Beyond Acknowledgment: Becoming and Belonging

Guiding Our Whole-Self In and Out of the Mountains
By Cal’ Smith

One of Cal’s clients descending on a guided ascent of Takhoma (Mt. Rainier). Unceded Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Multnomah, Cowlitz, and Konnaack lands. Photo by Cal’ Smith @cal_smithy27

This write-up was originally featured in our Fall 2023 Trail Break issue.

I met Joshua Harrin as an instructor during my first formal training with the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) back in 2020. After hearing his perspective on guides as connectors to the mountains, I knew Joshua meant more than he was saying. But understanding it has taken me time.

At the beginning of my exploration into outdoor sports, I was trapped in a consumption mindset: seeking to take from the mountains only for my own use. As I ground away at my ego in an effort to become, I began to answer the question: “What does it mean for me to guide on my ancestral homelands?”

I belong in the story of the land, both as a tribal member, explorer, and mountain guide—interpreter and connector to the land. Throughout my guiding and personal journeys, I have often found a stark disconnect between people and the land.

People do not need a land acknowledgment; they need a land introduction, to be guided on how to coexist and how to gift outdoor experiences to others. There is no questioning the power of being on the land and centuries of indigenous knowledge.

Transcending our emotions and filling us with new senses and revelations, the mountains and land hold a dangerously cryptic yet alluring power. It behooves us to think of this power as a relationship.

In only ways open to the perceptive and humble, we cannot deny the feelings of the mountains. They most certainly have feelings for us and the connection is undoubtedly there. How else could they be so powerful?

To deny their effect on us is inhuman. Certainly, anyone who recreates, works, or lives within the mountains understands this. A symbiotic pattern of sunrise to sunset, we are our best when we feel the beating movement within the earth underneath us. Denying such a reciprocal sacred relationship spoils it. Simplifying the land and mountains’ powers to only acknowledgment (without interaction, understanding, and stewardship) squanders our mindsets.

Should we not unconditionally serve this relationship with our whole self?

CAL’ SMITH is Indigenous to the Lower-Cowlitz and Yakama Tribal Nations. He is an AMGA Apprentice Alpine Guide, focusing on guiding BIPOC communities through Climbers of Color, a Seattle-based non-profit.