Notes from the 2016 Mountaineers Leadership Conference

I recently attended a leadership conference sponsored by The Mountaineers organization. The Mountaineers is a community of outdoor enthusiasts that emphasizes education, safety and conservation. Most of the activities of the organization are volunteer-run and they offered this conference at a steep discount to those of us who volunteer to lead outings in the wilderness. I think most of the attendees were current Mountaineers volunteers.

Here is just a brief overview of some of the speaker presentations for the sessions I attended:

Opening keynote address: Mike Gauthier, Chief of Staff – Yosemite National Park

I didn’t take a lot of notes during the days two keynote addresses, but enjoyed their talks nonetheless. Both are very passionate about the outdoors. Gauthier talked about the importance of connecting people with the outdoors in order to protect it, relaying stories of bringing both inner city youth and U.S. Senators to the park. He also had some fun joking about the fact that he was once named the #4 toughest man alive for his experience in mountain rescue. I recall one of the slides in his presentation was his showing the results to #5, Senator John McCain.

Closing keynote address: Kara Stone – REI Seattle Store General Manager

Stone talked a lot about the history of REI and how integrated the coop’s community history was with the Mountaineers. She shared a promotional video highlighting these connections and the importance of mentorship in the outdoor community. This, she also connected to the need to increase access to the outdoors, encouraging us to reach out to a more diverse community of potential outdoor lovers. This caused me to look around the room, and yes, she had a point. Out of nearly 300 people, I only saw one obviously non-white individual in the bunch.

Cliff Mass – Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington

Mass, a local expert on weather and popular blogger, gave a talk on how to be a good consumer of weather information. He went through a lot of resources and offered a few interesting weather tidbits, including:

  • Online sources like are historically more accurate than even the National Weather Service.
  • Television weather tends to be among the least accurate, largely because of the tendency to sensationalize and to not put weather models in context (especially discounting the idea of weather forecasting as an exercise in probabilities).
  • The most dangerous weather in Seattle? Black ice. Especially a problem when the temperature is a few degrees above freezing (temperature measurements are taken 6 feet above ground). Fog also indicates potential for ice.
  • The snow level is typically about 1,000 feet below the freezing level.
  • Lenticular clouds are often a sign of changing patterns in the mountains.
  • Reading a storm… they often follow the following sequence:
    • Cirrus
    • Cirrostratus
    • Altostratus
    • Stratus
    • Nimbostratus

You can find a primer on cloud types here:


  • NOAA Weather radio (can access while in the wilderness with the right equipment):
  •  Find out who has the most historically accurate weather for a given area:
  • University of Washington atmospheric sciences data:
  • Down to the minute weather prediction and visualization:
  • Weather radar app:
  • Northwest Avalanche Center:

Tom Unger – Mountaineers Kayak and Hike Leader

Tom Unger is a fellow Mountaineers trip leader. He shared the methods he uses to set up a group for success. His focus was mainly on pre-trip planning and highlighted the need to set goals, expectations, styles and skills for a trip from the outset. His classification of these elements may have been one of the more interesting aspects of his presentation. Goals relate to the end of your trip and what you will need to have happen to call the trip a success. Expectations are things that are not negotiable. Everyone should agree to them prior to the trip. Style is individual and should be considered negotiable. Skills are a form of expectation and should be precisely spelled out. Regarding goals, Tom also talked about the difference between dependent and independent goals. Dependent goals depend on conditions and other people, while independent goals are more in our control. Tom suggests that as Mountaineers trip leaders, we focus more on independent goals (for example, trying to be a good communicator, teacher, etc).

“Everyone’s goals, expectations and styles are an expression of their plan for happiness.” – Tom Unger, December 2016.

Brendan Madden – National Director of Operations, Outward Bound Canada

Madden talked about the emotional consequences of near-miss experiences. A near-miss is when nobody was (physically) hurt, even though there was a scary event that happened. An example given was an entire raft outing ending with all rafts, including the instructors being overturned and everyone ending up in frigid rapids. While nobody was hurt, this trip leader had trouble returning to the water after the incident. Since nobody was hurt, there was no debriefing afterwards to uncover the psychological trauma, which may have lead to better intervention and recovery. It was interesting to hear about this and made me think of times in my life when I may have hesitated or refrained from something because of similar situations in the past. What I took away from this talk was the need to close the loop after a trip, even if it seems like nothing went wrong (have some sort of debrief after every trip).

John Abel – National Outdoor Leadership School

Abel covered the NOLS 4-7-1 model. The numbers relate to four roles, seven skills and one style. In a nutshell:

4 Leadership roles (can overlap… and sometimes conflict):

Designated Leadership – the traditional role where one person is in charge of a group.
Active Followership – leadership through service.
Peer Leadership – how you act among your peers.
Self Leadership – how you show up.

7 Skills

Judgement & Decision Making
Self Awareness
Vision & Action
Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty
Expedition Behavior

1 Style – it’s different for different people. “The ability to be your best unique self in a leadership role.”

“Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” – John Abel, December 2016

All in all a full and interesting day. Well worth the $25. Did I mention, breakfast, lunch and happy hour were all included?