Joe Wolfe, Yelm, Washington – Mountaineering Explained

Joseph F. Wolfe is a financial services professional and government manager with over 20 years of experience in helping entities manage their financial obligations. Currently, Joe Wolfe serves as the Grant Manager for Thurston County, Washington. Prior to that, Joe was an award-winning finance director for the City of Yelm, Washington. When he is not analyzing budgets or spearheading new programs, Joe can be found doing what he loves most: exploring the world’s mountains. Joe lives and works in the greater Seattle area, home to some of the United States’ greatest mountaineering opportunities. As a leader and as a mountaineer, Joe has overcome numerous challenges with dedication, hard work, and his ability to make sense of complex factors. 

What is Mountaineering?

Mountaineering is a multi-faceted discipline that involves ascending mountains. Mountaineers must possess a wide range of skills, including traditional roped climbing and traversing, hiking, skiing, and self-sufficiency. Sometimes referred to as mountain climbing or alpinism, mountaineers face significant obstacles as they conquer peaks around the world. These obstacles can include dangerous weather conditions, low oxygen levels at altitude, physical and mental challenges, and the hardships associated with high-level athletic outputs over time. 

Mountaineering’s history spans thousands of years, beginning as a symbolic activity and evolving to encompass a broad set of personal and athletic goals. The sport gained traction in the 1700s and achieved international acceptance by the beginning of the 20th century. Some of the most legendary explorers in human history were adherents of mountaineering, including Sir Edmund Hillary, the first Westerner to reach the peak of Mount Everest in Nepal. 

What Does it Take to be a Mountaineer?

A range of skills is necessary to allow a mountaineer to ascend mountains safely. Most mountaineers get their start in traditional climbing or bouldering activities, and in some cases learn valuable climbing skills in indoor environments. Others, like Joe Wolfe, have access to year-round outdoor training opportunities. Joe got his start in the mountains of the Cascade Range, home to Mount Rainier. Mount Rainier is an integral part of the Seattle-area skyline, and its slopes offer mountaineers the chance to hone their glaciering and ice-climbing skills. Successful mountaineers can often be found skiing, backpacking, hiking, or participating in organized sports both as preparation for the rigors of mountain climbing as well as to hone the skills they will need to survive on exposed mountain routes.  

Mountaineers need to be physically and mentally fit to overcome the challenges they face. Mental fortitude may in fact be more important that overall physical fitness; the ability to withstand long hours of grueling activity requires a strong mind. 

Mountaineers must be able to navigate a complex world of regulatory and financial considerations during their adventures. Ensuring that permits are obtained for some of the world’s tallest peaks is a challenge in and of itself, requiring an attention to detail that is similar to meet the demands of financial analysis and management. 

Joe Wolfe’s Achievements in Mountaineering

As a young man, Joe Wolfe spent considerable time in the Cascade Range near Seattle, Washington. He successfully climbed a number of the Cascades’ peaks, including Mount Rainier, which stands as the tallest mountain in the state. Eventually, as he developed the skills and confidence he would need to expand his personal achievements, he set his sights on international challenges.

Joe was a participant in numerous expeditions to the Andes in South America. Here, he put his ice-climbing and traversing skills to the test, and was successful in reaching the top of some of South America’s most iconic peaks. Next, he joined an expedition to climb volcanic Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world; as such, it represents a life goal for many adventurers. Joe Wolfe is no exception. On his expedition, Joe spent several weeks in the camps and on the slopes of the mountain, eventually reaching the summit with his group. It stands as one of his greatest mountaineering achievements, and today Joe Wolfe can be found planning his next international mountaineering adventure. 

Leadership and Mountaineering

As a student of mountaineering, Joe has come to realize that success in the alpine environment requires precise application of myriad technical skills as well as a profound understanding and acute practice of fundamental skills in leadership such as teamwork and self-awareness. Indeed, it is critical that one not overlook the development of the soft skills; the absence of which is just as likely to break one’s chances of success, or worse, end in tragedy. Fortunately, the mountain environment has a way of shaping these through the lessons and challenges that it bestows upon those who seek its beauty. The leadership skills necessary to leading a rope team up a steep alpine face are equally applicable to personal and professional life. 

Above all else, mountaineers must understand that their endeavor involves a force of nature. The power and destructive ability of the mountain environment can quite literally result in climbers being swallowed up in a glacial crevasse, buried alive in an avalanche, struck down by lightening, or thrown thousands of feet to a rocky grave. An approach on the objective must be tempered in the realization that we are vulnerable, and that we must check our ego at the trail-head. We must be open to listen to what our team has to say by encouraging and – at times – demanding second opinions on gear utilization, tactics, and risk assessments. Every member of the team must recognize 1) that they have a voice and that it is their responsibility to speak up when concerns arise; 2) that they have twice as many ears and agree to listen with purpose and respect the concerns and insights of their team; and 3) that they have an obligation to one another to make decisions collectively, respecting veto powers of every climber on the team. 

Another foundational quality is an ability to develop trust and confidence within a team of climbers. This requires a number of sub-qualities such as confidence, proficiency, transparency, and tact. If a mountaineer must trust their life to a partner’s abilities, the climber must be convinced of his or her competence and vice versa! Because our lives are inextricably woven together on a climb, team members must be intimately familiar with each other’s strengths as well as one another’s weaknesses. If a team member becomes injured or sick, they must not hide that information. If a partner does not have the technical mastery of various rescue methods, the team must be aware of a competence gap. If a team knows certain members excel in rock climbing and others at glacier travel, we must consider when to step in and lead and when to step out of the way and become the follower. Trust is built over time. Mountaineers often find themselves climbing with people that are mere acquaintances. Building that trust and building it quickly is imperative. It requires communication that is deliberate and enduring throughout the planning and execution phases of the climb.

Mountaineering is an endurance sport. An objective could take hours, days, weeks, or even months to reach. Understanding the requirements of a specific objective and developing a physical as well as mental preparedness is critical to a successful summit attempt. Often times, inexperienced mountaineers will blast off from the trail-head with great speed and energy, only to be dragging behind on summit day, or giving up altogether before reaching it due to fatigue. The most successful mountaineers are those who are metered, pacing themselves and their teams in a way that conserves energy to last the duration of a climb vice draining it at the beginning. But the endurance is mental as well as physical. The stresses of life in the alpine environment trigger human factors that tax our abilities to work together and tolerate personalities. The mountains have a way of inflicting social entropy in ways that can pit good friends against each other in a matter of moments. Having a command over our responses to suffering requires patience and empathy. Experience and maturity of both the mind and body will make or break the success of a team on grueling mountain objectives.

Leadership in the mountains requires decisiveness. There are two types of decision making processes in the alpine: information based and recognition primed decisions. Information based decisions are useful when there is plenty of time to assimilate accurate and reliable data in order to make an informed decision. An example of this could be during winter mountaineering when the team is making a go/no-go decision on whether or not to attempt an objective. The team may have access to avalanche reports, meteorological reports, telemetry, and observations by professionals that may dictate a change in route or a change in objective in order to mitigate operational risks inferred from available resources. Recognition primed decision making is more of an experience-based approach that is critical in making snap decisions where time does not permit an analysis of complete data. An example of this could be an experienced mountaineer who is ascending a snowfield or glacier and begins to recognize signs of avalanche danger. He sees wind-loaded slopes, senses the weak layers beneath them, and the hairs on their neck begin to stand up. Hispast experience has primed him ability to recognize the dangers inherent in continuing the route, and he makes the decision to alter her plans in order to avoid the danger. A decision making model that works well in this environment is one in use today by the US military known as the OODA loop. Colonel John Boyd espoused this concept of how we as humans Observe the natural world around us, Orient around the information gained from those observations, critically thinking about and synthesizing the data they are taking in through various methods of perception. After that information has been processed, an individual then Decides on the best action to navigate their circumstances based on his or her desired outcomes, then takes Action on that decision (OODA – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). These actions have now altered the circumstances, resulting in new observations to be made and the loop is repeated. The goal of the mountaineer should be keep their OODA loop cycle short, in order to rapidly manage and mitigate the risks that are in constant flux in the mountain environment. This approach to risk management and decision making applies in the personal and professional realm as well. While these decisions may not carry the same immediate risk, the ability to utilize the good decision making learned through leadership in the mountains definitely leads to better personal and processional outcomes. 

When you’re roped in on the side of a mountain and you suddenly face some unattended obstacle (or a rescue), it takes clarity of mind to work through solving problems when weather, fatigue, ambition, and fear are all gnawing at you. Often, human factors cause the simplest tasks to become extremely difficult. Being able to isolate your subjective discomforts and synthesize information to understand the bigger picture is critical to navigating unforeseen obstacles. This is especially true with technical climbing, which requires a keen understanding of the physical and mechanical properties of our gear and equipment, the interoperability and interdependence of that equipment within various systems, how to manipulate those systems, and an appreciation for the intended and unintended consequences of doing so. When unforeseen challenges arise in the alpine, being mentally limber and tactically proficient is essential to successfully overcoming the obstacle or retreating from an objective when problems arise for which the team is unprepared. We must understand the problem, analyze the abilities and constraints of our team and equipment, consider what options are available, and develop a viable course of action to take.