Click here to watch Jamie Laidlaw’s TEDx presentation at Middlebury College, Vermont, USA - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i562FoUdjX8
. TEDx is a nonprofit speaking series devoted to ideas worth spreading. In this talk, Jamie Laidlaw shares his thoughts on dealing with failure while attempting to ski massive mountains. We recently caught up with Jamie for some Q&A:
Q – How did you get involved with TEDx?
I was home during a few days off from guiding in the Rubies when my mom handed me a hand written letter that she had received. I had to read it a couple of times to make sure I understood it correctly. It was inviting me to speak in three weeks time at a TEDx event at Middlebury College, my alma mater. I have always been a huge fan of TED talks. Some of the ideas presented over the years have been ground shaking for me. I could think of no higher honor than to be asked to give a presentation at a TED event. The day leading up to the event was extremely nerve racking for me. Speaking in front of large audiences of outdoor enthusiasts who are usually a couple of beers deep hasn’t bothered me too much in the past. Speaking to a room full of academics was a completely different story, however. I guess it was fitting as I was way outside my comfort zone and in hindsight wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Q – During your presentation, you mention that elite mountaineers/ski mountaineers are portrayed as superhuman by the media. Why do you think this is the case? Perhaps a lack of context on the editorial side of things?
No, I believe it’s done purposefully. It’s human nature. We feel a need to idolize certain individuals and place them on a pedestal, whether they are an athlete, musician, scholar or entertainer. For whatever reason we elevate people to an almost god-like status for entertainment purposes and then convince ourselves that they posses something unique or special that we don’t. Perhaps they do. And, I agree that we need to celebrate outstanding individuals and amazing accomplishments. But we all have our strengths and weaknesses. It’s what makes us human. It’s what makes us interesting. Personally, I would rather read about a struggle for success that I can identify with than an infallible individual and their conquest. For this reason I have always tried to give an accurate depiction of my expeditions through photography, writing and video dispatches. If I am feeling good or confident I say so. If I am nervous or am barely hanging on during a suffer fest I try to accurately depict that as well. I would prefer people use my personal struggle and learning process as proof that we are all capable of great accomplishments rather than have them marvel at my achievements. I believe our goal as athletes should be to motivate and inspire, not just entertain.
Q – When have you been the furthest from your comfort zone (in a ski mountaineering context)?
I had a horrifying experience during a solo mission on the West Face of Toccllaraju in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru. I was at the crux of the decent, a section of 64 degree snow covered ice spines about a third of the way down the face. In the absolute worst place possible I had a mechanical issue. My ski de-cambered during a jump turn enough that the pins of my binding heel piece slipped above the heel welt of my ancient and heavily modified Scarpa Lasers. I didn’t trust skiing while only being held in by the toe piece. If I lost my ski it would be over. My only option was to somehow rotate my heelpiece, release my heel, and re-click into my binding. I felt like I was holding on by a thread. Every fiber in my body was strained, trying to adhere me to the side of the mountain. I plunged my whippets into the hard, underlying snow, but they provided almost no reassurance. I stomped the best ledge I could and slowly, methodically leaned over, rotated my heel piece and stepped back in. I have never felt a leg burn like that in my life and still had the majority of the face left to ski. I remember being amazed at how calm and level-headed I was. I knew what I had to do, and knew that panic was a sure route to disaster. Later that night, however, alone in my tent, I kept replaying the events in my head. I couldn’t sleep for several nights. Chills would surge through my body, finally realizing how close to death I was. I would start to shake, occasionally dry heaving. I knew there was little I could have done to avoid the predicament, but also realized I was grossly unprepared to deal with a situation such as that. I was extremely lucky. It is a learning experience I have carried with me ever since.
Q – Consider this statement, “We’re all driven towards success, but one of the things that holds us back the most is the fear of failure.” How do you personally deal with the fear of failure?
Sometimes not well! Actually, it’s a great question and perfectly illustrates the paradox that I try and touch on in my talk. I think that in situations that I am more familiar with and have a good understanding of my limitations and abilities, I deal with the fear of failure in a very controlled and analytical manner. I am able to make decisions confidently and not second-guess them too much. Not always, but generally in the outdoors I handle my fears well. Largely because, despite being driven, I don’t place too much emphasis on the outcome, but on the experience instead. Areas where I am not as comfortable, my fear of failure is far more paralyzing and I experience far more anxiety. My progress in these areas is also much slower. For me these are often social situations. For example, putting myself out there and really trying to engage and communicate in foreign cultures is often difficult and requires a ton of energy. I am far more comfortable just sitting back and observing. But, the purpose of travel is to interact and to experience, and my cultural interactions are one of the most rewarding parts of my expeditions.
Q – How do you balance self-preservation with the value of being in stressful situations?
It’s a constant balancing act. My goal is never to tempt fate and hang it out there, or to cheat death. I go on expeditions and venture into the outdoors to gain and learn from experiences. Quite often the experiences which are most powerful and leave the greatest impression are the ones in which I really pushed myself and was furthest from my comfort zone. Accidents can and will happen. I have a saying, however, “The longer you spend in the bull’s-eye the more likely you are to get shot.” Any time an element of risk is involved I am constantly analyzing all of the variables. What is in my control and what is out of my control? What is going my way and what is holding me back? How can I make the situation better and what could make it worse? The decision making process is a scale and I am constantly weighing the risk vs. reward. When all of the variables are pointing to go, I am feeling confident, and the stars and moons have aligned, that is when I really push my abilities. These instances are few and far between, however. If the scales are up in the air or leaning against me, it is time to re-evaluate and quite possibly change my objective. I am too much of a control freak to just roll the dice and leave it to chance. I have seen too many accidents and lost too many close friends to turn a blind eye to the possible consequences. Quite often the decision to continue or to turn around is the greatest struggle faced during an expedition. In the end, I am most proud of the decisions I have made, not the actions I have taken on all of my expeditions and time in the outdoors.
Q – Do you have any desire to return to the Lhotse Couloir?
If given the chance I would have to think about it pretty hard. I have a lot of time, energy, and emotion invested into that mountain. I’ve had two near successful attempts and two close calls. I want to ski the Lhotse Couloir more than any other feature I have seen. I’m just not sure I’m ready for that commitment again.
Q – Given your experience, what would it take to pull off a successful summit and descent of the Lhotse couloir?
Unfortunately, like many 8,000 meter peaks, luck. There are thousands of people out there capable of skiing the Lhotse Couloir. Conditions for skiing on Lhotse are extremely fickle, however. In order to be successful, one has to invest a huge amount of time, energy and resources into the project, hope for skiable conditions and a good weather window, stay healthy, and acclimatize well. Another factor many people don’t consider is the other climbers. Because Lhotse shares much of its route with Everest it is extremely crowded and rescues are one of the quickest ways to derail an expedition. Sooner or later it will be skied, and my hat will go off to whoever does it.
Q – Do you have any other ski mountaineering objectives in mind?
There’s always a half dozen ideas on the back burner. Dreaming up and researching new trips is a great way to kill any free time I have. What I am most excited about is hopefully going with my wife to a rarely visited valley in Nepal and skiing some super aesthetic 6,000 meter peaks together.
Photo Credit @ Jamie Laidlaw