When Mountain Guiding Is Not The Best

Two years ago I almost took a Craigslist job as a ‘Naughty Maid’. And I’m neither very good at housekeeping nor at being ‘naughty’. I also tried selling—they call it donating—my blood plasma for $50 a week. “What, why?!,” you may be asking. Don’t you have a successful, glamorous job as a guide? Don’t you spend all your time traveling to the world’s most iconic mountain ranges and guiding wealthy clients? Don’t gear companies shower you in an abundant supply of ski boots and ropes and ice axes?

By now you’ve probably guessed that I’m a mountain guide. A job which, to many, appears filled with perks: paid skiing and climbing, pro-deals galore, free jackets from the best outdoor clothing manufacturers, and endless hours frolicking outside in sunny, beautiful mountains…every singe day.

But, if you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Wow, being a guide must be the greatest” you wouldn’t be … completely correct. Yes, there are plenty of great things about being a guide that shouldn’t come as a surprise: lots of outside time, year-round fitness, interesting clients, and—of course—climbing and skiing all around the world while getting paid.

I do love my job and, occasional Craigslist search aside, feel lucky that guiding is close to becoming a sustainable career for me—now that I’m in my 40s and have been at it since I was 22. However, what you may not know is that there are some pretty notable downsides to a manual labor occupation that depends on good weather, good conditions and people who want to spend money on adventure. It’s easy to view guiding as a fun, leisurely profession because it falls into the category of recreation; but make no mistake—it is still a very real job. So if you’ve been enviously wishing for the greatest job ever, well, the grass is always greener on the other side. Here are three very overlooked facts about the darker side of guiding.

Peril, hazard, risk, jeopardy, DANGER.

Working in the mountains means continuous exposure to dangerous things: avalanches, rockfall, icefall, crevasses, lightning, rain, snow, wind, cold, and sun to name a few. And since I just came back from working in central Asia, I was reminded that high altitude guiding in that part of the world comes with some additional hazards including but not limited to: the Taliban, ISIS, intestinal parasites/bacteria, altitude sickness, and dangerous roads.

One of the most underrated, not to mention stressful, tasks a guide has, is making good decisions when it comes to assessing and managing risk—not just for the client, but for themselves as well. Complacency, bad luck, or a poor decision can lead to the worst possible outcome: death. Guiding is a truly dangerous job and the more time a guide spends in the mountains the more vulnerable they are to objective mountain hazards. Which leads me to subjective hazards.

Injury and illness.

Two years ago on a casual afternoon ski tour with my husband, I took a slow, twisting fall on an insignificant, 25-degree slope in the backcountry. This seemingly trivial fall destroyed my knee with a completely ruptured ACL, near complete tear of the MCL, grade 3 tear of the LCL, and a fractured tibial plateau. I’d always known that injury, to a knee in particular, was a likely part of being a guide and athlete. What I wasn’t prepared for were the soul-crushing months (nearly 12 to be exact) of surgery, recovery, and not working that followed. 

Guides depend completely on the health of their bodies for employment. If you’re injured, you can’t work (and if you’re sick, you’re probably going to go to work even though you shouldn’t).  Since few to none of us work on salary (which also means no health insurance, 401K, etc.), not working means no income. And, if like me, you’re a guide with few other marketable skills, a significant injury or illness could result in serious, potentially career ending financial strain.  Riding that out looks different for everyone but for me, it meant taking a hard look at other ways of making money while not guiding. Naughty Maid jobs and selling plasma might pay a few bills but in the long term, they weren’t ideal. At least for me.

Work/life/fitness balance… there is none.

In order to find sustainable work as a mountain guide, one must work a lot and in a variety of locations while chasing seasons, conditions, and trendy or remote destinations. My schedule, for example, frequently has me gone from home and often out of contact for two to six weeks at a time, multiple times a year. When I have work that allows me to sleep in my own bed, I’m still likely to be gone from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., on average. When I’m not in the field, I’m in front of my computer making all that work and travel happen. And when I’m neither guiding nor sitting in front of my computer, I’m likely climbing, skiing, or training (whether I want to be or not) so that I can be fit enough to guide strong, motivated guests, of which there are many.

The binge-work nature of mountain guiding is inherently unbalanced. Relationships are known to suffer (if you manage to have one in the first place) and believe it or not, so does strength and conditioning. Being able to climb a 5.11 offwidth one day, ski a 50-degree couloir the next, and climb an 8000-meter peak the following month is surprisingly hard for all but the most talented athletes and guides.

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Photos by Emilie Drinkwater.