Outdoor Leadership: Everyone Has A Place in the Mountains

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine we talk to IFMGA Mountain Guide Forest McBrian on his work, his passion for the outdoors, and what he sees as the future of outdoor recreation.
Nick Block Nick Block
Volunteer Collaborations Manager
November 02, 2019
Outdoor Leadership: Everyone Has A Place in the Mountains

Forest McBrian is an IFMGA Mountain Guide with over 15 years of experience in the mountains. Among his many notable achievements, in 2017, Forest and his partner Trevor Kostanich embarked on a 34-day ski traverse from Snoqualmie Pass to Canada. Forest instructs for the American Mountain Guide Association, and guides throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Forest has dedicated himself to the premise that everyone belongs in the mountains, and has focused his guiding career around education and empowerment. Forest is a co-author of Mountaineers Books title Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes: Washington, and has played an important role as a volunteer in the development of the Progressive Climbing Education Initiative. Forest sat down with us to discuss his path to becoming a mountain educator, and his experiences working with The Mountaineers.

How did growing up in the Pacific Northwest influence your decision to pursue a career in the mountains?

I spent my childhood in Oregon, and I went backpacking with brother for the first time at age 16. Soon after, some high school friends who had taken a climbing class from the Mazamas took me climbing at Rocky Butte, a little crag inside of the Portland city limits full of graffiti. Around this time, I also read a book about the North Cascades, and the idea that these mountains and their rivers of ice were just a few hours away simply astounded me. I became drawn to the mountains because of the way I felt there; I appreciate the silence, as I’m something of an introvert.

In the late 1990s, when I was a teen, Oregon was also the center of a lot of activism in defense of the region’s ancient forests. I became interested in the politics and philosophy of these movements, and became involved myself. Looking back on it all, it’s tough for me to imagine that I ever could have ended up doing something that didn’t connect me directly to the land. 

When did you start working as a professional guide?

In college I studied French and English, and envisioned a career as a classroom teacher. I enjoyed school and my teachers really helped shaped who I am. I taught in the French public school system for two years, but I quickly began to envision a career that combined my interests in education and the mountain environment.

I’d also spent my first summer after college as an instructor for Outward Bound in the North Cascades. The small teams typical of mountain work suited me really well, and I enjoyed the combination of hands-on problem solving, leadership, and teaching. That solid foundation from Outward Bound, gave me the skills to begin guiding.

How has your guiding career evolved over time?

Like most guides, I spend the majority of my time teaching, coaching, and supporting the people I work with. After a decade of spending 200 plus days a year in the mountains, I decided to deepen my learning and completed 110 days of training to achieve my International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) certification. As an IFMGA guide, I am even better equipped to take people into these incredible mountain environments - I teach new skills as a part of an intentional progression, and manage risk in a way that empowers everyone in the team.

I work from the premise that everyone belongs in the mountains. At different points in our growth as climbers, we need people with more experience or technical skill to help us take on new terrain and new challenges, to help us grow. This is why I became a guide in the first place: to provide the mentorship that was so critical for my own development. I imagine this is also why people instruct for The Mountaineers!

How did you first get involved with The Mountaineers?

I first worked with The Mountaineers as an author in 2013. We tackled a project (Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes: Washington) that was slightly ahead of its time in the sense that backcountry skiing and snowboarding are still maturing as sports in our region. Mountaineers Books gave me a formative editorial experience and totally supported and believed in our team of guide-authors. A couple of years later, Lowell Skoog mentored me through a history project that included a bunch of digging in The Mountaineers archives; the project ended up teaching me a lot about the role of the organization in the early days of North Cascades climbing.

I also contributed to the early Progressive Climbing Education meetings, and more recently consulted with The Mountaineers and other mountain clubs on behalf of the American Alpine Club (AAC), which felt momentous and exciting. I plan to stay involved, and to keep advocating for unity among mountain people.

How have you seen our organization grow since then?

With its shift toward serving youth and its Progressive Climbing Education initiative, The Mountaineers has been striving for greater positive impact in the wider community, as well as continuing to lead in mountain education for the recreational public. I’ve been fortunate to work with Mountaineers instructors pursuing professional-level training through both the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), and I’m excited to see that kind of cross-pollination increase across the mountain safety landscape.

As a professional mountain guide, what value do you see in volunteer-led outdoor clubs?

Clubs offer a fun, social, financially-accessible way to gain outdoor skills and partners. They unite around regional and national conservation issues, steward our history, and create community.

Clubs also reduce barriers to access. I believe the story of climbing and mountain sports is overwhelmingly one in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; clubs help a diverse community share unique resources and talents in a way that creates more possibility for everyone involved. Volunteerism is impressive when deployed on the scale of The Mountaineers. The organization has done a lot for the outdoor community, and there is still so much more to come!

Do you have any memorable moments or interactions with our members?

I skied the Patrol Race with two guide friends in 2018. We had a blast! I think the event does a great job of inviting non-members into a Mountaineers experience, and of putting participants in touch with the history of the region, the organization, and the sport of backcountry skiing. Piling onto the diesel snow cat with 40 other racers at Meany Lodge was outrageous fun.

What is your favorite part about teaching in the mountains?

I really enjoy opening up new possibilities for people – new understandings, new confidence, new experiences. That new experience might be a first hike off-trail, a first glaciated ski tour, or a first big alpine climb. It’s all relative to the individual. One privilege of my work is long, unhurried conversations with my guests, and I’m really interested in how we give meaning to our mountain experiences. What is the practical and social value of the magic we experience there? Guiding lets me work with all kinds of people on public lands and to learn more about how each of them experiences the mountains, and how they relate those experiences to other dimensions of their lives.

What are your proudest achievements as a climber and skier?

I am biased toward wild, remote mountains that retain some mystery. That is why I love living near the North Cascades – the topography has worked in concert with the Wilderness Act to dramatically slow the rate at which this range has been explored, mapped, and catalogued. Skiing from Snoqualmie Pass to the Canadian border in 2017 felt like a dissertation of sorts for me and my partner Trevor. It was the perfect way to express our craft and our love for our home range.

If you had the ability to instantly change one thing about the outdoor industry, what would it be?

I would put social justice and climate change at the core of every outdoor organization’s mission statement. If we proclaim the benefits of recreation on public lands and of spending time in contact with nature, then we have to work to see those benefits shared more widely and to protect the rights of the vulnerable, including the non-human world.

Like many climbers and skiers today, I am wrestling with the role of travel and resource consumption in my recreational activities. Deep down, I believe that the best way to show that I truly love the earth is to be gentle. This has given me renewed enthusiasm for the wild Cascades, and for all the exciting movements converging here. I see climbers extending the notion of “good style” beyond the climb itself – from carpooling to the mountain, to selling and buying used equipment, to calling our local mountains by their pre-colonial names. These actions may seem small, but for me, they make it easier to believe in and work toward a more just and sustainable world.

How do you see clubs and guides working together in the future? Is there a way we can use our shared experiences to make outdoor adventures better for everyone?

I think the opportunity for guides and clubs to work together is tremendous, and it begins with recognizing our unique strengths as well as our common ground. The long-format, cohort-based model developed by clubs has unique educational advantages, and it is also builds community brilliantly. Guides offer low-ratio, intensive instruction that can keep club curricula and instruction fresh and cutting edge, and guides also bring depth and diversity of practice to recreational outdoors people. The common ground of both clubs and guides is quite literal: the belief that everyone has a place in the mountains. We have all dedicated a lot of our lives to helping others grow in capacity and confidence, in large part because we believe that our world badly needs the lessons that can come from mountain experiences. If we can collaborate to produce more effective and sustainable mountain education, then we will see a new generation of climbers and citizens emerge from our collaborative community, ready to bring those lessons to the world.

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2019 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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