Mountain Guide Life During A Pandemic

For mountain guide Jessica Baker, the things that make her job awesome are also the things that have made it grind to a halt this year: “Guiding cannot be replaced with a Zoom conference call,” Jessica says. “We’re based in human-to-human interactions that occur in unique places in the mountains. We can’t just shift our operations to online services.”

This spring, with school closed and childcare unavailable, Jessica and her husband juggle their 3-year-old daughter while their first-grader attends school via Zoom calls and works through homework. The future of their work is up in the air.

“To be honest, it’s a scary time for guides and guiding operations, because profit margins have always been thin, and most guiding operations are small businesses,” Jessica says. “We don’t have a lot of financial cushion to keep holding us up.”

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Many guides and guide services have applied for the PPP or unemployment, she says, as there are extremely few opportunities to make money right now. But many guides work as private contractors and for myriad guide companies around the world, so applying for the PPP stimulus or unemployment is extra complicated, she says. Guides just don’t fit the normal profile, making it more difficult to qualify for these stimulus funds. “A lot of out-of-work guides are falling through the cracks when it comes to government stimulus funds,” she says.

Jessica Baker uses her ski pole to point out a ski line on Mount Baker.

Many of the outdoor venues where Jessica guides are opening up, but guiding isn’t a part of the first phase of opening, she says. In the meantime, she and other guides are doing their best to be flexible and plan for the future, updating operating protocols to accommodate for the age of the pandemic. That includes: “Pre-screening clients before they come to us, social distancing, masks when social distancing isn’t possible, separate tents for each individual, increased sanitation practices, rotating gear/ropes and extra cleaning, office staff works remotely, etc. Even CPR protocols have changed, and the American Heart Association recommends we don’t perform rescue breaths in the age of Covid-19, only chest compressions.”

It’s challenging to navigate these changes, she says, but she points out that mountain guides are literally trained to navigate risk. “I believe we’re also some of the most well-suited professionals to handle this situation,” she says.

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Jessica is spending lots of time looking at maps, making plans and putting extra effort into new trips and trip ideas. “It’s a good time to dream if the quarantine fatigue isn’t getting to you,” she says. For now guides are looking at staying more regional for their work this summer and fall. “Keeping it regional is safer for all involved and may allow some guides to return to work sooner.”

In the meantime, Jessica and her husband, who is an IFMGA/AMGA certified guide, each try to go on at least one big mission into the mountains per week to stay fit for their eventual return to guiding work. “We have to stay tuned up and tuned in—it’s our everything, we can’t just stop or it would mean the end of our careers,” she says. To keep their skills sharp and stay connected with the guiding community to help problem solve together, they’ve also been attending weekly technical and educational webinars run by the American Mountain Guides Association for its professional members.

Jessica Baker helps her young daughters plant seeds in planters made from egg cartons in their backyard.

On the bright side, Jessica says she feels thankful to live in the mountains of Wyoming, where it’s peaceful and easy to explore nearby without seeing another human. “Bears, bison, elk, wolves … that’s another story,” she says. And her family is putting extra time and effort into their backyard gardens this season, excited to reap a summer crop of food.

“If there is a resilient group of people, who can weather a storm, it’s going to be mountain guides,” she says.

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Want to help make sure mountain guides weather the storm? “Start planning your adventures with your guides and guide services,” Jessica says. “We are ramping up to get you into the mountains, now we need you to come along. Put your deposits down, plan that trip. And if you have extra to spare, think about an extra gratuity for your guide, no doubt it will help at the most foundational level, and is much needed at this time.”

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Photos by Jessica Baker, Joey Schusler and Brenton Reagan.