“The successful summit is made before the first footstep is taken on the mountain.”
Skip Horner has spent the past 50 years leading expeditions in the world’s most remote, inaccessible and dangerous places.
He was the first mountaineer in history to successfully guide clients up the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. In addition to his incredible abilities as an alpinist, Paddler Magazine nominated Skip as one of the top whitewater guides of the 20th century — having led numerous first-ever descents on eleven major rivers, including the Yangtze, the Zambezi and the Indus.
As a professional adventurer, planning for risk — for danger, for the unexpected — is essential if you want to come home alive. Skip attributes his long career and his record of never having lost a client while in the wild to meticulous planning before he embarks on an expedition. Planning in advance allows him and his team to react swiftly when surprises arise, and often to notice adverse conditions developing early and resolve them before they worsen.
In this podcast, Skip shares his best practices for risk management, many of which universally apply to all dimensions of life including personal safety and financial security. And he drives these lessons home with white-knuckle stories from his personal adventures, when his life was held in the balance.
This interview is a little different than our usual fare, but will likely be one of the more riveting ones you listen to this year. And extremely relevant to Peak Prosperity’s core theme of the criticality of preparing for crisis in advance.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Skip Horner (69m:22s).
Chris Martenson: Welcome, everyone, to this Featured Voices podcast. It's June 19th, 2019. I'm your host, Chris Martenson. Well, welcome to the program which finds meaning and interest across a really wide range of subjects. Today's program I think is going to be a real treat for you.
So why? Well, let's start here. Are you a risk taker? I mean, everybody takes risks, so I guess I'm asking what sort of a risk taker are you? Now, here's something you may not know about my past. I was a bit of an adrenaline junky when I was younger. I was drawn to the sports of rock climbing, telemark backcountry and also downhill skiing and a little bit of kayaking. And I really pushed myself. I became pretty accomplished in an amateur sort of way of climbing, but especially skiing. Kayaking, less so, because I spent less time at that.
And I always lead with the adrenaline part of that story because people can connect to that right away. But the truth is there was a whole host of things lying under the excitement that drew me even more powerfully. I liked the calculated parts of the risk calculations. They challenged me. How much gear should I bring for this climb? What about the next pitch? How dangerous are the avalanche conditions, right now?
And I especially loved, and I mean loved, the mental state that would arise when the seriousness of the pitch or the steepness of the descent would force complete focus on me in that moment. There was nothing else. Call it getting into the zone, being in the flow, enforced Zen. But that's what it was for me. And I existed in that moment.
And I could clearly pull up little tiny moments of time from 30 years ago, 40 now, I guess in some cases, seared into my being as fresh as if they happened yesterday. Like my first runout, 511 B friction route on trad gear, pulling off the crux move, knowing that if I even allowed a stray thought like, "Hey, I think I got this." If that intruded, that would drastically increase the risk of failing in that moment, because I was at my edge there.
The dividing line between success and failure then was often the precise frame of mind I held. But mostly, really mostly it depended on planning, scouting and training. In other words, preparation.
So, all of this is to introduce today's guest and to note that as we face a world of risks, my background in these sports has informed my approach of calculated risk assessment in mitigation and, of course, to preparation.
There are common elements to risk taking, regardless of the sort of risks being managed. Is it portfolio risk? Is it a medical risk? Is it a physical outdoor risk? Is it a business risk? Right. In each case, there are multiple factors, each with their own probabilities, their own impacts and individual costs and approaches to mitigate. Life then becomes the art of weighing and managing those.
Today's guest, Skip Horner, is a world renowned mountaineer and outdoor expedition leader. In other words, a lifelong taker and manager of these sorts of risks. In 1992, after leading a group of clients to the summit of Mount Everest, Skip became the first mountaineer, the first, to successfully guide clients to the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. He's led 20 ascents of Kilimanjaro, eight ascents of Mount Vincent, which is the highest peak on Antarctica – wow, think about that – five expeditions to Gunnbjørn Fjeld, if I've pronounced that right, the highest peak in the Arctic. And Skip also summited Cho Oyu. It's an 8,000 plus meter peak, sixth highest in the world, in 1996.
In addition to his incredible abilities as a climbing guide, Paddler Magazine nominated Skip as one of the top paddlers of the 20th century. That's amazing to have that crossover skillset. As a rafting guide, he led the first descents – think about that carefully – of eleven major rivers. These rivers included the Yangtze, the Zambezi and the Indus.
His passion for whitewater has led him to wild rivers in Turkey, Nepal, Madagascar, Albania, Chile and Papua New Guinea.
And closer to home, Skip had run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon 35 times, which is 35 times more than I've ever done it. I would love to do that someday. Hey, Skip lives in Montana with his wife and two children. His wife Elizabeth helps to run the guiding business, Skip Horner Worldwide, Inc.
Welcome to the program, Skip.
Skip Horner: Thank you. It's great to be here.
Chris Martenson: Well, Skip I want to hear your stories and I want to explore the lessons you learned that routinely apply to your expedition planning. But let's start at the beginning for you. What was your first outdoor experience where you said, hey, maybe this is what I want to do with my life?
Skip Horner: Well, it's interesting, because all my life I've been a professional guide. It's important to make the distinction between being a guide and being a mountaineer or a climber. Obviously, as a guide I'm also a climber and mountaineer, but first and foremost I'm a guide. I get my satisfaction from taking other people with me, and that also makes me focus more of the safety aspect because it's not just me who might be in jeopardy, but the people with me who are counting on me to keep them safe.
My first real outdoor experience where I thought, "You know, I'm actually being a guide right now," was when I was in Boy Scouts at camp in the Adirondacks in New York State, where I was trying to get my hiking merit badge and I was going to go off and hiking by myself to get the five 10 milers and the one 20 mile hike. But the counselor said, "Well, you can't do that alone. If you're going to do that we'll let you, but you’ve got to take some of the younger kids with you so they can get the merit badge, also." Which kind of disappointed me because I thought they might hold me back. But nonetheless, that was the option, either take it or leave it, so I took it and ended up taking two other younger boys with me. And we did complete the hiking merit badge in a two week period at the age of 12 or 13, whatever I was back then. I officially became a guide.
It didn’t register that this might become my life's calling. But by the time I got out of college and moved to the Rockies and hung out there, a ski bum for a couple of years, I got work taking people on backcountry ski trips, simple, one day trips, so a couple of easy overnights, which was fun, not really scary or not even that challenging.
But through that job I met a man who owns and ran a Grand Canyon river running company. And I told him a couple little white lies. He hired me to work in the Grand Canyon. So, I had to quick train myself up to a level I thought would be sufficient to actually work in the Grand Canyon, having told this man that I knew all about whitewater.
In fact, I'd taken a canoe trip and I'd done a little easy whitewater canoeing the previous summer, and that was the little white lie that I told him. It wasn't anything compared to Grand Canyon rapids.
I was living in Colorado at the time, and so I went out and bought a cheap little Taiwanese-made raft. It was probably eight feel long, just big enough for me, with two little plastic oars and I had a horse collar life jacket. And I stuck it in the Colorado River up there outside of Glenwood Springs where there was plenty of whitewater, nobody else around, wearing jeans and a wool shirt. It's amazing that I didn’t flip over, but I didn’t. That was one of the, probably the most dangerous things I'd ever done just trying to prepare for working in the Grand Canyon.
As far as preparation goes, I felt I was doing the right prep by learning about whitewater. I knew how to row from a rowboat, but rowing in whitewater situations was completely new to me.
And this is something I warn people about. I managed to survive, but you read often about younger climbers, especially, who have taken a class maybe, and they're pretty agile and pretty athletic, but they really don’t know much about the actual sport of climbing. And they'll get themselves into situations where they're really over their heads and often they get hurt or even die. You even gave an example earlier of the fall you took, Chris, that could have changed your life. As it turned out, it probably didn’t.
But the anticipation of a problem is probably the biggest skill someone can learn when they're just starting out in the adventure world.
Chris Martenson: Well, sure. And that incident you're talking about – before I started recording I told you about a time I was taking a year off with my climbing buddy Steve, and we were in a VW van; such a classic '70s story, by the way. And we were taking a climbing tour, and we'd gone from New England in the fall, which was amazing, and worked our way south and then west.
And so we were at Devil's Tower. I was on a 510 B, called Tolji Wood. I was over the crux, kind of run out, and it was small stopper, which means little tiny pieces of wire for people who don’t know climbing. And unfortunately, I took a fall. My foot scatted off of Lincoln or something and my belayer was not tied in and I went 70 feet where I might have gone 20 or so, maybe 30 in other conditions.
So anyway, there was a bulge, my ankle connected with said bulge and that was the end of that tour at that point in time. It took me six weeks just to get back to hobbling. I'm okay now. The ankle's fine, but that was the end of that. So you're right. Climbing is a bit remorseless. It mitts out very quick punishment if you make a mistake. So, thanks for that.
I'm wondering though, as you tossed your rubber rafts with a couple of things, that actually sounds pretty dangerous to me, Skip. So, I'm glad you survived that.
Skip Horner: So am I. And I look back on that now, and I've actually driven along that section of river since then and I just put my hand in my forehead going, "What were you thinking?" There was nobody there to save me if I'd gone in. I certainly would have drowned because I was wearing heavy clothes in cold water. It was spring runoff. What an idiot. But fortunately, I got smiled upon by the forces that are out there and I'm still around.
Chris Martenson: Now, after that though, hopefully a couple of lightbulbs went off. Did you manage to find a mentor, somebody that you learned some valuable things from after that?
Skip Horner: Yes. Along the way, I've had several mentors that have really inspired me. When I got down to the Grand Canyon, of course, I didn't realize, but I still had to do three training trips before I could actually row a commercial boat. So, all of my practice beforehand was really unnecessary because I had plenty of time to practice down there before I had to really perform.
But there were guides who had worked, at that point, it seemed like, "Wow, they had done seven trips down the Grand Canyon." And I thought, "Man, that is so much experience." Well, it is, actually. But compared to these days where there are guides who have run hundreds of trips. I read about a man the other day who has run over 300 trips down the Grand Canyon. That's experience.
But back in those days, in 1972 when I first began, one fellow named John Gonall, a couple years older and quite a bit more experience on the river, taught me a lot. Techniques that were counterintuitive, that we wouldn't have learned otherwise if he hadn't practiced and thought about these things ahead of time and taught them to us younger guys. I'm really grateful to him.
The downstream ferry, for anybody who knows about whitewater rafting, the downstream ferry is a spectacular move that puts your heart in your mouth because you have to be facing upstream to do a downstream ferry, which means you have to look back over your shoulder to see where you're going. And you have to be able to roll with both hands, not looking at either hand and looking behind you. It's an advanced technique that allows you to enter a rapid with momentum in a particular direction and spin around and face whatever is happening downstream.
Otherwise, you're rowing upstream and sideways, which is not a very strong position to be in in some of these major class five rapids that we have run, not only in the Grand Canyon, but in all these other great rivers around the world.
So I think of John Gonall on my – I did see him not too long ago and thanked him again for inspiring me to continue with rafting and to teach me some of these advanced techniques that otherwise would not have been in my skill set.
Chris Martenson: Well, thank you earlier for also differentiating between being a mountain climber and a guide, or in this case, an expedition guide for river rafting, as well. It's one thing to run a river, but to take people through that, people who maybe you don’t all that well, maybe they’ve just signed up, you go through some application process, I don’t know that that is. But Skip, talk to us about how you go about planning an expedition.
And I don't know if these are different things that you need to talk about running a river versus a mountain, but I want to hear, what do you do both to assure the best chance of achieving the aim, whatever that is, the peak or the successful descent, and then to manage the risks and reduce vulnerability to any unexpected crisis?
Skip Horner: Yes. This is a really complex question that I could write a book about, which, in fact, I'm in the process of doing anyway, right now.
I try to compartmentalize some of these aspects. I keep coming back to the word anticipation. For example, in the medical training that we get as outdoor guides, we're taught all about how to help people who are hurt: broken legs, bee stings, anaphylaxis, heat stroke, any of these things that could happen outdoors. We're taught very well how to treat them. Very little time, in fact, no time at all, is given to anticipating the problem and keeping it from happening to begin with.
And that has been my mantra, and I think one of my strongest suits is anticipating a problem before it happens and then not letting it happen, so that's it's an actual nonevent. I think that is the strongest part of first aid. The strongest part of guiding is to be able to keep a bad situation from happening, so that it doesn’t even enter the minds of my clients as, "This could have happened," because it didn’t happen.
And that comes from experience, and that comes from having seen either bad things happen or bad things almost happen, and then being able to anticipate them ahead of time in the future and ward them off. Whether it would be reading the weather, reading the snow conditions, reading the mental state of my clients to pull them back before they get too far.
In many of my trips around the world I hire local guides who have the local expertise on a particular climb that we're doing, plus it adds so much to the climb to have a local person with all the cultural knowledge of where we are, whether it's Mongolia or Chili or Turkey or the Himalia's.
Sometimes these local guides are really strong climbers but really not very adept at guiding. They don’t know how to read their clients. They just take off and lead the route, not understanding that maybe the route they’ve chosen isn’t acceptable for the clients we have.
So part of my issue is finding local guides who understand the need for reading people, knowing the abilities we're working on and not just showing off their incredible technical abilities and assuming that we're just going to be able to follow.
I think that's been one of my strong suits is finding local people in these various countries who understand the art of guiding, which is the art of managing people and getting people to perform at a level higher than they thought they could do and having them come back safe and sound.
Chris Martenson: That's fascinating. So, Adam provided me with a quote. I'm not sure if it's yours. If it is, please pick up on it. But the quote here is, "The successful summit is made before the first footstep is taken on the mountain." What does that mean?
Skip Horner: Well, there again, that's kind of a more literate way of saying what I've been saying about the anticipation of the problems of preparation for all the particular aspects of a climb. I'm not sure I completely agree with the statement because there's so many things that can still happen on the climb that prevent you from reaching the summit.
But without the proper preparation and without the proper anticipation of those problems, the summit is probably not achievable, at least not a safe summit. Of course, a safe summit, really what it means is a safe descent. Getting to the top you're only halfway home. That's why rowing halfway across the ocean, you're still only halfway; you’ve got to get back again.
Of course, you have to go into a climb with the proper equipment, with the proper experience, with the proper first aid gear and the proper participation of the people, both the guides and the clients on the climb. Without that, the safe summit is probably not achievable.
But even with that preparation, that doesn't mean the summit is achievable because weather can change, people's attitudes can change, snow conditions can change, whatever. There may be other people on the climb who have problems and then you have to abandon yours to help them.
Many things can happen, and that's part of the understanding of going into the backcountry, going up into the mountains or down the rivers, unless you're just going totally solo on an unoccupied mountain or river, there will likely be other people around and you have to consider them in most of your decision making.
Chris Martenson: Well, now, this brings us to a very topical thing, which I'd love to get your opinions of which, Skip, is that a lot of people recently just died on Mount Everest. And I just saw these images come across the media of a literal traffic jam of people in the death zone, and I just cringed when I saw that. And, of course, I've never been on Everest or that high, but you have been up there. What's your opinions about that recent tragedy?
Skip Horner: Well, it was, the word I think of when I see that is anarchy. No one's in charge up there because everybody wants the summit; everybody's under their own program. They may be in line with other people who they’ve never seen before. They can't even speak the same language. And nobody wants to turn back because that means other people will summit and they didn’t.
When I saw that picture, which everybody has seen now, I just cringed. I remember being at that place on Everest right below the Hillary Step. And there was one other group ahead of us when we were summiting. There were three people up above us, and we had to wait a couple minutes for them to clear off the stop before we could go on. But even that few minutes we had to wait, although it was thrilling because we got to watch, well, it was Rob Hall who ultimately died on Everest a couple of years later – but it was fun to watch them go up to get an idea of what we were about to do. And then we went up and did it and summited and hung out for an hour, climbed back down unimpeded.
The thought of having all those people up there. I don't know how any of them survived because there had to be a number of people running out of oxygen up there. You're standing there waiting for hours and hours breathing oxygen, ultimately your bottle is going to run out. And then, unless you have more bottles, which are heavy and cumbersome and probably not so available, you will simply die of hypoxia.
And I'm quite sure the people who did die up there probably just simply ran out of oxygen. And once your body has become accustomed to breathing even that little bit of oxygen, to take that away, your brain just shuts down and you go into a coma and you will die unless someone gives you more oxygen or gets you down off the mountain fairly quickly.
It looked terrifying to me to be up there in that group that looked like that can't be much fun. I have to say that when I climbed it, it was actually fun because we were actually climbing Mount Everest. It was so exciting. It was this big life goal of mine. And with the people I was with, it was so exciting and fun. That didn’t look fun up there standing in line with all these other people. Oh, my God, it's like waiting in line at the DMV. You hate being there; you just have to wait in line to wait your turn.
It didn’t look like fun. It didn’t look like something that should be happening. And it takes so much of the magic away from Mount Everest which, in spite of all the attention that it gets and all the summits that it's had now, it remains the highest point on earth. And it's still a magical place up there in spite of all the people. But with all those people up there, much of the magic, I think, has been taken out of it.
Chris Martenson: Well, I can only imagine, yes, being at the DMV is frustrating, but if I was up there I would have been absolutely livid and screaming at people hurry up and what are you waiting for because you can't linger there too long.
But you got to the point of it, which I think is really difficult, that anarchy. Listen, you’ve brought your clients there, it's a really great expense and effort, it's their life's goal. It really can't be easy to walk away from that. I'm wondering, what would you have done if you'd - well, I assume you don’t just walk up and find a bunch of people all jammed up there. You know how many people are at the final camp. You know how many people are leaving that morning. If you had been there and seen that, what do you think you would have done?
Skip Horner: If I had been there in those situations, knowing all these people were going up, the only option – well, there are two options. One would be to say to abandon the climb, saying we're not doing this. This is not why we're here. That would be an unpopular decision, I'm sure. The only other option would be to leave before the others. We left at midnight and climbed through the night. We summitted around noon, and we got back to camp at 4:00 in the afternoon. We had perfect timing all the way through.
With all those people, I understood some people were leaving at 8:00 in the evening the night before and then climbing all night long and still getting stuck in that line. I suppose the only option would be to leave in the afternoon the day before and thereby perhaps summiting at sunrise. That's tough because it's cold. It's cold up there. It's cold in the middle of the day. It's really cold at night, especially on the summit with the wind blowing and all the exposure and if it were just getting to be dawn. Tough situation.
It's a hard call to say what you would have done, but the only choice would have been to try to get ahead of everything else. But then, everybody else if trying to get ahead of everybody else too. So what do you do? That where you end up in a whole line of 100 people waiting their turn to summit.
Chris Martenson: Now, I'm wondering about the bottleneck, the Hillary Steps which you mentioned. Is that a two way street or like if you got up there and you summitted earlier, do people have to move aside so you can come back down so they can go past you? How does that work?
Skip Horner: Well, it's changed now. The Hillary Step traditionally was this very difficult, around 80 vertical feet of mixed rock and ice, very difficult to climb. Kudos to Emond Hillary for actually getting up there the first time.
When we went up, we were the first teams to summit that season. There were still old fixed ropes from the previous year. So the first team that went up, Rob Hall's team, climbed on those old fixed ropes, which was a scary thing because they'd been hanging there all winter long from the year before. But then they put in a new rope. So we still had to climb the Hillary Step, the rock and the ice, but a least we had a self-belay on this fixed rope.
When the earthquake happened, the famous earthquake of four years ago, I think it was, unbeknownst to all the climbers, that year the Hillary Step collapsed. All that rock and ice fell off in a big avalanche. And they came the following seasons not knowing what to expect. And they found the Hillary Step was now a steep walkup. It was really no longer real climbing.
In that respect, the climb has become faster and safer because you don’t have this 80 feet of technical climbing. You have just a steep snow slope now which I believe is two ways. Before, it really was mostly a one way. You were either climbing or you were descending. There wasn't room to do both. But now there is room to do both, so it's a two way street.
It makes me wonder what would it be like up there now if the Hillary Step had not collapsed and you truly had to climb this technical section? Number one, most people probably wouldn't summit because there wouldn’t be time with all the other people ahead of them. Number two, the line would be even longer or the wait would be longer and more people would probably be dying up there from hypoxia.
For me this is largely hypothetical because when I climbed it, it was way back then and different situation, different conditions. I don’t think I would go to climb Everest now, given the crowds that are up there, especially not as a guide because my responsibility to my clients and the pressure to get them to the summit, having spent all the money and all the time all the effort would be too great to turn back if other things were equal except for the crowds.
And there's so little communication between the groups, which I think is a big problem. And I do believe in '96 when the big disaster, Into Thin Air Expedition when a number of people died, including Rob and Scott Fischer and some other notable people. Rob and Scott were friends. They knew each other. They were buddies, and they were only about 100 yards away from each other as they were climbing the mountain, as the day was progressing and that storm was developing.
Had they been able to talk to each other, they both could have said, "You know, this isn't safe. We should probably turn back." But they weren't in communication. And you could be five feet away from somebody on Everest and still not be able to talk to them because you got this oxygen mask on your face and you're concentrating on what you're doing.
Had they been able to talk to each other, they probably would have turned back. But because they couldn’t talk to each other, and they were commercial competitors, they were the two main guiding companies on Everest in those days – if one had turned back and the other had summited, it would have been a big commercial success for the one team and disaster for the other. So neither one turned back. They both get going, and ultimately they both died.
Communication is such a key issue. It's critical in the mountains. It's important in our daily lives. There's a lot of misunderstanding in the world which could be alleviated simply by talking about the situation, talking honestly. Honesty is the key thing about the situation. But communication is so important. If we had more of that, then we would alleviate many of the problems. Because the teams up on Everest now are all these different nationalities, different languages being spoken, different guiding companies. There's really very little communication going on, and therefore they all just plow on and some of them don’t make it back.
Chris Martenson: You know, from my time as a rock climber, one of our sayings I think got best encapsulated by something I heard from the military, which was if you have one, you have none. Meaning if you're halfway up a big wall and your drop your one and only piece of gear, you're out. So often we would find ourselves doubling up, and it's always a balance between how much do I take because it's weight and it's heavy and it slows us down and worrying about what would we do if we were in a critical spot and lost a critical thing? Would we get stranded?
And the days I was climbing there was less – I'd never heard of a helicopter rescue or anything like that. I think techniques of rescue have become more advanced. So we had a sense of being more alone. You're kind of out there, you're kind of on your own, you gotta figure it out. And so that really informed me, I think as an adult, where I think about risk management as you really have to think through all the eventualities, you gotta think through how you're going to respond to each of them. And if you don’t have a plan for it, you're totally unprepared. And I'm wondering how that sort of framework of bringing stuff versus leaving stuff, how you balance that?
Skip Horner: This is a really good question, and also a complex multifaceted question. The advent of cellphones now makes it so easy for people to be up on a wall up in Yosemite or anywhere in the mountains and, "Oh, I'm in trouble. I guess I need a rescue." So you dial up local search and rescue and here they come to yank you off the mountain.
Whereas in the days you're talking about and back in the day when I was doing most of my climbing like that, there was no such thing as calling up for a rescue. You had to be prepared. I think in those days we were probably much more prepared for a rescue, for a self-rescue, than people are generally today. And that's not a universal thing, but I think in general this is true where we were really careful with our gear. Like you say, you drop one key piece of gear and you could be screwed. So don’t drop it. Be careful. Pay attention.
And as your opening remarks to this interview, you were saying how it's important to concentrate, to stay in the moment, to not let you mind wander and feel the power that you have of total concentration. So you don’t drop that key piece, so you don’t miss that key move because your thinking oh, I'm going to make this, and then all the sudden your hand slips and down you go because you weren't concentrating on the move.
One of the beautiful lessons we learn from putting ourselves at risk in the mountains and on the rivers is this feeling of total concentration, of being in the moment, and how life slows down. Professional football players, quarterbacks, have talked about this when the defensive linemen are all around you and there's havoc everywhere and they want to tear you apart and you're looking for your receivers downfield; everything slows down and you focus, and you can see the man you're trying to hit with the football. Everything is slow motion because you are completely in control.
You have had that feeling. I've had this feeling frequently in climbing and whitewater rafting where I know exactly what I'm doing. I know exactly where I need to go and I know exactly what I need to get there.
It makes me laugh. One time we were on the Rio Biobio in Chili which, back in those days, we considered to be premier whitewater rafting river in the world. It was class five water, clean, beautiful cold water through the mountains of the Andes in Chile, which is a beautiful country. Some of the most powerful, most technical, most complicated class five rapids anywhere. And we had figured out the routes, and they were very complex and you had to make your moves precisely just to get to the entry before the big water actually hit you.
And I was in the process of making these moves where you're cutting back and forth and spinning around and making these cuts. And right in the middle of all that, this big horsefly landed on my shoulder and began to bite me. And I remember how I had just taken a stroke with my left oar and just as I finished the stroke I reached over and slapped at the horsefly and came back and grabbed my oar before it spun away. And I was able to laugh at that scene because I was so in concentration, so in control of what I was doing, that I was able to almost in the speed of light swat that horsefly and not lose my concentration and go down and make a successful run.
It's a good test. You're concentrating on what's going on, but all of a sudden an unexpected thing happens. If you're able to deal with that unexpected thing and still maintain your concentration and still make a success of whatever it is you're about to do, then you know you're in control. That was a good feeling.
Chris Martenson: I love that feeling. I've had that. I remember two years ago I was skiing really hard and fast on a standard ski mountain, and in a little patch of shadow there was a clump of ice I didn’t quite see – it was a congealed snow ice thing – and it crossed my ski tips on my all of a sudden. And in all of my prior life this would have been instant wipeout. And somehow I was just so in control and I uncrossed my tips, and I somehow jumped a tiny bit, and I worked it all out again and got back going again. It didn’t phase me at all.
And then when I got to the bottom I was like that should have been a yard sale. That should have been absolute all done. And somehow I'd worked it all out and so that's all – you know, it's a lot of skill, a lot of preparation, but also I was in the zone at that point. Nothing was going to take me out right then, and it didn't. Other times, that would have been a bad one. So it's just fun to have those experiences.
Skip Horner: It's fun but it's also important because that's how you test yourself to know that you have the proper preparation for the situation. Your little story brings up another point that I think is important in the outdoors and in life and that's balance. For you to be able to uncross your ski at high speed, moving down the slope, hitting an icy patch like that, meant that you were in complete balance. You had your weight on both skis but not overly on one or the other. If you had your balance off, then you certainly would have fallen, but because your balance was proper, you were able to lift the one ski off the other and continue on.
I know that feeling, too. I've crossed my tips a few times and of course, I've fallen a few times too. But a few times, also, I've done just what you did where, "Wow, I pulled that off." I was able to maintain my balance, uncross my skis and keep on going without crashing.
Balance in life is so critical. In my guiding experience, I have to balance the goal, the drive for the summit with the importance of the safety, balancing things out. Sometimes, we get short of the summit and we have to turn back. But we get back, maybe by the skin our teeth because of whatever, snow conditions or weather or people's fitness.
Those climbs are successful because we properly assessed the balance of all the factors, and we made it safely back down having pushed ourselves to the limit without overbalancing and either pushing too far for the summit and then getting in trouble on the way down or backing off too soon thinking we could have gone further but we chickened out. Balance is so important that only comes with experience and proper anticipation, preparation.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, that balance, and also knowing the limits and knowing when you're tired. As I trained my kids in skiing, there would always be that dividing line; it's 4:00, it's getting dark, there's maybe one more run, should I do it? And I would just coach them and say, "You know, it's that last run that you're squeezing in when you're tired, that's when you're most likely to get hurt."
And sometimes the better part of valor is knowing when to back off and just sort of teaching them. You want people to find their limits and you don’t want to have those limits be really expensive to discover, like you were talking earlier. If somebody's in rock climbing and they push themselves a little hard they get into a bad spot and you fall, that's a life changing experience for a lot of people if not life ending. So that's that balance of knowing where's my edge? How do I push my edge, but I don’t want to go over too big of an edge here?
Skip Horner: But don’t go over the edge. One thing I keep telling myself and my kids when I was teaching them to ski was never take your last run, you know, which is kind of an ironic thing to say. But just at the point, as you were saying, "Oh, I'm really, really tired but I really want to do one more run." These days I say, nope, that's when I quit. My last run is the one I don’t take because that's the one you get hurt. That's when you're tired. You’ve lost your concentration. The end of the day, you’ve had a great day, pack it in and be healthy for the next day.
Chris Martenson: I said the same thing to my kids. And fortunately, we've all had healthy, wonderful ski experiences.
So, Skip, I need to turn now to the idea of – I have to ask. I want to know what stands out for you as perhaps your most difficult trip, either conditions exceeded expectations or maybe planning was insufficient or, like you mentioned, sometimes stuff happens. What's that story?
Skip Horner: I've been guiding for 48 years. I have a lot of stories. But I don’t really have one that stands out.
Chris Martenson: Adam was telling me a good one here. There was rafting trip. It was in Africa. Maybe there was malaria, maybe crocodiles. I was wondering if you could tell us that story, then.
Skip Horner: Okay. Well, that's a long story. I'll try to tell it as succinctly as a can. We were doing a series of whitewater rafting expeditions in Madagascar, a country which had been closed to tourists for a number of years and now it was open for the first time. And we were in the country, the first real commercial tourism in the country for a while.
In those days, CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, were telling us not to take a particular drug for malaria because of possible side effects but to carry it with you in case you get sick. So none of use were taking this particular pill, prophylactic malarial drug.
We did a series of rivers. The first trip I was with the guy that owned the company; he and I shared a tent. And one particular morning we woke up and the tent was full of mosquitoes that were full of blood, our blood. So we spent
20 minutes smashing all the mosquitoes against the tent wall and all the blood streaks where there. He went home. His wife was a doctor. He came down with malaria. She recognized it, gave him the drug, and he was okay.
I went off and did the next trip which was complex because we had a bunch of guys who didn’t want women on the trip. It was supposed to be a guy's trip, but there was one woman who came at the last minute. They were really unhappy. I was having to balance their desires with her humor about the situation.
The two guides I was working with, one was a Buddhist, a real laid back kind of easy going loosey-goosey guy. The other was this really intense fellow who was really talented, but every day was a test with him because he was always questioning everything and nothing was just quite right. Add to that the weather, which was hot and humid and really oppressive. Add to that the fact that we had a waterfall halfway down and I had arranged a helicopter to come in to bring in a photographer from National Geographic to helicopter portage our boats around the waterfall, all of which took place – the American Ambassador flew in at the same time and I was having to chat him up. We were having a cocktail party on the beach in this remote location in Madagascar with helicopters flying in and out, the Ambassador and journalists and all this going on while I was going down hard with cerebral malaria.
I didn’t realize at the time I was getting sick like that. I just knew I was feeling really bad, and I assumed because it was because of the pressures of the group and the weather. That night, I kind of went into a coma that night. I woke up – well, I didn’t wake up the next morning. They had to wake me up. They knew what was happening. They could see that I was going down hard with malaria.
The helicopter was due back in the next day to pick up this photographer so they could just have the helicopter fly me out if I was still alive. But they had a hard time finding a place for the helicopter to land because of the canyon that we were in. They found an island with the river flowing around heavily on both sides, and they dropped me off with the trip doctor and with supplies. And then they just kept on going downstream and waiting for the helicopter to come in to pick up the photographer, and then they would say go back upstream and pick up these two guys on the island.
Well, the chopper came in two days later, not the next day. The chopper couldn't land where they were because they were still in the canyon. And there I was dying of malaria on this island. The trip doc was giving me my medicine, which ultimately saved my life, but he was also keeping me alive by fighting off the crocodiles that were also living on this island.
It was true. There was a family of crocs. The biggest was probably a 12 or 13 footer, big enough, probably not to swallow me, but at least to swallow one of my legs or one of my arms.
We had learned on African rivers that the best way to protect you from crocodiles was by throwing rocks at them. So the first thing he did when we got to this island was collect all the rocks he could find. We, of course, called them croc rocks. And as the crocs came to shore kind of sniffing around because they could tell that I was sick and I was putting out some kind of pheromone that says dying animal here, crocodiles be aware, come get him, he would bounce the rocks off the heads of these crocodiles until they turned back and went into the river. And then he would run down and collect the rocks again and go back up to where the tent was and wait for the next crocodile onslaught. It was quite the scene.
The first night I was unconscious and the next day I was barely aware of what was going on. I stayed in the tent all day. I was really, really sick. By the second day, I was coming around again. I was young and healthy and strong and taking these pills which was helping me quite a bit. By the third day, when the helicopter finally flew overhead and saw us, I was on the way back again.
You know, you can analyze what went on there and what were the factors that we could have changed to keep this situation from happening? On the positive side, we had the foresight to arrange for this helicopter for the waterfall, which would have been a really horrible portage. We could have done it but it would have been horrible.
Perhaps we should have been taking these malaria pills anyway, even though the CDC said not to just because of the remote situation we were in with no help from outside. We didn’t have satellite phones. We had no way to communicate with the outside world. We were in a total self-rescue situation. So, given that, perhaps we should have all been taking those malarial drugs instead of waiting to get sick and then start taking them. It's hard to put your finger on what exaclty we should have done, and it's very easy after the fact to overanalyze the mistakes that were made.
Fortunately, all's well that ends well. I did survive, as did everybody else, even though there was a mutiny downstream. When I was taken out of the situation, these two other guys, the Buddhist and the crazy guy, were vying for control of the trip. There was no set trip leader once I went down, so there was really no leadership going on. And some of the people were on one side and some of the other and the whole trip fell apart. And some people abandoned ship and walked through the jungle to get to a road. The rest of them went downstream through some horrible rapids. And oh, it was a real disaster. But everybody made it through okay. Everybody was late getting back. Everybody had stories to tell.
I really don’t know what we could have done to change the situation, but I do point out that we all survived. We made good decisions. Once we got out there and the situation was presented to us, what are you going to? What are you going to? Well, what we did was the best thing we could have done because, in fact, we all survived. Had someone died it would have been me. I was the one most likely to die. It would have been a horrible thing and people would have said, "Why didn’t he take those drugs ahead of time?" Fortunately, we can say that just as a hypothetical situation. Yes, we should have, but now we know.
Chris Martenson: What an incredible story. And it leads to this next question where you talk about the facility and being able to read your clients. Very important. I'm wondering on the other side of that, how do develop a team? How do you pick people? And I'm wondering, how do learn to trust someone if you're bringing somebody onto your team to help guide? How do you access and know how they might respond under a variety of situations? Because that decision making you just talked about in the moment, critical stuff. Is there a way you’ve worked out to access people's skills and abilities, not just when you're meeting them across the desk or in a plate situation, but when the chips are down? How do you go about building that team?
Skip Horner: That's a good question, and there's two aspects to that. One is the team of fellow guides who we're working with. Especially on rafting trips where there are several other boats, each with a guide. That's somewhat easier to do because we've all practiced on easier rivers. Pretty much on these big river trips around the world that we did, everybody had done many, many Grand Canyon trips. That's sort of the training ground for any serious whitewater rafter.
We had all been down the Grand Canyon many times through all sorts of different situations and water levels, so we knew that guides that we worked with knew what they were doing on the water. They could handle the oars. The could handle the boat. They could rig their boat so that if the boat turned over they're not going to lose their gear; all these very basic aspects of whitewater rafting were no longer an issue for these big explorations that we were doing. The guides were solid. They were dependable.
The clients we would take, not so much. Some of them we knew from previous trips, and we knew they were dependable, and we could count on them. But others were just simply people who had the gumption to go off and try to do an expedition like this. We would train them up about how to behave themselves on a raft in a whitewater situation. Passengers on the boat are very important. They throw their weight around; they stay in the proper position; they help keep the boat upright when it goes up on its side. If they end up in the water, they have to have the wherewithal to get themselves either back to the boat or back to shore.
This is a problematic thing. And we train them, of course. We tell them what they need to do, and we practice some of the moves before we actually need them. But there's a lot of unknown involved in that, and that's part of the beauty and joy of these whitewater rafting expeditions.
And same with climbing expeditions, where you go off with climbers who have some experience, but maybe not the experience we're about to have because at some point, you're always pushing yourself into new areas of challenge. So, it's the guide's job to read the clients, to see what they're capable of, to watch them in action, to talk to them, to see their mental state. If they're quiet and dependable and thoughtful and paying attention, or if they're just head in the clouds not really paying attention, looking at the birds or looking at the sky and not really paying attention to what's happening, then you have to make the call about how far you feel comfortable in taking them.
I have to say that I guess I've gotten pretty good at that because in all these years of my guiding in the mountains and in the rivers, but especially on the mountains, I've never had a client hurt so bad that he couldn’t walk out under his own power. I've never lost anybody. I've never had to evacuate somebody with a broken leg or horrible situation. I've had people hurt. I've been hurt myself a couple of times. But never so bad that we could just ultimately get up and move ourselves and self-rescue.
Self-rescue is what you always strive for, and that's what I always keep in mind. Whatever situation we're in, guiding mountains, especially. On rivers you're sort of committed. Once you put your boat in the water you have to go downstream because there's no way out except downstream. On a mountain you can always back off and go back to where you came from.
I've backed off some climbs because I didn’t feel confident that the clients were up to what we were about to do for various reasons; whether the conditions were bad or their physical condition didn’t allow them to push much further. It's a guide's job to be able to analyze every situation, every factor at every step of the way. And this is so critical.
And you can expand this into most people’s normal lives, where you really should be analyzing every aspect of our lives as we go to make sure that we're on the right track. We're one the track that we ant to be on. It's so important in the mountains to be able to read the weather, read the snow or rock conditions, read your clients' abilities, be aware of the equipment we have that might be needed at any given situation that might happen.
My mind is always thinking what could go wrong? What could go wrong here? What could go wrong? What's not good here? As long as I'm thinking that way, I'm able to anticipate any problem that might happen. Well, I should say almost any problem. There's never – it's never for sure. But at least I'm able to feel confident about what we're about to do.
I flashing at one example of where this all went wrong was a client in Nepal, a 21,000 peak I was guiding at the Khumbu area, not too far from Everest, but off one of the side valleys. It gets very little traffic. And I had two clients and a couple of Sherpas and a bunch of porters. And we finally got our camp set up at about 19,000 feet on this pass after much effort.
We had had some weather blow in a few days early where it snowed quite a bit, so we gave it a couple of days to settle and then we moved up, and on the fourth day after the storm we moved up to our high camp. The day before, that afternoon, the two Sherpas and I went up and fixed a rope up to about the 20,000 foot level and then went back down. Everything was fine.
The next morning we got up early. One of the Sherpas went off ahead to look at the peak beyond where we finished the fixed rope. I took my two clients and the other Sherpa, who was at the bottom of the rope, slowly up the mountain to get to the top. And it was first thing in the morning; we left just before dawn. And I was up at the 20,000 foot point where the fixed rope ended. Took my life axe off my wrist and stuck it in the snow and waited for my clients to catch up to me.
Just then, I looked up and the entire mountain was falling down on top of me. The Sherpa who had gone on ahead ticked off an avalanche from this snow I figured, we all figured, should have been stabilized by now, but it wasn't. He kicked off this avalanche which cleaned the rest of us off the mountain. I rode this avalanche 1,000 feet down the mountain. I was deep inside the avalanche the whole time, at least six feet down. I could look up and see where the surface was, and there was no way I was getting up to it. I was deep inside this avalanche.
And just as a side note, we were talking before about how time slows down in certain situations. This avalanche took me 1,000 feet down the mountain; it probably took me 30 seconds to cover that ground. But in my mind, it was much longer than that because I had time to think about my wife. I thought about my dad, how sad he would be if died right now. I knew I was about to die. I kind of felt like this is it. This is how you die. I thought about all the things I still wanted to do in life. I had time to admire the beauty of some of these blocks of snow that were down inside the avalanche with me. I was able to see the beauty of the deep blue color that the snow was down were I was. All the while fighting like crazy to get my head up above the snow.
Ultimately, we came to a stop. When I say we, I mean the avalanche and me. At this point, we were a team. We came to a stop and I was six feet down. And for a moment I thought this is it. But then all of a sudden there was another surge as more snow from this avalanche came plowing in to where we had stopped and pushed up over this little rise and down another 100 feet or so down the mountain.
And just that push over the rise and down again flipped me over, lifted me up, and we came to a lurching halt. And I was spread eagle on my back, arms and legs pinned behind me into the snow and I was looking up at the sun. I was on the surface. My right leg and my left arm were completely pinned in behind me in the snow, and it took me a couple of minutes to dig myself out.
And then I sat up and I was alive. That had taken about 30 seconds. And even my description just now probably took three minutes, three or four times as long as the actual avalanche. Here was one situation where I felt in complete control. We had a solid fixed rope. I had two strong Sherpas. I had two good clients. Everything was fine. The day was clear and calm, and then all of the sudden this happens.
So, you really never know. You take your chances. You go into the mountains and you can anticipate all you want or prepare all you want, and still the unknown might get you. And you know what? That's the beauty of it all. That's the beauty because that's adventure. You don’t know what's going to happen. If you're sure of the outcome, it's not really an adventure.
Chris Martenson: It's not an adventure if there isn’t a little danger involved. So, how were your clients in that? They were below you. How did they fair?
Skip Horner: Interesting. The one who was right below me ended up riding the avalanche similar to my ride, although he ended up partially buried. As I sat up and realized, "Wow, I'm alive," and I looked up the hill and I saw people running around up the hill. But I was so exhausted from this fight that I couldn’t go back up the hill to help anybody. But I looked over 30 feet away and I could just see some of the gold colored parka because I knew – his name was George – George was wearing a very bright gold parka. And I could see some of the gold sticking out of the snow.
So, I tried to get up and walk over to him, but I could even walk I was so exhausted, I was just spent. So, I crawled across this avalanche debris over the where George's parka was and I figured out where his face must be. And with my exhausted arm, kind of wiped the snow off his face and I could see that he was breathing and he was alive. Nothing more I could do. He was alive. He had other problems later on, psychological problems. But he was alive and he stayed alive.
The other client, who was lower on the rope, ended up riding the avalanche facing downhill, buried up to his waist, kind of back paddling with his arms to maintain his balance. And when the slide came to a stop he was completed cemented in from his waist down. His legs, he said, were pretty much straight down below him, completely encased in cemented snow. He could not get out of that on his own. But he was laughing about it because there he was, half of his body was up above the surface and the other half was totally cemented in, buried.
The Sherpa, who was at the bottom of the rope, who saw it coming and had time to run off to the side and miss the avalanche, he went over and dug this guy out, took him several minutes to dig him out, but he was okay.
So everybody survived. Once again, my charmed luck, I guess – these tragedies, they could have been real disaster, ended up being a very exciting story which, I guess, is the ultimate goal.
Chris Martenson: A moment you will never forget.
Skip Horner: No, I'll never forget. In fact, I wrote this up just because it was such a powerful experience. and I remembered it so well. I wrote this up and Outside Magazine published an edited version of it. But I look back on what I wrote and go, "God. I'm so glad I survived." That would have been so sad if I had died that day.
Chris Martenson: Yes, it would have. What an astonishing story. I was only near an avalanche once. I was maybe 19. I was on a backcountry ski trip. It was in Durango, Colorado, a lot of snowfall. And I remember hearing it, and it was probably pretty far away. But just hearing it and not knowing where it was going, I was down in the trees. I remember going ten feet this way and twenty feet that way. Just like a rabbit. I could figure out which way to go. I didn’t know what was happening. I totally panicked. And that was a close as I ever got. So I've never actually talked with somebody who rode an avalanche and had something to say about it.
Skip Horner: I know that feeling of running back and forth like a rabbit. It's a funny feeling when you don't know where the danger is coming from; you just know it's out there somewhere.
Chris Martenson: And the brainstem takes over and you go this way then that way. It's astonishing, a funny feeling.
Well, hey, this is our time. Thanks, Skip. Thank you so much for your time today. Really elegant, gripping stories. And what I'm taking from this is this idea that risks are first knowable, they accessible, they're manageable. Stuff can still happen, of course, but that chance favors the prepared in this story. and I think that applies all over life.
And so, I'm wondering what sort of expeditions your leading this year and if you could tell people, if they're interested, if they’ve been moved be the idea that some important life lessons and experiences they may never forget, tell people listening what you’ve got planned this year and how maybe they could even sign up for an expedition with you.
Skip Horner: Good. Yes. I have several trips coming up. As I've gotten older, I've expanded my guiding repertoire where I'm not just doing big, high adventure, but more cultural adventure. My next trip will be a three week road trip across Central Asia. We're driving from Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Kashgar in Western China through Tajikistan, through the Silk Road. It's a Silk Road trip. We have two land cruisers, partially off road, largely on horrible roads through the cultural backwaters of Central Asia. Very interesting trip.
I did part of this once before working with a Tajik friend of mine who is my outfitter and who is my friend from over there. That will be the month of August we'll be there.
In November, we're going to Namibia for a safari is Southwest Africa. In March, I'm going to Columbia to go climbing. That's my next climbing expedition. I've been to Columbia several times before, several times recently. Since the country had descended into anarchy, for a long time where this rebel group was trying to take over the country, and they were being fought and it was a horrible thing and very dangerous for travelers. So basically nobody went, no travelers went there.
That has all changed and now Columbia is a wonderful country that's friendly, it's open, it's safe. And there are mountains there that need to be climbed. And they're beautiful, 17-18,000 foot peaks with glaciers with interesting villages along the way. I was just there in December this last year. I'm going back again next year.
And then it goes on and on. Then we go to the Galapagos where an 82 foot catamaran chartered for sailing around the Galapagos islands. Then more and more. Going to Kilimanjaro. In fact, you made one little mistake in your introduction when you said I had climbed Kilimanjaro 20 times. In fact, I've climbed it 32 times, just to keep it straight here. So I'm going back again next year for number 33.
Chris Martenson: Wow. That's fantastic. And how would people find these adventures? Online?
Skip Horner: Yes, online. skiphorner.com is my website. And sometimes I've been told recently that my website isn’t up and running all the time. They can just call me. 406-369-5367 is my phone number. They can just call and let's talk. Let's talk about adventure and about all the possibilities that are out there in the world.
Chris Martenson: Wow. Fantastic. So to think from your first Boy Scout adventure in the Adirondacks looking for your merit badge, leading a couple of young'uns along the way and going all the way through to where you are today is such a fabulous journey. And I know we just barely touched the surface of that. So thank you so much for your time today, for you elegant storytelling and for hopefully inspiring people to understand that life is out there and it's worth living and touching on. So thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.
Skip Horner: Thank you, Chris. I really enjoyed talking to you.