When Good Guides Turn Bad
an editorial

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You spend hundreds, thousand or tens of thousands of dollars to go on your lifelong climb. You dreamed about it since you were six-years old. Then, once on the mountain, you find the guide that was sold to you as outstanding turns out to be overbearing, arrogant and puts you down at every opportunity. What to do? How did this happen? What can be done?
"Leave the mountain right now!" he said with extreme anger in his voice to his assistant guide. The assistant argued his case and the leader moved on but the damage was done. The positive dynamics on this 8,000-meter mountain were now destroyed. Not only for the clients but also for the guides.

The guiding industry is in trouble. This is in spite of a record number of climbers using their services every year. If the owners of these companies do not take this threat seriously, their very business will take a fall that cannot be self-arrested. In trusting their company's image to guides who perform poorly, they are destroying their own reputation and brand image. Most clients select a guide service based on references and word of mouth.

While the point of this article is to highlight a serious problem in the guiding community, I want to be clear that there are exceptional guides out there. Dave Hahn represents the best of class in my experience. He is unquestionably qualified given his extensive experience on multiple mountains and conditions. He has repeatedly demonstrated excellent judgment, even when it meant turning back from a summit only hours away and finally, I have personally seen him work with clients with low skills to 'coach' them up a difficult pitch without making the person feel inferior.

So why do good guides sometimes turn bad? I have been on thirteen climbing expeditions with guides. I have seen the good, the bad and the very, very ugly. Most guides are excellent climbers. They are experienced and extremely strong. And they have a desire to see their clients as well as themselves make the summit safely and return. So what happens?

"I sent your sleeping bag back down since I never thought you would make it to this altitude." My lead guide told me as I arrived at 26,300'. Astonished at the decision, I now knew what I had suspected all along: my guide never believed in me. A body blow to my confidence.

Guiding is a tough and thankless job. The salaries are low, ranging from $20K to guide Everest to a few hundred on The Grand Teton. Most only do a few trips a year. The pressure is high. Client's abilities range from none to expert. The workloads are huge: plan the days, sometimes cook the meals, and anticipate the weather plus more. Client's expectations are astronomical: summit at all costs for many of them. It is no wonder some guides let the pressure get to them. But should they?

What most clients want is to simply give it their best shot and be treated with respect during the expedition. Most clients are reasonable adults who are not used to be treated like children. If adults are treated like children they often behave like children. "Look at me when I speak to you." He demanded in the dining tent. Amazing that he felt he could even speak to anyone that way much less his customers.

"Where is our guide?" a fellow climber asked. The truth was that he took a short side trip to visit a female friend and left the team alone overnight. Is it a deserved break or a dereliction of duty? What if someone became ill during the night? We depended on the guide since none of us were familiar with the area.

The desire to summit is strong for everyone, including the guides. I have overheard guides plan to push the clients so hard early in the climb that they quit. That way the guides can go on to summit by themselves. I know it is hard to believe but it is absolutely true.

So what is going on with these bad guides? I have three theories: envy, pride and ignorance.

Some guides actually live out of their cars since they do not make enough money to even rent a room but love climbing so much. The clients they guide often are very affluent and are not shy about talking about it. On the 8,000-meter mountains, it is standard to have a team made up of doctors, lawyers and executives. The guide sees these customers as the 'haves' in our 'have - have not' World. Envy is natural but can cloud judgment in times of stress.

Climbing slowly is a frustration for all guides. They pride themselves on their strength and ability to reach camps or summits at record times. "How long will it take to get to the next camp", a client asks the guide. "I made it in four hours but it will take you six." She answers unaware that the client now feels put-down and inferior. It seems popular amongst guides to criticize clients even to the point of making fun of them as recreation.

The best of the worst guides takes simple questions as challenges to their authority. "What is the oxygen plan? When do we switch out the bottles?" the experienced client asks politely. "You don't need to know that since you will never be alone" is the terse reply. Tell that to Beck Weathers.

A college degree in chemistry or barely out of high school, the education level of guides varies. But the people skills vary even more. Communication is the most important people skill required for a successful trip. Reading a client's hesitancy to go on or ask a question. Understanding the difference from being really hurt versus just hurting. Keeping an open environment so everyone feels comfortable to ask anything, even the "dumb question". Many guides are put in their role because they have experience on that mountain or they are a strong climber. It seems that guiding Companies rarely screen their guides for their ability to understand and relate to their customers.

Consider your options when you find yourself in a bad situation. Unlike poor service at dinner, you cannot walk out or leave a penny tip. What is the responsibility of a guide? Most contracts for big mountains have a clause that states the guide has the ultimate decision authority on the mountain. That is fine as long as the guide uses good judgment.

A guide is obstinately there to keep the clients safe. He or she must make hard judgments as to whether the client is able to go on or must turn back. They decide if the weather will allow the team to continue. They have a responsibility never to leave anyone on the mountain if they can get them off without endangering their own or other's life. They have an obligation to treat everyone with respect and dignity regardless of how difficult the situation becomes. After all, many consider themselves professionals and this how professionals behave.

So are good guides who turn bad a rare occurrence? I don't think so. There are many accounts of guides abandoning their clients for their own summits. Berating their clients for going too slow or not climbing properly. While it is grossly unfair to say every guide is a bad guide, it is fair to say the guiding industry has a severe problem and it is time to acknowledge and address it.

What to do? First, every company should use an independent organization to survey their clients after a climb as to their overall satisfaction and experience with the guides. Second, they need to use guides who have BOTH climbing and people skills. Finally, they need to understand that it is the customer who pays the bills and treat those customers with respect and dignity before, during and after each climb. Obviously every guide has the ultimate responsibility to keep their clients safe.

As a client you must get references. Simply going on the guiding companies' reputation is not good enough. The client must get references on their guide as well as spend significant time speaking to that guide prior to the trip. The best indicator of future performance is past performance. Promises are easy at sea level; it is at 20,000 feet in a whiteout that the truth comes out.

The climbing industry is in a boom that started after the 1996 disaster on Everest. That was a case in point of great guides turning bad and even greater guides giving their own life for the clients. This was unprecedented and hopefully will never happen again.

Guides are there to help clients do their best, not to die. Guides are professionals who need to understand that simply telling clients what to do is not good enough. It is how you say what you need to say and how you conduct yourself on the mountain that clients remember more than the summit. At the end of the day it is the method not the result that counts.

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