50 years, United States (USA)





Rock Climbing


Backcountry Skiing


Dmitry Sidorov

50 years, United States

2 years ago

Three common mistakes Mountain Guides make and how to avoid them

-- What is the difference between God and a Mountain Guide (MG)?--

I am pretty sure you know the punchline: God does not think s/he is a MG.

I heard (and told myself) this anecdote countlessly and still find it hilarious and laugh my butt off every time I hear it. Why? Because...

  • it’s a good old funny gag;
  • only about 20% in it is comical - the rest is true, unfortunately;
  • a number of MGs including myself went (at least once) through a 'I AM GOD' period in our guiding (usually early) career and had our hair-rising, jaw-dropping close calls we still recall grimly after few drinks.

Good news is that most of MGs (including myself) are still alive and still guiding. We learned our lessons and graduated, as they would say in French, ‘avec la plus grande distinction’.

Jokes aside, MGs make mistakes. Some are deadly as cyanide. Others are bloody but you will live through to tell the story. The rest - the majority - are annoying and unpleasant like toothache or bad breath (yikes). They distract you continuously, deplete your energy and other resources slowly, drive you crazy, and finally push you over the edge (ah-ah-ah-ah...) when you least expect it.



Number 1: Pace is too fast, steps are too large, route is too steep etc.

This one is pretty self explanatory. Clients may have a very hard time with pace/steps/route etc while a guide is having the time of his/her life.

In the summer of 1998 I worked out of Bellingham, WA, USA and spent a lot of time on Mt. Baker ~10,000ft volcano clad in snow and ice year-round. One week I had 4 climbs to the summit over 4 different routes descending and driving to town between every climb.That week I probably walked about 50 miles, ascended/descended 20,000 feet, slept on average no more than 4hrs /night, and drank on average no less than 3 beers /days. I was in a good shape and enjoying myself immensely. My clients…. Well, they came in different shapes and sizes, from different parts of the country, with different objectives and expectations, usually air traveling  day before/after the course. For most of them it was a vacation. For me and my co-guides a day in the mountains was just another day in the office. On a summit day - we would get up by midnight and leave camp by 1am - a female client pulled me to the side and with tears in her eyes told me that she wants to go down. Apparently, when my co-guide leads she is constantly yanked with the rope because the pace is too high for her and for every step the guide makes she needs to make two. It was obvious that she was exhausted and didn’t have a good time. I suggested that she ask the guide to slow down and make smaller steps. ‘I am afraid to do so’ - she replied. ‘Why?’ - I asked. ‘Because he looks like an experienced guide, and I’m sure was told similar things before. I am afraid that he will humiliate me in front of the group’. These mistakes are sometimes referred to as ‘gate errors’ as they often open the door to other more technical mistakes. They are so common among MGs of all levels that instructors teaching American MG Association courses will, for example, measure ski track angle with inclinometer and require the angle to be no more than 12 degrees. Conclusion: as MGs we work with and for our clients and must understand their physical needs and respect their limitations.

Number 2: Some MGs are like gas - they occupy all available volume.

They talk and act nonstop taking stage 24/7 educating/instructing/entertaining/amusing etc. This could be very irritating especially if you share a tent and/or snow bathroom on a glacier crisscrossed by hidden crevices.

One time I worked a 6-day basics alpine mountaineering (BAM) course with a rookie guide who just joined the company. He had extensive outdoor leadership resume but no formal guiding experience. He also somehow missed pre-season MG training, and my job was to brief him on our company policy and they way ‘we do things’. He and I decided that during our classes I would do technical instructions and he would shadow and fill in where he felt comfortable.

We flew into Alaska range with our students and set up base camp. First night after dinner he said ‘Hey, I have tons of topics I could speak on for hours. Just let me know if you need a break and will keep them - students - busy’. That was very sweet and topics were relevant too: glaciology, meteorology, outdoor nutrition, leave no trace etc - you name it. It was just that we had much bigger fish to fry…. first. Saying things is not necessarily teaching and listening is not necessarily learning. We all have limited bandwidth and we take in even less as we get tired, hungry, frustrated or scared. Conclusion: Don't be a pest. Don't jam the frequency with irrelevant noise. Gain respect of your clients by saying less and leading with example.There is sweet time and place for saying right things. Saying nothing and letting that silence zing - is often a good option.

Number 3: MGs learn to do things a ‘certain/one way’ and remain ‘loyal’ to that way too long.

Let’s take a look at US as an example. In the US most MGs start working for an established guiding service assisting more senior guides on classic routes offered by that guiding service. Among most visited summits are Rainier, Baker, Hood, Teton and about a dozen of others. Guided routes are well known, well maintained, and frequently visited. Unknowns are rare and creative out-of-the-box thinking is not required often. In a couple of years MGs may expand to ‘international guiding’ where pattern is repeated on a grander scale. As a result, guides are stuck with a limited set of skills, familiar problems and solutions. As saying goes, ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail’. Conclusion: MGs need to be open minded, follow ever changing industry trends, seek out and use every opportunity to diversify guiding techniques and tools, geographical locales, cultural settings etc. This is actually no quick and  easy fix here, but rather life long committed journey. What’s the largest room in the world? - room for improvement.

Finally, I’d like to throw in a handful of one-liner ‘must-not-to-dos’ - just say NO to these when with or in front of your clients:

  • Discussing/degrading past clients and other MGs;
  • Counting/dividing tips;
  • Doing recreational drugs;

All points listed here (and many more left behind) are not procedural or technical errors - subject of a separate chat (stay tuned!!) They are just... hmmm... mistakes of ignorance and unawareness, and sometimes blunt arrogance. Time for another joke… 'What is the difference between investment bonds and a mountain guide?  - The bonds will eventually mature and earn money'.

I urge all MGs to make commitment to recognize and nip these and other similar mistakes in the bud.

The end.

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