Step Up Your Mountain Prowess with These 4 Tips

By Brooks-Range Ambassador Aaron Richards

In the United States, if you want to make a professional career out of mountain guiding, you’ve got to have a decent level of competence in three major disciplines: skiing, rock climbing and alpine climbing. Like many of my peers, I entered the field with a passion for—and experience in—only two of these. I had been skiing and rock climbing for most of my life and starting to share these activities with clients, out of bounds and on real terrain, was easy and immediately rewarding. Hacking away at frozen water with sharp pointy things, on the other hand, had just never seemed that appealing to me. So guiding on ice? I wasn’t close to being ready for it.

Teaching companion rescue at a fundraiser for the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center. Photo by Jessica Haist
Teaching companion rescue at a fundraiser for the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center. Photo by Jessica Haist

Whether you’re a skier learning to climb or a sport climber pushing into the alpine, moving into a new discipline requires something more than a haphazard approach. It requires some strategy and intentionality. Here are some lessons I’ve learned as I’ve built competence on ice and moved toward becoming a more complete guide:

1. Acknowledge your weakness, and then move toward it.

In guiding, like in life, it’s easy to practice the things we already do well and much harder to focus on the things we struggle with. This seems to hold true whether we’re pursuing weight lifting, endurance running, music or academics.

When I started out as a guide, I was terrible at ice climbing and I knew it. When I had a free day, I had to very intentionally set climbing, skiing and my ego aside and go whack away at some blue stuff. Initially it wasn’t much fun; I would rather have been out pulling on rock or floating in some powder. But, as my competence grew, that feeling faded.

High on Dark Shadows during the AMGA rock guide exam. Photo by Angela Hawse
High on Dark Shadows during the AMGA rock guide exam. Photo by Angela Hawse

2.  Get as much experience as possible while treating every aspect of the environment and discipline as new.

In my first 18 months on ice, I relinquished the lead more than I had ever done rock climbing. This slow approach built a solid foundation on which to apply Will Gadd’s 100-pitch rule: Follow or top-rope at least 100 pitches before tying into the sharp end.

Moving from rock to ice, I was wary of my familiarity in the vertical world—conscious that my comfort on one substrate would give me a false (and dangerous) sense of confidence on the other. I had to force myself to pay attention to the subtle differences between the environments: how to protect your followers, where to position your belay, what ropes and devices work best in various situations. Stepping back and really appreciating the idiosyncrasies of my surroundings has helped propel me more quickly in the ice climbing environment.

Finishing the last 100 feet of Murchison Falls. Photo by Ian McEleney
Finishing the last 100 feet of Murchison Falls. Photo by Ian McEleney

3. Find a mentor, someone who can fill the gaps in your knowledge and push you to be better.

This February, my friend Ian McEleney and I headed back to my homeland, a place whose climbing had always intimidated me: the Canadian Rockies. In a little over a week, we treated ourselves to a fine sampling of what the area has to offer, with ascents of Louise Falls, Murchison Falls, Moonlight Falls, Polar Circus and Bourgeau Left.

Ian’s philosophy on climbing is centered around the idea that there’s always a lesson to be learned. This means that, whether cragging for a day or weathering an extended trip, both the individuals and the group are getting stronger. On ice, his form is impeccable, and he consistently inspires me to do better with every swing, to be patient with my feet, to not out-climb my tools. Plus he’s happy to put in long days and let me follow him up routes that would otherwise be out of my reach.

Ian McEleney under the Bear Spirit. Photo by Aaron Richards
Ian McEleney under the Bear Spirit. Photo by Aaron Richards

4. Test yourself before putting new skills to work in a professional setting.

We all know the anxiety and excitement of walking up to an unknown route. These feelings are valuable; they’re what get us into the mountains and then help keep us alive once we’re there. But when guiding, even if on-sighting a new route, we’ve got to have a level confidence in our abilities that allows us to control emotions. Our expertise should allow us to squelch the anxiety and stoke the excitement of our guests.

Prior to working in the mountains as my profession, I had the luxury of designing my own adventures and, as a result, hiding my vulnerabilities. As a guide, I owe it to my peers and to my guests to lay bare my weaknesses and then attack them through systematic training and practice. This new commitment to becoming comfortable in all mountain environments hasn’t been easy; it has required me to use my personal trips more strategically. But it has certainly opened up new terrain and made me more rounded and confident even on routine objectives. And I’ve found that it has also produced a sense of accomplishment that I didn’t used to come home with—maybe a feeling that isn’t too dissimilar from what I’m able to instill in my guests.

Early morning guiding on Mt. Whitney. Photo by Aaron Richards
Early morning guiding on Mt. Whitney. Photo by Aaron Richards

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