My Job

“So you take people hiking?” Yeah, something like that.

My job as a mountain guide is probably not what you think.

As I’ve reflected on before, my job is not the one that my journalism degree from Western Washington University prepared me for. But here I am, still writing.

My job isn’t playing in the mountains on the regular; it is a lot of preparation and anticipation with regard to route finding, dietary restrictions, food shopping, coworker coordinating, weather observations, gear packing, van driving, etc. It’s preparing myself for all of the questions my clients might have and being truthful when they ask me something I didn’t plan for (this comes with a little embarrassment.)

The perks of my job are sunrises and sunsets in the mountains; conversations about life with people from wildly diverse backgrounds; the occasional nap while technically “on the clock;” all of my Trader Joe’s snacks are paid for; incredibly savvy, humble and inspiring coworkers; the opportunity to grow into my profession and simultaneously as a living, thinking, breathing human; the chance to do what I love, with love, as much or as little as I choose to accept work. (I want ALL of the work.)

The challenges associated with my job are working with people in emotionally challenging circumstances from the minute I wake up until the minute I fall asleep. I have to coax people into completely trusting me when they’ve only met me 24 hours prior, when they have little to no experience with what we’re doing and when they’re completely exhausted by the physical exertion and possibly the numerous questions I’ve asked them on the approach (I can’t help myself; I’m just so curious.) It’s (obviously) a lot of grinding up and down hills; it’s been a little hard on my body at times. The pay is something people often ask about; all I can say is that I make it work, whether it’s a second restaurant job for the off-season or forgoing a splurge or wearing the same clothes until they literally fall apart. (Actually, it’s all of the above.)

With each trip, I learn so much. I’ve had the pleasure of working with people that are incredibly talented — technically and interpersonally — and done my best to keep up and offer what I can. Besides my coworkers, I’ve had the distinct challenge of working with clients that didn’t seem interested in working with me; the joy of reaching the top when it seemed unreachable; and the bittersweetness of relinquishing a summit and savoring a high point more than 1,000 feet beneath our intended objective.

My job is so much more than a job. It’s being a relatable, conversational person; a source of inspiration when the client thinks they’re too tired to go on; a sense of emotional security when the going gets tough and scary; the voice of authority when difficult decisions need to be made; a backcountry chef in the wee hours of the morning and after a long day of climbing; all in all, it’s a lot. It’s not easy.

I heard a joke that cracked me up the other day that I think is especially relevant right now: “How can you tell someone is a mountain guide?… Because he or she will tell you.” In case plain text doesn’t convey the humor, it’s funny because it’s true! When what I do for work comes up, people generally either look at me with awe or ask plainly:

“So you take people hiking?” Yeah, something like that.

Sometimes that hike involves moving through terrain that you might not survive without adequate skills and preparation. Not trying to be dramatic, but it’s definitely more than just hiking. You get the idea.

One thing that has occurred to me in this career pursuit is that I no longer seek to put down the 9-to-5er. And it’s not just because most of my clients are 9-to-5ers — though I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a consideration — it’s because it takes all types to make it happen; whether that’s the climb, the company I work for or the community that I recreate in. I hope that in my life decisions, I’ll be taken seriously even if I’m not a suit-wearing professional. I’m a professional in my own right in that I keep people safe in alpine circumstances; I give people the opportunity to have impactful experiences in high, wild places; I get to share what so many mentors have given me along my own journey into alpinism.

The bottom line is that I’m lucky to do what I do. I am so grateful that Mountain Madness decided to have me on this season. I love the line of work that I’m in. I’m living my dream with all of the hang-ups and challenges that come along with it.

Head Games

Everything about ice climbing feels fierce and defiant. With good technique, you feel more in control of the situation at hand. But even then, you’re scaling a frozen waterfall. Yeah, it’s kinda crazy.

I drive my right foot into the ice as hard as I can. The teeth of my crampons gnash into the ice like the cold breeze that bites at my exposed face. My left foot feels secure; two front points exert enough downward force on seemingly brittle ice to support my bodyweight.

I exhale, stand and pull my upper body into the icy curtain. My hands are wet and paradoxically burning with white hot pain in the -6 degree weather (Celsius, since it’s Canada.)

As I raise my right hand above my head to slam the pick ever upward, I gasp as my right foot suddenly slips from the ice. Instinctively, all of my muscles tense. I pull hard on my left tool, my forearm burning with the exertion. Without a point of contact, my right wrist is weak from the fear of falling and my ice axe dangles limply above my head.

I retrain my focus and find my footing and place the pick. The adrenaline tingles throughout my body as my mind reels just a moment longer. Then, my attention shifts to find my next placements.

Everything about ice climbing feels fierce and defiant. With good technique, you feel more in control of the situation at hand. But even then, you’re scaling a frozen waterfall. Yeah, it’s kinda crazy.

I love that moment of clarity: the swift transition from dangling from an ice tool, panicked, asking myself “What the hell am I doing?” to a composed, pragmatic and methodical, “I can do this.”

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Crampons.
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Jason on Icy BC, WI5.
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Belay.
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Ice tools.