Ian McEleney is a professional mountain guide for the American Alpine Institute. He lives, works, and plays in The Sierra Nevada. We asked him about guide-life.
This is the second story in our Why We Climb series, exploring the world of climbing and mountaineering. You can follow the entire series here:
IW: How did you first enter the world of climbing?
IM: When I was a kid my parents sent me and my sister to summer camp for a week every summer to get us out of their hair. That was where I started hiking and backpacking and fell in love with being in the mountains.
In college I started to notice that all of my hiking and backpacking trips began with a map, and that the trails on the map usually followed a natural feature like a ridge, creek, valley, etc. I thought it might be kind of cool to pick two points on the map, draw a straight line between them, and travel that line. It occurred to me that I might need to learn some new skills, as my straight line might cross a lake or go over a cliff, and I would need to follow the line on that terrain. I resolved to acquire the skills and then travel the line. I started with climbing, fell head over heels, and promptly forgot about the rest of the plan. I never did learn anything about boating. I can swim though.
Staying warm in a snow pit at Upper Boy Scout Lake on Mt. Whitney.
IW: What led you to become a mountain guide?
IM: I've always enjoyed passing on knowledge and skills to others. I started climbing in North Conway, NH. I would regularly see local guides out on the cliffs and they were some of the best climbers in the area, so right away I had some respect and admiration for the guiding profession.
Five years after I started climbing I was living in Joshua Tree, CA for the winter. I was planning on leaving town for the summer, as it's quite hot there and really nice in so many other places. I didn't have any firm plans and somehow saw on the Internet that The American Alpine Institute (AAI) was hiring. By this time I had climbed all over the country on a wide variety of peaks, cliffs, rocks, and frozen waterfalls. A breadth of experience is one of the qualities they look for in their guides. A few weeks later I was hired.
IW: What was the process of becoming a mountain guide like? (Required Training, Certifications, etc)
IM: AAI runs its own in-house guide training for all their new hires. New guides spend a month running all over the Cascades on rock, snow, and ice; on little routes and huge ones. They're getting familiar with the terrain they'll be working on and learning the skills they'll need. It's a fairly intense month. The year I went through the training we got one day off out of 29.
Theirs is a fairly unusual process, though. These days to start working as a mountain guide you typically need some level of training, usually from The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). They're the body that's responsible for training and certification of mountain guides in the US. They train guides in three disciplines: rock climbing, alpine climbing/mountaineering, and ski mountaineering. Guides can choose to get certified in one or two of the three. To get certified in all three disciplines seems to take most folks four to eight years. Many guides start working with a little AMGA training, and complement that with mentorship, formal in-house trainings, and practical experience as they work toward certification. I'm working my way through that process.
Ian demonstrating winter backcountry navigation techniques.
IW: What is your "typical" day like as a mountain guide?
IM: There is no "typical" day. That's one of the best parts of the job but it's also a pain sometimes.
If I'm working a day trip (perhaps a day of rock or ice climbing, or a day of skills training) I'm usually awake around 6:30. Over breakfast I'll check weather forecasts, avalanche forecasts, and any other relevant conditions information. After making any last minute adjustments to my equipment and ensuring that I'm properly caffeinated, I meet my guests. We'll talk about the day, I'll make sure they're properly equipped and away we go to the day's objective. If it's a day trip I'm often home for dinner.
If I'm on an overnight trip there's a lot more variety. I recently got back from guiding a trip up the West Buttress of Denali, the highest peak in North America. We were on the mountain for 21 days. Some of those days we were up at 5 am and on the go until 7 pm. Other days, we'd sleep in, eat pancakes and bacon, read books, listen to podcasts, and throw a frisbee around. When I'm in the mountains I'm "on" from the moment my eyes open until I fall asleep at night.
Ian setting up a belay off the summit of Mt. Whitney.
IW: How does your schedule vary season-to-season? (For example, Rock during the summer, snow/ice during the winter)
IM: The winter season in the Sierra usually starts in earnest at the end of December. Everyone has that week between Christmas and New Year's off and a lot of folks want to spend that time outside. So January, February, and March usually find me guiding ice climbing day trips and winter mountaineering overnights from two to five days in length, usually on Mount Whitney. Often there will be some glacier skills training thrown in there somewhere.
April is usually a little slower, which is nice because it's a great time for rock climbing here in the Eastern Sierra. I work as a guide at The Red Rock Rendezvous, a three-day climbing festival in Las Vegas, NV, and usually make a seven to ten day trip out of that. I'll usually guide one or two trips up Mount Whitney in the spring, which can be the nicest time to climb the Mountaineer's Route.
May through September are the busiest months in the Sierra because summer is the best time to be in the mountains here. My summer trips are probably about 70 percent overnights. I'm probably working 15 – 22 days a month in June, July, and August.
Things slow down in October, and I try to take 3 – 6 weeks off to do some personal climbing and sightseeing. Usually my "Rocktober" includes trips to Yosemite Valley, Red Rocks, Zion, and the greater Moab area.
IW: How do you challenge yourself to continually develop your climbing skills while guiding?
IM: Finding the motivation is never a problem. Being passionate about the activity for yourself is one of the prerequisites of a successful guiding career. The better I get at climbing the bigger my climbing menu gets, so I'm always stoked to improve. Honestly, it's one of my favorite things about the activity; you can always get better, there's no limit.
Finding the time can be more of a challenge sometimes. Mountain guides are human beings and our bodies need rest if we're going to be asking a lot of them. I try to take a rest day after any overnight trip. Overnights don't let me spend time with friends and family or perform the more mundane tasks that make up a life. When I'm working 20 days a month, those remaining 10 days get filled up pretty quick.
I've had a lot of different jobs, and this is the only one I've really loved. I know if I do it too much I'll hate it. Winter, spring, and fall provide plenty of down time, but the summer gets pretty hectic. So, in the summer I make a point of blocking out some time each month for "personal" climbing. Sometimes I can do this as my schedule evolves, sometimes I have to do it months in advance. Last week another guide and I completed a personal climbing project. It took four days. We had to secure that time off from work (and family and life) two months ago.
IW: Where is your favorite place to climb?
What's your favorite band? That's a really tough question. I'll give you three. The Eastern Sierra (I live here for a reason). It has some of the best rock climbing variety and access to mountains of any place on the continent. It also has generally amazing weather.
Indian Creek, Utah. I try to spend a few weeks there every fall. For crack climbing it's a laboratory and cathedral and playground all rolled into one. Just typing these words is getting me excited to go back. Oh yeah, it's also got great camping and is incredibly photogenic.
Zion National Park. I made my first trip there in 2007 and was awestruck. Zion Canyon is 15 miles of continuous 1000 – 2000 foot sandstone walls. It's very easy to have a real adventure there, and it never fails to inspire me.
IW: What are your personal climbing goals?
IM: Always be improving. I don't mean that every time I go out I'm trying to get better. Sometimes I just want to have a fun day outside and enjoy the company of friends. But from season to season or year to year it's nice to be getting better. There are a lot of fronts to be improving on too (see the last questions re: challenges).
There are supposed to be four fundamental types of conflict in literature: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, and Man vs. Himself. People sometimes think that climbing mountains is Man vs. Nature but that's incorrect. The mountain doesn't care, our actions have no impact on it. Climbing is about Man vs. Himself. I'd like to be better than I was yesterday.
Ian demonstrating cowboy-like rope-handling skills.
IW: What key piece of advice can you offer for someone who is interested in climbing?
IM: Climb as much as you can. There is no substitute for mileage.
Take care of yourself by training your non-climbing muscles. As climbers we spend a lot of time pulling down and these muscles and muscle groups can become more developed than their counterpart "pushing" muscles. These imbalances are one of the root causes of many climbing injuries.
Take one challenge at a time, especially when you're learning. If you want to work on rock climbing technique, do it when the weather is nice and you don't have to walk too far to get to the rock. If you want to try climbing in bad weather or way out in the woods, pick climbs that aren't technically challenging for you.
IW: What mistakes do you see new climbers make most often?
IM: Getting in over their heads and carrying too much stuff. Unfortunately, the only way to avoid these mistakes is with experience.
Getting in just a little over your head is how you learn the most, but it's a fine line between maximum learning and taking on risks you can't handle. Most beginners don't have the base of experiences to make the distinction, that's the definition of being a beginner.
This is one of the biggest advantages of hiring a guide. With me along, my guests (regardless of their level of experience) can take on greater challenges than they would on their own because I'm there to manage the risk.
As for carrying too much stuff, the more experience you have the less stuff you end up carrying. This is because you have a better understanding of what you need in the first place, and you're able to do more with less because you have more skill and experience.
Dinner on the mountain brings everyone together.
IW: What's the fastest way to die on a mountain?
IM: Don't come to the mountain without any respect. What I mean is, realize that you could die up there and don't bite off more than you can chew. Climbers have some control over some of the elements of the situation and no control over others.
Successful climbers generally have an appropriate level of physical fitness and technical skill for their goal, and the experience to make good decisions with that fitness and experience. Even then there are factors beyond our control that can do them harm.
Choose objectives that are appropriate for your fitness, skill, and experience. Being unprepared physically and mentally is much worse than being unprepared with equipment.
IW: Have you ever been hurt doing this?
IM: Not really. I have several minor overuse injuries that are pretty common for climbers. On Denali last month a climber who wasn't on out rope team slid into me on an icy slope, kicking me in the leg with his crampon. I got a little puncture wound, but it wasn't anything serious.
Climbing is a risky thing, but some kinds of climbing are more risky than others. In 99 percent of rock climbing situations, if everyone is doing what they're supposed to be doing, a slip or fall has little to no consequence. Most rock climbing situations feel less risky to me than driving on a busy freeway.
Cowboy or mountain guide?
IW: What features makes a mountain easier or more difficult to climb?
IM: How remote or accessible the peak is makes a big difference. Altitude, how steep it is, if the climbing is rock, ice, snow, or a combination, objective hazards like serac fall and avalanches, and local weather patterns and predictability interact to make a complicated stew.
Let's compare the Nose of El Capitan and The West Buttress of Denali. El Cap is steep, low altitude, has no objective hazards, has generally good weather, and is a 20 minute walk from your car, and is just rock.
Denali is not steep, but is high altitude, has more unpredictable and worse weather, numerous objective hazards, is a 45 minute flight onto a glacier, and has snow, ice, and a little rock.
Denali is a much easier climb. The technical skills required to climb the West Buttress are fairly minimal, though the peak requires perseverance and luck with the weather and conditions. The Nose does not really require any luck, but it does require just as much perseverance. It also requires a boatload more technical skills than the West Buttress. I bet waaaay more people who climb The Nose have the skills for Denali than vice versa.
Then again, for experienced climbers both are considered "easy" routes. I didn't train at all for Denali, in fact, I spent my free time this winter sport climbing. Some of the guests on my trip trained hard for months. Both were appropriate decisions. Killian Jornet trained hard too and climbed Denali in 11h 40m roundtrip, my team took 21 days. Most folks climb The Nose in 3 – 5 days, the speed record is around three hours.
Climbing difficulty is an extremely difficult thing to quantify.
IW: What's in your pack?
IM: It depends on what I'm doing. It's important that the equipment you're carrying suits the route you're climbing and the weather and conditions you're expecting on the route. If it's summer, you're certain it's not going to rain, and bugs aren't an issue, why carry a tent? I hate to carry stuff and not use it (unless it's my first aid kit) so there's no item that's "always" in my pack.
That being said, I've usually got some kind of a first aid kit, though sometimes it might be as minimal as ibuprofen and athletic tape. I've usually got a headlamp with me, and if I'm climbing I've got a helmet.
Follow Ian at ianmceleney.com.
Photos: Chris Brinlee Jr.
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