The First Rule of Mountain Guiding: Look Good
I tell my clients that safety is my number two concern as a mountaineering guide. This is because a guides first concern is looking good.
I would know. For the past three summers
I have guided novices and experts alike to the summits of Mount Rainier and Mount Denali; mountains (in Washington State and Alaska respectively) that have killed dozens in the past few years. The trips entails climbing ice, crossing gaping crevasses and avoiding
avalanches, all while battling freezing temperatures and high winds. I take my
job seriously and as a result, I am the best-looking guide I know.
My backpack always looks tight. You won’t see things hanging from exterior straps waiting to be blown off, covered in snow or damaged by the rock that I constantly brush against. I do not put my water bottles on the outside of my pack; they would freeze at 12,000 feet and leave me dehydrated. A pack resembling a gypsy or vagabond’s knapsack, with more on the outside than on the inside, is not only ugly, but also the a sign of a careless climber.
My pack is always smaller than those of my climbing companions. Not because I carry less – I always carry more than my fair share – but because I pack carefully. Equipment is stowed according to when it may be needed. Anything I use frequently is accessible without having to unpack everything else. If I had to search for food at each break by laying out all my gear like a high altitude yard sale, most of my gear would be swept away by the wind within moments.
My pack is like a chef’s well-organized spice rack. Or an EMT’s medical kit. Everything has a place. I know exactly where everything is and how to reach my gear quickly and easily. I can’t afford to waste valuable seconds searching for an Epipen while a client with an allergic reaction gasps for air beside me. Just as toolboxes are always heavier than they look, so is my pack. My pack contains no air pockets. After hours of walking, the load would shift to fill these spaces. My careful and symmetrical lateral-distribution of weight would be ruined. Over a 15-hour summit day, a shifting load or asymmetrical weight would drive me nuts.
My pack is heavy, but contains nothing unnecessary. Most days, everything feels unnecessary. I don’t use two sleeping bags, three quarts of water or four sets of batteries every day. However when something goes wrong, being prepared for lengthy evacuations and bizarre accidents is imperative. Each morning I cram more rescue equipment than personal gear into my small pack. Luxury items are left out; they add unnecessary weight and slow my response time to emergencies.
Below the hip belt of my backpack, my neon orange harness clings to my hips. The buckle is neatly fastened. A wear-polished carabineer -the same one my father gave me on our first technical outing- connects me to the rope. This rope connects me to my clients. Attached to my harness are numerous loops for storing gear. Clients often marvel at the clean metallic ornaments and tightly wound bundles of rope hanging from my waist. These are my rescue tools. If a client were to fall into a crevasse, I could calmly assemble a rescue pulley system to extricate him. I could do so even in the dark, knowing what tools to use based solely on their location on my harness.
My clothing fits perfectly. The cuffs of my jacket create a waterproof seal with my gloves and the cuffs of my pants fit snugly over my boots. Snow never gets up my sleeves or pant legs; and loose clothing is never caught in the tines of my crampons or the teeth of my ice axe. The fit isn’t accidental. I tested a dozen pairs of gloves and hired a friend to tailor my pants. I try on each layer of clothing with every other layer of clothing and never pull tags off new gear in the field. The color of my blue belt matches that of my helmet.
I expose very little skin while climbing, usually just my face and neck. My skin looks healthy. I reapply sunscreen every two hours. I never miss an application because my tube of sunscreen is always located in the front right pocket of my pants. On a long expedition, sunburns never recover. Back in town after expeditions, nothing screams novice like a matchstick tan – red face, red neck, white body.
Sweating and shivering are unattractive. I avoid them both. Sweating is a direct loss of fluids and leaves insulating layers damp and less effective. Shivering wastes precious calories. To stay comfortable I begin each climb cold, trusting that my exertion will heat me to a comfortable temperature. When I stop to belay or take a break, I immediately put on a jacket. I am always warm after exercising but if I did not trap this body heat, I would be shivering within moments.
My ropes are clean. Dirty ropes conceal fraying, become heavier and erode climbing hardware.
I look relaxed when I guide. I train for my climbs appropriately, by hiking rather than lifting weights. When I am out with clients I never suck wind. I take small steps so I can maintain my balance and avoid jerky movements. After each step I straighten my downhill leg and let the majority of my weight rest on my skeletal system; this gives my muscles a split second to rest every step. I react as the snow, ice and gravel move beneath my boots. Guides should not look like robots; they should look resilient, athletic and cool as cucumbers.
My fingernails are neatly clipped. My facial hair is tidy. Looking professional demonstrates attention to detail and inspires confidence. I smile frequently. Smiling eases clients’ nerves.