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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)

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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