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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)

“Well, I’d say that even though we each might feel pretty bummed with how things went, this is probably one of the most valuable days of training we’ll have, because we have a lot to analyze and learn from. I’d pick one thing that I could have done better and say how I’d change it next time. Then I’d ask each of us to do the same.”

After another round of rope work and public speaking, plus a private interview, we’re done at 5 p.m. Maier and Van Steen thank us for making the trip to Ashford (one candidate came all the way from North Carolina), and say they’ll make their decisions soon. “If you don’t hear from us, you didn’t get the job.”

A few of us exchange numbers, and a parade of 4x4s, Subarus, and economy rentals rips out of the gravel lot. I meet an old friend, a seasonal park ranger, to fly-fish the Yakima River (I catch an auspiciously vibrant 14-inch rainbow).

Three days later, I receive an email: “Welcome aboard! We feel you would be an excellent addition to our team at Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. Congratulations! We are excited to work with you.”

I’m quick-stepping up the Muir Snowfield with a 55-pound guide load on my back—and the extreme effort is making me dizzy. The freakish fitness required of this profession has become painfully apparent. It’s three months later, and I’m back for a week of intensive new-guide training with four other first-year newbies. We’re within eyesight of Anvil Rock at 9,584 feet, three-quarters of the way from Paradise to Camp Muir. I do the math: We covered the 4,184 feet in only two hours and 10 minutes. Not a human pace. I could use a break.

Just five minutes. I have to ask Maier to take five. I can’t. I need to—my thigh is cramping. I can’t ask! Can I get tossed for getting tired? My mind runs in circles as sweat pours off my face. It’s a cloudless, breeze-free day in June, and the UV rays reflect off the snow like microwaves. My sunscreen is long gone, and my neck and forearms are burning. My stomach twists with the desire for a Clif Bar—or anything—so long as it’s chased with a full Nalgene of cold water. And—oh God!—do I need to poop, too? I have to ask for a break. Dude! You. Cannot. Ask.

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