Category Archives: Montana Experience

2013 In Review

Photo: Amy O'Toole.

Photo: Amy O’Toole.

I’m grateful to say that if nothing else, the sorrows and successes of 2013 have been real. A quick review of everything:

Went to Australia. Saw family. Deepened old friendships, made new ones. Climbed. Played. Smiled.

John, Otto, and Manly Beach, NSW.

John, Otto, and Manly Beach, NSW.

Traveled back to Missoula, and liked that I came back here. Found love. Finished some great projects. Wrote a website. Loved winter.

Sceptre is in fat...

Winter. Winter. Winter.

Climbed. Skied. Hurt. Worked until I couldn’t anymore. Fought for an engineering license and lost. Lost some clients. Lost love. Lost myself.

Get it... in a boot.

Get it… in a boot.

Had foot surgery. Learned about love, and myself. Waited.

We are enough.

We are enough.

Celebrated summer. Celebrated this place. Celebrated climbing again, and better. Celebrated my profession.

Getting back into it.

Getting back into it.

Found Wyoming. Found the roots, and the crown, of my experience in the wilderness. Found the perfection in imperfection.

Huge shout to Bryan and the Feather Buttress.

Huge shout to Bryan and the Feather Buttress.

Got older. Got more honest. Got excited about winter. Got back to Chicago.

2013-12-27 16.39.50

Also, can’t talk about this year without credit to the soundtrack for it. 2013- it’s been real. To 2014, I say “yes!”

2014 is the question. Yes is the answer.

2014 is the question. Yes is the answer.

Give ALL the Thanks

Why does pie say more about Thanksgiving than turkey?

Why does pie say more about Thanksgiving than turkey?

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday, and not just because of the pie. The latency in posting about it was more about the fullness of the giving rather than the lack of things to give about. Per typical, there was a lot of eating. Thursday morning, Paul and I went for a run with Ky and Amanda (in from Bellingham!) and Brian, Jenna, and Claire at Blue Mountain. After cleaning up and cooking, we both headed to Harlequin Farms in Arlee. I got my winter share vegetables from the farm and a few friends were gathering to celebrate. When all your friends are foodies, Thanksgiving turns out awfully tasty…



Our stay changed from an afternoon into two days because, well… it was awesome so why go home?

Part 2- home-made pizza factory. Simon and Paul get after it.

Part 2- home-made pizza factory. Simon and Paul get after it.

After all the eating though, I needed some movement. Bad weather meant that I spent Saturday with Ky (in from Bellingham!) and Brian and Simon in the climbing gym instead of outside, but with that quality of people- I had no complaints. Sunday was a little more typical, with another short gym session and the real treat of seeing “Catching Fire” in the theater.

After the long weekend and pre-holiday professional potholes smoothed over, work felt more relaxed. When Martin pointed out that Lost Trail was going to have an epic opening, I took it as a sign to take things a little less seriously. Thursday was way better spent in the mountains than at my desk. I don’t often resort ski, but it was -11F when we left the car at 9am, and I was thankful for a warm lodge to duck into between runs. The day never got much above zero, but the snow was perfect, and I was psyched to have two solid companions (Paul jumped at the offer of a ride).

Is this really happening on a Thursday?

Is this really happening on a Thursday?

I finished off the week with a rad day in Big Fork, MT with my good friend and AERO support Jeffrey Funk. I wrote more here about one of his workshops in 2012, but this year the group was smaller, and the project a little more complicated. I may never actually get any better only practicing once a year, but hammering some iron sure is a lot of fun.

We each turned the small block on the left into the garden trowel on the right.

We each turned the small block on the left into the garden trowel on the right.

Oh yeah, and sunset at Jeff & Betsy’s is not to be missed:

Mission Mountain Magic.

Mission Mountain Magic.

I’m thankful to write this. I’m thankful somewhere in the week, I really enjoyed this TED Talk on gratitude. I’m especially thankful my life is full of so many awesome people. Keep your eyes wide open. Stop. Look for things to be thankful for. Then go- with the action that is inspired by your gratitude.



This is the rebuttal to my last post. I’ve been in Missoula almost exactly 2 years now, and there is a lot to respect about that time.

I love living in a city that has local food and culture and unbelievable access to wilderness.

I love working for a small, well run company that lives it’s values. That gives back to the community, that provides unusually great benefits to employees, and does high quality work to really change our built environment.

I love that my life does not fit neatly into the consumerist corporate America that defines success by the size of my bank account.

I love working with my hands, connecting with other people that work with their hands, to make small but deep impacts in our local community.

I love the friends that I have made here and the fact that I can’t list them because there are simply too many.

Not admitting that I love this place seems like a rebuke to all of the above, and that’s just not going to fly. I could probably figure out how to live my values anywhere, but doing it here simply reflects their priority.

November 2, I took the train north from San Jose to spend a little time with Dustin. He remains one of the most important and incredible people in my life, and always reminds me how to get back in touch with the priorities that I sometimes lose sight of. We talked about living with a smaller footprint, embracing how little we really need, and chasing passions to the end of our wits. All things that I can see myself doing here.

If my priority were to make as much money as possible (or become as powerful as possible, because the ego is probably what’s really under the desire to have “impact”) I wouldn’t work for my boss or do what I do. I would have stayed in Portland, or moved someplace just as disconnect from wilderness. I’ve been there, done that, and moved forward with my life choosing otherwise. 

“A willow can grow and bend, lose leaves, grow them back, reach for the sun, change its appearance or its focus with the seasons. It can become scarred, burned or bent. But it’s still a willow, and still a tree. And at every step, it is beautiful.”

My life is it’s own definition. Like the willow, for whatever form it takes, I get to define who Skander is and what that means.


Where am I going?

Where am I going?

Wednesday morning I met my boss for coffee at our favorite place, halfway between our respective houses and the office. We talked about our profession, our decisions in life, the men’s work we’ve been doing, and everything else under the sun. My boss has become a close friend, and one of the men I admire most. I left thinking that for whatever reasons I ended up in Missoula, some time with him is probably the most important outcome of all. At some point in our conversation, I remember saying “for now, this is it. Everything that my values tell me is right, tells me to do what I’m doing right here, right now.” By many of my own definitions, this is success.

Thursday afternoon I stepped on a plane and the doubt about it all came flooding back in. “What am I doing in this little town that doesn’t mean anything?” The magazine article about the quality of life in Portland, the energy of stepping into the Seattle airport. En route to help my brother for the weekend- moving houses, and moving forward with the next big step of his life- being a dad. I feel fear that my life isn’t really moving forwards at all. It is easy to tell myself there is precious little to show for the time I’ve spent so far. I remember making this same flight on a beautiful spring evening in 2008 to stand by my brother as he committed to spending his time with an amazing woman. I fear I’ll never find that person, be able to buy a house, never save enough to travel or retire the way I’d like. That I’m spending the most important moment of my life- right the fuck now- in the wrong place, at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing. Why every time I go back to Portland, or hang out in Seattle, or fly into the Bay, there’s a piece of me that says “it’s HERE. Be here, not there, now. You’re missing it.”

Perfect San Francisco sunset.

Perfect San Francisco sunset.

More and more my time in Portland seems like a distant fantasy. I was young and excited. I didn’t waste time sleeping properly, I lived in the gym, and I breathed the future of professional innovation. Money was easy, friends were close, and any real responsibility was distant.

Totes from Good Food Store- my brother knows what I'm after.

Totes from Good Food Store- my brother knows what I’m after.

I’m not sure why this trip makes me think that in Missoula I work 90% as hard, for triple the responsibility and half the money. I think about work all the time, and even on a fun afternoon away from my desk, I can’t stay away from the next professional task. The people that matter the most are further away than ever, that my impact is constrained by the very mountains I admire on the edge of town. I’m not sure why the tech entrepreneur in the seat next to me seems lightyears ahead of me, or the vibrant foodie culture in Portland makes me doubt the importance of the CSA share I picked up on Tuesday in Missoula. I’m humbled at how infrequently I take time away from work to do things that really make me come alive. Maybe under all these fears and complaints, I’m facing the feeling that I’m not putting my time in Missoula to good use.

Things have come together this fall. Running, climbing, working, growing, and friends. Even a little more money and some new fun toys. There is always doubting the face of success. The struggle of finding the balance may be the most human part of it all.

Palm tree nightfall.

Palm tree nightfall.


I wrote my first mission statement shortly after moving to Portland, Oregon in 2007. It was a queue from reading “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”- a university graduation gift. Drowning in romantic chaos, I needed a simple statement to recenter myself. Being an engineer and feeling adrift, my “simple” statement covered 1.5 pages. While it stuck with me for a while, I missed the point of what the exercise was about.

I spent this weekend in southern Idaho with the ManKind Project making up for a seminar that was cancelled due to wildfires in August. Called a “New Warrior Training Adventure” it was a unique opportunity for personal growth.  I could write a lot about what we did, but I’d rather demonstrate what I learned in the way I live my life.

Among other things, we wrote a mission statement for ourselves. I had updated my original a number of times over the years, but this time it felt like I finally wrote something that really fits the bill:

“I create a world of abundance through authentic self expression.” (Skander Spies)

Abundance shows up many ways in my beliefs, and it is good descriptor for how much I got out of the seminar. Self help seminars have a stigma- I’m proud to say it was a cool experience that delivered as promised. Growing as a man in my community is as much of an adventure as anything, and I was proud to take the time this weekend to take the next step.

on the road.

Respect the journey you were brave enough to put yourself on.

Twenty Nine

birthday party

The next step. (Photo by Brett Kvo)

(ed. note: number counts are updated as of 11/2/13)

The last day of my 29th year was a tiring one. Looking back The goals I set when I returned from Australia have mostly eluded me. Every year will have highs and lows.  Things will always be crazy and they will not go according to plan. If your goals elude you, that is a good sign they are worthy enough. The perspective of the first few days of my 30th year reminds me that it has in fact (of course), been another excellent year. Time with my Australian family, an amazing trip in the Wind River, and an increased objection to the notion of what “should be” have been a few among many highlights.

Epic birthday breakfast- thanks Paul.

Homestyle birthday breakfast- thanks Paul.

My roommate Tess and I share our birthday on October 12, and we shared simple motivations for a joint celebration- climb with friends then eat great food. Without any additional effort, the gifts of the day were very much greater.

The only thing brighter than the fall colors were the people.

The only thing brighter than the fall colors were the people.

About 10 people showed up Saturday morning to celebrate by climbing. By 7pm, our group had become a 30 person potluck extravaganza in the best way. The night ended at an awesome performance at the Top Hat, with a few more folks that didn’t make the potluck.


Bellingham based Polecat tore the roof off an already great party.

The existential questions have always seemed to sit with me too easily – “am I working the right job?”/”hanging with the right people”/”spending my time wisely?” Being goal oriented has been part of my M.O. for as long as I can remember. I’m starting the 30th year though in a different direction. My penchant for responsibility and thrift moves me towards more experiences and fewer things. While cleaning up on Sunday, Tess’ friend Greg shared a more succinct view of aging:

“In our generation, success is more about what you have experienced than what you have bought.”

This may seem ironic given that my birthday present to myself was taking some cash out of the bank for new skis. The house I was hoping to buy next spring doesn’t really fit my goal of owning fewer things anyways. New skis and new friends bring the promise of new experience and new quality. The question of the 30th year is not “how do I do more”- it is one of “how do I do less, better.”

bernice's bakery cupcakes

Thanks mom, for reminding me to take time, let my belly out, and have fun. (Bernice’s Cupcakes!)

Treasure and Bonk

Friday afternoons I usually cut out of work early and get out for a hike (if I’m not driving somewhere for the weekend), but this last Friday I stayed late and collapsed on my couch around 530. I had expected to drive to Leavenworth, but the weather made climbing unattractive, so my weekend was unexpectedly open. I didn’t even want to think about making plans.

About 10 minutes later I was just drifting off for a nap, when my friend Jeremy called. I was tired. “Can you be at my house right now?” [10 min away by a vigorous bike]

“What’s the gig?”

“Well it’s a treasure hunt with a historical trivia game, adventure race, and math problem inside. Oh, and there is $1000 for the winning team…”


“But I have to be there right now?”
“No, the race is tomorrow, but we gotta strategize. And there is a pre-race meeting.”
“And we’re going to win, right?”

Todd (in helmet) sprints for the opening clues.

Todd (in helmet) sprints for the opening clues.

I have a willingness to get my rump off the couch that never fails me. That willingness is also rarely wrong, which helps. The event was “Brains and Brawn” and was a fundraiser for the Headwaters Dance Company. It may also have been the most fun single event I’ve ever done.

Headquarters for "the Prize Spies" - no team with a pirate flag can be defeated.

Headquarters for “the Prize Spies” – no team with a pirate flag can be defeated.

Todd and Amanda put the team together, and we called ourselves the Prize Spies. Amanda and Jeremy locked down basecamp to handle research and communications. Joran elected to the 20km trailrun, I jumped on the 40km bike ride, and Todd blew up his packraft to get in the river. Joran left first for the clue at the end of his run while Todd and I picked up each of 4 Missoula historical clues, the last of which sent me on a trip to the Milltown overlook state park. I picked up my clue and called Todd who was waiting to put his boat in the water. All of the clues we picked up had part of a geometry problem on it. Amanda and Jeremy solved the geometry to create a map that pointed to the treasure. With Todd and I both thrashing around on the south side of the Clark Fork for 40 minutes, the second place team had ample time to eat up the lead we had put on them in the biking. At the last minute I recognized the driftwood T, and picked up the spray painted treasure chest just ahead of team #2.

Typical sample clue.

Typical sample clue.

Finding the treasure in a neck and neck race is amazingly fun. Thanks to all the participants, but especially my amazing teammates. That was a whole lotta fun.

After the race I was still feeling spunky, so I hit the climbing gym and some ugly weights. My unexpected empty weekend was getting full fast. I raced home, grabbed a shower, made dinner with Steph, and met Simon at a party with my cello. Somehow, he convinced me that joining an epic mountain bike ride on Sunday morning was in order.

We left at 10am, and climbed straight uphill until noon. The race, and the squats from the gym left me feeling gassed at the start. Needless to say I didn’t make it all the way to sheep mountain with the boys. The solo trip back down the single track got very, very cold, and I was happy to spend the rest of Sunday in a coffee shop with a hot drink. I haven’t bonked quite that hard in a while, and it makes me understand why I see so many mountain bikes here. Good thing I need another adventure sport like I need a hole in my head… Thanks for a fantastic ride boys, and thanks to my stellar roommate Paul for the loaner bike!

Tougher than me. Nick, Simon, and Jack head onwards to Sheep mountain.

Tougher than me. Nick, Simon, and Jack head onwards to Sheep mountain.


Today my team and I won an old fashion treasure hunt. This was hilariously fun on it’s own, but far better because of my teammates- Todd, Amanda, Jeremy, and Joran, thank you so very much. When else do you get to find real treasure and support a great cause? Story and details to follow!


Lander, WY

Part III of III

Another perfect moment.

Back at the car, another perfect moment.

Sipping good coffee at my friend Sylvia’s house in Lander, the Monday morning bustle started slowly around me. I wasn’t due back at work in Missoula for a few more days, and I had some time to transition from the wilderness back into normal life. I smelled diesel fumes mix with wispy grey clouds against the Wind River range as the sun burned off the night chill. Lander is a gateway to the Winds- I ordered my first set of maps from Wild Iris in 2002 and is home to NOLS, the organization that formalized my wilderness knowledge. That morning, the calm remoteness of this small Wyoming town settled on me like a magic spell.

The Wind River Mountains are the best place.  Just the best. All of my practice in writing about mountains comes up short against describing this place.  The vast golden meadows, dark evergreen groves, and striking granite walls leave nothing for want. It is simply perfect here.

Back in Missoula the mornings start later.  Days are still hot, but cool nights tell of the impending autumn. I’ve climbed in the Bitterroot the past two weekends, and the lessons from my trip continue to enrich the experience here. My trip to the Winds shows me how much of my own backyard is incredible. How much is possible, without getting that far from home. How much more I can learn and do, without the carbon footprint of international travel. I could drink the Winds for the rest of the my life and never miss a drop of anything else. I am there, and I am fulfilled.

I’ve been chewing on the idea of perfection lately. To call my time in the Winds perfect seems to evoke hubris, but not to acknowledge these best days as anything less feels ungrateful. To think that my life is perfect seems boastful, but it’s fun to think that it might be. The lesson is in realizing the perfection of moments, amidst the imperfect reality of daily life. It is the imperfections that make this all beautiful- that add the character and perception to know the flawless bits.

Sunset over the Tetons. My backyard is big.

Sunset over the Tetons. My backyard is big.