The best leader I ever met was a guy named Justin Kramer, a dyed-in-the-wool Outward Bound instructor with an endearing case of eczema and a soul-searing passion for the well-appointed acronym. "L.O.V.E., he'd say to our crew of Denali backcountry rangers,"Let Others' Visions Exist. We'd nod, group-hug, and try not to bust out laugh-ing. But beyond his tendency to use up-with-people language, Justin was somebody you immediately trusted with your life. In fact, Justin's only real lapse in leadership was when he accidentally directed me into the clutches of The Guide, the worst leader I've ever had.
The trouble started when Justin discovered our plan to fly into the Alaska Range, ski across the crevasse-wrinkled Ruth Glacier, and try to butcher some turns down Mount Dickey—a big, toothy peak surrounded by gaping icefalls. When I told him what we were scheming, his eyes bulged, his skin flaked, and he said what he always said whenever big-mountain travel came up: Don't go guideless when faced with a probable B.A.F.U. (Big-Ass F- -kup).
Which is why, the day before we left for the glacier, I took his advice and tracked down The Guide. We found him hanging out in Talkeetna just days after he'd finished a project that involved studying gas cans at Denali base camp. This leads me to Leadership Avoidance Rule #1: Never trust anyone who has just spent a month looking at gas cans on Denali. This can only mean he was hoping to meet a few climbers and pontificate his way into an ill-elected leadership position such as the one I appointed him to. Yeah, he'd show us a few tricks. But I should have known by the permanent sweat-halo encircling his KAVU visor that this was a leader with lots of ego and not much character.
In the time it took our pilot to taxi away down the glacier, The Guide had stomped out a camp, detailed the day's itinerary (down to the last oatmeal-flavored cup of tea), and set up a pulley system—without ever consulting anyone's Vision. He taught us to boil water and tie our shoes. He launched breathless diatribes about Why Climbers Climb. ("It's the mountains, man. They're…there.) And he told us, ad nauseum, about the "gaper he'd suffered while hanging out "on the West Butt, dude. Hence, Leadership Avoidance Rule #2: Never trust anyone who hasn't climbed Denali and still refers to the West Buttress route as the West Butt. It's not your butt until you've smoked it, dude.
At first we thought it was strange that The Guide didn't ask us to pipe up or chip in, but we figured it was because he didn't know us. Never mind that we'd told him about all the useful things Justin had taught us—like crevasse rescue, a hundred useful knots, and how to ski "like big, angry eagles on the prowl for unsuspecting voles. Justin had encouraged us to spread our talons and dig ourselves into and out of backcountry trouble. ("Think of it as the GL's, he'd say: "Great Learning Leads to Great Leading.) So when The Guide lectured us for the third time about the importance of washing our hands after taking a poop, we knew something wasn't right. This wasn't the leader we were looking for. But we were stuck with him in all his perma-tanned machismo—30 miles and hundreds of crevasse-crossings from freedom.
I'll admit it: The Guide wasn't a total bozo. He did a stellar job guiding us along the obvious skin track (read: trench) that wound through the Ruth Glacier's crevasse fields. He'd just never heard of Justin's favorite slogan, one that had been drilled into our heads with evangelistic fury all summer: "There's no 'I' in TEAM. Had The Guide known he'd been commissioned by a bunch of self-righteous skiers high on good group dynamics and ready to tackle the first megalomaniac they saw, he never would have taken the job.
By the time we were halfway up Mount Dickey, we'd had all the guiding we could stand. The Guide was above us, shouting orders about how to post-hole through rotten snow. Above him, black storm clouds crowded Dickey'ss summit, and a warm rain began to fall. Despite our begging to turn around, The Guide climbed into the clouds. We could either follow him—or fall to our untimely deaths.
We chose death. And we down-climbed to a safe zone where we would spend the next three days tent-bound, listening to avalanches rip off the mountains around us. Six hours after we reached safety, The Guide stumbled into camp. He'd stranded himself on glare ice with his crampons in his pack. They were in there next to his radio, which was turned off when our pilot tried to call to say, "Get back to the landing zone before it's too late. The Guide was limping. I thought I detected tears.
Like chickens, which peck each other bloody to establish a hierarchy, we couldn't help but make The Guide hurt. We'd missed our chance at Dickey. We missed Justin's group hugs. And most of all, we missed the teamwork that makes any trip worthwhile. Which brings me to Leadership Avoidance Rule #3: If you've got the skills and the group dynamics, never hire that lonely-but-loud guide you can always find lurking about in a mountain town. Those people just don't understand the L.O.V.E.