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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)

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


Each spring, RMI staffs up for the coming season, filling holes in the 74-guide staff. Out of hundreds of applicants, 40 are invited to one of four daylong tryouts. Out of those, 10 will make the final cut. Our instructions: Pack sunglasses, gloves, boots, crampons, an ice axe, food, a climbing pack, and crevasse-rescue equipment, and be ready to demonstrate proficiency in the following skills: avalanche forecasting, crampon use, snow and ice anchors, pressure breathing, wilderness medicine, knots/slings/ropes, cold-weather injuries, crevasse rescue, mountain weather, Leave No Trace ethics, outdoor equipment selection and use, high-altitude illness, belaying, ice-axe arrest, client care, rest-stepping, glacier travel, setting a pace, step-kicking, transceiver searches, fixed-line use, and navigation and routefinding. In other words: This is a tryout, not a class; you better show up as a capable, well-rounded mountaineer.

I have a pretty solid foundation in alpine skills, thanks to five years of travels as a BACKPACKER staffer (including summits of Mt. McKinley, Rainier, and ice-capped peaks in Switzerland and New Zealand)—plus previous lives as a Wind Rivers-obsessed climber with an address that matched my license plate number and as an outdoor-pursuits program coordinator at a private school in Arizona. (To be clear, I’m not quitting my day job for the chance at a part-time, seasonal slot on Rainier, but my boss gave me the thumbs-up to moonlight as an RMI guide, if I qualify.)

I arrive in the Summit Haus at RMI’s compound two minutes early, and the room is already packed with nervous, milling recruits. At 32, I’m one of the oldest. It’s as quiet and tense as a finals week library, and I immediately make it a point to break the ice and get people talking. Supervisors Paul Maier (more than 300 Rainier summits) and Alex Van Steen (who has summited Rainier by 20 different routes, including a solo of one of the hardest, Liberty Ridge) enter a minute later, and we gather around a foot-thick table hewn from a huge western red cedar.

“Welcome. This is a day where we will get to know you,” says Van Steen. “We use a small-group setting because it allows us to assess intangibles that we can’t glean from your climbing resumés. How confident are you? How do you work within a group? Can you speak in front of a crowd?”

Maier issues our first task: “Introduce yourselves, and remember that this is your first chance to sell yourself. Tell us about your strengths, identify your best quality, and say why we should hire you. You each have two minutes.” So much for putting us at ease.

Answers range from the brown-nosey (“I’m a natural leader—and I’m all about safety, too”) to the obvious (“I’m a strong climber”) to the downright puzzling (“I can tell what people are thinking before they even say anything”).


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READERS COMMENTS

Scott
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.

copperwire9
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.

Derek
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.

Ellen
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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