On Jan. 12, seven Southern students and two alumni returned from an 11-day mountaineering trip in Mexico for the Winter Alpine Mountaineering class. PE, Health and Wellness professor Doug Brown said that their group of 11, which included him and another guide, climbed two mountains on the trip: Pico de Orizabe, the highest peak in Mexico at 18,500 ft., and Iztaccihuatl, the third highest peak at 17,120 ft.
“All 11 of us were able to summit both mountains, which is really unheard of. Most mountaineering teams set out with a large group and maybe only two or three of them summit,” Brown said.
According to Brown, although climbing to the top of the mountain was an important aspect of mountaineering, it was not the main focus for this class.
“Everybody else is trying to help those two or three people summit, but we set out to try to be a team and work together. That was our most important goal, and that actually empowered us to all summit,” Brown said. “Our main reason for going mountaineering is to use it to help teach leadership. It’s really about accepting God’s call to go into the wilderness, doing something hard and learning from that hard experience on how to walk with Him better. [It’s also learning] how to treat people better and how to lead better.”
According to Brown, everyone on the trip got to experience being “leader of the day” (LOD). Responsibilities included guiding the group, taking care of logistics, managing time and working with the guides to make sure everything and everyone was taken care of. Each leader also had a co-leader to help manage the responsibilities.
“The emphasis on leadership turned out to be an invaluable benefit of [the trip],” said senior biology major Ally Lang. “I was the LOD on the very first day, which pushed me right out of my comfort zone from the start! I felt insecure taking charge of a group of peers in a context so unfamiliar to me—one in which my skills and experience seemed to be greatly lacking compared to those of others… That’s where my first lesson came in. I learned that being a leader often means taking charge in situations where you feel less than equipped, but you can still be effective by influencing the culture of the group in the way that you lead. Like most other skills, leadership is like a muscle that can be strengthened over time with practice. This trip also taught me that leadership doesn’t always mean pushing hard at the front and showing people what you’re capable of — it’s also about being aware of people’s needs and struggles and coming alongside them to help them through it.”
Brown said everyone in the group embraced the “OSV Culture” he invited them to create. “OSV” stands for “oriented, safe and valued.” Everyone made sure that each individual knew about their plans, felt safe to admit when they were struggling and knew that their opinions, ideas and thoughts mattered.
“I think the OSV culture was a major component in our 100% summit rate for both mountains,” said senior chemistry major Mason Clark. “Everyone on the team felt like they played a role and were genuinely in the concern of the other team members. As our bond grew stronger, we became more and more comfortable with admitting when we didn’t feel safe, or didn’t think we had the energy to make it. This admissions led to others having the desire to help out those who had spoken up.”
“When people asked me why I climbed mountains, I used to not know how to answer them because I just enjoy the challenge,” Brown said. “But now that I’ve seen what it does to people who are presented with that challenge to learn to work together, I think it’s just a wonderful tool that we have to teach how to lead.”
The next Winter Alpine Mountaineering class will be taught in the 2021 fall semester. According to Brown, this class alternates every year with the Backcountry Skiing class, which will be offered in the 2020 fall semester.
“[Mountaineering] teaches a lot about humility, which I think is at the core of leadership and working together as a team,” Brown said. “I think humility is something that comes out of our time in the wilderness. We meet things that are way beyond us, way bigger than us, and God shows us through His power and His strength that we can accomplish great things, especially when we surround ourselves with beautiful people who take care of us.”