Brien Sheedy: the man, the myth, the legend, the OP director

by Ian Jagel
STAFF WRITER

One could assume that anyone who has made it a habit to summit the highest peaks in the world would have to have a little spark of madness in them in order to constantly put themselves in such situations. Brien Sheedy, director of the Whitman College Outdoor Program, is, perhaps, the exception. A mild-mannered man with a healthy smile, in conversation, Sheedy has a very rational and calm demeanor.

“I’m not out there trying to seek death-defying experiences. It’s important to understand the risks and learn the skills to mitigate them. I’ve gone skydiving and bungee jumping and all sorts of outdoorsy things and, yeah, part of it is the attraction to the adrenaline and that adrenaline rush of feeling a little bit on the edge. It’s also not fun to be on the edge all the time. It’s also not fun to be on the edge not knowing what you’re doing.”

Sheedy, who grew up on the shore of a lake, has a close affinity with the outdoors. “I think it’s not a question of being more comfortable in the outdoors or here. I’d say I’m comfortable in both environments. But it is a very big part of my life. You couldn’t take that part of my life away; I’d feel like there was something missing.”

From his youth spent climbing the Adirondacks, Sheedy went on to summit the highest peak on each continent. “Climbing is what got me into mountaineering,” said Sheedy. Mountaineering eventually became a large passion for Sheedy and is what brings him his greatest acclaim.

“When I got to college, I got very active in the outdoor clubs at the schools, and in the climbing community. Rock climbing became a pretty big passion. Eventually that evolved into ice climbing, ice climbing turned into more interest in mountaineering.”

Last semester Sheedy gave a presentation called “Seven Summits” which went through his 11.5 year long conquest of climbing the tallest peak on each of the seven continents.

“I actually didn’t know I was on that quest,” said Sheedy of his pursuit of climbing the seven summits. “Up until Everest, the others were just coincidence.”
After graduating from the University of Texas, Sheedy began working for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). He was stationed in Alaska and while there decided to climb the tallest peak in North America, Denali.

“Then they asked if I wanted to go to Kenya. So they sent me for a year and a half. I thought, I’m here anyhow, I should go climb Kilimanjaro.”
Sheedy returned to the U.S. for six months before NOLS asked him to go down to Chile. While there, he climbed to the summit of Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America.

“Once I was actually en route to Everest, it occurred to me: ‘Oh, if I actually summit Everest, I’ll be done with all the hard ones of the seven summits. I should just finish.’ It was then that I decided that I’ll really pursue the seven and finish them up.”

Working for the National Outdoor Leadership School was the start of Sheedy’s career involving the outdoors. “No one gets into this career without a strong love of the outdoors and teaching. There’s a lot of other ways to make money that are sort of less all-encompassing. It really takes a lot of time.”

While as a profession, doing what Sheedy does is work, he still manages to find great fulfillment in it. “All sorts of trips give me different sorts of things. Some trips are highly technical and extremely physical. And I really savor that kind of challenge. Other trips are maybe very mellow, relaxing and peaceful. And maybe develop a sense of place with that location,” Sheedy said.

“Other trips I do when I’m working with a whole group of people I get the enjoyment of turning people on to a new skill or activity for the first time. And see them really appreciate that.”

“I’d say that every trip brings something different. But they all bring something that helps me continue to grow and thrive as an individual,” Sheedy said. “It’d be hard to pinpoint exactly why I love the outdoors, yeah I get a sense of place, I get that physical challenge and I get to teach but another reason is that it’s fun! [laughs].”

“I like going places that not everyone else can go. Places that maybe require skills that took years to accumulate to be able to get me into some extremely remote very difficult-to-get-to place.”

The outdoors has not only provided Sheedy with a career but has also helped forge some of his closest friendships. “I have many extremely strong friendships that formed on different outdoor trips. Some of my best friends are the folks I’ve done multiple difficult trips with.”

Sheedy eventually came to work at the Whitman College Outdoor Program and has since expanded the breadth of the program to the point where someone could participate in an OP organized event every day of the week. From open-climb to kayak polo to ice climbing, the OP offers students with numerous ways to get involved in outdoors-related activity.

“We aim to offer a full spectrum of outdoor leadership training opportunities in a wide variety of skill areas. Starting next year we’re going to have a sea-kayaking guide course, which is going to be offered through the SSRA department. Salmon Norgaard-Stroich will be teaching a white-water river guiding course also through the SSRA department.”

“Our goal is to improve the quality of the existing OP program. In terms of expanding into new areas, I’m in no rush. And if we do grow, grow cautiously avoiding sacrifices in quality and the likelihood of problems.”

Under Sheedy’s leadership, the OP has come to have seven major projects: OP trips, the rental shop in Reid, speakers and special events, scrambles, SSRA classes like rock climbing and canoeing, the indoor and outdoor climbing walls and training courses such as the bi-annual Wilderness First Responder course.

To get more information about events sponsored by the OP, check out their website at whitman.edu/outdoor_program/.