A Few Words with CMC Instructor Jeff Speake

Written by Bella Biondini

“I was once addicted to water sports (well, still am).”  

Jeff Speake has been an active member of the Colorado Mountain Club for 12 years. After years of avid beach trips and scuba diving, he changed course for the mountains. He didn't have big aspirations, and at first only wanted to learn more about self--sufficiency. But Speake quickly picked up the more technical aspects of climbing and mountaineering venturing to Mount Blanc, the Dolomites, the Matterhorn and the volcanoes of Ecuador.  

Now he currently sits on the Technical Climbing School Committee and has served as a Senior instructor in Alpine Climbing School (formerly Basic Mountaineering School) since 2017. Speake has acted as acting co-director in BMS/ACS since 2018, and is co-director of the snow climbing courses. He is also aiding the development of the new CMC Mountain Bike Section.

Speake has passed his knowledge and skills to hundreds of students. He’s reluctant to refer to his presentations or classes as lectures. His presentations are structured around slideshows of actual Colorado climbs, demonstrating exactly what to expect, both in terms of challenges and risk —and best — the adventure!

I sat down with Jeff to talk about his experience with the Colorado Mountain Club.

How I got started:

In 2006 my wife told me “I’m tired of these damn beach vacations — let’s go trekking in Europe.” The new trekking thing stuck, and with it a new set of addictions. On trekking trips of Tour Mt. Blanc and the Haute Route in the Alps, our guide suggested I get into climbing. 

What is your favorite trip memory? 

Four or five years ago a friend and I went climbing in Ecuador. Six people were supposed to go on the trip. We hired a guide recommended by other CMC members, but in the end there were only two of us. So we ended up hiking 14ers with the guide, his wife and his six year old daughter who kicked our butts. We blitzed through all the climbs we wanted to do so we had a little extra time and a few days around New Years. The guide let us stay in his house and invited us to a party at his parents’ home. This was one of the most awesome cultural experiences I have ever had. Imagine thanksgiving here, your grandparents are there and your cousins are there and everyone is there and they are making this huge feast. It ranged from his grandmother dressed in native Ecuadorian dress, to kids who were in college and high school. We let things settle down at the house and went up to the road to another party. There was a guy playing local folk songs on his guitar and everyone was dancing. The guide's mother asked for a dance. I just got invited into their family and there was really nothing like it. 

Have you had a near miss? 

Most of the people I hike with are trekkers. We've gotten lost several times from just talking to each other. The rhythm keeps you going. Before you know it, it’s hey where are we? A lot of the climbing we do is at night with headlamps, so it's really easy to do that. I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve certainly been on climbs where the mountain goats are kicking down rocks, but I have never had a serious injury. There’s an old saying: There’s old climbers and there’s bold climbers but there's no old bold climbers. I guess that's my category.

What do you love most about teaching at the CMC? 

Most students don't know what to expect. I hear it in every class that I teach; A student will get to something that is really difficult and say “I can't do this.”  And I'll say yes you can. I've got confidence in you. You can do it. And they do. That brings them a huge level of confidence. A lot of these classes are life changing experiences for people. It's kind of a cool thing. 

Most valuable outdoor advice?

The summit is optional, getting back down is mandatory. I would also add just be flexible, don't get obsessed with what you're trying to do. Have a good time and enjoy yourself and most of all be safe. Another often quoted by the late Jeff Lowe: “The best climber is the one having the most fun.” And that's kind of the way I look at it. If you're not having fun doing this then why are you doing this?

Further Thoughts from Jeff: 

Many people think that all of this technical stuff is for guys. Well it's not. Some of the best climbers are women. They are rock climbers and they have great balance. It makes me jealous. Sometimes we have more women than others in terms of students and instructors in our Alpine Climbing School. It only hovers around 20/30% women. But there is no reason it can't be 50/50. We are trying to concentrate on this. So for the Alpine Climbing School Program Sheryl Lampert and I are acting as co-directors. In HAMS she had a group of women. They all had matching jackets and called themselves the secret society. I asked if they had a secret handshake and she said not yet. 

Why do this?

Basically, I climb snow couloirs, ice and rock just for fun. But, I really love teaching classes at the CMC. In addition to the satisfaction of turning-on students to some exciting technical skills, I’m pretty confident that CMC’s course emphasis on safety really does save lives. But there is also the social aspect of CMC.  An opening line in my presentations is this: “In addition to learning some great mountaineering skills, look around you — the people in this class will become your future climbing partners and friends”. In my years of involvement with CMC, I have always found that to be the case — CMC is a place where people can, and do, develop trusted climbing partners and make life-long friends.