Selecting a Guide Company

Selecting a guide/leader or expedition company may be harder than deciding what mountain to climb. After 36 major expeditions, most with guide/leaders, this page reflects some of my lessons. I suggest 10 key questions you should ask to answer before signing on with any commercial expedition. Always get references for the company and your specific guide/leader. A company's reputation can be ruined with a poor experience with a guide/leader so don't spend your money without finding everything you can about the guide/leaders for YOUR trip. Please take a look at the Guide Directory where I have a incomplete list of guide/leaders around the world.

Note: the term 'guide' has grown in definiton over time. Most of the companies I list on this page offer 'guided' climbs but this does not mean a 1:1 ratio between western guide and client. It means that there is one 'leader' who is on the mountain with many clients at the same time. On large Himalayan peaks it is common to have a wide range of guide to client ratios from 1:1 to 1:4 to 1:20 The large teams supplement the guide/leader ratio with Sherpas (at an addition cost) at ratios from 1:1 up to 1:4 Sherpa to client.

The best companies keep their total clients in a single push under eight with a 1:1 sherpa:client ratio plus at least one, preferably more, experienced western guides. And they have several Sherpas on standby at a high camp for emergencies.

With large groups or high ratios, if you get in trouble (fall, illness, or lost) you might not be able to reach your western guide/leader or qualified Sherpa for help. If you really want a true 'guide' then you will pay more than their top price listed but you can get a 1:1 ratio with an experienced western guide. While a company may have a good reputation, your experience could be fantastic or a disaster depending on the on-mountain leadership. Spend as much time understanding, researching and interviewing your leaders and the expedition organization as you do the company and the mountain.

Q: What is a 'guide'?
A: There are three categories in my mind: western, local and leader. A western guide is usually from the US, UK, New Zealand for example and not from the country you are climbing in. A local guide is just that, from the local country. A leader is not really a guide but more of a expedition manager who may or may not climb with you. I will use these distinctions in the following Q&A.

Q: Do I really need to use a guide/leader for a big climbing expedition?
A: It depends. For climbs within your ability, go with a buddy. I use guide/leaders only on new climbs, to a place where I am not familiar with the area or where I need their expertise in logistics. While many people climb 8,000 meter peaks such as Everest or Cho Oyu and 6,000m peaks such as Denali and Aconcagua without guide/leaders, you need to know what you are doing and have the time to arrange all the details. Long expeditions are a maze of details. You would be absolutely amazed at the amount of gear, food and supplies it takes to climb a big hill. On Everest, we had literally tons of gear. It is a pity to stop your summit bid because you ran out of fuel for your stove or did not bring enough rope.

Q: So, what is the story with expedition companies? Are they worth the price?
A: Tough question because it depends on you. If you have the experience, time and the money to put together your own climb, you can save some money. However, this is rare for most people. Some people don't have the money to pay for a guide/leader so organizing their own expedition is their only way to climb a big HIll. Then there are people who lack the experience and absolutely need an expedition service. The sad reality is that if you use a guide/leader and all goes well, you may question their value. The real value is demonstrated when something goes wrong. That is when the guide/leader earns their fee and the best ones show their stuff.

Q: What is the difference between an Everest expedition for $65K and one for $35K?
A: Often it is simply how much is bundled into one single price versus services offered as options. Sometimes it is the availability of resources: quality of group gear (tents, cooks, etc.), back up supplies (ropes, oxygen bottles, etc), medical facilities, communications and profit for the operator. An experienced western guide may charge $10,000 to $25,000 for his/her services on an Everest climb. This is added to the base expenses of an expedition and may add up to $3,000 or more per climber on an average expedition. But this is difficult to compare prices. When you look at the "what's included and what's not included on a companies' web site they read almost identical. This is why you must do more research. As for overall price, the best advice is to shop around. Prices range widely but be very careful when comparing services. The larger companies include everything in one fee. On low cost offers understand if oxygen and food is included. Ask about in-country flights and meals. Understand tips and how much is expected. You will get what you pay for but be careful not to pay too much!

Q: How can some companies charge half price?
A: If a price is the absolute lowest, then do significant research before signing up with them. A few companies do charge low prices due to their low overhead and low profit margins. And they do a great job. However the ones that charge the absolute lowest prices can be one man shows that have older group gear, poor food, limited radios and sometimes no access to weather services. Sometimes they depend on other teams for some of these services - not good. But the main issue I have with them is that there is no backup if something goes wrong. Usually the climb is led not guided and has a high ratio of climbers to Sherpas. For example, if they do not have spare tents in case of a huge storm that destroys a camp the climb can come to an immediate end. And if one of their clients gets in trouble, there is not enough manpower to get them safely off the mountain. This is a matter of life and death so be very careful about going with the lowest price company - most climbers I know who have; say "never again". Once again, always get references from recent climbers.

Q: What about using a company just for the logistics and not for their guide/leaders?
A: This is a popular option with experienced climbers. You get to share the climbing permit and receive all the base camp logistics and usually the use fixed ropes. You sometimes do not get the services of the local guide/leaders or services above base camp beyond the use of tents. International Mountain Guides has used this approach but several expedition services offer this option. IMG's 2012 Everest South climb is $100K for a climb with a 1:1personal western guide, $55 for 1:6 and $40,000 for their option with only a personal Sherpa and a group western leader. The latter is about the same price charged by local Nepalese companies such as Asian Trekking and High Altitude Dreams.

Q: How about those ground agencies like Asian Trekking in Nepal?
A: This is another popular option. You are basically buying onto a group permit of individuals. They provide base camp services (kitchen tent, dining tent, toilet tent, shower tent, chairs and tables), cooks, porters and climbing Sherpas. There are no Western guide/leaders and you have to be careful about the experience and language skills of the Sherpas. But for experienced climbers this is probably the lowest cost option out there. But, be careful, you must have the appropriate experience since there is no safety net! Asian Trekking and High Altitude Dreams both charge around $37K for their Everest South climb including a personal Sherpa and bonuses.

Q: How do I select a guide/leader service?
A: References is the best answer. See how long they have been in business. Ask how new is their group gear and who made it. There are many low-cost companies who use cheap knock-offs of quality products such as North Face VE-25 tents. Ask about the food. But most important, ask who will be the lead guide/leader on your trip. Talk to that person. Understand their philosophy. For example, is the guide/leader there simply to climb that mountain and you happen to be along or will they turn around with you if you get in trouble? Ask about their most difficult client and how they handled that situation. And, of course, ask about their direct experience on this particular mountain. Do not be their first client! Do not sign up if the lead guide/leader has never climbed that specific mountain or route. I have some questions everyone should ask before giving any guide/leader or company your money.

Q: How do I know if the company is good or bad?
A: Again, references. Speak with a few clients over the previous two years of expeditions of your type. Do not compare an Aconcagua climb with an Everest expedition. Make sure it is apples to apples since the difficulties increase with the complexity of an expedition. Also, do a Google search with the companies' and your guide/leader's name and some words like complaint, death, trouble, etc. But the absolute best way is to speak with recent previous customers who have made their goal and, most importantly, those who did not. However, keep in mind that everyone has an opinion and they are not always representing the absolute facts.

Q: Is there an organization that oversees or regulates guiding companies?
Not formally as in a government agency. There are formal organizations that provide training and accreditation such as the AMGA in the US, New Zealand Mountain Guides Association, Australian School of Mountaineering. Also there are country mountaineering organizations such as the American Alpine Club, British Mountaineering Council, Alpine Club of Pakistan and Nepal Mountaineering Association. I strongly endorse organizations such as these since they not only promote climbing as a sport but also work to keep mountains open, clean and safe in most cases.

Q: Alan, you had some bad experiences with guide/leaders, are you down on them?
No, I am not down on guide/leaders. Yes, I have had some poor experiences and some fantastic ones. It is unfair to paint every guide/leader with the same brush, but some guide/leaders are not what they advertise. The differences between guide/leaders are huge and this is why you must check out your guide/leader before signing up for a major expedition. All that said, I still believe the industry has a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Please see my editorial - 'When Good Guides Turn Bad'

Q: What is my recourse if I have a poor experience with a company or a specific guide/leader?
The first step is to make sure the company owner knows your concerns. My experience is that the owners of the larger, well-established companies want to hear your feedback and will take it seriously. But keep in mind that you may have played some part in your poor experience so remain objective. If you feel like your concerns are not being taken seriously, contact the climbing organization in their country to register your complaint. Most guide/leaders get future business by word of mouth so be honest and accurate when asked your opinion. Finally vote with your feet and never do business with that company again if you feel you are not being heard.

Q: How much should I tip a guide?
Personally, this is one of the most uncomfortable parts of climbing on a commercial expedition primarily based on the vague or lack of guidance from the companies. Without exception, when this comes up during climb, it creates a lot of doubt and sometimes controversy. I applaud those guiding companies who make suggestions as to amounts or percentages and those who collect tip money for support staff like cooks or porters before the climb. But that still leaves the question of western or lead guides or for personal Sherpas.

To state the obvious, a great guide is worth a lot. They cook, clean, advise, climb, guide, and serve as mentors, psychiatrists, family counselors and a lot more than any client would ever put up with from strangers. Guides who work for well established companies with long track records generally make a decent salary - but not always. If you are paying top price, you should expect your guide to also be paid as a professional. If you are paying the lowest price, you can assume your guide is working for next to nothing and even for free if they are primarily climbing for themselves. In general a guide will earn between $100 to $500 a day depending of a huge range of factors. Also, it is rare for guides to have benefits: medical, 401k, etc. Finally, carefully consider a generous tip if your guide is also the owner who is benefiting from the expedition profit.

As with all voluntary compensation, it is personal and should be driven by your experience, just like in a restaurant. As noted, guides are not paid high wages unless you are on one of the top tier expeditions where you pay well above market prices or on a custom climb. Complicating matters, large expeditions will have multiple western guides. Usually, the lead guide makes more than the 2nd or 3rd guide based on his/her responsibility. They usually split the total tips equally amongst all the guides. In the Himalaya, it is customary for Sherpas to receive a High Camp or summit bonus, again most reputable and established guide services will bundle this into your overall price but still suggest you pay a personal Sherpa (not one of a pool who is paid for by the operator) an additional tip based on your satisfaction.

Bottom line: I think 5% of what you paid to the company is a fair tip. It works out best if every member of the team makes the same contribution. Of course if you had an exceptional experience, more may be justified. 5% for a Rainier trip might be between $50 to $100 where an Everest climb at $50,000 would be $2500; all reasonable amounts depending on your climb experience. Finally, for a large expedition, it is customer to pay for a nice dinner for the guides after the climb.

10 questions you must ask your High-Altitude Expedition Guide
  1. Was the pre-trip conversation with the guide/leader/leader comfortable? Did you feel free to ask ANY question? Were the answers clear and not overly optimistic?
  2. Has YOUR guide/leader been to and guide/leader on the mountain you are attempting? Never be the first client.
  3. Has YOUR guide/leader summited the mountain? If not test their desire to summit versus getting YOU to the top and back safely.
  4. Will your guide/leader have any help during the expedition with logistics. It is easy to overload the guide/leader with cooking, logistics, etc so they get distracted from guiding.
  5. If there are multiple guide/leaders, have they worked together before your trip? Their dynamics are key to a successful trip.
  6. Who is running your expedition? Does the guide/leader have final authority on decisions on the mountain? Get examples of 'hard decisions' made in the past.
  7. What is the guide/leader's experience in climbing on the terrain you will cross. Make sure they have the proper skills (rock, snow, glacier, etc) to truly guide/leader you. Ask for their resume of previous climbs.
  8. Determine the on-mountain communication. Make sure you have a radio on summit night on 6,000m to 8,000m mountains and do not leave it up to a Sherpa or a guide/leader.
  9. Ask your references about the guide/leaders communication skills. Did they hide information or speak openly about good and bad news. How did they treat the clients? With respect or as being inferior to them.
  10. Would previous clients use YOUR guide/leader again? GET REFERENCES!!!!!!!!!!!


If your selected guide/leader company looks good on their site and you have positive references ask the GUIDE for your trip a few questions BEFORE YOU SEND ANY MONEY:

Ask about rescue situations: Every guide/leader service has had a rescue situations on big mountains whether it was their fault or not so ask about their experience. This is a nonnegotiable question for me. Ask about how it happened, what was done and most importantly what they learned. Did they leave the client alone to go get help? Did they depend on other teams to help due to their limited staffing or experience? Did they have proper medical supplies including medical oxygen and drugs? Force this question.

General: How many people have signed up for the trip and what is their minimum needed to run the trip. Obtain your teammates names and numbers and call them prior just to make sure everyone is really committed. It is a real shame to have your trip canceled at the last minute due to low sign -up.

Will you have Sherpas or HAPs on Himalaya climbs? You need to have a support team that has climbed your peak before. Especially important if the guide/leader has not. Normally you will have some porters with you who will carry group gear, food, tents, etc so sometimes they know the route but 99% of the time they do not - they just carry gear. So be specific if the non-Western 'guide/leaders' are Sherpas or porters and if they have used them before.

Who will fix ropes on your peak? Again, it should be Sherpa or guide/leaders with experience. This point is a life and death kind of thing ...

Will there be cooks? Usually on Nepal and Pakistan trips you have cooks. Ask about sanitation - do they boil ALL the water, including the dish washing water? This is a key point for your health.

What will you be expected to carry in YOUR pack? Will you carry any group gear - stove, gas, tents, sleeping pads, food? Usually not on the larger expeditions. If they say "personal gear" only, again get specific on what is included in the group gear e.g. sleeping pads? If you have to carry your ice axe, crampons and climbing Gortex the entire way? Be very specific about this if you are both trekking and climbing you need almost two different sets of gear: one light (trek) and one heavy (climbing). If you have to carry All this on YOUR back during a trek, you may be worn out by the time you get to your climbing peak.

Ask about acclimatization. Look at the schedule. The rule of thumb in the Khumbu is no more than 1,000 feet higher each night. Some services advertise many attractive features such as a trek plus a couple of climbs (trekking peaks) or for expeditions, a shorter schedule that may be more attractive to time-pressed clients. Be careful because acclimatization cannot be rushed. If you do, you will become sick and your climb is over.

A final tip is never be the first to sign up or send your money. I have had one trip canceled and another almost canceled within several weeks of departure. The company had my money so I had few choices as to selecting other companies quickly.