Back in 1997, I climbed the Grand Teton. I had never rock-climbed before. I had seen the Tetons and often wondered what it would be like to reach the top. So, I decided to do it. After two days of instruction with Exum guides, the premier mountaineering guiding outfit in all of the National Parks, we did an all day hike to the "saddle". The saddle is the "U" shaped area just south of the summit and has long been used as the base camp for the final ascent.
It was a long and difficult hike. There were 4 of us in the group and we were shepherded along by a legendary 57 year-old guide, Peter Lev. This experienced mountaineer could perceive without commentary that I was the most apprehensive climber in the pack. Others in the group were in better physical condition. Lev took all this in and put me right behind him in our trek. After sleeping in a huge canvass tent with about 50 others, our group of 5 arose at 3 am. The stars were magnificent. They filled the sky like large spotlights. We began hiking and made headway for about an hour when we reached our first climb, called a pitch.
There are about 17 pitches to tackle in order to reach the summit. Each pitch required climbing from 20 to 60 yards of shear granite, all while our team was roped together. The leader would go first. After he completed the pitch, he would sit on a small ledge, then belay (hold the rope securing the next climber) me. I would reach the ledge and he would take off – trusting me to belay the climber behind me and so on. It was terrifying. The pause upon each ledge at each pitch was the same. Once up, Peter would tell me to look around and enjoy the view. We would be teetering upon what might have been a 6 foot square ledge, looking down thousands of feet of sheer rock as the wind whipped around us. Mr. Lev wanted me to look around and take in the scenery. I said "Are you crazy?!?" I stared at the ground under my feet, absolutely frozen. If I could have summoned a helicopter to get me out of there, I would have. Peter was amused. It was a particular harrowing day. Ice had formed from a storm the night before.
As it turned out, our group would be the only ones to achieve the summit on this day. Lev decided to take the east facing route up the Exum ridge. This side faced the rising sun, was therefore warmed and the treacherous ice was melted sufficiently. Others had tried the west side, which provided a technically easier climb but was shaded. Thus, the ice remained in place and prevented those selecting that route from reaching the top. It was particularly gratifying to be the only group to make it to the very top of Wyoming on that day. The climb to the summit took longer than expected. Once there, our joy at making it to the top was tempered by the understanding that we had to get off the mountain before the afternoon storms and dangerous lightning raced through. I remember Peter Lev giving a rope to my TLC '92 classmate, Wil Smith, who was with me. Lev told him to just rappel down as far as he could, streaming down the mountain until most of rope was run out and find a spot on the rugged mountain where the 5 of us could fit. Notwithstanding the casual nature of the command, we needed to get down fast!
Once again, I was absolutely terrified. When my turn came, I went over the edge out of sight of anyone above or below. I quickly found myself out of sorts, spinning and twisting away from the mountain instead of keeping my feet on the mountain as I had been instructed. Instead, my back was up against the mountain and I was literally hanging on the side of this 13,000 foot mountain with my puckered rear-end and elbows against the granite wall. This was NOT how it was done in the movies. I paused and gathered myself. I dug one elbow into the wall and spun myself around. Facing the mountain, I could thereafter plant my feet. Once situated in this manner and repeating my training over and over in my head, I was able to keep rappelling down. We made it through but --- as soon as we got down --- Wil went into hypothermic shock. We got back to our base, wrapped him in blankets and gave him warm soup. Wil is one of the smartest, toughest and quietest men I have ever met and accepted our ministrations like the trooper he is. He finally slept. All of us finally slept. We awakened the next day changed. I am changed even yet by that experience.
I relate this story as I am about to board a plane bound for Thunderhead to start this year’s July TLC class. I think of my journey through TLC like climbing the Grand for the first time. New students will have an opportunity to take risks they have never taken before -- risks bubbling around the spring of truth, truth about themselves, truth about life, truth about their place in the world. They will venture into a rigorous search of what is truly real within them. By so doing, they will learn who they are. With courage, maybe they will become more of who they truly are once they embrace what is truly special about themselves and their life. Thunderhead Ranch, teeming with natural beauty and sheltered isolation, provides a rare opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth.
This process of self-discovery is an ongoing thing. It does not end when we leave The Ranch. We learn that we must frequently take personal risks in order to do better, because nothing comes for free. You cannot just “be” better. You have to be willing to take risks to step into true self-knowledge. And, yes, some of those are scary. TLC has taken risks throughout its life. It has grown in numbers and in its successes, many victories small and tremendous, seen in courtrooms all across this country and in the lives of our Warriors. Yet the essence of TLC’s foundation always remains: Nothing worthwhile comes without risk and pain and it all starts with us, individually.
In the past two years since I became President, there has been much positive growth within our College. This growth has come with great effort and many are responsible. The TLC Board, our new Executive Director, Gerry, the tireless F-Warriors, our amazing Alumni, the generous TLC Staff and our new Ranch hands -- ALL have contributed in many significant ways. Some of the changes have come with risk and pain but – through that-- there has been growth, joy, and satisfaction. As part of this growth, we are currently putting more emphasis on trial experience for admission to the college. I am not now on the Selection Committee, but I served in that assignment for about 6 years. It is a tough job. The selection and admission of women and racial minorities always provides a challenge for the Selection Committee. We give those important groups high priority as we believe diversity in all our TLC Classes is a prized component. Of course, we are often criticized for this approach. On the other hand, if we do NOT afford some degree of priority in this diversity search, we get criticized just the same. The criticism comes regardless – and we listen intently. To my mind, though, one cannot complain that there are people on TLC Staff and admitted to the college without trial experience, then complain when we put an emphasis on trial experience for admission. There is always difficulty in getting enough women into the classes. Some years women were accepted with no trial experience because we felt an overriding need to include women and address that direly needed class component.
Staff selection is similarly difficult. I have circulated my own view of TLC Staff criteria numerous times on the list serve, in The Warrior, and within hand-outs circulated at various TLC events. Success in trial using TLC methods is important and highlighted among the staff criteria we review. Understanding what we are teaching and in leading a small group is very important, especially when there is struggle involved. We review that, as well.
What we often discover are these singular truths: Not all good trial lawyers know or can teach the TLC Method. Not all good teachers can try cases. What are we to do with this knowledge learned through years of experience? This is the recurring debate among the members of The Board. Personally, I feel our TLC Staff must have been in trial actually employing our method more than once a decade. I have averaged a 3 week trial or longer every 18 months since 1992. Does this mean, however, that I will ALWAYS be more proficient at leading a small group of TLC students than someone with less trial experience? That doesn’t seem to ALWAYS be the case.
Life's perspective is much larger than being a part of TLC Staff, serving as TLC President or as a TLC Board Member. We have worked hard for TLC the past 2 years – doing our best in the face of the recurring challenges. I have received tremendous satisfaction in watching TLC grow in the right way. There is new criteria for Staff, although it will certainly evolve and we are always listening. There is a new accountability and transparency which I have worked hard to foster and support. There are more people attending more TLC events than at any time in the history of the College. Our endowment is growing. Ranch Club memberships are growing. Our financial stability is more promising than it has ever been as more Warriors step up to support TLC with both their time and their money – just as we must.
Most important of all, lives are still being changed and saved. Courtrooms in every state in the union are alive with our methods!! Our staff and alumni are the best trial lawyers in the world! Remember, though: It all starts with you. Making the choice to venture up the mountain, not knowing if you will make it and not knowing what you will find when you get there, but demonstrating a willingness in action to go nonetheless. That is where it starts. On this climb, all of us are called to look at who we really are with rigorous honesty. And, once we have taken that look, we are called to honestly embrace and become that person. The Classes of 2011 begin with this July gathering. The journey continues. I am so proud to be a part of this wonder.