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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.

When I meet my first client, he instantly throws me a tough question—tough for a new guide, at least. “So, how many times have you climbed Mt. Rainier?” asks the commercial pilot from Arizona. “Fewer than 500,” I say with a wink. “Which is how many summits George Dunn has [page 52].” I adroitly avoid a direct answer but still provide noteworthy information that makes me look in the know.

It’s September, and for my first trip I’m teamed up with senior guides Seth Waterfall and Jake Beren and associate guides Geoff Schellens, Andy Bond, and Garrett Stevens. We’re leading a six-day Expedition Skills Seminar, during which clients attempt a summit climb and learn advanced mountaineering skills to pursue bigger peaks on their own. Our 14 clients range in age from 29 to 62. The forecast is for three days of blue skies, light winds, and summit temps in the 20s—then three days of crap.

It’s only day one, but I’m already suffering a crisis of faith. Sure, I’m wearing the RMI uniform, but do I really belong? My colleagues all guide or ski patrol full-time. Waterfall has summited Everest and notched first ascents in Antarctica. The hard truth is that I spend most of my weekdays staring at a computer screen. BACKPACKER editors are easily the most active in the magazine world—show me others who get outside 75-plus days a year in the backcountry, and I’ll send you a sixer of Rainier beer—but someone still has to put out each issue. That’s us. And it can require long hours riding the desk. I had drastically improved my training since melting down on the Muir march (go to to see my six-week regimen), but I wasn’t living the alpine life like this crew. So, I think about something Maier said during our training week: “During much of your first season, the biggest contribution you can make is on client care.”     

So instead of sitting with the guides on the shuttle bus, I grab a seat next to a balding, chubby client from Ohio. He’s wearing a brand-new pair of Everest-ready La Sportiva Olympus Mons boots, and his hobby is highpointing, or climbing the tallest peak in each state, something I did for BACKPACKER in 2004. We chat favorites.

As we start our trek from Paradise to Camp Muir, I learn clients’ names, professions, and hometowns. We talk about gear, climbing, travel, and family. This also helps participants maintain an easy pace—thus avoiding first-day burnout—since they have to maintain air to chat. I instruct people on rest-stepping and pressure breathing. I model good break behavior: “I’m going to take a seat on my pack to save my legs. Then I’m going to get a bite—about 200 calories or so is a goal for every stop—and I’ll wash it down with about half of my Nalgene since we’ll have four breaks on our way to Muir, and I have two bottles.” The easier stuff. When we move again, I lead while the senior guides counsel stragglers who don’t think they’re going to make it, and radio the office to discuss bailout options. The harder stuff.

At Muir, I busy myself bringing clients hot water and getting gear organized. Waterfall has the guides huddle up to discuss a change to the standard schedule: “With this forecast, we should try to summit the day after tomorrow. Otherwise, we won’t have a chance.”

The following morning, we teach cramponing, ice-axe use, and how to travel on a rope team. In the afternoon, we rope up and go for a training hike across the Cowlitz Glacier. On the return, Highpointer trips and breaks a bone in his hand. He’s able to hike back, but is crushed that he won’t be climbing with us.

At 2 a.m. the next morning, we’re roped up and moving. It’s in the 20s and calm, and I quickly learn the difference between being a climber and being a guide: I can’t trust the 600 pounds of people I’m tied to. This makes me hyper-aware and very proactive (“Watch your spacing!” “Tighten that coil!” “Get that parka on!”). We make the summit crater by 8 a.m. after a pleasantly uneventful climb (though the cloud-chain wisping past high break was among the prettiest I’ve ever seen). Several of us sign the register and hike to Columbia Crest, the official highpoint. The guys on my rope team want a picture with their guide (gratifying), then ask their guide to take pictures of them as they ham in pose after pose (finger-numbing). Before we rope up for the descent, I swipe the pencil I signed the register with as a memento for Highpointer. (Unethical, perhaps, but there were plenty.)

Weather deteriorates as we work our way down Disappointment Cleaver, and within 20 minutes of returning to Camp Muir, a squall engulfs the mountain.

I find Highpointer. “I wish you had been with us, so I picked up something for you on the summit. It’s yours on loan. It belongs on top, so you should bring it back to sign in on your next attempt.” A tear runs down his cheek, and I know I’ve done my job. But no time to dwell. A good guide never rests.13 I need to go boil water.

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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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