Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Career Thoughts

Every couple months or so I get an inquiry from an aspiring guide. Some are partway there, while some are totally new to the idea. All are genuinely curious and super passionate. This is one response that I composed a couple months back.

First, there is a broad field of options under the label of “outdoor professions”. What I do is in one, specialized corner of that landscape. It happens to be, in my view, the most lifestyle-friendly and financially responsible corner, but it is also the most dangerous and requires the most pre-career background. 

What I do is best called “Commercial Mountain Guiding”. I take people rock climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and ski mountaineering. I do so about half the time here in Wyoming’s Teton Range (my current home) and about half the time elsewhere around the western hemisphere. I complement this income with some outdoor gear consulting, some avalanche safety instruction, and occasional Air Bnb rental of my home. 

Every single day is amazing. Sometimes waking up and starting is drudgery. But each day in the mountains and with excited, passionate, healthy clients is a gift. It’s a demanding gig with great rewards. Yesterday, for instance, I woke at 4am to workout, then drove an hour and a half to a field site for a day of standing around in the cold. Over the shoulder was perhaps the greatest possible view of the Teton range. I was home by 6pm and finally sat down for an episode of TV after dinner and dishes and repacking and gear maintenance and post-day notes at 8pm. Up today at 5:30 for a slightly gentler, but similar agenda. These are pretty busy days. 

I did a little bit of skiing as a kid, and got into backpacking as a teenager. Late in college (I graduated in 2001) I resolved to become a professional mountain guide. I buckled down on that path immediately after college. 2017 was the first year I was both a homeowner and maxed out my IRA and 401k contributions. I basically mark 2017 as the start of my actual career. Up to that point was career development of some sort.
I don’t have kids, but I want to. I have a string of ex-wives and ex-girlfriends that all cite my lifestyle (traveling and/or dangerous) in respective breakups. I think it's possible to have a relationship and a family, but it ain’t easy. 

In short, it’s an amazing way to spend my time and earn a living. But it is hard. There are other outdoor recreation fields that require far less education and experience. These other professions (hiking, rafting, bicycle guiding. Also, so-called “outdoor education” like the National Outdoor Leadership School or various wilderness therapy programs) are easier to enter but you hit a career and financial ceiling well before income and lifestyle stabilize. These other gigs are a common stepping-stone for young people seeking a career as a guide. 

Reading back through this I realize that it all sounds quite negative. I guess its tough to put into words. The social media streams tell part of the good side of the story. The setting is spectacular, to put it mildly. The real “perk”, though, is the interpersonal interactions. I spend hours to days to weeks, in intimate and serious settings, with excellent people. I have relationships with some clients that span more than a decade and I meet new people every month. I cannot think of another profession in which I could meet and interact with people like mountain guiding allows. Relationships with clients are symbiotic, professional, personal, and very appreciated, regardless of whether it is a few hours of rock climbing or a 10-year shared pursuit of some huge goal.  

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