The Hardest Part Was Coming Back: Prof. Brian Glenn ’91 on Scaling Mount Denali
Professor Brian J. Glenn ’91, Visiting Assistant Professor of Government, travelled to Alaska and climbed Mount Denali—formerly known as Mount McKinley—which is the highest mountain peak in North America. The expedition lasted from May 22 to June 10, 2009. Glenn traveled in a group of 12 hikers with a hired guide. Although the journey was almost three years ago, Glenn still carries his memories and lessons with him. He sat down with The Argus to discuss his experience on the mountain and what he took away from it.
The Argus: What made you want to do it?
Brian Glenn: I love being outside. I absolutely love being outside. I love teaching, I love writing, but I just find being outside is good for the soul. In terms of climbing, I started off hiking with some friends who wanted to lose weight, and I fell in love with the mountains. And what I loved about Denali was being away from all these day-to-day things that eat up our lives—cell phones, email, Facebook, sports scores—all those things fall behind. It’s just you, your friends, and this beautiful mountain.
A: What was your training regimen?
BG: Well, I was living in Cambridge, Mass. at the time. And I run every day, so I would go to Harvard Stadium, and I would run up and down the steps over and over and over. And then every weekend, I was up in New Hampshire hiking tall mountains with extra weight in my backpack. You want to go in the best physical condition you can possibly be in, because people do die [on this mountain]. Four people died while I was there, from other climbing camps, one of whom had a heart attack at 17,000 feet.
A: Have you participated in other climbs before this one?
BG: Absolutely. I went up Mount Rainier [in Seattle, Wash.]. And I went up Mount Kilimanjaro [in Tanzania]. But I’m also a marathon runner, so [laughs] I think that the conditioning for me was just sort of a natural extension of the things I like to do. I like to push myself in all ways, I enjoy training—I just think it’s fun to create challenges.
A: What were some of the most memorable moments of the climb?
BG: For me it was less about reaching the summit—you spend an awful lot of time on a mountain not climbing. So for me, it was more about having the time to be out in the wild and to think about the things that matter. To think about friends. To think about family.
And socializing. A lot of that time not climbing is spent socializing, so I met people from all over the world—Europe, Asia—and after dinner I made myself a rule that I would go out and find another climbing partner, introduce myself, and talk with them, which was a lot of fun. My tent-mate actually discovered that there was a Polish climbing crew from the same hometown as his Polish wife. So we’d sneak over there sometimes and they’d give us vodka.
A: Were there any times when you feared for your safety?
BG: We fell. My team actually fell, on a very steep slope, when we got caught in the fog. It’s pretty rare for a team to have a fall but, just like that, boom. And we had to catch ourselves with our ice axes. But climbing a tall mountain is not about dealing with the danger.
A: What is it about?
BG: It’s about how we deal with the lack of amenities. You don’t have a lot of privacy or personal space. And the only things that you have are things that you brought. A lot of people have difficulty with that. They miss their privacy, or they just miss having that physical space. Me—that never bothered me. I kind of like living that monastic life.
And it’s also about building relationships. One of the ways we build relationships is by building walls. One of the things you do when you set up camp is you cut ice blocks, a yard long and a foot and a half deep. And you build walls around your tent site. This does two things: it builds a community inside because collectively you are building these walls; it’s a chance to be a team. What it also does is separate you from the other climbing teams. And I think because there were walls, I had to go out and visit people. Walls become a chance to go somewhere else and visit other people.
But building relationships is important because you have to find a way to negotiate the space for everyone to be happy, each in their own way. To share a tent with people who are strangers, to cook with them. You have to understand that people have needs that you have to accommodate. For example, we had one woman in our 12-person crew, and we always had to be cognizant of that in terms of privacy, like her having her own latrine at one point. Or my tent-mate—he could sleep 14 hours a day. He’d have breakfast and then he’d just conk out. Me, I can’t do that, so I would sit in the dining fly and read so he could sleep in the tent.
A: You mentioned that you did not struggle with the lack of amenities and personal space. What was the biggest challenge you personally faced?
BG: The biggest challenge I faced was while we were moving—being tied to three other people, because you’re on a rope. You don’t want to fall into a crevasse. And we don’t really think about this, but when you’re walking next to someone and you’re having a conversation, you sort of mutually accommodate. One person walks a little slower, the other a little faster, and you just sort of find a pace and you go. But when you’re walking roped, the person in the lead has to follow the path and has to set a pace that the other three people tied to him or her can maintain. When you go down a hill, naturally you start walking faster. But you’re tied to a person behind you who is still walking uphill, who then has to also start walking faster. And I had a lot of challenges with that. But the hardest part, for me, was coming back.
A: What did you take away from this experience in terms of personal gain?
BG: Two things. I think for me, it was more important to go out and attempt to climb the mountain than to actually succeed. I think that we often get so goal-oriented that we forget how much fun it is just getting there in the first place.
And the second thing for me was that it allowed me to be detached from “life” for close to a month. And that gave me an opportunity to think about what was really important and what wasn’t. It opened my eyes to the fact that we make things important that really aren’t. You can’t send a birthday card to someone when you’re on a mountain. So, they know you love them, but they don’t get your card, they don’t get your post on Facebook. So I guess it made me aware of how we socially construct meaning around all these things that maybe aren’t as important as we accept them to be. But it also allowed me to reflect on what kind of events I missed because they really were important, not just because we expect them to be important.
A: Do you have plans for other expeditions?
BG: I have dreams [laughs], though I don’t necessarily have plans at this point. There’s a beautiful mountain next to Denali. When you climb a mountain, you don’t see the mountain you’re climbing—it’s so big, it’s so immensely huge that you can’t see it, can’t see the summit, and can’t see the sides of it. You’re just on it. So what you do instead is you look out. And every mountain has a companion mountain, and ours was Mount Foraker. And I have a dream of going back to climb Mount Foraker, which is big, beautiful, 18,000 feet tall, and dangerous. It’s technically challenging. But at some point in life, you realize, “Hey, I can actually do things I didn’t realize I could do before.” And that’s part of the joy of coming off a big challenge—whether it’s running a marathon or writing a senior thesis or climbing a tall mountain—is that you start thinking, “Holy smokes, how am I ever going to succeed in doing this?” And then you realize you do it by just taking one step at a time.