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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)

Our forced march at Maier’s pace is tough, to be sure (later, I overhear him say to another veteran guide, “I’m trying to break these guys”), but I should be doing way better. What’s wrong with me? Had I become complacent after acing the tryout? To train, I’d focused on running, which has always given me the best rate of return when I need to get in shape, pronto. So I ran about 35 miles a week in Colorado’s heavenly spring conditions. To take my mind off the fact that I now may be noticeably limping, I list my training plan’s shortcomings: No varied terrain! Nothing but bluebird weather! No snow! No heavy pack! No pack! (I repeat that one for emphasis—how many times have we printed, in this very magazine, how important it is to train with a loaded pack?)

Just when I’m sure my limp has become painfully visible, Maier makes a 90-degree turn off our nose-to-butt slog and throws his pack down for a breather. Hallelujah. (The other newbies and I later joke about how we were all gassed at the same moment, but none of us would say a word.) I take a seat on my pack and bite into an energy bar. I knock back water. The thigh cramp recedes. I re-up sunscreen and realize an opportunity.
“Hey Paul, I imagine clients are pretty curious about all the peaks we can see from up here. What’s that one?”

“Mt. Adams. 12,276 feet.”

“Ah, right. Second highest in the state. How about that one?”

“St. Helens. Was 9,677 feet. Now 8,365 feet.”

“I hear there are 30-inch trout in Spirit Lake, but you can’t fish there.”

And so on. I stall until we’ve discussed the Tatoosh Range, distant and hazy Mt. Hood, some immediate landmarks like Moon Rocks, and even the gray-crowned rosy finch, the songbird plying us for crumbs.     
We make it to Camp Muir in another 20 mostly pain-free minutes and break for lunch.

This humbling hike occurs on day four of orientation week for new guides. We’ve already completed a two-day class to become Leave No Trace trainers (a certification mandated by the park service). And we’ve received a crash course on how RMI’s various climbing programs work and the hard and soft skills expected of an associate guide (my official job title).

“The top three areas we’ll focus on this week are navigating the Muir Snowfield, client interaction, and rescue techniques,” Maier announced at the beginning of the week, as we gathered in the Guide Lounge, where instructors meet every morning to discuss forecasts and route conditions around a pot of bitter coffee. “Don’t think you have to master everything instantly. The tryout process is over, and you’ve been hired. We know that you all come with different skills and will progress at various speeds.”

But from the new guide’s perspective, everything is a test. And on day three of training, weather served up the perfect challenge. First graupel, then spitting rain, make the ideal conditions for demonstrating an ability to remain cheery while mucking about in slush as we study single-rescuer crevasse extrication and how to pass a knot through a haul system. Both skills are benchmarks all new guides need to pass in a timed test before they’re allowed to “spin” a client—that is, to accompany someone back to Camp Muir or Paradise, generally due to altitude or cold or fatigue.

In addition to mastering key skills, we get a primer on the job’s backbreaking dirty work: digging tent platforms on the Cowlitz Glacier, shoveling out buried latrines, cooking, snow melting, dishwashing, and other camp chores. Then we descend to congratulatory pizza and beer. “You are ready to get to work,” says Maier. “The schedule comes out tomorrow.”

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