You spent tens of thousands of dollars to be guided on your lifelong dream to climb Mt. Everest. But in the middle of your expedition, ambulance you realize you made a horrible mistake – your guide is trying to kill you!
OK, a little dramatic, I admit, but for some members it might feel that way. You are pushed so hard, you feel like you will die. The lack of information creates sleepless nights. Climbing alone, you feel abandoned.
And for the guide, they look at you and wonder; who reviewed your application? Have you ever climbed anything other than the stairs back home? Do you realize you are on Mt. Everest and not Mt. Couch Potato?
Let’s look at both sides, what went wrong and how to avoid getting into this situation in the first place
The Nightmare Member
I have been on over 35 climbs and have seen the good, the bad and the very, very ugly. And I’m talking abut my teammates.
Members join a guided expedition for one primary reason: get them back home alive, according to surveys on my site.
But this expectation is quite broad. For some members this means being told what should be in their pack, how fast to walk, what food to eat, and they follow each footstep of their guide. They are the clingers.
For others, all they want is help with the route and beta on the weather. They want to be as independent as possible. In some cases they have as much experience as the guide but need the logistics. These are the independents.
These are very different styles and when combined in a close knit team in a high pressure environment, personalities will clash and the guide will be stressed.
The independent member is less of a problem than the clinger. They are always on time, ask almost no basic questions and sometimes even help the clingers. But they can also be a problem. They can come across as know-it-alls, refusing to take advice from the guide. Sometimes doing their own thing even to disappear at times – MIA. The guides have to implement a trust but verify strategy
The clingers require a different approach. Everything needs to be checked, rechecked and checked again. They take up a disproportional amount of the guides time, and more importantly their mental bandwidth. The guide will often shadow the clinger to ensure their safety. This prevents the guide from rotating to other members who may at times also need advice or help.
A good guide will be constantly scanning the team looking for the small signs of trouble like poor eating or hygiene habits, techniques that need improvement to ensure speed and safety. Also to help each member have a positive experience. When one or more member dominate the guide, that is trouble for everyone else.
But the real nightmare member may be the one who is quiet, invisible and does not engage – the sleeper. The guide does not know what they are thinking. At least with the clinger and the independent, they know what is going on – good or bad. The sleeper, is a mystery. Are they happy, afraid, unsure of their own skills? Will they crash on summit night? They require extra attention to protect them from themselves.
The Nightmare Guide
Near 7000 meters, I hear my guide berating his fellow guide. I lie in my tent wondering if the expedition will continue. On another climb, I slow down, too slow, and my guide using the tough love approach, starts screaming at me believing that he can will me to keep going, and never asks the simple question of “What’s wrong, Alan?”
Guides are people too. 🙂 There are the good, the bad and the ugly. They are often put in impossible situations having multiple balls in the air, unpredictable mountain conditions, irrational members, staff issues and their own personal problems back home that may distract them on the mountain. They are on-mountain project managers.
But they are also professionals, paid to do a job. And for most guides, that job is to get you home alive, not to get you to the top of the mountain. If you summit, that is a bonus. If you get home alive and didn’t summit, you live another day to try again.
But the bad guides can ruin your expedition or even taint climbing as a sport for you.
For me a ‘bad guide’ is one who does not communicate. This Strong & Silent type is probably a guide because they have excellent climbing skills, are strong and demonstrate some level of expertise in running a safe expedition. The guides do all that plus create a positive experience for the team. Those are rare.
When a guide is quiet, or sullen, it impacts the entire team. Some members wonder what is not being said. Is there bad news? The insecure member will wonder if the guide doesn’t like them.
Conversely, the over-confident guide, brags about their own exploits. The Loud & Proud talks of how fast they are on some recent route adding that you could never do it with your skills. The team both admires and begins to loathe him.
While there are certifications for professional guides, most anyone can put up a website claiming to be a guide. Yes they might have climbed that mountain (or maybe not) but this Poser will pull people in with tall tales of their conquests but have no training or experience in leading members on a climb. It is truly a climber beware world.
As in most things in life balance is the key. Members want the guide who has climbed their mountain multiple times in good and bad weather, dealt with difficult members. They are paying for that experience. But they want it in a positive, supportive environment where there are no dumb questions, no irrational judgments, no public fights. Most members want the Good Guy guide.
The key to avoiding these nightmares comes down to expectations and preparation.
Each member must take personal responsibility for their own training, research and preparation before coming to the mountain. To join a climb expecting to gain skills is sometimes appropriate. Many companies run special skills climbs for just that reason.
To show up on Everest or any big difficult climb like Alpamayo, or any 8000 meter climb without the proper skills is simply irresponsible and dangerous. Arriving at base camp unprepared is the deadly sin of guided climbing.
Each guide must obtain and practice the soft skills of guiding in addition to being a competent climber for that mountain.
The guide services often use an apprentice program to train guides, not only for technical skills but also for how they want their company represented to their members.
Small or one-person guide companies are a different matter. The owner is the sole source for interacting with the company. If you have an issue and the owner/guide does not respond, you are often left with no recourse. For these companies, you must get recent references and ask the hard questions. Better to figure out you don’t get along over the phone than on the mountain.
When looking for a guide, first be honest with yourself. When I organized an expedition to Broad Peak and K2 in 2006, I was shocked that people lie. I know it is like finding out there is gambling in Las Vegas, but it was amazing what people will say to get on an expedition.
Most seasoned guides know this and will ask you the hard questions. If they don’t you probably should look for another guide.
And likewise, some guides lie. They want to climb that mountain or they need enough people to move the expedition to making a profit. You are allowed to join to pad the pocket, regardless of your qualifications. Then the guide has to cater to the lowest skill on the team due to lack of resources or conditions putting everyone at risk. Even as the ‘money’ member, you may get abandoned. Not a good situation by any measure.
Let’s wrap up with this. Some people will say, never use a guide and only climb with trusted friends. If you have the skills, experience and network, that might be the option for you. But in reality, that is a small percentage of the climbing community.
Many members come home alive, with a summit and become lifelong friends with their guide. They are heroes. Many guides members to return, not only for the business but out of appreciation and respect.
As a member, learn the skills, gain the experience and research your options before selecting a guide. It is often a more critical decision than what mountain to climb for many people. And during the climb, remember it is not all about you.
For the guides, it is about ‘and’ not ‘or’. You are a great climber but you also need to be a great leader. Practice excellent communication skills, be open and available to your members. Give everyone an appropriate amount of attention. And during the climb, remember it is not all about you.
And for all, have a great experience and come home alive.
Memories are Everything