|So You Wanna' Be a Mountain Guide?
Jason D. Martin
The dream is a good one. Climb every day. Get paid for it. Bring people to new places. Instruct. Have other
climbers look up to you. Be the king of the mountain. Indeed it is a good dream.
Many climbers see guides as the pinnacle of climbing experience. They see them as living a dream. They see
them as having unparalled skill and strength in the mountains. And perhaps part of this is true... But far from all
What It Takes:
While the weekend warrior sits in the office surfing the net, the guide is standing in the rain. While the weekend
warrior is doing another new route, the guide is climbing the same route for the twentieth time. While the
weekend warrior is walking at his own pace, the guide is walking at a fifth of his pace. Indeed, from a climbing
perspective alone, being a guide is not the most satisfying of professions.
Guides may be extremely profficient climbers, but they don't have to be. Mid-fifth class routes dominate the
guides curriculum. Snow slogs on simplistic glaciers are commonplace. Gudies often spend a large amount of
time teaching simple techniques such as lighting a stove or packing a backpack. The guide must have absolute
patience and unencumbered enthusiasm.
The guide doesn't get to go home when the weather sucks. The guide doesn't get to go home when the client is
an ass. And the guide doesn't get to go home when he's tired. The guide must always remain upbeat and
positive otherwise the client will not return. The guide must be fun and sympathetic to those who are out of
shape or incapable of simple camping tasks... The guide must keep his team safe.
Nothing is more important to the guide than safety. Nothing stands out before this single task. People come to
guide services to be safe. From a rescue perspective, most guides are quite skilled. Whether it be rock rescue
or crevasse rescue or simply the care of a minor injury, these are skills that guides develop over the years.
These are the skills that guides are often called upon to perform.
The guide cannot think about his clients as climbers. But he cannot think of them as "cattle that are trying to kill
me" either. The client puts all his trust in the guide. The guide has a bag of tricks to keep the client safe. And
he will employ these tricks at appropriate times. Most clients are successful in their own fields but have hired a
guide to keep them safe in this new venue. They did not hire a guide to look down on them. They did not hire a
guide to be condesending.
Gaston Rebuffet writes elegantly about what it takes to be a mountain guide in his spectacular autobiographical
work, "Starlight and Storm." Following is a particularly good passage about the life of a mountain guide.
Guides are no foolhardy adventures: they live, they do their job. Every day in the summer they get up
very early to question the sky and the wind. The day before, perhaps, they were uneasy, for long
clouds scarred the western horizon. They feared a night of worsening weather; the Milky Way shone
too brightly, the cold delayed its coming. But now, if the north wind has won the upper hand, the
weather is good, the guide can rouse his client and set out. The rope will join together two beings
who now live as one. During these hours the guide is linked with a stranger who will become a
friend. When two men share the good and the bad, then they are no longer strangers.
This profession might become wearisome through the repetition of the same climbs time after time,
but the guide is more than a mere machine for climbing rocks and ice slopes, for knowing the
weather and the way. He does not climb for himself, he throws open the gates of his mountains as a
gardener opens the gates of his garden. The heights are a splendid setting for his work, and climbing
gives him a pleasure of which he never tires. But above all he is repaid by the pleasure of the man he
guides. He knows that such-and-such a climb is particularly interesting, that at this turn the view is
quite suddenly very beautiful, and that this ice ridge is delicate as lace. He says nothing of all this, but
his reward is in his companions smile of discovery. If the guide thought to win his pleasure only
from his climbing he would be robbed of it and soon tire of the mountians. In fact, though he may
climb the same crack or the same slope five, ten or twenty times a summer, he rejoices each time to
renew aquaintance. But his real happiness derives from a deeper pleasure, that of his kinship with the
mountains and the elements, just as the peasant is akin to the soil or the workman to the materials
with which he works. If the second man on the rope hesitates, the guide restores his confidence. If
the storm breaks suddenly, he knows its secrets, his instinct masters it, his sense of responsibility
multiplies his strength tenfold and he brings his party safe back to the hut. He loves difficulty but
abhors danger, which is a very different thing. Sometimes, it is true, he is killed by lightning,
stone-fall, or avalanche. That too is part of the job; but so long as he lives he strives to lead his rope
How to Be a Mountain Guide:
1) Be capable of climbing comfortably at a moderate level in the terrain that you wish to guide -- 5.10 for rock,
WI 4 for ice, easy routes on Mt. Rainier for glacier guiding.
2) Join the American Mountain Guides Association and take a course in guiding the terrain that you wish to
3) Attain outdoor teaching experience wherever you can.
4) Get your Wilderness First Responder Certificate or the equivalent.
5) Have a good attitude, enjoy teaching, and enjoy the skill required to guide a moderate route safely. And no
matter what happens keep a good attitude
6) Apply for a job... You may be able to get one after attaining two or three of the preceeding steps.
Guiding is a great profession that is in need of great people. It is a profession that I love and that I enjoy talking
and writing about... Hopefully this will inspire others to set their sites on this profession as well.