The Complete Life: Mountain Guide Martin Volken

The life of a mountain guide might look simple from the outside: getting paid to take people climbing. But weighing work, family and personal goals in the mountains is a thoughtful pursuit for Martin Volken. He’s a Swiss IFMGA-certified mountain guide, owns a Seattle-area gear shop and guide company and consults for outdoor gear product development. He’s also put up first ascents and descents around the Pacific Northwest and balances his own pursuits with those of his family—his wife Gina and two daughters.

Instead of simply letting life happen to him, he has purposefully pursued his dreams and goals—including both an exciting career in the mountains and a fulfilling family life. We asked Martin how he’s built a life around the outdoors and the people he loves. Here is his advice:

I do better in my life if I connect with the natural world on a daily basis. This used to be all based on athletics, but I am more easily satisfied these days, I guess. 

You have to make a clear distinction between your professional life and your own goals in the mountains. When I am guiding, I am trying to deliver a special experience for people who hire me. I love showing people around in these wild places, making things possible for them in the mountains and also seeing them unplug from "the modern world." Personal climbing goals often fall short for mountain guides. You have to be a mountain guide for the right reasons or it can get frustrating. If I get to spend one week per year in the mountains on a personal project, I am satisfied. 

Balancing family life and the mountain guiding profession is hard. You need a good, understanding partner—which I have—but you also need to be willing to make some concessions yourself. I would have loved to have climbed and guided in the Himalayas, but I set that aside for the time when my kids are out of the house.  

I have to periodically re-declare my long-term goals and priorities. Otherwise it’s too easy for me to get swayed in directions I would like to go, but that might not be good for me or my family. 

Making the most of every trip into the mountains is different for everyone, and it also varies for me at different times. One consistent theme, though, is that I try to move around the mountain environment in a sense of harmony with the environment, the weather and the people I’m guiding. It can be hard to achieve, but when it happens, things seem great.