On Mentorship

The membership of the Deerfield climbing club, 1995. Jonathan Barrett is at the top right.
Jim Salem is at the bottom right. Photo: Deerfield yearbook staff.
by Jonathan Barrett

In 2007, I received word from an old high school acquaintance that my first climbing mentor, Jim Salem, had passed away. The news report had said that he had been struck by a passing car while he was riding his bike. That was the extent of the information he was able to give me. Our conversation was brief. Before he hung up the phone, he offered his sincere condolences because he knew the deep and resonating impact that the man had had on my life.

The first time Jim invited me to his home, I was struck by the fact that his shed,where he threw pots, was larger than his house. Some of the vessels, shaped like rotund soldiers, were as tall I was at seventeen. Years later I can still recall their fine-boned structures standing in regimented rows waiting for the kiln. Waiting to be fired. His kitchen’s centerpiece was a wood stove, and herbs hung in thick bunches from exposed beams to dry. At the time, I didn’t know many climbers, or for that matter any besides him who were adults. His home would never have read “climber’s house” in the modern era of Instagram. Instead it whispered haikus about a loving husband and skilled potter, a soft-spoken environmentalist and a conflicted hippie. He was certainly one of the most well-paid staff members at my boarding school because he was the comptroller, but he lived like an ascetic. His art and his connection to the natural world were given pride of place. He split wood for heat, not because it was photo-worthy, but because it was elemental.

He had invited me into his home at that time out of compassion and a growing sense of connection. Jim—although it was always Mr. Salem until I got married—saw in me interest more than potential. While the other kids in our school’s climbing club were satisfied to loll about the base of Chapel Ledge and socialize, I wanted to test myself against every line regardless of the grade. From a cabinet beneath the stairs Jim produced a pair of ice axes which would seem laughable to climb on now. At the time they were beautiful and mysterious to me. That afternoon we top-roped snot-colored frozen drips at a road cut in western Massachusetts. I had never swung an ice tool before,and he was far from a seasoned ice climber himself. The whole experience was foolish, meaningless, and profound. Jim recognized in me a hunger to know what was just beyond the horizons of my own life and was willing to take me there even though the territory was unfamiliar to him as well.

After I graduated from high school, he and I drove north into New Hampshire for a brief foray into multi-pitch climbing and dirtbagging. We slept in the back of his sky-blue two-wheel-drive Toyota because it was cheap and easy. Over twenty years later, the sound of the rain drumming on the truck’s cap is still a resonant tone in my memory. I had felt frustrated that the opportunity would be lost, that the cliff would be soaked. “No point making plans until the morning,” he had said to me. It was neither an affirmation of the fact nor optimism. It was just the truth spoken by a man who lived a truthful life.

At the first meeting of our little climbing club several years earlier, he had distributed photocopied pages from Freedom of the Hills and led us in a knot tying lesson. We also constructed harnesses out of one inch tubular webbing which he assured us would, “pinch the boys” something fierce. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Eventually you may be lucky enough to own a harness.” 

The rain eventually passed and a stiff spring breeze dried the granite of Cannon quickly in the morning. I led every pitch that day while wearing a Black Diamond Alpine Bod harness that was only marginally better than one inch webbing I had worn for my first year. Jim was not a talented climber, so he struggled with sequences that I had felt weightless on. A short finger crack which left me feeling that universal joy of fine movement over perfect stone had him hangdogging through the sequence. This didn’t matter though. Our pack was far too large that day, particularly by our current light and fast standards, but his perspective was not one of speed or grades or sophisticated equipment, but being present. We sat on some ledge for far too long and assembled sandwiches with all the urgency of a Victorian summer picnic. There was a huge, crusty loaf of bread, a mountain of sliced deli meats and cheeses, an entire glass jar of Dijon mustard. It was stupid and beautiful simultaneously. In the place of speed we had a focus on being entirely in the moment.

When I think back on the power of his mentorship, it is clear to me now that I was deeply shaped by his point of view, that climbing was only an element of his life and not elemental to it like it can be for so many self-described climbers. He never aspired to live the life of a dirtbag as we would now recognize it, nor did he want to make it his whole focus. Instead he saw his life through the lens of finding balance. Only once did I ever watch him throw a pot on the wheel, and it was masterclass to witness. His hands which had seemed old and weak in contact with the granite of Whitehorse were confident and steady in contact with the clay. The form never wobbled even as he drew its perilously thin walls up towards his snow-white beard. It found its own center of gravity, its own point of balance against the whirling wheel.

My apprenticeship with Mr. Salem lasted only three years. I left New England and came to Oregon because in that short time his outlook became kiln-fired into my outlook. In that brief span Jim offered me something that I was not sure that I wanted or could even imagine to exist: he gave me the gift of a range of mountains, the Cascades, and the promise that the whole world was not like New England. Mentors work this kind of magic. They stand in a place and offer the opportunity to join them. They say that there is room enough for everyone.

Some years after I got married, I found myself in western Massachusetts with my new wife and time on my hands. An query to Jim about his availability opened up the chance to bring my old world and my new world together. Shelbourne Falls, where he lived, has one notable tourist attraction, the Bridge of Flowers, so when we agreed to meet, he wanted it to be there. I can’t recall Carissa’s initial reaction to this man who loomed large in my life. Surely she was struck by his snow-white beard, glacier-blue eyes, and genuine warmth. The three of us strolled across the bridge that was, at that moment in early spring, still only beds planted with promises to be fulfilled. He and I did not spend the time reminiscing about Chapel Ledges or nameless road-side icelines. We talked about Oregon which was a place my new wife had been to only once. We were thinking of moving there, I told him, but it would be a huge change for us to leave our families behind in Massachusetts. He simply smiled and began to spin stories of living on the Warm Springs Reservation as a economics teacher, of his little apartment which is now a parking lot for a trendy NW 23rd business, and of the iconic image of Mt Hood seen from Portland.

With Jim there was no formal curriculum, no immutable agenda. His life was one of clay, infinitely moldable, always reformable, and yet eternally fragile. The wheel spins, and he held on but never too tightly, neither to his own life nor to mine. Such was both the freedom and security of his mentorship. When my friend offered up his condolences that day in 2007, I think that he had missed the point. He should have instead expressed his joy that I had been given such a rare and transformative gift at all.