(Next in a series looking at ways farmers relax and forget about the daily grind.)
Mountaineering might seem like a strange hobby for a Midwestern farmer, but Clay Mitchell isn't your typical farmer. A Harvard-educated engineer, Mitchell is often asked to speak at farming conferences around the world because of the innovative technology he employs on the Mitchell family farm, near Buckingham, in northeastern Iowa. (See “Robot Farming, Really?” page 38, Jan. 2006 issue.)
“A lot of times I'll go to a farming conference and bring my skis along,” says Mitchell. “I've skied in New Zealand, Chili and France when I was in those countries for farming conferences. So, it can work well with farming interests.”
Mountaineering has a lot of similarities to farming, says Mitchell. “For example, farming can be very physical and so is this sport,” he points out. “In farming, as in mountaineering, the easiest way to die is to neglect or take chances with your equipment.”
There are no ski lifts in mountaineering; participants ski both uphill and downhill and use ice climbing gear or rock climbing equipment to reach heights that most cross-country or downhill skiers would never attempt.
“With glacier travel, we have to deal with the possibility of avalanches or falling into a crevasse,” says Mitchell. “It requires a lot of skill to navigate through dangerous areas. The skis are specialized. We also use ice axes and crampons on our boots, so our feet don't slip when we're hiking.”
One of his most vivid memories is a late-evening descent in the Andes “when we were about 10,000 ft. higher than we should have been at dusk,” he says. “The red ribbon of twilight that settled over the Pacific Ocean is one of the most beautiful and terrifying things I've seen. Everyone instinctively held their breath to silence the gurgling sounds of pulmonary edema (filling of the lungs with fluid from altitude sickness) while we watched daylight leave us to find the rest of our way home in darkness.”