Interview – Ben Gorelick

Introduction by William Ricci

For the Winter 2014 issue, the first of our third year, we have taken a different direction and reached out to other disciplines to talk about the paths through life.

Instead of a visual or written artist, we interviewed one of the founders and directors of a mountain guide training school with locations in Spain, Alaska, and Patagonia – Ben Gorelick.

I first met Ben in 2007 when I visited Alaska for the first time. I signed up for seven-days of kayaking, backpacking, and glacier climbing. Ben was the lead guide and provided direction, guidance, training where needed, a kick in the pants when required, but humor, and friendship.

The interview was conducted through email in December 2013. Editing of the responses was kept to a minimum to ensure that’s Ben’s voice, humor, and passion came through as much in print as in person.

Website for more information: http://www.mountaineeringtrainingschool.com

  1. How did you end up in Patagonia?

In 2005, about three-days after Jaya and I got married, a friend of mine from Ireland sent me a congratulatory email. He also casually mentioned that he saw an ad in his local climbing magazine looking for qualified mountain guides to set up and run an educational mountaineering program in Argentine Patagonia. The job was supposed to begin about a week after we received the ad, so we were sure that the job would already be taken. We called anyway.

About five-minutes later, I received a call back from the director of the program, saying that they didn’t have any guides yet and asking when could we come.

We paused to discuss program goals (they wanted a four-week program to either climb Aconcagua or cross the Patagonian Ice Cap), the level of experience that the students would have (they were experienced with trekking and backpacking in the UK, but didn’t have extensive mountaineering experience), and what the organization had in place to get the program going (no equipment, no money, and no idea how to make this happen).

We agreed to join them.

The next day, we were at REI with four shopping carts full of mountaineering gear, enough to get a group of twelve into the field. We jumped on a plane to Argentina, took a bus to Bariloche, and arrived at the field camp.

We had about three-weeks before the first group was set to arrive, so we immediately set about program and curriculum development. The company didn’t have the budget to climb Aconcagua, so we decided to bring the group to Coyhaique, Chile (where we work now), which was the closest access point to the Patagonian Ice Cap from Bariloche.

We spent about two-weeks scouting entrance and exit locations for the ice cap, working to obtain maps, temporary permits to operate in Chile, transportation, and food. Then we had to go back and spend the last five-days prepping.

When the first group stepped off the bus, we knew we had aimed too high. Many of the volunteers had never pitched a tent before, and none had a backpack larger than fifty liters (which is about half as big as is necessary for a long, remote expedition). But they were also very keen and excited.

The first few expeditions we ran were some of my favorites. We were opening up totally new routes, in areas that had never been explored before. The maps of the area were terrible; there were whole sections of the map that were blank.

However, after six-months, the organization we were working for decided that operations in Argentina and Chile were too expensive and they to pulled out.

At that stage, Jaya and I had already obtained permits, learned the area, and had a stack of equipment.

More importantly, we had had the experience of working with a group of highly motivated students, and we had the experience, for the second time in our lives, of developing a training program from scratch.

So when the other organization decided to leave, it was a no-brainer that we’d start a climbing school in Patagonia.

  1. Are you doing now what you thought you would be doing ten-years ago?

I’m not doing now what I thought I’d be doing yesterday. Seriously. I’ve given up on planning my life. My life is many things, but stick-to-a-plan-able isn’t one of them.

  1. If you were not training mountain guides and leading expeditions, what career would you be in?

Can I say that I have no idea? Is that cheating? God, it seems like so long ago that I branched off on this path, that it’s hard to say what if.

I graduated with Chemical Engineering and Environmental Science degree, but I never really thought I’d end up doing either of those things.

That’s not to say that I was bad at either. I really like engineering for the problem-solving mindset it helped develop in me. I love the way engineering encourages creative thought and rewards tenacity. But I’ve never been cut out for life in a lab.

If guiding were made illegal tomorrow, I’d probably restore old cars. Or train dogs for agility contests. Or teach 3rd graders about dinosaurs. Or just waste my days annoying my wife.

Most likely I’d just become a lawyer so that I could overturn the law that made guiding illegal.

I like having a strong connection with my work and my life, not a clear separation. It doesn’t work for everyone, but I prefer it.

  1. What motivates you professionally?

Easy – sadism. I like making my students suffer.

Life is too easy these days. People rarely have the opportunity to truly challenge themselves on an emotional, mental, and physical level. And I think people are worse because of it. They don’t know what they’re capable of. They’re scared of being uncomfortable or being in pain (again, I mean this mostly emotionally and mentally). They’re scared to take risks.

I like helping my students to develop that side of them, but it takes a bit of suffering to bring it out. At the end of the day, I like being a small part of helping my students bloom and learning how strong they really are and that they can do anything. Very, very few people have the opportunity to work with others on such a meaningful level. I get to do it every day.

A lot of it is just being stubborn and not being satisfied with “good enough”. I guess that I see a lot of gaping holes in things, and I like to work to plug them. I see that most people don’t like their jobs. So I encourage them to quit. And I give them an alternative that doesn’t suck as much.

I see guide companies that give poor or minimal training to their students. So I’ve worked to create a thorough (and therefore, long) training program that equips my students to be self-sufficient in the mountains.

I see people who develop superficial relationships with others. So I bring people into situations where the relationship must necessarily be deep and complicated and nuanced.

  1. What motivates you personally?

My dad. And differently, my mom. And differently again, my wife. And my stuffed bunny rabbit. And me.

My dad’s a stubborn and forceful guy. When I graduated and told him that I was going to make guiding a career, he flipped his lid. Freaked out. Yelled, cursed, and screamed. “Where’s your fucking ambition?!? How can you squander your fucking brains?!? What the fuck is wrong with you?!?” We went through a two-year patch where we didn’t really talk.

So I had to succeed, just to spite him.

He’s now our biggest fan. It’s amazing what a decade will do. (I love you, pop!)

My mom has always understood me a bit more. Neither of my parents were outdoorsy folks, but my mom has always seemed to understand why I connected with the outdoors and she was more encouraging at a younger age. She’s still invaluable, both for advice, support, and the little things (like gathering up gear and mailing boxes out to students who live abroad, cashing checks at the bank, flying up to Alaska for a month to help drive a van and cook when an employee got very sick and I couldn’t find a replacement). You know, little things.

Jaya is pretty much my everything. She’s clever, incredibly hard working, and the strongest person I know. She’s not as outgoing as I am sometimes, so I think I unfairly get a lot of the credit for the school. She is at least as responsible for things as I am.

Like I said, my job tends to be the ideas guy. But she’s the person who makes those dreams into a reality. She holds me accountable.

And finally, my stuffed bunny rabbit, Bunny. I’ve had him since I was four. I’m very, very superstitious about him; he goes pretty much everywhere I go.

When I was on my first camping trip, Bunny and I discussed how much he hates camping, and how much he would rather be in a nice king size bed watching “The Price is Right”.

He reminds me of what life could be like. So I make sure to do the opposite.

  1. How would you define being successful in life or in a career?

After a bit of reflection, I changed my answer here. At first, I said success is in the small things. Having time to enjoy walking the dogs with my wife, write a journal entry about a recent expedition, build a Lego airplane, work on my old car.

But I think it’s different than that. Success is being able to have an idea, and having the time, energy, and resources to carry that idea to fruition. I think this is something that I take for granted because of the way my life is. I take random leaps in different directions all the time. Some work out, and some don’t. But I have the freedom to try, and that’s an amazing thing that I don’t know if everyone has.

  1. Now that years have passed and your company is successful, what do your parents think about the career you chose?

Both my parents and Jaya’s parent have been incredibly supportive of our business. There is no way we would have made it this far without them.

As I mentioned above, my mom does a lot of work for us. She does our banking. She puts together all of our student’s gear orders and mails them off. She has flown to Alaska twice in the last five years to help us out of a pickle (working as basecamp cook for a month and, well, pretty much doing everything to keep me going the other time). She also “gets it”, and is very supportive in that way.

My dad was a bit different. He’s always wanted me to really challenge myself, and I love and respect him for that. Easy was never good enough for him. At first, it wasn’t smooth, but he’s now incredibly supportive. At the same time, he’s also a very good businessman himself, but comes from a very different perspective (he heads disaster recovery, business continuity, and risk management for a big bank). So we bounce ideas off of him all the time. He helps us re-write things when they need to have that “professional” polish. And he always challenges us to be better.

  1. The tagline for your company is “Welcome to The Hardest Expeditions on Earth”. What differentiates you from competitors?

We are very focused on helping our students to become self-sufficient. We want to teach them enough so they don’t really need us anymore. In light of that, they are expected to be responsible for all the many tasks that go into a successful expedition. We don’t cook for them or carry their gear for them; later in the trip we don’t plan their days for them. We teach them how to do all this for themselves and coach them along the way.

The places we go to in Patagonia and Alaska are remote; we live in tents for most of the six-weeks of a course. Sometimes we weather big storms, sometimes big days of moving. It’s mentally and physically demanding to be out in the backcountry for so long without many of the creature comforts we take for granted. Sometimes there is no respite and we are dealing with nature who doesn’t give a damn if you haven’t slept for twenty-four-hours or if your pack is stupid heavy or that your toes are cold.

  1. Is there a common motivation for students to leave civilization behind for forty-two-days or two-years?  What backgrounds do they typically come from?

Our students are a mixed bunch, they come from all over the world, and their ages range from sixteen to early fifties. However they do all share many common traits: they have a big thirst for adventure; they understand that real life, with its complexity and stresses, eats away at your being; they are looking for something big and exciting to throw themselves at.

The students in our mountain guide training program so often have the same story that it’s uncanny. They often feel like misfits in their own lives, and are looking for a way to live their lives better and to be involved with something that really gets their blood pumping. And I don’t mean that just as an adrenaline thing, but something that engages them on all levels.

Jaya and I have the same story with our own variation, so we really understand where they are coming from. Many have done poorly in the traditional system of schooling where their talents are not valued. They are smart motivated people who find a real belonging at MTS with likeminded people who admire their natural talents.

  1. How do you manage students who breakdown in the middle of a program, doubting they can keep going?

Like most ‘people problems’ in life, they can be solved by talking to the students and helping them through it. The team is really important at a time like this to step in and help whoever is having a low time. We will reorganize gear distribution to take some of the load off people, change our travel plans; do what we can to help them through. Our priority is always the health and well-being of our students (and instructors). That will always get top billing, far more than bagging a summit or making the traverse.

We prime the students early on that they will have a time when they feel this way, when they feel like they can’t go on and they just hate life, so at least they know it’s coming. The intensity of mountaineering cuts both ways: it can be indescribably amazing and crushingly hard. That’s the nature of it, and that’s also the real attraction.

  1. How important is risk assessment and management?

We teach our trainee guides that risk management is about 80% of their job. It runs through everything we do. The important thing about risk management is that it’s a multi-level process. It’s easy to get focused on the most obvious features like using a rope to climb a steep slope. But before we even get to that point there is a ton of risk management that has already happened: how we select students for the trips; the gear that we use; the lessons we do before we climb; the skills we have drilled into the students; and the attitude towards risk that we have instilled in them.

  1. During the long weeks and months in the field, does self-awareness play an important role?

It sure does. On a six-week trip most of us will go through a range of emotions and states of being from euphoria to deep boredom and moments of sharp fear. Being aware of how you react to these extremes is critical to living well for extended periods in the backcountry. We encourage the students to come up with strategies to manage themselves through these extremes. We also work on being aware of each other and how we react differently. For example, some folks when they get scared get loud and obnoxious, some get cranky and some clam up completely. Knowing why someone is acting a certain way is an invaluable skill in the group.

  1. How do you gauge a student’s desire and what they think their abilities are, versus what you think they are?

Being a guide means you have to be very observant and perceptive. From the moment we pick the students up we are watching them to see how they react and how they function. The preparation we do at Base camp before we leave on a trip is a time to gauge each student’s willingness to work.

With technical skills the most important thing is to not make assumptions. We start from the beginning and put everyone through the same drills so we can assess their level of competence.

We have daily briefing and debriefing to keep in touch with the students so we can deal with any issues as they come up rather than allowing things to get out of hand.

  1. Beyond technical skills, what life skills do your programs teach?

In real life, it’s not that often that people really get pushed, certainly not in the total mind and body experience that happens in the mountains. Our students learn a lot about themselves during an expedition. They learn they are far more capable than they think, that they can continue long after they think they want to give up. They learn how they react to fatigue and stress and intensity. We can take no credit for that really, that’s all due to the mountains.

However, we do teach them a range of skills to help them better deal with the vagaries of mountain life. Early on we set goals and expectations for the expedition and we create ground rules for how we deal with each other, so we have a code of conduct while we are out there. We do classes on communication skills, conflict resolution, group dynamics and self-management.

The intensity of life on the expedition often gives rise to some strong interpersonal conflict, so the communication and conflict resolution skills are really important. More trips fall apart from lack of communication than from the group members not being able to climb hard enough.

  1. When students successfully complete a program, where have they gone next?

I’m happy to say that they go all over the place! We keep in touch with most of our previous students and they have gone on to do some very impressive things. Two students won a race to the North Pole, one is currently on an expedition to the South Pole with a war veterans group, and another is preparing to be the first vegan to climb Everest. They have climbed 8000m peaks, first ascents in Kazakhstan, climbed things that I dream of doing.

More importantly, they have grown in unimaginable ways. I love seeing my students two- or three-years after a course. Even if they’re not climbing anymore, they are all “climbers” in attitude, and that’s reflected in who they are and what they’re doing.

Professionally, our graduates are out working all over the world. In amazing places like Thailand, Vietnam, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand to name a few. A number of them now work for us in Patagonia, Alaska and Spain.

We are extremely proud of what our students do, their success in the whole reason that MTS exists.

  1. Personally, what are your goals in the mountains or elsewhere?

I’m not at all motivated to climb any ‘famous peaks’ and I don’t really have a ‘tick list’ that I want to climb.

Two reasons: First, I hate traveling. I spend so much of my life in the mountains already, that my time home, spent hanging out with my wife, my dogs, or visiting my parents, is about as wild as I like. Second, I already live in two places with some of the best climbing in the world, Alaska and Patagonia. Why bother spending thousands of dollars to fly somewhere else, climb within a climbing culture that I don’t believe in, and be away from the part of my life that I don’t get much time with as it is?

That said, I do, absolutely, have some smaller goals. I’ve tried Marcus Baker in Alaska five times and San Valentin in Patagonia four times. I’ll get one of the two this year.

When I go climbing on a personal trip, the mountains are about many things; a summit is only a fraction of that. I prefer to be somewhere remote where the chances of me seeing anyone are minimal.

For my next personal trip, Jaya and I are planning to do a north/south traverse of the southern Ice cap in the coming year. That’s the only big goal I have for the near future.