Episode 8

Catskills Canyoneering with Jake St. Pierre


Catskills Canyoneering

Featuring Jake St. Pierre

It was roughly 3:45 in the morning, pitch black, and the noise of the torrential downpour all around us hammered on the tarp above us like bullets. The relentless rain had been upon us for hours now, and drowned out every other possible sound with the exception of one: Jake St. Pierre’s voice as he shouted through the rain, coaching six of the eight members of our current client group through a boot camp workout.

“And, BURPEES,” I heard him shout, possibly his favorite tool in his kit of fitness torment. I glanced briefly around the tarp to catch a blurred, soggy image of him leading the workout before focusing back on my present task.

I was huddled under the tarp with Willie, the third instructor on the five-day extreme survival course that we were leading, frantically carving down the soaked branches we’d collected to reach the dry wood at their centers. The remaining two members of the group were huddled under the tarp, wearing our dry clothes and in our sleeping bags to help them regain their core temperature.

Their shelter had collapsed in the night, soaking them, and in the group’s initial hesitation to inform the instructors, two of them had fallen hypothermic. We’d since rescued them and restored them to a safe temperature. As there weren’t enough dry clothes to go around, the remaining group had worked to keep their core up with periodic workouts with Jake before congregating back together under the crowded tarp.

Willie and I had set ourselves about building an emergency fire, a near-herculean task given the moisture and sheer volume of water that was pounding down on us, and showed no sign of relent. We were miles in any direction from a building, and both ways out were down steep hills, cliffs, and precipices which required caution in dry conditions. Our only choice was to weather it out until sunrise brought welcome warmth.

By this point, sunrise was within three hours. We had the client’s core temperature under control, and despite that some of them were quite shaken, their morale was in decent shape. In truth, we continued persistently at the fire building more for the sake of keeping their morale hopeful rather than allowing defeat to enter their minds.

By about 4:45 we’d finally gotten enough dry material to maintain a small fire under a corner of the tarp, around which they could take turns gathering. The rain subsided just before dawn, and by sunrise we had them huddled around a big fire, drinking coffee and eating our emergency rations as they shared shaky laughter.

One of my favorite things about Jake has always been his even keel. Whether relaxing over a pint, or managing the shit hitting the fan in the Himalayas, both of which we’d experienced together, Jake goes about the situation with the same poise.

It was an approach to tense situations that I’d always subscribed to. Together we’ve taught survival, mountaineering, rock and ice climbing, and worked on several adventure productions over the years.

In getting to know more of Jake’s life story, it’s easy to understand how he came about that demeanor. From working in Hollywood on films like Man on Fire, to nearly ten years in the police force before resigning to join a climate study expedition bound for the summit of Everest, he’d seen quite a bit in his years.

We’d first met when he’d taken a survival course that I was teaching in the Catskills. He was quiet, though the carabiner tattoos on his forearm and his general demeanor gave me the sense that he knew a lot more than he was letting on.

By that evening around the fire we were hearing stories about how he was on a rescue team looking for a friend he’d lost in the Khumbu Icefall Avalanche earlier that year. It was a fast friendship from there. A year later I was guiding ice climbing and mountaineering courses under his company, and narrowly avoided being wiped off the side of Mt. Rainier due to rock and icefall on the Ingraham Glacier. The year after, that I was the best man in his wedding at a Himalayan Monastery while on expedition.

So by the time we found ourselves pinned against a mountainside in upstate New York orchestrating a hypothermia rescue, it felt like a strangely manageable emergency in the face of everything else.

As we packed the clients up to move, they were shaken from their ordeal, and rather than finish the day out with the dramatic waterfall rappel that ended the experience, they wanted to simply return to civilization.

Yet we had a long hike to slowly remind them of their resilience in the face of a serious situation. By the time we reached the waterfall, each and every one faced it down.

Panic begets panic, but so does poise beget poise.

And every so often, as I learned from JSP, hypothermia begets burpees.