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Tuesday, December 11, 2018  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eye On Boise

Just another day on the mountain: House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding faces challenge of literal and figurative heights

Mat Erpelding
Mat Erpelding

Over the weekend, the Lewiston Tribune published this profile of House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise:

By William L. Spence

BOISE - When Mat Erpelding says he's been to the mountaintop, he's not echoing Martin Luther King or offering hope for the difficult days ahead.

 He means it literally.

 Erpelding, 43, is completing his first term as House minority leader and third term overall representing Boise's 19th Legislative District.

 He has also been a professional guide and outdoor educator for nearly 25 years. He owns his own business now, but he spent much of that time as an itinerant guide-for-hire, leading excursions all across the country.

 Erpelding's resume includes five trips to Alaska for the American Alpine Institute, guiding climbers on Denali, North America's highest peak.

 He's reached the top of the 20,310-foot mountain four times.

 Formerly known as Mount McKinley, Denali doesn't even rank among the 100 highest mountains worldwide. There are foothills in the Andes and Himalayas that have a higher elevation above sea level - yet, when measured from base to summit, Denali is taller even than Mount Everest.

 Roughly 1,200 climbers try for the summit each year, according to the National Park Service, and slightly more than half succeed.

 Erpelding said it's rare for everyone in a climbing party to make it to the top. A commercial trip typically has eight or nine paying customers, plus three guides. They start out at 7,800 feet, then move in stages to the high camp at 17,000 feet before making a final push for the summit.

 The climbers haul 60-pound sleds, along with their 60-pound backpacks. They slog uphill, stop where the guide tells them and start to dig - big snow holes, 7-by-15 feet, 2 feet deep.

 It gets hot on those long summer days; they have to bury the supplies to keep the food cold and protect it from birds. So they dig, then bury, then hike back down and camp for the night. The next day, the climbers grab another load and hike back up, leap-frogging their way up the mountain.

 Hike, dig, bury, repeat. Day after day.

 It gets hard to breathe. It stops being fun. That's when people quit.

 "I've had people drop out the first day," Erpelding said. "I've had them drop out right below high camp. It's wherever they're finally exhausted."

 The climbers are on the mountain for three weeks, at high altitude, working hard every day. Some get sick, but most hit a mental wall before their bodies give up. The grinding exertion gets to be too much.

 "Most people I've turned around wanted to turn around themselves," Erpelding said. "That's where a good lead guide comes in: You have to create a culture where they're having fun, that allows them to rejuvenate their mental strength. You want them to enjoy themselves, even when they're tired and sore."

 It's hard not to see that as a metaphor for Erpelding's role at the Statehouse: the scrappy minority leader guiding his fellow Democrats forward into adversity, urging them on as they struggle to conquer Idaho's Republican massif.

 He's not overly impressed with the analogy, though. While there are similarities between the Legislature and the field, Erpelding has a different mindset once he steps through the Statehouse doors: It's not about accepting what the mountain gives him.

 "I run a more vocal opposition," he said. "Don't go along to get along. How's that worked out for us? If I hide and go back to my happy outdoor place, I've failed in my responsibility to the minority."

 However, helping his caucus succeed is clearly a priority for Erpelding - and that's where others see the lead guide come to the fore.

 "I think he's done a good job bringing his caucus together," said House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa. "It's obvious he has a background in team-building."

 Erpelding has a good, if at-times feisty, relationship with Crane and other members of the Republican leadership team. While quick to defend his caucus and stand up for Democratic values, he's also happy to swap friendly insults with them.

 "What I enjoy about Mat is his sense of humor," Crane said. "He advocates and articulates very well on behalf of his caucus, but he also uses humor to break the ice and keep spirits up. We can give each other a rough time, jousting and jabbing, but we know it's said in jest."

 It wasn't Erpelding's good humor that brought him into politics, though. It was anger.

 Erpelding grew up in Colorado. He was a long-distance runner in high school and fell in love with Idaho while competing at the Simplot Games in 1989.

 He later attended Idaho State University, earning a psychology degree. While there he took up rock climbing, and subsequently became an instructor at ISU's outdoor program. That led to a series of jobs as a guide and outdoor educator, running programs at Chico State, Evergreen State College and then Texas Tech.

 "I hated living in Texas," Erpelding said. "There's almost no public land, and the Lubbock Caprock is the flattest place in the United States. I couldn't even see a mountain, so in 2005 I moved back to Boise and started a guiding business out of the back of my VW van."

 He took jobs wherever the opportunity arose, teaching a variety of courses in academic settings, leading team-building retreats for corporations and hiring out as a guide across the country.

 "It was a cool opportunity to travel and do outdoor stuff while getting paid for it," he said.

 He spent the summers guiding in Alaska - which is where he was in 2011, when he first heard about the controversial education reform bills spearheaded by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.

 "When the Luna laws came through, I was so angry I came off Denali and emailed (then-House Assistant Minority Leader) Brian Cronin, asking if I could come work for him," Erpelding said.

 What he thought was going to be a volunteer staff job quickly turned into an opportunity to run for office himself. He was elected in 2012 and became minority leader in 2016, after former Rep. John Rusche of Lewiston lost the general election.

 Given that his caucus controls just 11 of 70 seats in the House, it often gets steamrolled on important issues - such as last week's 59-11 party-line vote on the governor's $200 million tax cut plan.

 While that can be wearying and depressing over the course of a session, it's also where Erpelding's outdoor experiences and sense of humor are at their best.

 "This is nothing," he said about being outnumbered five-to-one. "I was trapped by a storm once in a tent at 17,000 feet with someone who spent five days throwing up. If there's one thing a high-altitude guide is really good at, it's suffering."

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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