camp to get warm and dry. Then I saw it - my home for the night (an improperly staked 3-season backpacking tent) had collapsed under the 5" of heavy, wet snow that had fallen since morning. My gear was soaked in the puddles of standing water in the tent, and with night falling soon, there was no chance of drying out. I was mortified.

Oh my god, I thought. I’m that girl. The one who’s a mess and needs others to bail her out. No one is going to ever take me on a climb again. Have I failed the field trip? The course?? Should I just go home?!?

As I was panicking and trying to shake the water out of my tent, my group instructor, Eric, came to check on me. Someone had an extra tent, and he would walk back to the cars with me to get snow stakes.

I choked back tears and tried to regain my composure. I don’t remember what we talked about during the walk, but he didn’t dwell on my failure. He showed me the proper way to bury stakes in the snow and helped me get the tent set up.


When most of us volunteer to instruct at a field trip, lead a climb, or belay at a youth program, we probably just want to help out a little, meet some people, have fun, and give back. We probably aren’t setting out to change lives. And the further we get from being a student, the harder it is to remember what it felt like! To you, the instructor, it may feel routine -  but to the student, that first climb/rappel/hike is a huge, monumental experience. You may have just helped them through the scariest, most daring thing they’ve ever done.

Last winter, I was leading a Mountain Workshop climbing session for a troop of Girl Scouts. One girl was struggling to get up the routes and was especially scared to be lowered down. The volunteers all worked patiently with her. One volunteer in particular, Jeff, coached her through the process of down climbing, working with her on the rope for over a half hour. I hoped that the troop, and the girl, had had an okay time, but I was worried her experience had been more scary than fun. The next day, I received an email from her mom, thanking us for the incredible experience, along with a thank you card from her daughter (below).

Scout'sThankYouEdited.jpgWhen the same scout troop returned this January, the girls asked that I try to bring back all the same volunteers as last time. I was floored. They didn’t just want to come back for a fun time climbing - they remembered the connection they made with their instructors and belayers. What a powerful testament to the impact of our volunteers!

I don’t see Eric much at Mountaineers events these days, and I doubt he remembers much about my tent fiasco, but his calm confidence in me kept me in the course, and in The Mountaineers.

I doubt Jeff expected a little girl would remember and request him by name a year later! We don’t always get the benefit of knowing how we affected someone. But believe me, if you have volunteered, if you have coached someone through their fears, or helped them dig deep and believe in themselves, you are an important part of their story, and you always will be. And in the spirit of that girl scout - if a volunteer made a difference for you, let them know!


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou


Main image photo by Tim Nair.

Add a comment

Log in to add comments.
Anita Elder
Anita Elder says:
Apr 21, 2018 04:56 PM

What a great tribute to our volunteers!

Tina Fox
Tina Fox says:
Apr 29, 2018 10:30 AM

This really spoke to my heart. I am new to the "Wild" Outdoors. I worked very hard to be well-prepared during my Basic Course last year, knowing that the physical conditioning was to be the greatest hurdle for me,as most of my peers had extensive experience with other outdoor activities. I relied upon my self education, mentors and friends to make sure that I was adept in all other areas.

Then came Baker...
I was feeling good about my abilities, accepting that I might be on the last team up, but knowing I could do it. What I wasn't prepared for was the snowshoe part. It was not part of the program and I had snowshoes twice in my life. Both with not so great results. In the prior week, we were advised that this was a strong possibility and an instructor loaned me a pair of mountaineering shoes. I had pared my load down to 48lbs, make it 60lbs with a rope, which I knew I could do. I realized pretty quickly that the added snowshoes was going to make it rough. I had to pick myself up after numerous falls in the first few miles. As I was nursing a shoulder injury from the previous week, I chose to do this with the pack on. I also did not want to burden the instructors. They were patient, kind, knowing I was fighting a personal battle in my head, as well. They were giving me beta on technique,even commenting that it had to be the snowshoes...
A few miles in, and just be for we no longer needed the snowshoes, the rear sweep changed and the lovely Debbee commented that she believed my shoes were on the wrong feet. Ugh. For the short distance remaining, no falls. But the exertion had worn on me, physically and mentally. Deb helped me recover a positive mindset and got me up to snow camp.
All I wanted to do was crawl into my tent and rest. My tent mate had cleared the area, boiled water for dinner and was so encouraging,just waiting for me with half of the tent gear.

And then the tent pole broke...
This was not as traumatic as it sounds. By this time, I knew I was with a group who focused on the practice that the team is the most important part of every adventure. This will probably be my most perfect imperfect adventure.

Erica Cline
Erica Cline says:
Apr 30, 2018 09:09 AM

What a great story. Thanks for sharing this. We can all use a little inspiration sometimes!