My Job

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.

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“Either”

Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” That quote is tattooed on one of my friend’s arms. While it will stick with him in a different sense than it will stick with me, it remains all the same.

Generally speaking, I like that quote. It’s inspiring. But right now, as I’m sitting here on the couch and deciding what to do with myself, it would be easy to cast myself on the “nothing” end of the spectrum.

I don’t think that’s accurate.

When I scroll through my social media feeds — Instagram in particular — I’m genuinely excited to see what other people are doing. It’s one daring adventure after another. Truthfully, I’m also a little jealous of all of the adventures I’m not having. I think we all do this from time to time.

My point, in all of this, is that life is not “either” a daring adventure or nothing at all. Sometimes, life is a daring adventure. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like much of an adventure at all. In order to have mountains, there must be valleys, too.

Misplaced Climber Girl

My life took a surprising turn recently.

Earlier this month, I was happily climbing in Mexico but missing home sweet Smith Rock. I was anxiously anticipating getting back to that sweet, sweet techy slab after nabbing my first 12a. The plan was to triumphantly return home — brimming with confidence — and crush it.

And then my housing arrangement in Oregon fell through.

At about the same time, my friend told me about a job at Crystal Mountain ski resort. She’d also found me a place to live nearby.

Conveniently, my whole life was packed in my car and parked in front of my folks’ house in Washington. More than I believe in “signs,” I definitely believe in flow. My flow was taking me to Crystal.

Day one on the mountain: I nearly drooled on myself looking at Rainier from my (now daily) gondola commute. Beneath me, the resort looked enormous. I saw treelines, steep groomers, meandering trails… I was dangling above an enormous playground that I was about to have wide-open access to. (Is this even real life? It can’t be!)

Day two on the mountain: Humbled. Ohhhhhh soooooo humbled. Turns out climbing in Mexico for three weeks isn’t good training for skiing. Instead of reading the map and choosing an easy route to warm up on, I decided to wing it. Just go for it. And then I found myself skiing steep trees and praying to god to have mercy on my tumbling soul. At the end of my first run, my legs were shaking and my feet were aching something fierce. I had done a terrible job fitting my boots and could hardly get myself back to the lift.

Today was different. Today, I wore boots that fit. I wore goggles that both shielded my eyes from falling snow and allowed me to interpret terrain. My clothes were warm. My skis were the proper length and f%cking fun. While I definitely took falls, I took them with a shit-eating-grin on my face. I brushed myself off and then charged down the next hill. I felt out the edges of each of my skis, cutting tight and wide turns in the snow. I found myself a few powder pockets and looked around — amazed that nobody else had beaten me to it — and went for it.

As I got to work today, I noticed that my fingertips are starting to fall apart. The callouses are withering away, but I don’t think I’m going to need them for a while.

Today I discovered that I’m more than just a climber. I’m a goddamn skier, too.

And I’m STOKED.

Better

I came to Smith with the intention of hanging out through October, peak season, when the desert temperature drops and crimpacity (crimp-capacity) rises dramatically. I was told that there would be work for me and that I’d have my hands full.

As I’ve written in previous posts, I chose to stay because of the community that I’ve found here. But I don’t think I’ve said much beyond gushing about how happy I am to be here. Well, let’s fix that.

In each of my endeavors, whether it’s climbing, writing, taking photos or working toward my dream of becoming a mountain guide, I get support from my community. It happens in little ways, like when people tell me “That’s rad!” in passing. And more direct ways, like my friends belaying and cheering me up a challenging line. Or even more importantly, like when people cite my flaws and tell me that they expect more of me. That I can. I can write better, I can climb better, I can dream bigger, I can do better.

Slowly but surely, I’m working toward 10,000 hours in climbing, photography, writing. But it’s no solo endeavor. I’m better off because of the people around me.

F-falling!

Yesterday, I reluctantly pulled myself from my cozy bed and gathered my things to go climbing. The weather was slightly overcast and gauzy clouds draped themselves over the rocks. It seemed like conditions were going to be so-so, but we pushed forward with our plans.

We started on a damp 10- climb that’s spooked me in the past. Given the conditions, I decided not to lead it. Normally, Alan (one of my constant partners at Smith) will pull the rope and laugh at me when I tell him that I’m scared. With him, I’ve consistently onsighted and attempted harder climbs than with any other partner. Each time I climb with Alan, I feel like I get a little stronger. It also helps that he’s a solid 12 climber and projects 13s and 14s.

Fast forward a few climbs and I’m leading a 10c, feet above my last bolt and a small ledge. Fear creeps into my mind and down into my now shaking foot.

I call down to my belayer, “Chris, I think I’m gonna fall.”

Immediately, both of the guys start cheering me on, telling me to stick with it, find my feet, move up, you got this, etc.

But my mind isn’t having any of that positivity nonsense. Instead, I’m fixated on the fact that when I inevitably fall, it’s going to be a long whip given the distance between me and my last bolt. And it happens.

And – surprise – I’m totally fine.

I’m shaking, laughing nervously and finding myself temporarily unable to make eye contact with the guys because I’m embarrassed. I hate falling on lead not for the fear that caused me to fall, but for the way it messes with my headgame.

If lead climbing – especially onsight climbing – is a blank canvas open to your creative interpretation; falling is a disjunctive ink splatter that disrupts the flow.

But it’s not the end of the world. You can incorporate the splatter and then later use your experience to make better art, climb harder, etc. But it still gets to me and the guys knew it.

I start to try to talk my way out of the climb, “I don’t know guys… I just got really scared.” I’m still smiling and laughing, but shaking like a leaf. The adrenaline jolt has woken me up and the part of my brain that handles fear is galvanized. But, being good climbing partners, they tell me that they’re not going to let me down that easy.

I take a moment. Gather my thoughts. And prepare myself to continue up. They’re right, I shouldn’t give up that easy. They also give me good pointers about using my feet, focusing my attention and shifting my weight to better grip the rock. It becomes obvious to me that these guys have been climbing longer and harder than I have; and I’m grateful for it.

Yesterday, I realized the length of the road ahead in my climbing career. I’m going to have to struggle my way up many more climbs, finesse others and fall from time to time. And  you know what? I’m psyched.

This Must Be the Place

Do me a favor, blast this song while you read this post.

I was driving Highway 97 by myself, windows down, some garbage pop song playing loud on the radio and I just knew: I can’t leave Terrebonne.

I’d just come down from climbing in the Marsupials — an obscure crag by Smith-classics standards — and was on my way to meet a friend to climb boulders outside of Bend when it became absolutely clear to me. Between my job, the climbing that I’m doing, the progress that I’m making, the people that I’m meeting, the life that I’m loving, I know this must be the place for me. This is home for now.

Falling

I have this project. It’s haunting me. I think about it most every day.

From the beginning, the climb is committing. I reach around a corner to two thin, downward-angled rails and trust my fingertips alone to hold my entire body weight. Then, I lift my right foot high and hope that the friction between the rubber of my shoe and steep, featureless rock will allow me to stand and reach a high hold for my left hand. In this move, my right knee starts near my ribs and slowly, powerfully extends to improve my reach.

I can confidently pull the moves through the first two bolts. It’s the third bolt that I think about daily.

My left hand latches onto a feature vaguely reminiscent of a mushroom — I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It’s flat on the top — about the width of two quarters stacked on top of each other — connected to the wall by a short and stout stem as wide as a whiteboard marker, but only protruding about a half-inch from the face. As I’m writing this, I feel adrenaline spill from my forearms, through my wrists and into my fingers. My body knows the move but also knows how it feels to repeatedly fall from this feature. On a good go, I support my entire bodyweight — again — from the fingertips of my left hand, stand on negligible feet and throw for a blind right-hand sidepull.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen here. Each time, my friend Alan cheers me on right when I need it — right when the rational part of my brain starts panting, freaking out, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” — and then dutifully catches me when I fall. He’s patient. Tells me to try it again. Tells me I’ve got this; which we both know I do, it’s just a matter of combining physically challenging moves with mental commitment.

What I’ve learned from this line, project and even partnership is that it’s ok to fall. In whatever you do, commitment is what makes failure more formidable, success sweeter, friendship richer, life worth living.