Freight Train Hopping to Exum Owner: Interview with Tom Hargis

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Tom climbing Iconoclast, Snow Creek Wall, Leavenworth, Washington.

by Lindsay Mann

Everything with Tom comes with a story.

If Albert Einstein were to be a mountain guide, he would be Tom Hargis. Each morning he walks into Mountain Athlete at 5:45am with his flowing white hair, chalk bag, and a calm demeanor. While other Exum guides are grimacing hanging from a tech board or doing their step ups, Tom always has a jovial way about him.

He has a weathered wisdom.

When we sat down for our interview at Cafe Eleven in Jackson, Wyoming, his hands are still covered in chalk from his morning training. He ordered scrambled eggs, toast and a coffee. We spoke for an hour and a half, while our breakfast got cold. When I finally had to leave, I was disappointed I couldn’t stay longer. I easily could have sat with Tom for another few hours.

Tom has already lived a full life. He is the only American to summit Gasherbrum IV in Pakistan (1986), has served in the Marine Corps including a combat tour in Vietnam (1967-1971), has a liberal arts degree from Evergreen State College (1978), and is the two-time recipient of the AMGA Lifetime Achievement Award (2004, 2015).

At the age of 68, he is one of the strongest climbers at Mountain Athlete, still climbs hard, has two children, is happily married, and is an owner of Exum.

MTI: How did you get introduced to climbing?

TH: I was always a wild kid and spent a lot of time in open spaces.

When I was thirteen I did a one week climbing seminar with Dee Molenaar on Mt. Rainier. A week later my dad signed me up for another week long seminar in the North Cascades with Richard McGowan.

My dad pushed me into the mountains because it was something that he was into. The first time I carried a heavy pack, or had to slog up the snowfield, I thought, this really sucks. I am not sure this is for me. The trip in the Cascades the weather was miserable and the tents sucked.

I remember mumbling under my breath, “This Richard McGowan guy is going to be the one who makes me never do this again.”

A week later I was hooked.

MTI: When was your first big personal trip?

TH: At 16 I went to Yosemite with a friend. My dad really wanted me to go to College but when my climbing partner went home, I stayed in Yosemite. I met Kim Schmitz and ended up climbing with him all fall.

The next year my dad wouldn’t let me take the car. Jim Madsen and I decided that we were going to hop freight trains to get down there.

That was a real adventure.

We got as far as Merced. We had to keep switching trains to pull it off, and sometimes we got on the wrong train, and we were dodging railroad detectives. We met all these hobos and they helped line us out.

MTI: What made you join the Marine Corps?

TH: I was going to be drafted. If you went into the Army it was almost guaranteed you were going to be infantry. With the Marine Corps you took aptitude tests and I showed aptitude in math and engineering. First I was sent to a school to study construction and from there I returned to do topographic computing.

My dad was really pushing me towards College but I was never really interested until I went into the Marine Corps. There’s a lot of downtime in the Marine Corps— the motto is “hurry up and wait.” I had time to read, and just started reading veraciously, everything imaginable. That led me to College.


At this point in the conversation, Tom speaks specifically about some of the reading he did in the Marine Corps. He specifically mentioned Sir Winston Churchill’s book, “A History of English-Speaking People.” This leads us into a conversation about what is motivating the youth today, which turns into us discussing Donald Trump and the current state of politics.

After about ten minutes, I steer the conversation back to guiding.

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 Tom Training at the Mountain Athlete Gym. 

MTI: When did you start guiding?

TH: In 1977 I started guiding for Aria Northwest out of Seattle. Before that I had done some teaching and guiding for Evergreen State College. Then years later I was down in the Wasatch with my wife Cyndi. She introduced me to Peter Lev, who invited me to guest guide at Exum.

The first year at Exum you’re technically an overflow guide. At the end of the season all of the senior guides evaluate you and recommend whether to invite you back or not.

It was tough to get in.

Almost all the guides were from Jackson and they weren’t that keen on outsiders. I got involved in the AMGA around the same time.

To put it in perspective, I started guiding for Exum in 1995 and the AMGA got acceptance from the IFMGA around 1997. They asked me to be an instructor of their Rock and Alpine programs.

Obviously that influenced my guiding.

MTI: How have you seen guiding change?

TH: Aside from all the technical gadgetry, guiding has evolved from something where people got into it because they thought, “Wow — this is awesome, I can get paid to climb” to a “profession.”

Professionalization of the job changed the mindset of guides from pursuing their personal agenda to figuring out what the clients’ aspirations are, and whether they are realistic or not.

Of course, the whole concept of client security is huge. Clients aren’t paying me to make it 100% safe. That’s not possible. They’re paying me to manage the risk to the best of my ability.

The guide training has changed drastically too from when I first started. This big change happened when Chouinard and other Jackson Hole Guides were involved in founding the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) in the mid-70s.

MTI: How have you seen climbing gear evolve?

TH: When I started there were no rock climbing shoes, no sticky rubber, no protection other than natural features, pitons, and hardware store bought bolts—which we know now are totally bogus.

There were no harnesses either, so we would wear swami belts. I remember for awhile I had 2” tubular webbing that you wrapped a couple times around your waist and tie it with a waterknot.

There wasn’t a lot of hang dogging going on.

The next big step forward was the idea of the swiss seat. Again, 1” tubular webbing where you integrate a waist feature with leg loops.

The belaying method for both lead belaying and bringing up a second was a hip belay.

Two revolutionary devices came out—stoppers and hexes, which could both be placed with one hand. When you think about pitons, you have to hold the piton in the crack with one hand and hammer it in with the other.

When I first went to Yosemite I got to know Chuck Pratt and Tom Kimbrough. Tom was sort of Chuck’s belay slave when he was cracking the 5.10 barrier. Something like Twilight Zone, which is something that still kicks young sport climbers butts, is way mellower with camming units. All Chuck could do is place a piton off this ledge at the very beginning of the climb and then go for the crux. If you were going to come off you were going to take a HUGE whipper.

Protection that was placed with one-hand revolutionized free climbing.

Camming units pushed it forward because you didn’t have to fiddle with them like you did with stoppers and hexers.

You just plug and go.

Those came out right around 1980.

MTI: How does guiding challenge you both mentally and physically?

TH: Guiding is about problem solving. You are constantly confronted by terrain challenges where there is inherent danger, and you have to figure out how to maximize security for your clients.

AMGA Courses teach you how to use various technical measures to provide safety. One thing that is often times over looked that can be a boost to client security is route finding. Good route finding means avoiding trouble.

Good coaching, good teaching and having good verbal communication are other skills that are often overlooked to boost client security.

For example when you are guiding on Mt. Rainier or Denali, your biggest hazards are crevasses. One of the best tools you can have is the ability to read and navigate the glacier. If you have to use a haul system, you’ve already screwed up.

MTI: Whats led to your longevity in the mountains?

TH: I am always working super hard to stay fit. Another factor is that I’m pretty conservative, and not in a political sense. I gather as much information as I can.

MTI: Do you think the gear that was around when you started climbing led you to make conservative choices?

TH: What I’ve seen in Jackson is that as the technology for skiing has evolved, people tend to have too much faith in their gear. If you have the right kind of avalanche hit you its not going to matter what you have—avalungs, avy bags, transceiver, its trauma that’s going to kill you.

At the beginning the equipment was sketchy.

What you learned was that it probably isn’t a good idea to fall because you’re probably going to get hurt or worse.

“Innocence invites it’s own murder.”

Nature is neither malevolent nor benign, it just does its thing. It doesn’t care a wit about our agenda.

MTI: What advice would you give someone getting into guiding?

TH: From a longevity point of view, pace yourself. Just like everything else your body can only take so much punishment.

Know your limits.

Don’t assume anything, and don’t take anything for granted. Don’t think you know it all because you can do it for years and something comes along that you haven’t seen before.

An example of that is, I had a client who weighed 260. He never did anything physical as a kid so he wasn’t very coordinated. Incredibly smart guy though, who had graduated from Yale. We did this climb and on the descent I had been advised by another guide that you could lower the client to a good trail. Then the guide could do a third class scramble down the backside. So thats what I did.

I didn’t take the rope, so I tossed it off the cliff.

Then he shouted up, “Do you want me to coil the rope?”

I told him, “you can do that but only if its not a hassle.”

What I didn’t know was that about 30’ off the ground the rope snagged on a bush. Here’s an example of where a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.

I can’t see any of this because I’m on the other side of the buttress. He decides to clove hitch the rope into his belay loop and just started yarding on it.

I can’t see it and just hear this horrible crash. What happened was he kept yarding on it and finally the rope broke loose and he went flying.

Luckily, he was still wearing his helmet, and just had superficial scrapes and cuts. Here’s an example of a client doing something that you would never imagine they would do.

MTI: If you hadn’t become a guide, what would you be doing?

TH: After I got done at Evergreen, I still had GI Bill money left over. I always wanted to learn ornamental blacksmithing. I had enough money to try and pursue that for a year.

MTI: How did you meet your wife Cyndi?

TH: Cyndi I met climbing at the Vertical World Climbing Gym through a mutual friend. She hired me to teach her rockclimbing. She is a gifted athlete—within two years she went from following 5.6 to leading 5.11+. We’ve been together since 1994. Then we ended up having two kids, Brady and Ryan.

Ryan is fifteen and Brady is thirteen.

It was tough to balance it all at the beginning.

Now Ryan is really into rock climbing, he climbed the Grand for the first time when he was 10, did the Grand Traverse when he was 11, skied Corbet’s Colouir when he was 11. Now his main passion is soccer. He is at the IMG Academy in Florida on a soccer scholarship.

Brady climbed the Grand when he was nine. He always reminds his brother that he did it one year younger. Right now he is into these mock airsoft wars.

They’re both very smart and both athletically gifted.

MTI: When were you most afraid in the mountains?

TH: When I was on Huandoy Norte, Cordillera Blanca, Peru, and we didn’t have good route information on the descent.

You’re really supposed to descend to the east and we descended to the west.

We came down this thing and suddenly realized we’re descending steep ice and its getting hot.

We were just dodging rocks left and right.

You’re caught between a rock and hard place.

If you go to fast you’re going to screw up and fall and if you go too slow you’re increasing the odds of getting hit by a rock.

It was one of those things where we finally got off the mountain and we were super relieved.

The guy I had as a partner, he wasn’t really into talking about stuff like that. I certainly didn’t forget it. If I could avoid it, I never wanted to be in that situation again.

Thats the deal if you survive it, you can’t argue that its due to your exceptional skill or your ability, there was a large measure that was just pure luck. You can only be lucky so many times.

The only thing comparable to that was when I was a Marine and we got into a firefight and we were surrounded.

We were on this little boat.

We couldn’t fire back because we had our own men on either shore. We were motoring up this river just trying to get away from these guys. They had these little tunnels where they would just shoot a rocket at you and disappear.

This situation and rock fall have a lot of common.

In other words you don’t have a lot of control over nature, or enemy combatants. Keeping cool is tough.

MTI: Any last pieces of advices you’d like to pass along?

TH: I’ll leave you with this. I watched Bridge of Spies the other night with my family.

In one of the scenes the Russian spy is posed with the question— Would you rather get the electric chair or go to back to your comrades who could just shoot you?

The Russian spy who is very honorable and noble keeps a cool demeanor. The one questioning him then asks him why he isn’t alarmed or freaked out. He responds by saying, “Would it do any good?”

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