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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.

I go last, which I worry will be a disadvantage as other candidates, one after the other, claim potential answers. But at the last minute, I see how to make it an advantage. “I usually try to go first in these situations, but this made me think a little bit harder, which is good,” I say. “My best quality is that I’m laid-back. That may seem like an odd one to pick, since it doesn’t take much practice—or even any energy. But it lends a comfortable leadership style, which is valuable when things get intense. I’m the calm in a storm—and that’s why you should hire me.”  

It goes over well. Maier (bad cop to Van Steen’s good) even repeats it later in the day. But my momentum is cut short by our next task: a three-mile trail run with a loaded pack, designed to immediately—and publicly—reveal who is fit and who isn’t. And I only brought double-plastic mountaineering boots that weigh more than two pounds apiece.
On my second lap, my goal becomes simply not to be the worst. And I’m not, clomping in ahead of three people.

The rest of the day consists of five more tests (see “So You Wanna Be a Mountain Guide,” page 78). Making the RMI roster wasn’t always the result of such a formatted approach, though. When RMI hired Ed Viesturs in 1981, he was one of two or three who got picked out of a group of five candidates that showed up. Essentially, good climbers were trained to be good guides.

“But as our tryout became popular, we needed to refine it,” RMI co-owner Peter Whittaker tells me later. “We came up with a weekend tryout that all 40 candidates would attend. On the first day, I’d start by asking two questions. First, ‘Do you like climbing?’ Everyone says, ‘Heck yeah, I live for it.’ But when I ask the second question, ‘Do you like people?’ there would be a pause. Mountain guiding is a job in which you really need to like people—you are tied to folks who are not as fit or experienced as you. So it’s paramount to find guides who genuinely like people.” They’d also have candidates speak in front of the entire group to gauge their presentation skills. On the second day, applicants ran from Paradise Visitor Center to Panorama Point (a popular dayhike for mere mortals, gaining 800 feet in 1.5 miles). “This wasn’t a way to rank the top runners,” says Whittaker, “but rather a way to see who struggled.”

The broad themes of today’s trial are similar, though some portions are more technical. The glacier-travel scenario, for example, is a do-or-die opportunity to demonstrate rope skills, crevasse-rescue technique, leadership, and teamwork. Van Steen tosses a rope, several pickets, and a few ice hammers and avalanche probes at our feet. There is a moment of hesitation from the group, and I see an opportunity to gain some positive attention. I grab the rope and start setting it up for a four-person rope team, talking through the process. “I’m going to place knots for us to tie into at about 25- to 30-foot intervals. Let’s divvy the pickets and probes evenly amongst ourselves.” Once we’re all tied in, we head out onto the “glacier” (otherwise known as the staff parking lot). I’m in the lead, and Van Steen calls out terrain cues. “Approaching a crevasse.” I probe to see where the edge is. “Weak snow bridge.” I turn our team uphill. Van Steen makes notes on his clipboard. Then he shouts: “Shannon takes a crevasse fall!” The team self-arrests and starts to stage a rescue. “James takes a crevasse fall!” Our efforts become chaotic. Van Steen stops the scenario, and we debrief.

“Look up here,” he says, raising a pen above his head. “Keeping your eyes up here, tell me how many of your partners have their harnesses doubled back.” None of us had checked. It was the first of many mistakes, and he generously harshes on just enough details to make his point: The goal here isn’t to make us feel incompetent, but rather to open our eyes to how thorough a guide needs to be, and to see how we act under stress.
“Shannon,” he says. “If you were leading this training scenario, what would you say to everyone right now?”

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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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