I read your commentary with some interest re: the evils of guided groups
and your implicit criticism of guides. I like many parts of your website
and can tell that basically you're a nice guy that likes to climb volcanoes,
so I am responding since you had an open request for my thoughts.
As a mountaineering instructor and guide of six years (I run my own
operation -- http://www.basecampwa.com -- out of Bellingham, Washington),
all I can say is that you don't have a very relativistic perception of the
responsibilities and strains that guides face for their measly salaries.
You have also encountered some of the most cut-rate, least qualified guide
Operations out there. Never evaluate the success of a guided organization
by their summit success rate--remember the Everest debacle?
One of the most famous (and successful) alpine guides in history, Gaston
Rebuffat, is famous for saying essentially 'the client's chief purpose is
to kill the guide, and should they fail in this, to kill themselves.'
While this comment was spoken at least part in jest, there is a little
truth in every joke.
While you were climbing Mt. Rainier, you commented that "During the
summit climb, the RMI guides kept the group on a tight schedule that
allowed for 10 minute breaks every hour and a half or so. As far as I
was concerned, the breaks were not only too short, but too infrequent as
well." This is a telling comment on your conditioning and understanding
of the dangers of glacier travel--frankly, you don't have much of either.
(Tim is absolutely correct in his uncanny assessment of my abilities. I am
an overweight, was a smoker, who has no reason to climb up to 18,300 feet. Except
that I LOVE IT! Because I choose not to march at a guides pace –- can’t keep up,
I risk climbing solo or with friends so that I can get up and down the mountain
at my own comfortable pace.) It was precisely dawdling around taking too much
time with clients that were too slow to get up and down the mountain before it
got hot that led to the avalanche death on the Disappointment Cleaver a few
Also, a guide might have remembered the tent poles and sunscreen (for
everyone) on Orizaba...those are rookie mistakes, not those of somebody
well-qualified to lead their own trips. Whatever the guide fee might
have been, it would have saved some third-degree burns and you might
I take pride in the safety of my clients, not in the success of their
summits. I am selling the education of responsible self-sufficiency and
the experience of being in an amazing, remote place. If we happen to
get to the top, that's a bonus, but only so long as we haven't
compromised our safety. Your dependence on measuring success by summits
is typical of many East-coast climbers--"let's conquer that mountain!"
When you soloed Mt. Baker, did you do any research at all? Did you have
a map? I very much doubt you were on the Deming glacier--it is an
icefall from 8,000 feet down. Did you know that there are at least two
other routes that, if you HAD to solo, were much safer than the Easton?
There are also innumerable peaks in the Cascades that are as challenging
as Baker with out the objective risk of solo glacier travel. What would
you have done if the clouds had obscured the entire mountain instead of
just the top few hundred feet? What if it had started snowing enough to
cover your tracks? This happened to a couple of climbers who came up
from San Francisco a few months ago...they were trying to go up the
North Ridge, which they had no business on in the first place, but then
got stuck in a whiteout bad enough that they were out for FOUR DAYS
without a tent, stove, or any bivouac equipment and only a day's food.
They ended up stumbling off of the SOUTH side of the mountain,
frostbitten and hypothermic. Lucky to be alive indeed.
I agree with you about asking questions of your guide service. The
first question should be, "what do you do with somebody who is obviously
unqualified, physically or mentally, to be on the mountain?" The answer
should be, "we don't take them up." Unfortunately too many guide
services compromise their need for safety with their greed.
You might be thinking "but what can those people who aren't the
strongest do to get into the mountains?" I don't have an elitist
attitude about this at all...I offer customized instruction and longer
climbs for people who need the instruction and/or the extra days. But
there is a point that everyone reaches where they can't be an armchair
You also have a good point about the guides being genuinely interested
in their clients instead of being on a big ego trip. I basically look
at it as my time spent guiding is time at work, instead of many guide's
perception seeming to be "I get paid to climb and I have to put up with
these darn clients."
To put the boot on the other foot, I have occasionally had clients who
seemed to think that the simple fact that they had hired me meant: 1)
they were in no danger whatsoever, and thus had no responsibility for
their own safety; 2) the summit was guaranteed; 3)their ability and pace
had no bearing on the success or failure of the climb. It's frustrating
dealing with people who want to summit but haven't put in the time
preparing for it, and I'm not talking about getting into "guide shape":
I'm easily twice as strong as many of my clients, but that's fine; it's
the clients that are 1/10 as strong as I am and think that should be
enough to get them up the mountain who frustrate me.
I hope I've shed some light on the other side of the coin--and most of
all, I would encourage you to spend the money on a mountaineering CLASS,
not a guided trip. Some outfits are making a killing by essentially
keeping their clients undereducated; without self-sufficiency, they'll
keep coming back for more guiding, which will be repeat dollars for
years to come.
One of the best examples I can give you of a class instead of a guided
summit is by American Alpine Institute, also here in Bellingham. They
have a 6-day Alpine Travel seminar that teaches you the skills to travel
safely on a glacier...do you know how to get somebody out of a
crevasse? Have you practiced it? There are many other outfits on the
West coast that teach similar skills. I recommend giving up the "next
summit" in favor of learning some more skills that will help you make
educated decisions about your next climb and the relative risks you are
Best wishes in your climbing to come, I'll probably run into your
website again in my surfing. I found it looking for info on Orizaba,
where I'm going this Christmas.
Base Camp, Inc.
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