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Managing Guide Expectations

Part 2: Suggestions to Survive the Guiding Life 

"This is the rock and roll lifestyle!" Dale said as we walked back to our hotel in Zermatt. We had just gorged on pizza and expensive wine with our clients.  Earlier in the day, we guided them to the summit of the most iconic mountain in the world, the Matterhorn, via the Hornli Ridge. What a job! 
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Dale Remsburg guiding the Matterhorn's Hornli Ridge.
Mountain guiding can be the dream job: travelling the world, showing people a good time in the mountains, staying fit and tan. But it's not always like this. High-maintenance clients can drain your energy. Guiding the same route over and over becomes monotonous. And early starts and long days pile on exhaustion. 
Guiding is not straightforward. You don't know what to expect, whether it's your first guiding job or you're newly pinned. You ask yourself: How long can I do this job? How much will I make? How do I treat the clients? What follows are the main considerations that can help put guiding in perspective.  

1) Guiding is a service industry.

The product we deliver is service. Guides work for the client. This means the client is gold and should be treated as such. 
While some clients may be difficult to work with, most are not. Your clients are successful, adventurous people. Treat them as friends and have fun spending time with them. Learn about your clients by listening to their stories and asking questions. Some clients are looking for camaraderie as much as a rope leader. Tell your stories, but keep them in check. It's a fine line between telling stories that they like to hear and tooting your own horn. 
Treat all clients with respect. For example, do not lose your temper at clients or treat them in a condescending way. Guides who show anger at clients are often doing so because they gave poor instructions and the client did the wrong thing as result. Similarly, if you assume that clients are trying to kill you, then learn to increase your security in a tactful way. Remember humility; you are just a guide providing a service for a client. 

2) You don't get paid to climb. 

Climbing and guiding are separate things. Yes, there are glory days when you can't believe you're getting paid for the work, but those days are rare. Guiding is about taking care of people in the mountains. It will sap your energy for climbing and can burn you out from climbing altogether. If you just want to climb or ski, don't become a guide. Get a non-guiding job and climb in your free time. If you have minimal debt, it's possible to live on little money and climb more than any guide. 

3) Guiding may not be your calling. 

Dale Remsburg with a client on the summit of the Matterhorn.

Burnout and disillusion are common in guiding. This often stems from low pay, disrespect from guide services, summit-obsessed clients, and a difficult US work environment. A key to surviving the work is to find balance through variety. In a recent AMGA forum on this subject, IFMGA Mountain Guide Chris Simmons noted that long-term guides "seem to balance work and family and play." Mix up your work with both guiding and instruction. Work in a variety of venues, foreign and local, rock and alpine. If you're feeling truly burned out, take some time off. Trying other types of work may restore your interest in guiding and your commitment to certification. IFMGA Mountain Guide Jayson-Simons Jones added that "questioning guiding as a profession is a totally natural thing. Any guide that has been doing this whole-heartedly for any amount of time has had to re-commit and has had moments of doubt and questioning." And IFMGA Mountain Guide Tico Allulee wrote, "If you don't love guiding, don't. It's hard and dangerous."

4) Guiding is a difficult profession. 

Until recently, most guides were in their twenties, when living on $10,000 a year was possible. It wasn't a job where you could pay a mortgage and support a family. Now, some career guides make a livable wage. But it doesn't come easy. It is a competitive field. 
Successful guiding takes hard work. There are long days: guiding, planning, staying up late to check e-mail, alpine starts, rising early for guide after day. It becomes exhausting and can take days to recover. 
Guiding is performance-based. You have to do well to get paid well. You are not entitled to good pay just because you've climbed some hard routes or received your Alpine Guide cert or your pin. You have to do a good job, please your clients, avoid accidents, and do it reliably year after year. 
Another difficulty is that guides don't receive formal training in business, although business skills are necessary for successful guiding. Business owners often look to make money from naive young guides. It's up to you to learn negotiating skills, money management, and spreadsheet programs. Most guides use a trial-and-error method, and end up losing money and being taken advantage of in the process. Mentoring and formal training are better avenues for learning the business of guiding, but you must seek this knowledge on your own. 

5) You are just a guide.  

Guides are a proud group. It takes confidence and skill to lead people into the uncertainties found in the mountains or through the logistical abyss of international travel. But keep your pride in check. You are just a guide. 
As a new, young guide, you might, for the first time, receive validation from an elder that you are good in the mountains. Unfortunately, this can go to a young guide's head and lead to a sense of superiority that is not compatible with good guiding. Keep in mind that, while you may have talent, you are no more talented than your clients. Your clients are probably more successful in their own fields than you are at guiding. Put yourself in the clients’ shoes. How would you handle being in the court room, the pressures of managing a hundred employees, or working eight to five, five days a week? 
The Dunning-Kruger effect explains that relatively unskilled individuals think their ability is much higher than it truly is. In other words, the more you think you know, the less you actually do know. In the mountains, if you think you're really good, you are probably not that good. More experience, including experience in other ranges, will give you a more realistic and humble perspective on your ability. 
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Initially, guiding is exciting. Everything is new. You're getting paid to travel and climb and ski. As guiding becomes a career, it also becomes more like regular work. While you will occasionally be treated to perfect conditions with the perfect clients, on most days it will feel like a regular job, where you are just a guide, providing a service for a client...hopefully still aware that you are working your dream job.

More Reading 

  • AMGA Professional Members Forum,, accessed September 26, 2015. 
  • On Being a Guide, by SP Parker, AMGA Technical Handbook. 

212th Rescue Squadron

If you need a rescue in remote Alaska, you hope it's the 212th Rescue Squadron who shows up. These are the para jumpers in the Air Force, also known as PJs. They have the skills and the gear to pluck you from anywhere. A famous example of their work was the rescue of Jack Tackle from Mount Augusta by Dave Shuman.

Anchorage PJs are often in my avalanche classes. They are the unassuming students sitting in the back. The ones that are attentive and quiet, until it's go time.  

Bobby Schnell—one of the PJs—and I discussed training together for several years. This spring it happened. With two separate groups, we first practiced rock and ski mountaineering skills near Anchorage, then flew into the Alaska Range to apply those skills. Except for the second trip, where the Alaska Range wasn't happening, so we shifted to plan B. 

Brock Roden on day one at Emendorf Air Force Base, making plans and sorting systems. The PJs have more training than any 10 Mountain Guides combined, but their training is different than guides'. They wanted more lightweight mountain travel techniques to add to their arsenal of skills. 


Multi-pitch climbing on the Seward Highway. Although the Seward Highway ranks among the worst climbing in the US, the views are great and climbing starts at fun, and just gets better from there. 


Ted Sieroncinski, belayed by Bobby Schnell, climbing Chugach Choss above Anchorage. 


Near the top of Sunshine Buttress, a multi pitch 5.7. Standing is Matt Komatsu, the head honcho PJ, who is working on a degree in creative writing at University of Alaska in Anchorage. 


Shane Hargis (pointing) and I instructed together on the first trip. Shane has tons of experience from years of training Marines in Bridgeport California and from LOTS of personal climbing in California. His hands are like meat hooks from years of being crammed in California cracks. Although our training is different, it was very easy to work with Shane. Shane and the PJs converted me to the 5:1 up crevasse rescue haul system, which puts less force on the anchor and uses less space.  


The Sterling Hollow Block is a standard autoblock backup for rappelling. One drawback to the Hollow Block is that it gets slurped into an BD ATC Guide if used for progress capture, whereas standard six or seven millimeter cord doesn't get sucked in. For ski mountaineering, where skinnier ropes are used, a better belay device would be an Edelrid Micro Jul (if you can figure out the confusing thing) or Petzl Reversino, which are designed for skinnier ropes. 


After a couple days of climbing and ski practice around Anchorage, we flew into the Pika Glacier in the Alaska Range. A one-hour flight direct from Lake Hood in Anchorage.


Camp on the Pika Glacier.


Base camp living.  


Christian Braunlich at a hanging belay above the Pika Glacier.


Sonny Carlos rapping back to base.


Winding through an icefall below Italy's Boot.


An early morning crust tour near Italy's boot.  


Brock likes training. 


On the last morning, before flying back to Anchorage, Christian, Shane and I pumped a four-hour lap around a bunch of mountains. 

On the second trip, fifteen hours after reading a horrendous Alaska Range forecast, we were way south, where the rock is dry and Ted and Bear had to make difficult breakfast choices. 


Chris Bailey leading pitch two. A few days earlier he'd never rock climbed. PJs learn fast.


Sieging the crux, PJ style. Bear leading, Matt Kirby cheering from above, while Chris Bailey waits his turn. 

Thanks for an incredible three weeks you guys! 


2016 Denali Ski Base Camps

Among back-to-back trips last spring I had four Denali Ski Base Camps. Each trip confirmed my Denali addiction. It's not the kind of addiction that involves manhauling for days on snowshoes. Rather it's the kind of Denali addiction that involves skiing stable powder in big mountains with passionate people from around the world. 

The first trip started with big weather. That's what can happen in big mountains. Here's Austin Ranz and Philipp Becker storm skiing in the Ruth Amphitheater. They are friends of Brint Markle (not in photo) who I skied with in 2013


After the rager storm, it cleared and the Alaska Range emerged in typical glory.  


Brint testing a prototype of an Avatech snow measurement tool. Brint is the CEO of Avatech, a company that has tackled long-standing problems in snow measurement and information sharing. The company is going huge this year with Mountain Hub.   


Mike Schmid and Bryan Herold, back in the Alaska Range. This was our third trip together including the Western Chugach and a Denali Ski Base Camp in 2015


Mike modeling and testing snow quality for me. He does a good job. 


Booting two thousand feet of powder-filled coulie.


Mike below a run we called Flat Mike. At the summit, we took photos of Flat Stanley (a paper cartoon character) for his son. While in the chute, Mike took the skier's right gully, below the massive cornice. Watching from below, Bryan and I worried we'd be getting some flat Mike photos if the 40-foot cornice snapped off and steam-rolled Mike. 


Mike doubling down on burgers.


First step into the Alaska Range with four Scots: Al Conroy, Jonny Lonie, Becca Rankine and Tom Collins. 


First tour of the trip with the Scots.


Safe zone to safe zone in pow-filled coulies.  


Mid-afternoon noodle break before another run. 


Next year I want to ski out there, in those shady slopes and chutes. Anyone keen to go exploring with me? 


Becca below an ice cliff. Leading into this line was the epitome of guiding for me: onsight in big complex terrain. A few days earlier, Canadian IFMGA Mountain Guide Cece Mortenson told me how lack of spotters had been a factor in some recent avalanche accidents in Canada, including Robson Moser. Following Cece's reminder to always have a spotter, I used a talkabout radio to leap frog a spotter down above me. At one point I made steep powder turns above this ice cliff, with Jonny spotting, until I found a sneak to skier's right, into this pow-filled glacier-bowl. My only mistake was not getting some ice for our selection of Scotch. 

Becca modeling for my camera and testing snow quality into an unknown glacial basin. This valley exited into rolling moraine and a hanging terrace back to camp. 


We camped near Jim and Sarah Sogi. They live in Hawaii and ski around the world, wherever the snow is good, which means I often see them in Alaska. Each evening we socialized with Jim and Sarah at their nearby luxury camp. 


Booting another coulie to ski it's fluffy surface. I find photos of climbing chutes more captivating than photos of skiing chutes. Perhaps it's because the untracked snow gives that feeling of wanting to know what's ahead. Anticipation is much of the allure of backcountry skiing. 


A few hours after leaving our neighborhood, Oliver Evans, Amy Downing and Ben Crawford (out of photo) summit an Alaska Range peak. Last year Oliver and I skied steep north facing powder in the Western Chugach. This year we planned to ski again, somewhere. As the date approached, conditions looked best in the Alaska Range. 


Base camp. Jim Sogi loaned me this vestibule for my Hilleberg Atlas. 


Powder and corn in early May.  


Beating the afternoon heat. 


The Broken Tooth.


Clouds cloaked our mountains on the third day, so we skied near the rocks for visibility. This was a striking chute that I'd ogled over last spring. 


Amy ready to ski.  


After two runs among the rocks, we headed back to the tent and listened to an entire season of Serial, about an Army deserter in Afghanistan. At 6pm, Pilot Paul Roderick picked us up to return to Talkeetna. 


We stopped at the Ruth Gorge base camp to pick up some French climbers. Back in Talkeetna, we realized the small town was packed with weather-delayed climbers waiting to fly in. Turns out, our flight was the first and only flight all day. Paul is good to us like that. 

Thanks for the fun trips everyone! 


How to Read Glacier Health

Glaciers are visual indicators of climate, if you know how to read them. With a trained eye, mountaineers can simply look at a glacier and know the local climate trend. After numerous discussions with glaciologists, I've narrowed down a list to five visual indicators of glacier health. 


Snow feeds glaciers. At the end of summer, if a glacier is less than two-thirds covered with snow, then it is an unhealthy glacier. In other words, before the first winter snowfall, the equilibrium line altitude, which divides the accumulation zone from the melt zone, should be no more than a third of the way up from the glacier terminus—otherwise the glacier is losing volume. 
A small, unnamed glacier in the Chugach Mountains. This glacier's equilibrium line altitude is at a good position for a healthy glacier. The problem is, this photo was taken in early July. Two months of summer melt season remain. Many small glaciers in Alaska will soon be gone.  

Ice Thickness 

In response to warmer temperatures, glaciers lose ice through thinning, even more so than by receding. From a climber’s perspective, your altimeter or GPS might register elevations lower than those shown on the map. Some glaciers, such as the Taku Glacier in Alaska's Coast Range or the center of the Greenland ice sheet, have increased snowfall in their accumulation zones. This is because the warmer than normal temperatures, while remaining below freezing, allow the air to hold more moisture and produce more snow. 
Navigating by GPS in the Tordrillo Mountains in the Alaska Range. Maps worldwide show glacier elevations higher than your GPS will read.  

Terminus Shape

Receding glaciers have a relatively crevasse-free, sloping snout, like a wheelchair ramp, created by ice stagnating and melting in place. Healthy glaciers, like the Taku, have heavily crevassed, vertical or bulbous fronts. 

The Raven Glacier in the Western Chugach. You can walk right onto receding glaciers. 

Trim Lines 

Like bath tub rings, thinning glaciers leave trim lines on the valley walls that show the most recent high ice level. As the glacier melts down, a visible line remains on the valley wall between the vegetated and lichened terrain above and the exposed moraine and lichen-free rock below. Like high water marks, trim lines surround shrinking glaciers worldwide. Most obvious are trim lines from the Little Ice Age that ended 100 to 150 years ago. Unhealthy glaciers have trim lines far above the glacier surface. 
Climbing Mount Baker's Easton Glacier with trim lines visible high above the present glacier surface.  


With less snowfall and warmer temperatures, the glacier conveyor belt slows and moraine accumulates on the glacier surface, sometimes until the ice is entirely covered. Thus, receding glaciers have moraine-covered melt zones, while healthy glaciers have white-ice melt zones. When the ice under the moraine melts, the mud, rock and boulders become ground moraine. Early successional species, such as moss and alder, grow on this newly exposed land in the wake of a receding glacier. In contrast, the vegetation in front of a healthy glacier is characterized by climax forest, with old-growth species, like hemlock.
Moraine in the Western Chugach Mountains.


Big glaciers and glaciers in winter can be difficult to diagnose. In winter and spring, a thick blanket of snow covers most glaciers. During this time, seeing glacier health indicators like moraine and trim lines is more difficult, but still possible. Diagnosing glacier health on some big glaciers, such as the Kahiltna Glacier on Denali, presents another problem. On Denali, most climbers fly to 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna and spend their entire trip on a thick seasonal snowpack where the glacier appears fat and happy. In these situations, observe the melt zone on the flights in and out, looking for trim lines, fresh moraine, and moraine-dammed lakes.

Touring near Denali base camp at 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier.


Every season us mountaineers find changing climbing conditions in the glaciated mountains. As glaciers melt down, bergschunds become wider, making route access more difficult. Once on the route, you’ll find steep glacier headwalls normally covered by spongy neve have become black ice. And with less neve, you’ll see more rockfall, such as during the heat waves in 2003 and 2015 that closed Mont Blanc. But as glaciologist Keith Echelmeyer told me, “All change is not so bad—some routes may become more challenging and fun.”