Interview: The Life of a Professional Climbing Guide and What it Takes to Become One

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To me, mountain guides can seem immortal. They scale some of the wolds most sought after peaks over and over, day in and day out. They scale them while watching over clients, teaching them how to be safe in the mountains. They live fascinating, adventurous lives filled with incredible stories and experiences. But they're not immortal, they're real people. In this interview, we'll get a rare glimpse into the life of a professional mountain guide, and how he got what most of us consider a dream job.

JB en route to the Mountaineers Route, Mt Whitney. (A Yamaichi)
James Brown, aka JB, guides big mountains for a living. He’s originally from Houston, Texas and grew up playing outside with his family. “The mountains have always been a place I've felt at home,” he says. When he started his now eight year career as a mountain guide, he though he'd go back to a “big boy” job after a summer or two. Now he spends the year guiding for California-based SWS Mountain Guides (@swsmtns).

The question everyone wants the answer to - how did you start guiding? (from Dave)
I like to say that I lost a bet! Just kidding; there isn’t much in my life I would change. I was just very passionate about climbing. Every spring, the mountain guide services put out notices for applications. The first company I applied to work with was RMI. They took the 30-40 best applicants and brought us out for a three day weekend tryout/interview process knowing how many slots there were. We went through interviews, hiking, soft skills tests, leadership scenarios, and demonstrated essential skills. Then they sat behind closed doors and talked about us. Peter Whittaker told me he felt like a high school basketball coach who had to cut people from the team. They post a piece of paper with names on it, and you find out if you made the cut.

It's super competitive; some folks would study things they'd done wrong after each day, and I saw people giving them bad advice on purpose. They don't just take the best climbers. They want people who are good climbers, but who are relatable and work well with clients. The year I applied, Melissa Arnot and Seth Waterfall applied too, and RMI took seven people. All seven of them are now some of the best mountain guides in the world. I was listed as the first alternate, one spot away from making it.

One of the companies I applied with passed on my resume, and out of the blue I got a phone call from David Cressman at SWS.  He offered me an assistant position, and from there I busted my butt and built a client base.  I made a lot of mistakes those first years, but after a while, I discovered I was pretty good at it.

JB en route to Imje Tse in the Himalaya. (M Imperial)
What mountains have you guided? Do you have a favorite?
I have 28 guided summits of Mt. Shasta and 78 of Mt. Whitney [as of the publication of this interview]. I also guide some of the 6,000-meter peaks in Nepal. I don’t know what my favorite would be. In California, it would be anything in the Palisades. Smack dab in the middle of the most populous state in the country is a seemingly endless row of 14,000' peaks. You can spend a week there climbing amazing routes and not see more than one or two people. 

I also love Imje Tse (Island Peak) in Nepal. It starts out as an easy, casual route and the next thing you know you're on a super steep face that finishes on a knife edge ridge.  The summit is barely big enough for two people to stand on. Standing on your exposed little perch, you look up at Lhotse and finally start to conceptualize the magnitude that is the Himalaya.

What does a typical trip look like for you, right now?
A typical trip for me is a two or three day intro to mountaineering climb. They're people with little experience, but who want to learn.  I'll get people up a basic route and teach them skills to get them started and get them excited to go up high in the mountains. I don’t care who you are in the mountain guiding industry; if you don’t like working with FDBs (First Day Beginners), you are in the wrong line of work.  All the best guides love to teach, and you can see it by looking at guys like Peter Whittaker, Dave Hahn, and Tim Keating.  These guys have all guided big peaks in the greater ranges but they teach beginners all the time.

JB (left) and climbing partner John Bisignano.
Is your tolerance for cold and discomfort is higher than normal, or are you just nuts?
I don’t think that my tolerance for either is better than most. In fact, I got frost bite on my right hand in the Tetons when it was -27┬║F. Ever since then, that hand gets cold very easily. The key is preparation both physically and mentally.  Experience helps you understand what you can tolerate and to prepare.

Does it ever get tedious guiding the same mountain all season?
Of course there are days when it’s tedious.  I mean, everyone's had morning where they didn't want to go to work.  That said, I have the best office in the world.  I deal with new and exciting people every day, and the mountains can be an amazingly variable place.  I’ve had days where you just stroll to the summit and then two days later you get hit with a gust of wind that literally knocks you off your feet.

JB on Matthes Crest in Tuolomne. (E. Sagalyn)
What's your comfort piece of gear? (from Tiffany)
Until a rock went through it, it was my backpack.  I had an old school Arc'teryx Bora 80 that was 13 years old and had been on over 200 summits on three continents and in 8 countries with me.  I loved it! Black Diamond was kind enough to hook me up with their brand new 2011 Mission 75.  It wasn’t even released until the Outdoor Retailer show.  I’ll let you know how it works out, but it has some big shoes to fill.

What's the one thing everyone always packs too much of? (from Laurel)
Clothes.  Of course you need good outerwear and essentials, but how many socks and t-shirts do you need on a two day trip?   Inevitably, there is someone on every trip that thinks they need a clean shirt, socks and underwear every day.  If that’s a 45 day trip in the Himalaya, you'll need a Sherpa just for your base layers! I always tell people to lay out the gear they didn't use when they return from each trip and ask themselves if they really need it in the future.

Huge thanks to JB for taking the time to share a little of his super awesome job and life with us! Visit our Interviews page for more inspirational people.

2 comments :

Jayson said...

Great interview! I really enjoyed JB's take on working with FDBs. Since getting off the bike and enjoying the outdoors in a different way, I can appreciate anyone who matches my enthusiasm for whatever it is I'm learning even though they've done it a hundred times.

It can make for a frustrating experience when you're out of your element and your instructor/guide treats you like a burden.

Katie said...

Agreed, it's so exciting when you've got a really stellar guide who wants to teach. The three RMI guides who led my Rainier trip last summer were just inspirational, and so patient! Good guides can make all the difference, and it's obvious JB's one of them!