Our Members: Mike Poborsky’s Climbing Guide Life
By Laura Case Larson
“Don’t touch my rope!” the climber yelled down at Mike Poborsky, vice president of Exum Mountain Guides.
Poborsky was in the process of saving the man’s life.
He had noticed that a nearby belayer had neglected to clip her locking biner through both tabs of her Grigri, which left her partner—high on a 5.11 roof in Boulder Canyon—in grave danger.
“I said something to the lady, and she obviously saw it and recognized it as a problem right away,” he says. “So I grabbed the back end of the rope that was coming out of the device and put him on belay, and she was going to fix it.”
That’s when the climber started to get confrontational. “The guy looked down and saw me messing with his rope and started screaming at me, and she’s yelling, ‘No, no, it’s okay, it’s okay!’” Poborsky continues. “I just kept belaying him until she got things figured out, got the Grigri straightened out, and everything was fine.”
Diplomatic to this day, Poborsky simply says, “Although it was a non-event, it was a close call.”
It was exactly the type of close call that could have become one of the deadly missteps documented in Accidents in North American Mountaineering.
While an internationally certified rock, alpine, and ski guide, Poborsky had never written about climbing—let alone a how-to manual—before contributing to “Know the Ropes: Lowering” in the 2013 Accidents in North American Mountaineering. But thanks to some mild arm-twisting, by Accidents editor, friend, and former Exum guide Jed Williamson, Poborsky accepted the task, and he’s glad he did.
“I think that there’s knowledge to be passed along to folks that have less experience,” Poborsky, an AAC member since 2003, tells the Club. “I’m happy to help out for the greater climbing, skiing, mountain community.”
Like anyone who reads Accidents year after year, Poborsky grasps the tragic patterns—the recurring nature of high-consequence climbing errors. “As partners we have the ability to double-check one another and avoid these repetitive accidents,” he says. “The accidents that are in Accidents in North American Mountaineering this year are the same accidents that have been in there since the beginning. The names change, the locations change a little bit, but the causes of the accidents are relatively the same.”
A skier first, climber second, he wants nothing more than to enable people to experience the joy of self-discovery in challenging environments. “I think it’s a really amazing learning, growing process of self while you’re traveling through the mountains. I want to share that with others.”
He experienced his “aha” moment, the moment that set him down his career path of choice—“a bumpy road, full of lack of employment,” he jokes—when he helped out his friend Tom Cecil, who operates Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides in West Virginia. “[Tom] was overbooked, and my climbing partner didn’t show up this particular weekend down in Seneca, so Tom asked me if I was interested in guiding for the weekend,” he recalls. “I had no guiding experience, but had climbed at Seneca for quite a few years.”
It took only two days of setting up top-ropes for a kids’ group to hook Poborsky. “I really became interested in it right from the start, because it was kind of empowering,” he says. “I was teaching people to climb, something that I thought was just amazing in itself.”
Poborsky maintains that every guiding experience continues to offer its own unique reward. “It sounds cheesy, I know it does, but really I guide such a diverse group of people—from kids to old folks to high-end, super-fit athletic people, Ironman triathlete types, to little 6-year-olds—and it’s all super rewarding to me,” he says. “They all get something out of it. They’re all challenged and pushed beyond what they think they can do. I’m admittedly a very simple person, so I get joy out of just passing this along.”
Poborsky has climbing and skiing experience “throughout North America and Europe, including ascents and skiing descents in Alaska, the Coastal and Interior Ranges of British Columbia, extensively throughout the eastern and western United States, and Switzerland. Some highlights include the Grand Traverse in a day, guiding the Grand Traverse multiple times, and guiding the Cathedral Traverse in a day.”
But when quizzed about his proudest ascent and ski descent, Poborsky doesn’t rattle off some mouthwatering classic or bold testpiece. Instead, he reminisces about his first day out skiing at Blue Knob in his home state of Pennsylvania, when he became separated from his family on the very first run and figured out how to get up and down the mountain all by himself. It was 1975, and he was six at the time—a time “when parents were still okay with not being around their kids and not worrying about them.”
“I lost my family for the whole entire day, and in that day I hiked uphill a lot, because I kept having yard sales and losing my equipment,” he remembers. “Before the end of the day I’d figured out how to ski on my own—probably my proudest day of skiing, and my proudest ascent and descent.”
It’s that sort of fearless spirit that keeps him going into the mountains day after day, week after week, year after year. “When I’m not working, I climb. When I’m not working in the winter, I ski,” he says of his unbridled love of getting outdoors.
Mike Poborsky is based in Jackson, Wyoming, where he lives with his wife of 22 years and their two border collies. An Exum guide for ten years, and currently the organization’s vice president, he has no plans to leave his mountain home.
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Lowering errors have been identified as the root causes of 79 reported climbing accidents since 2003. Given that overwhelming statistic, make sure to read Mike Poborsky’s informative introductory article on lowering—an integral component of climbing—in the 2013 edition of Accidents in North American Mountaineering. In “Know the Ropes: Lowering,” he addresses what he identifies as the four most common causes of lowering accidents: “a rope that’s too short, miscommunication, an inadequate belay, and anchor failure.”
Now in its second year, the “Know the Ropes: Fundamentals to Save Your Life” section is intended, in the words of Accidents editor Jed Williamson, to “increase awareness and education, and thus help prevent accidents.”
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