The Ultimate Guide

Margaret Wheeler—only the second woman in America to earn full guide certification—revels in her backcountry way of life.

I know people say there are no new places left to explore. But the experience of adventure and exploration is different for different people, and it’s different again when it’s your job to bring people into the mountains. There’s a relationship between risk and adventure—there’s also a relationship between perceived risk and adventure. As a guide I have to be hyper-aware of managing real risks, but I’m also aware of the heightened perception of risk that my clients feel when they leave their comfort zones. I feel enormous responsibility not only for their safety but their experience. As a result, I try to anticipate what they need, even when they can’t articulate it themselves. I focus on their reactions. I get to share their sense of wonder and accomplishment, to experience their sense of newness as if it’s my own. It can be thrilling.

Plus I get to move my body, be active and get really tired.

I took my first guides training course in the winter of 2001 in Donner Pass, California, and was completely hooked. It was the ski mountaineering course and it was all practical. We were out in the field, in an absolutely awesome landscape, with people following me around, giving me feedback all day for eight days. It was intense and fun, and I loved all of it: being with people, being outdoors, the analytical thinking it required, the preparation, pushing myself beyond what I imagined I could do.

I thought, You can get paid for doing this? Could this become my life?

So that’s what I wanted to do.

I did a lot of yearning in high school—to be a ski bum, to be part of a community somewhere in the mountains. I watched the ski movies and read the ski magazines. But I yearned without really knowing what I was yearning for.

I grew up skiing at Mad River Glen in Waitsfield, Vermont, and was in the race program there until ninth grade when it started getting serious. (I wore a giant slalom suit once and said, “That’s cool. Now can I go skiing?”) I went to Dartmouth because my older brother was there and because it was halfway to Mad River from where I lived in southern New Hampshire. I went to Dartmouth because it was close to skiing, but it wasn’t so close that I would only want to ski. I decided that I probably shouldn’t go west, because I didn’t want to be distracted by powder. I figured that the New England weather would be crappy enough of the time that I would get some work done.

I had planned to major in engineering, but during sophomore summer I’d taken a history course and it was the most amazing experience I’d ever had in a classroom. At the same time I was having a really hard time in a couple of engineering courses, so I pulled the plug and switched majors. When I found out about the Dartmouth Outing Club, it fit. I don’t think there’s any place else where you can find the same combination of motivation and creativity applied to the outdoors. My access to an outdoor community came through the DOC’s Mountaineering Club. That, hands down, defined my Dartmouth experience. It gave me a sense of what it was I’d been yearning for.

Andrew Swanson ’95 took me for my first-ever multi-pitch rock climb, at Cathedral Ledge in the White Mountains. I remember the way the rock felt: Cool air in the cracks, the warm, rough granite surface under my hands. And I remember how I felt at the end of the day—sore in every single muscle. I had never experienced that before. Andrew died in a 2009 fall on Denali, but most days I don’t feel like he is gone; what he taught me is now part of me and what my life has become.

I remember driving down to the Gunks and arriving at night. It was close to a full moon. We knew the cliffs were going to be crowded that weekend. Someone said, “Let’s just go climbing now.” So we went and climbed the Near Trapps by moonlight and headlamp and then passed out and slept most of the day. Pushing my body so hard was deeply restful and gratifying. It’s one of the best feelings in the world, and it became part of my motivation to somehow make a life in the outdoors.

After Dartmouth I took two years off and ski bummed in Chamonix, France. A ticket over there was my graduation present. My grandmother had died and left me a couple thousand bucks with the instructions, “Do something fun with this.” I had skied at Alta, Utah, with my family, so I knew about lifts going up high in the mountains, but in Chamonix you step off a lift into insane, high-level, technical terrain. I used crampons, climbing skins. We rappelled into couloirs. The whole winter was like that. It was skiing and ski mountaineering at a level and an intensity that kept going up. It got bigger, steeper, more technical. I loved it.

The incredible range of experiences made Chamonix very dynamic. It’s one of the few places where you can ski bum for your entire life and not feel like your life is narrowing, because when you aren’t skiing, you are restless—it drives you to do a lot. But Chamonix is also a place where FOMO is a problem. That’s a big skier and climber term: the Fear Of Missing Out. I’d have the best day of my life, but somebody at the bar always had a better one. No matter what, somebody else got better turns or did something more radical. I didn’t like feeling miserable because of FOMO.

My second winter I took a shot at being a professional skier, which essentially meant that Dynastar gave me a pair of skis and drove me to competitions. But that turned into a dead end for me. I had a meltdown in the middle of a comp and realized that it wasn’t for me. I was supposed to run a difficult course without a chance to practice beforehand. I didn’t know if the bindings on my “free” skis would stay on my feet—and I wasn’t willing to hurt myself finding out. I bailed and hitchhiked home.

I saw ski bums in Chamonix who had been doing it for years. I saw the kind of obsessed athletes who might someday become famous mountaineers, but I also saw the kind of ski bum who skis all day and drinks too much, whose relationships are in disarray, who gets by in seasonal, low-wage jobs. I started going down that avenue a little myself, but that future started feeling one-dimensional to me. I didn’t want to end up hating skiing after 10 years. I worried about having a career where I was gainfully employed.

That was 1999, when big avalanches took out something like 22 houses and killed a dozen climbers and skiers and the Mont Blanc tunnel caught fire and killed 39 people.

All this is to say that I ended up in grad school.

While I was at the University of Washington I skied in the backcountry around Snoqualmie with the owner of a local guide service, exposing me to guiding. I took my first guides course a year later.

I finished grad school and worked for a year as a math and science tutor before I found an environmental engineering company in Seattle that hired me part time. That allowed me to work as much as I wanted and still have time to do some guiding and train for my certification. To become a certified guide you have to do a lot of training—it’s not like you just take one eight-day course and you’re done. Each certification—there are three separate categories: rock climbing, alpine and ski mountaineering—has three levels, each one requiring increasing experience and technical skill. You can’t simply take one class after another and hope to pass. You might need a year to train between levels. I did the ski piece first, and that alone took me three years.

The certifying body in the United States is called the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). The “mountain guide” track that I took deals with everything: ice climbing, rock climbing, alpine mountaineering, ski mountaineering, in all kinds of terrain. It took me five years to complete my AMGA education, earning me my international guiding license from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.

Worldwide there are about 6,000 internationally certified guides, many of them in the Alps. In Europe the credential is universally respected. In the United States there are about 80 fully certified guides. Only eight are women. I was the second. I’ve been serving as president of the AMGA for four years now, partly to raise awareness and partly to continue to improve the certifying process. That will become more important as the sport continues to grow. I’d like to see the credential respected here—maybe even required in some places, as it is in Europe.

Making a living as a guide is hard. A lot of guides start out by getting a part-time job with a guiding service for maybe $100 a day. The trick is getting enough work—some times of the year it’s easy and others it’s damn near impossible. Once you get your certification—and it’s expensive, about $30,000 to take all the courses—you can make around $250 a day. You don’t earn a lot of money, but with enough work you can make a living.

I’m grateful that Martin Volken—the Swiss guide who showed me around Snoqualmie—hired me in 2002 and became my mentor. His business, Pro Guiding Service, runs skiing and rock climbing and alpine mountaineering trips all over the world. He’s developed a nice niche, which is high-end technical and low instructor-client ratio.

The second piece of making a living is private guiding with clients of your own. If you do that while you’re also part of a guiding service, you have to tread a pretty strong ethical path. If you build your client base at the expense of somebody who you benefit from, it’s going to come back and bite you.

As my guiding work was growing I was getting pressure from my environmental engineering company to work more hours. Then the economy crashed. In February 2009 I was in the middle of a guides course when I got a phone call from my boss saying they had to let me go—but that I should keep checking in to see if any work opened up. I got so busy with guiding that I didn’t even think to check that e-mail account until June. So it was high time I left! Guiding was a much better fit for me.

A third piece—teaching—finally enabled me to become a full-time guide. I now teach the ski guides course that I took, and we’ve worked hard to make it better. I also teach professional and recreational avalanche education. All the work keeps me booked year-round, doing what I love. It’s ironic that the gainfully employed career I worried about in Chamonix ended up being just what I was doing at the time. I feel so lucky.

I have a ton of respect for people who do high-altitude guiding, but that’s not my thing. I do awesome objectives below 16,000 feet. I guide mostly alpine and skiing trips. I’d like to guide more rock climbing, but that has a lot to do with where guides can get permits. That’s one of the issues the AMGA is working on. I’m spending more of my time these days guiding in the Alps. The wages are maybe double what they are in the United States—plus I’ve just married a man who also works as a guide there. I’m balancing that relationship with my work and clients back in Washington. It feels crazy sometimes. I call it a high-quality problem.

I go somewhere new at least one trip every year. One of the great consequences of the certification program is that the courses are moved around, and by the time you finish you end up knowing people all over the country and the world. Being introduced to new cultures and new people is exciting. Putting yourself into new situations makes guiding very dynamic. I never get tired of it.

Part of my initial attraction to this life was related to adrenaline, I’m sure. My reaction to so many new experiences was, This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done! It was only later that I realized how much hazard I’d exposed myself to. I think a lot of us, when we’re young, take more risks than we realize. It’s a wonder that I didn’t get into trouble in Chamonix. Good decision-making and judgment come through a process that takes time. Lately I find myself having a bad attitude toward adrenaline junkies. I’m like the old person grousing about the kids slacklining without a tether just because they’re addicted to whatever brain chemical it is that they get when they walk across a tightrope like that.

I’m actually a risk-averse person. I have friends and acquaintances who do things that get outside of my risk exposure. When somebody I know or love gets killed doing that, the platitudes about so and so “dying while they were doing what they love” fall pretty flat. They might not have known how much risk they were actually taking. If they did, I am not sure they would have gone there.

I’ve been lucky on all of my trips, but I know how fine the line is when you’re putting yourself in extreme landscapes and extreme weather. I was training for a guides course in Valdez, Alaska, once. A snow squall came up as we were skiing out. I turned left, the guide in back of me turned right and skied straight off a 25-foot cliff and landed on his back. His third and fourth lumbars absolutely exploded. We had to gingerly walk him out, and what should have taken 20 minutes took us seven hours.

Guiding successfully means managing the risk and delivering an experience that will, in some small way, change someone’s life. Guides are a way to connect or reconnect people with the natural world. There’s the chance to help someone’s relationship with the outdoors evolve. Maybe she’ll find more peace in her life. Maybe he’ll be a better steward.

In the words of one of my long-time clients (after taking a women’s “Intro to Backcountry Skiing” class with me), “I knew I was going to learn a lot, but I had no idea how much fun it would be!” Now she sends me pictures from her climbing and skiing adventures throughout the year, and I am always so inspired to get them. I rarely talk about politics or activism with my clients, and often don’t stay in contact with them after the courses are done. But occasionally someone will share his or her life with me. And I can see the difference in how much more time a lot of my clients spend with nature.

This is a really cool job, not just because I love doing it, but because it matters that people connect to the outdoors. There is so much potential for this profession to make a real difference.


By Margaret Wheeler, as told to Jim Collins ’84


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