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Backpacker Magazine – May 2011

Are You Tough Enough?

Every backpacker dreams of a glory job in the outdoors. Senior Editor Shannon Davis heads to Mt. Rainier--and a grueling tryout with premier guide operation RMI--to find out what it takes to make the grade.

by: Shannon Davis

Are you tough enough to be a mountain guide? (Jacob Thomas)
Are you tough enough to be a mountain guide? (Jacob Thomas)

Inspired? Read what it takes to land 8 more of the toughest jobs in the outdoors.

“Well, I’d say that even though we each might feel pretty bummed with how things went, this is probably one of the most valuable days of training we’ll have, because we have a lot to analyze and learn from. I’d pick one thing that I could have done better and say how I’d change it next time. Then I’d ask each of us to do the same.”

After another round of rope work and public speaking, plus a private interview, we’re done at 5 p.m. Maier and Van Steen thank us for making the trip to Ashford (one candidate came all the way from North Carolina), and say they’ll make their decisions soon. “If you don’t hear from us, you didn’t get the job.”

A few of us exchange numbers, and a parade of 4x4s, Subarus, and economy rentals rips out of the gravel lot. I meet an old friend, a seasonal park ranger, to fly-fish the Yakima River (I catch an auspiciously vibrant 14-inch rainbow).

Three days later, I receive an email: “Welcome aboard! We feel you would be an excellent addition to our team at Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. Congratulations! We are excited to work with you.”

I’m quick-stepping up the Muir Snowfield with a 55-pound guide load on my back—and the extreme effort is making me dizzy. The freakish fitness required of this profession has become painfully apparent. It’s three months later, and I’m back for a week of intensive new-guide training with four other first-year newbies. We’re within eyesight of Anvil Rock at 9,584 feet, three-quarters of the way from Paradise to Camp Muir. I do the math: We covered the 4,184 feet in only two hours and 10 minutes. Not a human pace. I could use a break.

Just five minutes. I have to ask Maier to take five. I can’t. I need to—my thigh is cramping. I can’t ask! Can I get tossed for getting tired? My mind runs in circles as sweat pours off my face. It’s a cloudless, breeze-free day in June, and the UV rays reflect off the snow like microwaves. My sunscreen is long gone, and my neck and forearms are burning. My stomach twists with the desire for a Clif Bar—or anything—so long as it’s chased with a full Nalgene of cold water. And—oh God!—do I need to poop, too? I have to ask for a break. Dude! You. Cannot. Ask.

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Aug 22, 2011

I returned from an RMI guided summit climb of Rainier August 7th. They really are the best in the business and I knew I was in good hands. This is a great insiders view of what it takes to guide. Thanks for the guides perspective of this beautiful mountain.

Jul 07, 2011

Thanks for a wonderfully-written article that 'guides' your readers through the information while keeping us entertained, just as you 'guide' your clients up and down your mountains. I'd hire you in a skinny minute.

Jul 07, 2011

Great story. I loved reading your experiences, the thoughtful interacting, and compassion shown. It gives me some ideas as I take youth on outdoor trips this summer. Thanks.

Jul 07, 2011

We're going out to hike Rainier this summer and this story was excellent as a primer for the experience. For me, it is good to know that guides do not always feel the confidence they show on the outside. So glad the pencil was swiped. I'll even bring an extra to leave in its place!


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