Dr. Grauer's Column - Staying Together In A Storm
Staying Together In A Storm
Mike Fry was a seasoned Sierra Club guide.
I had heard of him, that he was good, but had never met him. Our group gradually gathered and waited for him in the airline terminal for the flight to Utah and there was no mistaking him. He wore beat-up, high, leather hiking boots with orange socks coming up out of them. He had thick, pilled, navy blue leggings and over them were crinkly old hiking shorts with a lot of pocket flaps. A heavy, all-weather camo army jacket covered his top, and a long Where’s Waldo scarf wrapped around his neck and hung and swayed. He had a Roman nose and coke-bottle granny glasses perched up on it, and a ruddy complexion. His head was capped by a wool cap with sandy blonde hair sticking out in all directions. He said he was just back from the desert, skiing on sand dunes.
Before long, we were disembarking at Salt Lake City airport and heading for the mountains around Brian Head, a southern extension of the great Rockies, population 83. This was a cross country ski trip, and although I would have much preferred downhill skiing in the ranges further to the north, this trip was cheap and I couldn’t afford a lift ticket, anyway. Besides, we were going out of bounds, into the wild; that part appealed to me most, and it still does.
Now we were headed for the top. We got dropped off at some high place that I paid no attention to, since I completely trusted Mike Fry despite appearances or perhaps because of them. It was a snow covered but craggy ridgeline and our job was to go across it and back to the Brian Head ski resort area where we’d be picked up in a few hours.
We set out to a grey, dismal day like that part of the Wasatch mountain range often is. Still, it was a muted, quiet kind of beautiful—we set out above red-rock cliffs, through some thin aspen trees. (I love those trees. They have knots that look like weird eyes that follow you all around, and Navajo white bark.) We had some good vistas for a while as the atmosphere got steelier grey and mistier, and then we sort of dipped into more forestry areas, with more aspens but now towering spruce trees, as we glided along slowly, eventually getting lower into the bristlecone pines and some brush, following the trail. Cross country skiing can be hypnotic and after a while you can go into a peaceful rhythm. The wind was picking up and it became much louder than the shushing of the skis on the trail, which you could no longer hear. Mike looked back and said we ought to be on our way and not stop any more, “just in case,” and it didn’t seem like anyone was paying much attention or changing their pace.
These were not back country skiers, they were tourists, this was a bit of a theme park to them. They slid ahead on their narrow cross-country skis in innocence and no guile, and Mike Fry was not the kind of guide to deny them that or change that nature or disposition.
After a while in this forest, we got a glimpse of Brian Head off in some distance, but now the snow started coming at an angle and the wind was making the snow come at an extreme angle right into our faces, and then we couldn’t see much of anything. Mike said, “Alright everyone, we have to keep moving ahead, a little steadier” he bargained, because most of the people were essentially tourists and everything was just taken for granted. Some were novice skiers. I noticed his voice tone was a bit higher sounding. We were in a bit of trouble, but Mike knew not to frighten anyone. I did not believe anyone even noticed the higher sounding tone in his voice.
By then, I couldn’t actually see much of their faces. Definitely not Mike Fry’s face. At random times, people were pulling things out of their backpacks and each time it held up the group, a bite of candy or an extra scarf, which frustrated me, and I was wondering what Mike was thinking. Mike started looking back more as though it would help. But it wasn’t helping. The next time someone stopped, I moved to the back of the pack as though I could sort of drive people ahead by pressuring them from behind. The reality was a couple of those people could have fallen so far behind that we’d lose sight of them if we let them, and they’d be really stuck. Probably die out here. It had grown very cold, and these guys were pokey. Now we were in a full blizzard. I realized that the question of if we’d be able to get out of this was not really answerable.
This might have been an American thing. Americans are not used to being told what to do. When I’ve traveled with Chinese groups, for instance, no one would think of meandering. If the guide wants single file and uniform motion, it’s single file and uniform motion.
Mike did a masterstroke. Instead of hurrying even more, he stopped. People culled around him and he just said, “Hey guys, I’m sorry to be this way, but we really need to get this moving. This weather is coming in hard and I don’t want anyone to fall behind out of the group.” But I actually thought some of the people didn’t mind him. I knew I was hearing “Holy crap, we need to get moving here,” but other people were hearing, “There’s nothing more I can do, it’s what happens on a hike.” We resumed and the group went faster, but so slightly faster for a little while and then not really faster, and I thought almost none of them realized we were completely at the mercy of this storm. Mike was not about to tell them that we could have been stranded out there in the wild, eclipsed by subzero temperatures and almost total lack of visibility.
I don’t think Americans have a strong sense of being in something together. They want to experience things as individuals and when New Hampshire says, on their license plate, “Live Free or Die,” I think it is because so many of them really have done that. Mike might have gotten a sense of collective action and selflessness out of that group if he’d have whipped them or something, but I’m not sure how else. Sometimes I wonder if Americans (outside of the military) are not efficient at being all in this together, even to save each other’s lives. This sense of collective compliance has not penetrated.
Not so, the Chinese. Chinese people seem to live as groups and expect to comply with group goals. Did you know that just seven years ago, in 2013, the Chinese government rolled out a 12-year plan to move hundreds of millions of rural residents into cities: 250 million people, to be exact. 250 million, equivalent to two thirds of the entire population of the United States, were going to willingly give up their communities, their farms, their independence, and their freedom and move into high rises in cities—why? Because the government told them to. Try that in America.
In order to graduate high school in China, every student takes a two-day standardized test, the Gaokao, and the results of that test for the most part determine where you are assigned to go to college and what your major will be. In history, no one has ever gotten a perfect score on the Gaokao. Airlines have been known to re-route so as not to make too much noise over testing sites.
When the Coronavirus broke out, the Chinese immediately admitted it was an animal disease, identified and accepted it would spread from a sustained human-to-human transmission, and quickly acknowledged the geometric progression and the inevitability of pandemic. Naturally, quickly, all trillion people submitted to bans and restrictions of every and any kind required by their authorities. But all this is only beginning in the United States, and spreading like wildfire without an end in sight. The US President calls it “the Chinese Coronavirus,” but it is no longer a pandemic there. It is now the American Coronavirus.
The idea of how hard to drive your people in a storm is an amazing, nuanced deal. Just for the sake of only three or four skiers who were not particularly fit or clued in, we all could have been killed if nature had made up its mind. Mike Fry clearly was willing to “go down with his ship.” And I have no doubt that, in the US, these deaths would have been accepted as a natural disaster rather than as Americans living free. I’m not saying that’s wrong. But I am saying that Mike Fry might not have made it as a Chinese mountain guide. Those guides pass standardized tests verified by the government, and they go on standardized routes, though no one can standardize the weather. And I’m also saying that if a Chinese guide in his government issue outfit had shown up at the airport, not one among us would have followed him in innocence and no guile, and into a blizzard. Ironically, however foolishly, that is what I loved about it.
Eventually Mike got us out and, so far as I could tell, no one felt much anxiety or fear, maybe besides me. I’ve been in a few heavy weather situations and, actually, I’ve never seen a great captain or guide who scared his people in a storm or threatened their freedom. It’s a wilderness out there. There’s a storm ahead. This is the most interesting leadership dilemma I know.
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