Because it’s There — And Easier with a Guide

Post by blogger | July 21, 2010      

I’ve been checking out Michael Yberra’s “extreme sports correspondent” columns in the Wall Street Journal. Yberra seems to get around, from Yosemite classics to Nepal. His work is crafted to fit the confines of WSJ column length and style, which I find interesting as it is quite a contrast to the bro/brah writing you find is more common than not on the web. (Not that I mind any style of writing, so long as I don’t overdose.)

One of Yberra’s more recent WSJ items is a little ditty about K2, the second highest peak in the world and possibly the hardest 8,000-meter peak to climb.

The piece is actually a book review of No Way Down, by Graham Bowley, which details the ‘savage mountain’ by describing in vivid detail the scores of deaths that occur on K2 with disturbing regularity.

Yberra comes up with some pretty good one-liners in his review. For example, he writes that “almost any idiot, willing to spend enough money, can climb Everest.”

That’s probably true for Denali as well, but I won’t get into that as I’d have to share my budget, which was scary even without guides.

Suffice it to say that what kept popping into my head while reading was how different it is to plan and execute your own expedition as opposed to hiring a guide service and/or porters to do nearly everything but the actual placing of one foot in front of the other (which they’ll do as well, if necessary).

Not that I’m against guides (sometimes it’s fun to just sit back and let someone else do the work), but I’d like to see more honesty and transparency about guides versus no guides by those individuals who tout their mountaineering feats in print and public speaking engagements.

More than once I’ve read an account of a climb that basically ignored the guides who made it happen. Leaving that big a part out of a trip account dishonors the guides at best — at worst it is disingenuous. Conversely, those who do climb or do a ski descent of a big, commonly guided peak without guides should consider communicating how that made their trip different, for better or worse.

Your thoughts? If you’ve gone on both guided and unguided mountain trips, what was the difference? And just how easy can they make Mount Everest before it ceases to be a resume topper?

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31 Responses to “Because it’s There — And Easier with a Guide”

  1. Dostie July 21st, 2010 12:00 pm

    It all comes down to honesty in touting mountaineering achievements, of which transparency seems to be an integral part (that is often missing). First descents, first ascents, variations on a route, all demand a full telling of the tale. The problem occurs when egos (or word limits imposed by penny pinching publishers, or PC guidelines) want to emphasize the sound-bite headline instead of the full story with caveats and exceptions to the rule. As with buying a used car — caveat emptor — buyer (reader) beware.

  2. Tom July 21st, 2010 2:30 pm

    I’ve never had the opportunity (read:$$$) to hire a guide for anything, so my opinion probably isn’t worth anything. That being said, joy in the journey–part of what makes trips fun is planning out the details. And if you can’t do it on your own or mostly on your own, you probably need to lower objectives to meet the skill level. My 2 cents.

  3. Lou July 21st, 2010 2:47 pm

    Tom, yeah, I’d tend to agree. The process is so much of a trip, at least it is for me. To just show up and write a check (or pretty much do so) just seems a bit shallow. But more, it can take immensely more skill and learning to go without a guide and do it well, which can be very self actualizing and satisfying. Thus, setting our sites lower and doing it yourself (DIY) is sadly often overlooked in leu of checking summits off the list. I think where I’m seeing this the most these days is with the 7 Summits mania. Sometimes the people buying their way onto that list really bother me.

    But hey, I really do think guided trips have their place as well. I’ve done some myself. In the end, the main thing is to be true to what experience you really want out of mountaineering, and also be true to the people you are communicating with. It just has a weird ring to it when folks brag on their Everest or Denali summit and it turns out they got major help from guides. Heck, there was one crew on Denali when we were there that consisted of two clients with two top notch guides! It sounded like the guy who was paying could easily have afforded a whole army of guides… I wonder how powerful and rad the experience really was with that kind of hand holding. Just another tick on a list or another adventure vacation that’ll fad in memory in a few months? Who knows, but I can’t help but think about it…

  4. Dave Reed July 21st, 2010 3:21 pm

    In hiring a guide you are essentially adhering to an agenda that isn’t your own. And in so doing I think you lose a whole lot of what it means to truly accomplish a summit.
    You may have made it to the top, but you made it there under someone else’s volition.

    It’s true you’ve got to put in much more legwork for any trip without a guide, but in so doing it becomes a more personal endeavor and one that I’m convinced is more gratifying.

  5. Bill July 21st, 2010 3:24 pm

    99% of the people have no idea there is a difference between a guiding trip and a self guided trip. Before reading your series, I didn’t know about all of the details, and consider myself to know more than most, albeit just from reading versus experiencing. An article recently in my Chicago area hometown newspaper recently chronicled a father son adventure to Denali (could have been the group you mentioned.) I had to laugh at the contrast to what I read about that trip versus your trip (I was surprised to learn 40 people die every year on Denali, ha.) Personally, I have always dreamt about accomplishing a feat such as yours, and could probably save up the money to hire a guide, but I’d rather spend 20 years gaining the experience necessary to guide my own trip. I think it would be 1000 times more worth while.

  6. AK July 21st, 2010 4:01 pm

    Hey wait a second, before we bag on guides and their clients. A guide, at their best, is essentially an experienced/skilled partner that also handles logistics. Everyone of us has been out in the mountains on an objective that probably was beyond our ken at the time – but we were there because our buddy was a better climber, skier, etc. His skill gave us the confidence to push it to the next level. Ok, so we weren’t paying him – but, not everyone has the benefit of having (or being) one of those friends – so there is the reason we have guides. The fact is, a lot of guides and clients have fantastic and full mountain experiences. When I have a great meal cooked at a restaurant – I don’t enjoy it any less because I didn’t cook it.

  7. Matt Kinney July 21st, 2010 4:39 pm

    What is the difference between hiring a ski guide or buying a detailed ski guide book and punching the waypoints into a GPS? How about copying digital route map photos off the internet and feeding them into your Blueberry for the trip?

    One thing for sure with a digital guide, you’ll get first tracks. 🙂

  8. Tom July 21st, 2010 4:44 pm


    I’m sure that trips with guides are a blast and provide a safer arena for clients to learn. It just kinda seems like you’re paying people to hang out with them. Essentially, you really are, because they (guides) would be up there with or without you and your $$ is your pass to their friendship. After all, it is their livelihood.

    Maybe I just have a bad taste in my mouth because the local “guides” aka the wasatch powderbirds have ruined many wasatch skiers days by dropping off Texan clients at the top so they can enjoy their $400 ski run with a catered lunch afterward all while some poor schmuck has been working hard for the last 3 hours to ski off the summit that is now all tracked up. WPB have also saved a few non-client lives over the years, and I’m sure they are great guys too who are amazing skiers and are fun to ski with.

    Anyways, you can tell I have mixed feelings about it.

  9. Jim July 21st, 2010 5:06 pm

    Guides are great. For folks just getting into the back country they provide everything a good skier but neophyte back country skier needs to to be safe, have fun, get the goods. I went out alone on some iffy conditions and was pretty scared. My guided trips allowed me to push the envelope more with more comfort with the experience and ability of a young guide not to mention gear that I still am acquiring. I’m getting old too and I want to get out there before its too late. Experience takes time. There are a lot of dangers that reading books and guide books can’t teach. A good guide can make a big difference, life and death.

  10. Thor July 21st, 2010 5:26 pm

    Hi, I was a mountain guide for ~10 years — including 20 trips above 6000m and 1 over 8000m — chiefly for the most well known guiding company in the world. My comments source from that experience.

    I respectfully disagree that ‘any idiot can do Everest,’ and I push back regularly on this issue in casual conference. Isolating the issue viz Everest: guides neither hump loads, nor cook food (with exceptions), rarely set up tents, and rarely macro-manage on-mountain logistics; this is all out-sourced to Sherpa, who would have it no other way. In fact, many guides do less work than clients because they skip carry days, or the like. Yes, guides do the macro-judgment bit, and that took me years and years to master; but very few people — absent, likely, many readers here — have the experience to manage risks above 6000m.

    All of which is to say: it’s not easy to be guided on big mountains. Yes, perhaps less stress, but not easy from a strictly calories-out perspective. It may be too much to say that I would value a speaking engagement of a guided client moreso than a guide, but i do know that my clients were always at least 5x more stressed than I, and I always learned incredible amounts from them because of their efforts despite being incredibly out of their comfort zones.

    All in, think I am siding with AK, but this is an interesting issue and I certainly respect 3d party opinions and am learning a lot from them. Thank you.

  11. Steve July 21st, 2010 9:14 pm

    Well I guess I am fortunate to have grown up with a parent that grew up with a parent that believed in doing it yourself. That and we couldn’t afford to do it any other way. I learned by watching and listening to my dad, who grew up listening to his dad talk about past adventures as well as planning upcoming trips. I’ve had to think about this a bit, because I can’t decide just how much of it is in us genetically so to speak. I do thirst for adventure and exploring. I do remember how excited I became when I was finally “big” enough to go on some of those trips. Now mind you these weren’t backcountry ski trips, just fishing or hunting trips. The backcountry skiing came much later in life. But planning and details don’t really change all that much.
    Guides certainly have a place, as I think back to going into, new to me country, that my dad or grandad knew by heart. No map, they just new the mountains, my guides. Some of the places they were told about and they may have had some hand drawn basic type maps. Man I’ve seen plenty of maps drawn out in the dirt. I’m feeling really spoiled about now thinking of my map programs, google earth and the such. I’m in the camp of I’d rather plan and do the trip with a couple of friends than hire a guide. I’m getting way too stubborn about some things at this point in my life. I think it’s all good, use what your comfortable with.

  12. Lou July 21st, 2010 9:31 pm

    Thor, good point, I’m writing about enablers, guides AND porters, sorry about not being more clear. So I added the word “porters” to my post.

    Let me be clear that where I’m uncomfortable with the guide/porter deal is when it’s used to get a person up a climb that would otherwise be impossible for them, and after that the person brags or touts their ascent like it was a big deal. I’m thinking Everest, mostly, but you see it with other peaks. What’s even worse is when the person conveniently avoids mentioning that their trip was guided, and that the guides did nearly everything but instigate their leg muscle contractions.

    When a guide is used more as a companion or such, that’s a different deal. So I agree with you AK to a great extent. That part of the issue is a big grey area, actually. Another grey area is that on a mountain with lots of people climbing, most folks end up getting an advantage from the others at one time or another, such as a broken trail or fixed ropes already there. But those things are trivial compared to being baby sat, in my opinion anyhow (grin). Besides, you frequently end up giving what you get in those situations (break trail one day, use someone else’s the other).

  13. Jono July 22nd, 2010 12:49 am

    to expand on what Lou just summarised, I think it does depend on the type of climber and the kind of trip. i agree with AK on the relationship between a guide and his clients. from a guide perspective, the reason for guiding is often a lifestyle choice. to connect with other mountain-minded clients and share the moments with them in a magical place, personally, is what i always look forward to. a lot of time the situation is as described by AK, a more skilled climber climbing with a less experienced kind rather than holding the hands kind. i am not sure how other guiding company approach on a guided trip. the one i know tend to involve the clients from the start, from planning, explaning the weather, transportation option, food and gear choice, allocating weight etc. and of course they carry their own stuff plus a portion of communal stuff.

    and paying for a pass to friendship is not the right description imho. like every business they need to make money to keep it going, but that doesn’t render the guide-client relationship any lesser. A borrowed line from we know who – “When I have a great meal cooked at a restaurant – I don’t enjoy it any less because I didn’t cook it.” many even got beyond the traditional relationship to friendship and/or mentorship. again like AK mentioned in his reply, not everyone has such friendship, hence paying for a guide. after all that is what a guide does and hell, they do it well.

    despite all said, i also understand that may not exist on many high altitude climbing where the sole objective is to make summit and such expedition often attracts people who’re driven by ambition to check off their adventure to-do list. that is when the guide-client relationship as traditionally protraited. with sherpas taking care of all the logistic, while guide mainly take care of planning and actual climbing. I, like Lou, am bothered by the many people who bought their ways through the 7 summit mania. but the issue here isn’t with them hiring a guide for the climb; but how they choose to publicise/communicate the climb to others.

    i agree with Jim and Thor, experience does take time. plus, not everyone is a visionary, as fit and as experienced as another person. they are not, and to some possibly can never be. mt. kilimanjaro may be a walk in the park to many, but to many others it is likely to be their everest. and if having a guide means they can move from kimimanjaro to the actual everest; who can blame them? no one should deny their bragging right or compare that to their own achievements. it is never a competition. and to the purist, i respect and even tend to agree with some of their approaches but we got to respect and not belittle other’s achievements. if a guided arrangement is the only way they can make it and they are willing to be so far out of their comfort zone to do something, then they can be reasonably proud of their achievement. if we have spent enough time in the mountains, we should agree achievement doesn’t come solely (and dare i say it is the least) from making summit on the most spectacular style. our problem here, again as Lou pointed out, is with the dishonest report and refusal to credit the people who make it possible for them. but there is little we can do about that. it is down to individuals at the end of day.

    talk about respect, on a side note, “any idiots… can climb mt. everest” isn’t an appropriate one-liner imho. what does that make the deceased great mountaineers like Rob Hall and George Mallory; and to their loved ones; and the many Sherpas/locals who regard Sagarmatha/Chomolungma as sacred. the same also applies to all other mountains. i don’t think having scaled it qualifies us to talk of the mountain like an expert. i whole heartedly subscribed some few one-liners we use in the guiding community “the mountain doesn’t know you are a guide” And “we are only mortals”.

    just my $0.02.

  14. Lou July 22nd, 2010 7:00 am

    Nice Jono, thanks.

  15. c1josh July 22nd, 2010 7:37 am


    Where did you hear that 40 people a year die on Denali? Maybe this was a typo?

    Just to set the record straight, you are off by a factor 10.


  16. Bill July 22nd, 2010 7:57 am

    Sorry, I was being sarcastic with my comment. My point was that most people, those who have no knowledge in the area of mountaineering, would not know that that figure was way off. The story was being written to exaggerate the story of the two guided climbers.

    There are some great perspectives in these posts. I agree that using a guide to push one’s limits to the next level is a smart way to increase one’s skills. I’m also jealous that guides can make a living doing what they do. Although, I’m sure some clients make them feel like they don’t make enough.

  17. Lou July 22nd, 2010 9:15 am

    I did quite a bit of guiding over the years… believe me, in many cases it is NOT something to be jealous of. Very hard work with a huge amount of responsibility, sometimes with people who are really not all that pleasant and who drop into a “client” psychology where they pretty much turn into a baby-sat zombie.

  18. Lou July 22nd, 2010 9:25 am

    Link below is probably the Chicago father/son Denali article Bill refers to? It is very matter of fact and up front about the guides. Not problem with it, the duo probably had a lot of fun with Mountain Trip and they got back alive… It’s also probably a lot of fun for those guys to get an article in the newspaper, so great.

    According to Summit Post, 40 is the number of people who have died on the West Buttress route over the life of the route. Probably more than 40 by now… success rate when we were up there was around 45% and I guess the average is around 50%.

  19. Jake Norton July 22nd, 2010 11:06 am

    Hi all,

    Great conversation here, and thanks for starting it, Lou. As both a guide and climber, and someone who’s been to Everest 6 times, Cho Oyu twice, and some other big peaks in the Himalaya, working as a guide, photographer, or simply climber/researcher, I guess I’ve got some perspective on the issues raised here.

    First off, like many I take issue with Ybarra’s comment that “almost any idiot, willing to spend enough money, can climb Everest.” Sure, people who shouldn’t probably be there do indeed get on Everest, and sometimes to the summit, simply by paying enough money to do so. And, yes, things have gotten easier on the big hill since the days of Mallory, Hillary, Scott, and the like. But, the reality is that people do still have to walk up there, and generally walk back down again (unless they’re hurt and help can be provided). And, people die there every year – guides, clients, Sherpa. While easier than it was, and more refined with each passing year, it’s still a big hunk of real estate, and most of the people who stand on top did so only through a huge effort and a lot of planning, risk, and fortitude.

    I think what rankles a lot of people is that Everest is no longer a mountain for the tried and true only; you no longer need to “pay your dues” (as I did) in a long process of building your skills and going on progressively bigger expeditions before eventually getting to the big one. Now, you can climb (in theory) nothing, write a big enough check, and find yourself a few months later on the summit ridge. Probably not the process we’d recommend to anyone, but it is a reality of the mountains when mixed with commerce.

    Where I fully agree with most of what’s been said is that people should absolutely not be disingenuous about their climbs: If they were part of a guided expedition, they should say it. If they had Sherpa support (and no one on the SE or NE Ridge of E these days can say they didn’t), they should say it. It shouldn’t diminish their accomplishments in any way, but rather puts it in the proper context. (For example, a client of mine, 6’6″, 300+ pounds, got up Kili with me a few years back. He’d never say he climbed it by himself. He puts his ascent in the proper context. And, even though he climbed Kili with guides and porters and the like, I’d still say his ascent – given his lack of experience and physical challenges – is far more impressive than me climbing Kili blindfolded on a pogo stick.)

    And, one final big issue I think needs to be addressed in some way is how guiding is approached, be it on Everest or any other peak. Sure, we as guides make our living by taking some payment to help people attempt to climb a peak. But, the important thing here is the word “attempt”. It’s loaded. Before I take anyone into the mountains in a guide-client relationship, I always start the conversation by saying that my job is to get them back home, in one piece, to their loved ones. If the summit comes as part of that process, great. If not, so be it. I’ll make every decision with the getting home part in the front of my mind. But, I think at times the high-finance of Everest climbs, coupled with the type-A personalities it tends to draw, blurs this critical side of guiding, and poor decisions are sometimes made, like teaching someone to rock climb on the Second Step (I’ve seen it happen).

    The bottom line to me: Guides and Sherpa are there to assist in the climbing process, to take the logistical issues out of the picture and simplify the mountain experience for people. And, they are there to make the right decisions at the right times based on their wealth of background, experience, and ability to read people (sometimes better than they can read themselves), and to make every single decision with safety in mind. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that way.

    Anyway, rambling a bit here. Sorry. Great discussion, Lou…hope to hear more!


    For it is the ultimate wisdom of the mountains that we are never so much as we can be as when we are striving for what is beyond our grasp, and that there is no battle worth the winning save that against our own ignorance and fear.
    – James Ramsey Ullman –

  20. Bill July 22nd, 2010 11:10 am

    Good thing I’m not running for political office. My recollection of the article was a little off.,wilmette-mountain-070810-s1.article

    The factual error really skewed my view. My main point was that I don’t like the idea of any guy with alot of money being able to buy a summit. I didn’t want to criticize these guys in particular as I’m sure they’re fine fellows.

  21. Lou July 22nd, 2010 11:22 am

    Bill, indeed, one has to wonder who the “family friend” was, and one has to assume that was a guided trip but they or the reporter failed to mention it. That really dishonors the guides, in my opinion.

    What’s with this father/son thing? Louie and I are part of a trend and we didn’t even know it?

  22. Jack July 22nd, 2010 12:11 pm

    Lou – A group of my friends and me go to Europe once a year or so and hire a certain UAIGM Guide to 1) show new terrain, 2) Negotiate in two or three different languages the hut rates/availability, 3) Take us to snow that 2 or 3 degrees off is the difference from being great snow and “magazine snow”, 4) keep us out of trouble because the avy danger is different there than we are use to in Colorado. Several of my team mates are accomplished former S & R or CAIC types (read this as “expereinced”). I can think of several situations that our guide got us out of that make me want to name my next dog after him. Yes it costs a little more but the safety and fun factor is greatly magnified. He does not carry our gear or pamper us but rather he guides us. Congrats on Denali!

  23. Lou July 22nd, 2010 12:52 pm

    Jack, that’s the kind of guiding that seems totally reasonable in my view… though it still changes the experience and one has to consider that depending on what their goals are in terms of the type of experience they’re after…

  24. Andrew July 22nd, 2010 1:00 pm

    Tom – the Wasatch Powderbird Guides are “guides” in name only. It just sounded sexier than “Wasatch Powderbird Catering & Backcountry Demolition Services.”

  25. Lou July 22nd, 2010 1:02 pm

    Jeez Andrew, you left out their carbon footprint!

  26. Andrew July 22nd, 2010 1:06 pm

    Carbon footprints are for kids. Real logo-spangled, hair-gelled men like the WPG leave bomb craters and lots of them.

  27. Jake Norton July 22nd, 2010 1:40 pm

    Lou, Good point for sure. I guess my hope with most of my clients is that they find to some degree the progression I went through when I was young. I started with guides, and some on my own, when I was a kid, and eventually built up the skills to go on my own into the backcountry. To me, that’s always what the goal as a guide should be – not to create perpetual clients, but to educate them and give them the skills to go out and do it on their own, safely, with strong ethics. But, yeah, if someone is after the “true” mountain experience, with full logistics planning, route finding, and assumption of all decision-making on the trip, then going with a guide is not going to give them that.

  28. Mark July 22nd, 2010 10:01 pm

    If memory serves, Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat had two of the greatest guiding careers in the last several decades. I think some of their clients were, in fact, extraordinary climbers. I wonder if, today, there are fewer truly strong climbers who climb with guides and many more people keen for adventure who will go with guides.

  29. Richard July 23rd, 2010 2:18 pm

    Congratulations to the guides involved in rescuing the 16 people from two private climbing parties struck by lightening on the Grand Teton on the morning of July 21. Without there presence and skill many more than the single fatality could have resulted.
    I live in the Teton Valley Idaho. The first white man to live in the valley was Beaver Dick Leigh, who earned side money for pancake flour and bullets by guiding rich dudes from the East and European royalty. You could almost say that guiding is the second oldest profession—-.

  30. Jim July 26th, 2010 11:41 am

    Steve House, Beyond the Mountain is a great book. He is committed to lightweight technical alpine style ascents and disdains the expeditionary approach up the standard routes. He is extreme with style. Few can do it. Further down the hierarchy few can organize their own trip up big mountains. Many wish to experience the mountains and need support to approach the mountains at different level. Good attitude is required. A guide should be more a coach than a babysitter.

  31. Jono July 26th, 2010 10:55 pm

    I was just watching a doco on a recent commercial guided Mt. Everest climb and notice plenty of bad foot placements, stepping on the rope, bad ice climbing technique (on the Lhotse face!), losing focus, murmuring and complaining. From time to time guide and sherpa got hands on to adjust the clients’ crampon, oxygen mask and harness. And when they got back, one client (who failed to summit) was complaining away and ordered whoever to take off his backpack and crampon, in the tent. And things like that.

    Everest is not a place for coaching. The climber either has it, or not. This kind of expedition normally attract the latter. Many of them paid good money not for expert tuition but to be served and a safety net in their guide. Is easy to write a check for when things get tough they can and will just ‘let go’ and dropped into that ‘baby-sat zombie’ mode (nice one Lou) than dealing with it themselves. It is common in the guiding industry but especially vivid on commercial guided Everest climb.

    I don’t think too many guides like to babysit, but the reality is far too many clients loved being babysat.

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