While professional guides are regarded as experts who don’t make common mistakes like getting off route or getting lost, sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned. Personally, I’ve found that making errors is human—but getting away with these mistakes is where the art of guiding really lies. I’ve been known to take “short-cuts” and climb “bonus” pitches, but I’ve rarely have had to admit I was actually off-route or lost. Not that I’m afraid to admit mistakes, but I enjoy the challenge of trying to get away with climbing a “variation.” Hey, if I’m lost and nobody knows, am I even lost?
A few years back I found myself in Italy attempting a climb called the Gran Paradiso. For the two-day climb, I would be working alongside a friend and colleague, and our small group of clients would be divided between us. Day one was an easy day involving a simple hike to a hut. We enjoyed the typical Italian hospitality and food and were soon in bed resting for our climb early the following morning. On day two, we woke to cloudy skies and stormy weather, but our team was capable, so we set out with hopes of getting to the top.
To understand this story, here are some key claims about the summit of the Gran Paradiso: First, it’s the highest peak solely within Italy—it doesn’t act as a border with a neighboring country the way Mont Blanc does, for example. Second, the summit sports a five-foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary. However, unbeknownst to most, this second claim is false. While almost all climbers (and guides alike) finish their climb at the Virgin Mary, the true summit lies about 50 meters to the north. Truthfully, because there is no statue, the actual summit is less spectacular—and being only a couple meters higher, it goes largely ignored.
Like the peak, the other guide I was working with is also known for a few things. He is a very disciplined hard worker, he’s seemingly unphased by bad weather, and he almost always carries a giant SLR camera around his neck to capture photos of his guests. Over breakfast, he offered to take the slower guest, which left me with two very fit young climbers. Given the poor weather, I didn’t object. Theoretically, that meant I would be up and down faster, stay warmer, and be back in the hut to enjoy a tasty Italian lunch sooner!
We set out from the hut with stormy skies, but my clients moved well and we made quick progress. Soon we’d passed all the other groups attempting to summit. But as we moved higher up the peak, the weather worsened and we were alone. There was only a dusting of new snow, but accompanied by the winds, it made finding the old tracks difficult high up on the glacier. As we approached the summit, we were bunded up with all of our layers and used ski goggles to protect our eyes from the wind. The visibility was almost non-existent, and I heard one of the guests say they couldn’t believe how I could find my way. The truth was, I was having some doubts as to where I was, but didn’t want to stop to fire up the GPS and waste time in the wind. I figured I was getting close to the top, but also felt I had drifted a bit too far to the west. Soon, the terrain steepened and we were climbing some steeper ground through rock and snow bands. At this point, I realized my mistake, but kept my thoughts to myself. Soon we were on top. But “Where’s Mary?” my clients asked. “She must be buried in the snow,” I replied. With the strong winds and lack of visibility, nobody seemed to care about the statue and we barley took a break before we started going down.
As we descended, the winds abated and we crossed paths with the rest of our team. I recognized the other guide plodding along with his giant camera around his neck, and it seemed as if the weather was letting up for their summit. We continued quickly down to the hut with thoughts of warm pasta and Italian coffee. Back in the hut, out of the weather, everyone was happy with their day. The stormy weather seemed to make the summit that much more gratifying, and the “buried” statue was never brought up. I may have blushed a little when they told me how impressed they were that I could find the way in such conditions, but I kept cool.
After a couple of hours, the other guide arrived. As the clients exchanged stories, one of my guests mentioned how it was “too bad about the statue, being buried and all.” Uh-oh, I thought. I’m not getting away with this! The other guide and client exchanged curious looks and then the giant camera came out. “Buried?” he exclaimed, pulling the camera from his neck and showing the photos he’d snapped from the summit: all of them hugging the statue of Mary. Now all eyes on me!
I’ve been told that if you work as a river guide, telling tall tales is somewhat expected. It becomes a challenge to see how outrageous of a story you can get away with. But if a client calls you out, you have to jump in the water. Well, in this particular instance there was no water to jump in. I did explain my route-finding error and showed the guests where on the photos we had stood—on the “true“ summit. But, at this point, anything coming out of my mouth was deemed suspicious. At the end of the day, while a photo with the frozen Madonna would have been a nice souvenir, nobody really cared what summit we stood on. The stormy weather and wind provided enough excitement and plenty of memories for the team. We shared many laughs during our two days’ climb—and this only made for more. And while I’ve climbed this peak on many occasions, this is the only time I can still vividly remember the feeling of arriving at the summit—because that’s when it hit me I was on the wrong one!