Death seems to be a constant. It lurks in the background of every decision we make while out amongst the wild places on an adventure. I had the good fortune to spend a week wallowing in wicked good snow with the one and only Colin Zacharias. He co-taught, with Rob Coppolillo, a group of adventurous skiers how to manage avalanche conditions in a new Recreation Focused Level 2 Avalanche safety course. I listened closely while working as a photographer. Colin likely has many nicknames, but The Snow Yoda, stuck out as relevant and accurate. To be honest, I had briefly scanned his resume before meeting him but did not grasp the enormity of his accomplishments, position in mountaineering history, and overall bad-assery.
There came a night when most of the crew was tucked away in their beds, tuckered out from touring and sleeping soundly. A small group of us had gathered around the fireplace and the whiskey poured like the snow fell. Colin was holding court. It was a scene I would capture repeatedly as the week progressed. When Colin speaks, everyone listens. This evening around the fireplace the stories spilled out of Colin and my jaw stood agape as I took them in. Colin’s stories were not about him; they were about the many partners and students he had teamed up with for adventures. It just so happens that these partners, Barry Blanchard, Peter Croft, Doug Coombs, are icons of mountaineering history. The adventures they shared, have been written about, whispered about and held in high esteem by many aspiring mountaineers.
Colin eats humble pie for breakfast along with a great cup of coffee out of a super fancy little machine and one cool mug. He has seemingly been doing so for a long time. As with most long-time adventurers, Colin’s eyes hold the shadows of sun, smiles, terror and risk. He is a good decision maker; he has worked as a mountain guide for over 40 years and he is still at it. He is still alive to tell the stories of all those legends. The same cannot be said for those legends.
To call Colin a Mountain Guide and leave it at that is far from telling the whole story. He is the what I consider the whole package. He is what I think most people would aspire to be. He is part educator, part guide, part facilitator, part orator, part realist, part theorist. He knows when to let you fail and when to give the extra bit of encouragement. He knows when to step in and keep you safe and when to question you to allow you to keep yourself safe. He gives honest feedback; it’s never condescending, never personal, and always to the point. He knows steep rock walls, alpine glaciers, and deep powder snow. He knows himself.
Over the course of his life he has amassed more adventure trips than 50 weekend warriors combined could hope for. First ascents, remote mountain ranges, every type of snowpack- he seems to have seen it all. He’s come near death only twice, both times occurring outside of his decision making. Once, due to asthma, he battled a severe bought of pneumonia. The second-time rock fall struck his spinal cord while teaching aspiring rock guides. He went into convulsions and passed out. In between bouts of convulsions he would regain consciousness and instruct the students on how to lower him and not drop him.
All the pictures I took of Colin were taken while he was engaged as a Mountain Guide. I believe I captured the essence of what he is to the people around him. I hope to work with him again so that we can sit down and I can take a proper portrait of him, one that reveals to the world how he sees himself.
Long live the humble mountain guide!