The Arc from Student to Mentor

By Nathan Fry, MTI Contributor

Our modern concept of a mentor derives from the character Mentor in Homer’s classic saga, The Odyssey. In the story, Mentor serves as the father figure for Odysseus’ son Telemachus while Odysseus is away at war. Mentor’s role in the story is actually quite brief, occupying only a few pages of the overall tale, but his influence on Telemachus is outsized and carries the young man forward into the adventure that eventually reunites him with his father. My experience with the Mentors of my life reflect Telemachus’ experience – brief interactions ranging from a year to several years that have had an exponential effect on the overall arc of my life. In a digital world that gives us all manner of access to information, tutorials, and so-called experts, I remain convinced that there is no substitute for the physical, in-person relationship between mentor and student. 

When I was 13 years old, I met the two men who changed the course of my life. I had recently transferred from a small rural school system to a better high school in the closest town, and halfway into the first semester I was facing two issues. The first was the normal teen crisis of freshman year changes and challenges; the second was trying to remake my “hick” identity to fit into new friends and a new culture. Unfortunately, I was already off-track. I fell into a group of wannabe skaters and punk rockers, followed them down to the railroad tracks next to the school to smoke one afternoon, and found myself suspended from school for a week as a result. I expected an explosion from my father, but his response was simple – he told me bluntly that if I didn’t get my act together, I would be working at a convenience store in rural Louisiana for the rest of my life and then enrolled me in a local Boy Scout program that one of his colleagues ran. While the image of my future was scary and straightened me out in the short term, it was joining the Scout troop that proved pivotal and ultimately set me on the course of who I am today – it was where I met my first mentors.

Steve and Gary were far from my stereotype of nerdy adult Scout leaders. Steve was a former collegiate wrestler and researcher at the local agriculture extension. Gary, a hospital administrator, was a lifelong runner with countless marathons under his belt. Both of them had sons in the Scout program, and both of them were in agreement that what we boys needed most was challenge and structure to transition us from boyhood to manhood. Shortly after I joined the troop, they announced that, to attend the summer backpacking trip in the Great Smokey Mountains, we would each need to run two miles without stopping. I had never run before, but the motivation to get the hell out of Louisiana and see the world was enough to get me started with a daily running regimen. This was my first lesson from my first mentors – to set ambitious goals and then practice the discipline to achieve them. As we worked from running two miles through neighborhoods to backpacking in Tennessee to longer, more demanding trips to New Mexico, Gary and Steve didn’t settle for simply pushing us physically. They also coached us in other critical ways – how to be reflective, to accept criticism, to find and hold a standard outside ourselves. And, most importantly, how to be humble and seek out lessons from wiser people. As a result of my relationship with Steve and Gary, the four years of high school felt grounded and enriching, and I found myself graduating into the adult world with not only a solid foundation of character, but also a desire to continue to access wisdom through mentorship.

Over the next ten years, I finished college, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, and completed my initial schooling as an infantry officer. Although I had the fortune to attend and graduate from sought-after opportunities such as Ranger School, I reflected later that this was a period in my life when I interacted with many teachers and instructors, but no mentors. Even so, I found later that this wasn’t wasted mentor time. Rather, it gave me the experiences I needed to be able to contrast teachers with mentors and create a type of “litmus test” for whether a person is worth pursuing as a mentor or not. Almost all of us have teachers and instructors during at least the first part of our lives – through school, sports, or early in our professional careers. However, I have come to believe that there is a qualitative and critical difference between teachers and mentors. Put simply, a mentor is always a teacher, but a teacher, instructor, or coach is not always a mentor. The difference in the two categories is in three areas – the type of example set, the level of experience, and the level of personal commitment in the relationship. 

In setting an example, a person of mentor material generally sets a positive rather than negative example. A mentor is someone whom we want to be like, sometimes intensely to the point of mimicry. This is in contrast to those people that we often cite as being an example of what we don’t want to do. A mentor simply cannot be someone who sets a bad example, even if we are drawing lessons from that example. This isn’t to say that mentors do not make mistakes – they do, and we can learn from those mistakes. But, in a day-to-day analysis, the first litmus test of a mentor is someone to whom we look up.

Second, a mentor must be a person who has passed through some sort of crucible of experience to gain genuine knowledge. In the Army, many instructors were experienced, but not all to the level of mentorship material. In the case of Ranger School, for example, all Ranger Instructors had passed the course, but not all of them had spent enough time in the Army or had the right experiences to become true mentor material. A mentor must have passed through the levels of learning, whether from intense experience or years of practice, to achieve a level of expert function and original thought. They must be at the insightful stage of both “knowing what they know” and “knowing what they don’t know.” In most cases, this takes years of commitment to a craft and disciplined learning. It also winnows the pool of people who are true mentor material down even further.

Finally, and most crucially, mentors must be both available and willing to personally commit to not only sharing their experiences, as teachers do, but also to so over the course of years, outside of formal working hours, often without any sort of pay or compensation other than the personal satisfaction of seeing someone grow. It is important to note that this is the area where the line between teacher and mentor can truly blur, as many of us can hopefully look back to a time when a teacher truly invested in our learning and success. This is the reason that I see this component as the final ingredient in a mentor – if a person fulfills the two other criteria, then concept of personal commitment is the final stage in transforming a relationship from a teacher-student to a mentor relationship. However, without the other two criteria – the positive example and depth of knowledge – then the criteria of personal commitment keeps the potential mentor firmly in the realm of someone who may care about you as a person, but simply lacks the means to propel you forward towards your goals.

The next person with whom I interacted in a mentor relationship occurred in my first foray outside of the Army and into the profession of mountain guiding. After a trip to the summit of Mount Rainier with a more experienced friend, I came away convinced that my future arc lay in alpinism. Shortly after, the Army transferred me from Washington state to North Carolina and I began searching for someone who could teach me the basics of guiding. My search eventually directed me towards a guide named Ron Funderburke. Ron and I trained together over the course of several years in North Carolina, and it was from him that I learned about another crucial difference between teachers and mentors – the level of performance that is expected from the student. In teaching, there is typically a curriculum and set timeline. When the timeline is up, the student tests and tries to achieve the standard to pass. The student’s performance may be excellent, or it may simply be “good enough.” In contrast, mentorship expects that the student achieve the perfection of a craft. Ron drilled me over and over again in the basics of rock guiding, honing in on tiny details and working them with me until I got them right. I distinctly remember one time when I was working on multipitch guiding techniques when I improperly incorporated a new skill that he taught me into an anchor. When Ron arrived at the belay ledge behind me, he inspected the anchor, calmly pointed out the flaw, and simply said, “I hope to not see you make that mistake again.” His words were carefully chosen to not simply correct the flaw, but to motivate me to work future iterations until I achieved perfection. Although the Army transferred me again to another duty station after less than two years working with Ron, his drive to push me beyond “good enough” and towards excellence, even to the point of eclipsing him, left a lasting impression.

For the following decade, most of my development came in the form of personal experience, reflection, and occasional interaction with instructors through American Mountain Guides Association courses. It wasn’t that I didn’t have interaction with quality teachers, it was simply that I did not meet anyone with whom my goals, style, and values truly clicked. That all changed when I was stationed in Europe and reached out to IFMGA guide Rob Coppolillo to assist with training for the Advanced Alpine Guide Course. From our very first phone call, I felt an immediate connection with Rob – not only were our personalities and outlook on guiding and life similar, but Rob was actively looking for up-and-coming guides to mentor and develop. Thanks to my previous mentors, I could clearly articulate my goals and how I was working individually to achieve my desired outcomes. Previous mentorship about excellence had pervaded my training ethos, so I could clearly articulate to Rob why I needed his outside perspective to reach those outcomes. As a result of my personal focus, I noticed a clear shift in the way that Rob and I interacted that was distinctly different from my last mentor, Ron. The previous decade of training had paid off, advancing me from an inexperienced student who simply accepted Ron’s direction to an experienced practitioner who could actually have an informed dialogue with my mentor. The relationship we established was a mature mentor-student relationship, one wherein I was allowed to make decisions and assess my own mistakes under Rob’s guidance. Rob didn’t give me the answers – he put me in uncomfortable situations that forced me to draw conclusions for myself. This dynamic, I realized only later, was essentially the final stage in my maturation as a guide from one who needs intensive mentorship to one who is capable of being a mentor to others. Rob ushered me through this final stage deliberately, investing in me the lessons that his own mentors had invested in him over the years.

My realization that I was being called to serve as a mentor myself came as a result of two tragic accidents in Winter 2024. First, Madie Saltsburg, an ROTC cadet at the University of Vermont (UVM), perished in a backcountry ski accident on Mount Washington. Only weeks after that, my mentor Rob died in a backcountry ski accident in British Columbia. As I reflected on the passing of both Madie and Rob, I realized that I had been the connection between the two of them, although neither had known of each others’ existence. The lessons that Rob had imparted to me I had passed on to Madie through several talks that I gave to the UVM Mountaineering Club. I could not help but wonder whether, had I been given the opportunity to interact with Madie more than a few times, whether one of the lessons that Rob passed on to me would have made a difference on the day of her accident. Simultaneously, I reflected on Rob’s death and how the lessons of his life continued to live on in all the people that he mentored over the years. The combined effect of these two streams of thought resulted in a feeling of urgency – a clear call that it was time for me to move from being mentored to mentoring others myself. Coincidently, I had just the opportunity at hand.

I had planned a ski trip to the High Sierra in May 2024, but was struggling to find a partner who could free their schedule for a week to make the trip. After reflecting on Rob and Madie, I decided to change course and, instead of pursuing my typical experienced partners, to offer the trip to a promising younger alpinist. My prime candidate was a skimo racer and developing ski mountaineer named Jack Lynch. Jack and I had met when I recruited him for the US Army’s 2023 Edelweiss Raid team. He proved to be a powerhouse in the group and showed immense potential as a backcountry ski mountaineer. Jack fulfilled all of the prerequisites I wanted for a student – he was fit, showed motivation to progress by skiing aggressively on his own, and had quickly absorbed and then put into practice the lessons from the Edelweiss Raid. When I offered the opportunity to Jack, he enthusiastically accepted and we made plans to head to the Sierra. 

From the beginning, our objectives of the trip were intentionally flexible regarding terrain, but deliberate with respect to learning. Skiing rad couloirs and huge lines was explicitly secondary to immersing Jack in new situations where he could learn and grow. Over the course of a week, we tackled classics like the Bloody Couloir, the east face of Mount Gibbs, and, finally, Mount Shasta’s never ending Avalanche Gulch line. Jack did a steep bootpack for the first time, honed his skills with using an ice axe for security, and learned how to monitor weather and aspect to mitigate risk and make decisions regarding timing. He asked questions, tried new techniques, and pushed outside of his comfort zone. At the end of the week, I was elated at the outcome of my first true attempt at mentorship. While the conditions had aligned to ski some amazing lines, we had also backed off of one objective and cut another day short due to weather, resulting in a continuous dialogue all week about risk management and decision making. I felt like, for the first time in my mountain career, I was in a position to give back what mentors like Gary, Steve, Ron, and Rob had given me.

Only after thirty years of being mentored, as I actively look for students of my own, do I realize the sacrifices that my chain of mentors made to pass lessons on to me. All of them had a full-time job, a family to support, personal athletic goals, and a host of additional commitments to balance along with being a mentor to one or more students. For this reason, truly talented mentors must be deliberate about choosing the relationships into which they enter. In my mind, Jack represents the baseline for a person with whom I will engage in mentorship – he has a high baseline fitness, exhibits curiosity and a willingness to learn, chooses personal objectives that represent a drive to be challenged and excel, and is open to spending his own time and money to achieve these goals. For anyone seeking to find a mentor and enter into a learning relationship with them, establishing these traits as a minimum standard for mentorship is a crucial first step towards gaining a mentor’s trust and confidence.

Nathan Fry is a US Army officer and IFMGA guide-in-training.

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