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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.
moutaineering guideAre you tough enough to be a mountain guide? (Jacob Thomas)

In theory, double-plastic mountaineering boots make crappy running shoes. In practice, I can certify that they’re actually much worse. The hard outer shells come up to near mid-calf and are as rigid as barn siding. The thick inner linings are rated to -30°F. These qualities make them perfect for snowy, steep, frigid terrain—but for running up a muddy fire road while carrying a 30-pound pack? Only if you desire the gait of Frankenstein and the precision footwork of a cow. My shins bang against the stiffened tongues. My heels slip. Other runners—the guys I’m competing against, who were smart enough to pack something besides doubles—pass me with antelope ease.

It’s mid-morning on a 45°F March day in perpetually misty Ashford, Washington (population 293), just outside the southwest entrance of Mt. Rainier National Park. I’m here to go toe to crampon-compatible toe with nine other aspiring mountain guides who have been invited to a tryout with Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI), one of the country’s largest, best-known, and most-respected guide companies. We’ve all paid our own way to this one-shot trial, but only a couple of us will get hired as guides. The rest will have to find alternative summer work—something notably less badass, to be sure. The way this three-mile run—a key component of our fitness assessment—is going, I’m worried that I’ve already been relegated to the latter.

But consider the former: mountain guide! What backpacker worth his weight in ice axes hasn’t fantasized about one of the toughest, most dangerous, and most glory-drenched paychecks in the outdoors? Jobs like this—think backcountry ranger, Outward Bound instructor, wildlife biologist, and other Gore-Tex-collar careers—give you unfettered access to an exclusive brand of adventure that’s off-limits to the general public. But it’s not a simple VIP pass: You have to earn the keys to the kingdom by proving fitness, technical know-how, charisma, and those intangibles that separate the leaders from the rest. Maybe my peers and I will never be tested like the Greatest Generation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reach the highest level of competency, confidence, and self-reliance. Make the cut, and you see more, go farther, get deeper, and do it all the freakin’ time.  

For some of us, the desire to join that exclusive club is so strong we start wondering: Do I have what it takes? That fire was lit in my belly after summiting Mt. Rainier a couple of years ago on a climb with JanSport employees. Casey Grom (a senior RMI guide and two-time Everest summiter) pulled me aside and said, “Hey, if that BACKPACKER gig of yours ever stops doing it for you, you could easily come out here and guide.” It was a siren. A top RMI guide was telling me that I could be an RMI guide. I could climb this beast every day and lead countless people on a trip that could very well be the high point of their lives. I could do that. Totally.

If I can pick up the damn pace.  

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