I call up Squamish-based mountain guide, Julia Niles, on a fun assignment – I’m writing her professional bio for the Arc’teryx athletes page. I’m happy to reconnect with her, after having her as my guide in a climbing clinic two summers ago. After three hours in a workshop, she is the kind of person who closes with a big hug and says, “let’s go climbing together sometime” even though she’s a 5.12 climber and I am… not.
Niles is incredibly accomplished professionally. She was the fifth American woman to attain the International Federation Mountain Guides Association certification, and is now an ACMG guide. She did the first female ski descent of the Grand Teton, has climbed El Capitan six times, and made first ascents in South Africa, Wyoming and Canada and first descents of couloirs in the Rockies and the Waddington Range. She’s the first woman to have free-soloed the iconic 13 peak Grand Traverse in the Grand Tetons, alone, in a day.
As we start hashing out her bio, she admits, sheepishly, that her last Instagram post was mid-summer, and that when she went to research herself, in preparation for this conversation, she discovered that her website has evaporated.
She’s working as a guide – heliskiing, teaching ice-climbing clinics, guiding backcountry ski trips to Alaska. Most of her work comes by word-of-mouth – self-promotion hasn’t been a real priority. She’s studying for a Masters degree in counselling. Now that she has a nine and a six year old, she’s not making the kind of ascents, descents or epic adventures that you put on a resume – all those resume-building accomplishments pre-date her kids.
“My previous self,” laughs Julia, in her endearing wide-smiling way, “would be really disappointed in me now.”
Niles is in the place that most mothers probably recognize, where you feel like a less accomplished version of yourself, professionally diminished by the long hours you’ve shifted into nourishing small human beings, and squeezing your own needs in around the edges.
“As young guides, we tend to think that the only accomplishments worth mentioning are in the mountains. It was all that I could see,” she admits, of her younger self.
She doesn’t see it that way anymore.
“Being a parent is so humbling, it really does give you perspective about what’s important.
Motherhood is hard on the ego. But Niles sees it as an evolution. “I grew. I was able to let go of all my identities, even my mountain guiding identity. At first I felt out of the loop and less of who I was, but then I was also more of who I was – I was nurturing this human being which was profound, it helped me realise that I am me, no matter what I’m doing. And I think it’s actually a beautiful evolution of what happens in a woman’s life. We have these shifting priorities. I’m no less of an alpinist. I’m no less of a climber. I’m no less of a skier. I just do it less!”
What gives her a sense of accomplishment now is the A grade on the psychology paper she wrote after the kids were in bed, or getting her son counselling to help him work through the dissolution of her marriage. Clients have become friends she has dinner parties with. Her intuition has kept her groups out of avalanches. Last year, while ski guiding clients in Japan, a woman blew her knee. It was dark, storming, and Niles, who is tall, but slight and lean, hauled her out. “I put together this amazing sled. I put together this amazing splint. I made sure she was comfortable. I gave her all my layers. I wrapped her up, I checked in with her all the time. And hauled her, in extreme physical labour, out of the mountains, and I’m so proud of myself for that. It was a huge success, we did a great job. For me, right now, achievement and accomplishment is just problem solving. You sit there and you take your life, and you say, this is what’s coming at me right now, this is a problem, and we’re going to solve it in the best way we can. It’s just being present in your life.”
Those accomplishments don’t fit the 6 bullet point formula I’m writing to – and yet, on key levels, they matter even more. It’s the difference between what David Brooks, New York Times opinion columnist and author, calls “resumé virtues” versus “eulogy virtues” – the things that matter to the marketplace versus the things that reflect the depth of who you are in your relationships.
What would our previous selves say of this turn of events – these shrinking ambitions, the smallness, the ordinariness of what now feels like success?
It doesn’t matter. We are not accountable to those 20-something girls.
They were young and gung-ho and they didn’t know what they didn’t know. I love the hustle and hunger of my previous self, who probably thinks that dropping my hours down to 20 hours a week so I can meet my kid at the bus stop shows a terrifying lack of commitment and makes me of dubious market value. I love the intensity of Julia Niles’ previous self, that sustained her as she skied and climbed her way into a profession that did not welcome her, that girl who free-soloed non-stop for 16 hours on a traverse that people have died on, to prove that even with half her left lung missing, she could still do it.
But the selves we need at the table, mediating this discussion about our “accomplishments” are the ones yet to come – our 45-year-old selves, our 90-year old selves. I want my future self to feel grateful for the choices I am making right now, for my Nos and Yeses, for flexing in to this realization that I’d rather be a person less accomplished and less productive if it grows my ability to be deeply present.
It’s not a resume virtue or even a eulogy virtue. It’s so subtle it barely even rates as a skill, but it might be the single most beautiful, and difficult, quality to cultivate. You only need to spend an hour with Julia Niles to realize, it’s the leadership skill the world needs most. Our future selves know it. We just have to silence our inner hustler for long enough to hear it.