Being a climbing guide rarely feels like getting paid to climb. It's dangerous work that leaves little energy to pursue one's own passion for the sport.
I cut my teeth as a rock and mountain guide in Washington's Cascade Range for five summers before I moved to Boulder in 2001, where friends landed me a guiding gig that spanned three summers.
The upshot of guiding is that every client on every climb is unpredictable. Climbing is a wormhole to raw emotions like euphoria and terror that cannot be cloaked.
I was leading clients up Eldorado Canyon's multi-pitch routes before I'd memorized the drive there from downtown Boulder. Though I always made it without a hitch, I was more paranoid of getting lost in the car than I was of guiding routes I'd never climbed before.
During my first summer here, this "on-sight guiding" morphed from something I avoided to a gung-ho competition between my housemate and fellow guide, Justen Sjong, and me. The more and harder routes on-sight guided, the better.
One day I on-sight guided Reggae, a three-pitch 5.8, too hard for most of our clients. Back at Justen's house, I boasted of my conquest.
"Oh, yeah?" sneered Sjong. "I guided Redguard today." Harder, more dangerous and twice as long, Redguard easily had me beat. Especially with a client who'd learned to belay that morning.
A week later, I had a relatively experienced client. I saw it as an opportunity to do the Left Arete of Whale's Tail, a rarely climbed 5.8 with little protection. (How scary could it be?) Besides, I had to outdo Justen.
As I clawed up fragile, lichen-covered fingertip holds, my movements turned slow and deliberate. Sixty feet up, my last solid piece was 40 feet below; I would die if I fell. I silently fought for my life. After 20 minutes, my client asked about the route. "Oh ... um, it's great! You're gonna love it," I yelled down weakly.
Battling tears, I finished the lead. Then, with the security of a top-rope, my nonchalant client waltzed up like it was nothing.
"Cool!" he said. "What's next?"
Five days later, on the Wind Tower, I simul-rappelled with a blithering mess of tears attached to my harness. This client was exuberant about climbing ... until we were 100 feet up. Above this, she just couldn't go on.
Later that day, I guided a young, cocky dude at the Whale's Tail. Rock climbing was too "boring" and "easy" for him, he said. Across the river lurked Breakfast in Bed, a route that could win me the on-sight of the day. The guidebook calls it "one of the steeper 5.8 pitches in the canyon, with awkward and pumpy climbing." The kid assured me he'd be unchallenged. Ha! I had to haul the humiliated bastard up the route.
In August 2002, I guided two local brothers in their forties, whose lofty goal was to summit every named peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, according to U.S. Geological Survey maps. They'd already bagged more than 100 of them, but the most difficult remained: Sharkstooth. (Ironically, Sharkstooth is the easiest of nine Cathedral Spires, but it's the only one named on maps.) The easiest way up is the East Gully, a multi-pitch 5.4, and since David had never done a multi-pitch route before, they hired a guide for the first time.
It was my favorite day of guiding in Colorado. I laughed the entire 13-hour day, they'd successfully climbed their most difficult summit, and I'd just on-sighted Sharkstooth. (Touché, Justen!) But when we said goodbye that evening, I was left empty-handed. Apparently, they were unaware that tips are a guide's bread and butter.
Back in Boulder, deflated, I stripped down for a shower. As I took off my jeans, a wad of bills fell out of my back pocket. The brothers had slipped me $200 -- my largest tip ever.
Guiding is rarely the dream job it seems to be, but it offers a unique opportunity -- almost daily -- to experience people at their best and at their worst.
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.