By Andy Bardon
Climbing was a major part of my life for a number of years before I was asked to join a guide service. I would hit the road for weeks on end pushing myself both physically and mentally to attain personal goals with only intrinsic rewards. No money, sponsors, or recognition. Just a rope, a partner, and a mutual goal. Perfect.
After being asked to join a guide service in Jackson WY I realized that I had a lot to learn about professionalism in the mountains. Through my time spent with senior guides, as well as some serious personal reflection on my previous climbing experiences, I have learned a number of valuable lessons about professionalism that I try to convey to clients each time I head out into the mountains.
1) Focus on what you do have, not on what you don’t have. This lesson was learned high on a face in California when I realized that I didn’t have extra gear to protect a long pitch of climbing that I was leading. The 180 foot pitch of rock climbing had very parallel cracks which called for numerous pieces of the same size. Turns out my partner and I only brought doubles of our camming devices to 3 inches. By focusing on the gear that I did have, as well as maintaining a positive outlook, I was able to finish the pitch by back cleaning and bumping pieces. This simple lesson has since been applied to my daily life on numerous occasions. Focus on the resources that are available to you at the moment, and do the best you can with what you have.
2) Get the right people on the bus. This lesson has really rang true in the mountains and on big walls. In order to have a safe experience in the alpine environment, or big wall, there simple are character traits that are essential. It boils down to discipline. You can have all the motivation in the world, but if you don’t start with disciplined thought, and disciplined action, the results can be disastrous. It has been important to find intrinsically motivated people to climb with, but it has also been important to find partners that exhibit professionalism without being asked. Racking gear where it belongs, making sure that the anchors that we are climbing or sleeping on are bomber, coiling the rope in an organized fashion, and eating/drinking enough to go the distance are all characteristics of a solid partner. These traits don’t have to be discussed, they are simply part of taking a disciplined approach to experiences in the hills. The right people are self-motivated, and they are self-disciplined. The right people consistently exhibit professionalism.
3) Be fully engaged and in the moment. My climbing partner, friend, and mentor Mark Givens had a unique gift of being very much ‘present’ while both guiding clients as well as climbing on off days. Clients would respond to Mark knowing that he was giving them his undivided attention, and as a result they would give more to the experience knowing that they were being watched closely. By being fully engaged yourself, you will affect the attitude and actions of those around you.
Another mentor named George Gardner was able to bring the best out of his clients, often teen groups, by employing similar tactics. After introducing himself to the clients, George would lead by example, and engage the group in activities that would prepare them for the days adventure. George showed me that by being fully present, and by truly giving, one is able to inspire others to do the same.
4) Be a curious student of your craft and learn from others with wisdom and experience. As a young guide, I am consistently inspired by the professionalism exhibited by the senior guides, and I humbled to be able to learn from such a passionate and committed peer group. Watching the senior guides work has given me a true appreciation for the level of commitment required to accept the fact that other people are entrusting you with their lives. Senior Exum guide Christian Santelices is a prime example. No detail is too small, and nothing is overlooked. Planning and preparation are key, and Christian’s ability to empower the clients while maintaining a safe climbing environment is impressive. When you are with him, you feel important. Better yet, all the days work is done with a smile on his face. Professionalism, for sure.
5) Safety is a top priority. I had an experience high on the Grand Teton (13,770) two summers ago with Rod Newcomb, who is in his mid-70’s, and one of the most senior of the Exum guides, that left me inspired. Rod had soloed the Owen-Spalding route for his birthday, and took two hours out of his day to climb around the upper mountain with me telling stories and laughing all the while. He showed me all the tricks that he has learned from 45 years of guiding, and was willing to re-climb sections of the mountain with me that day just to show me the safest way to guide the routes. Rod taught me that there was no margin for error, showed me specifically where accidents had occurred in the past, and that it is critical to learn from others mistakes. I watched as Rod coiled a roped after we rappelled, and every coil was precise and perfect. Rod was eager to share his knowledge and experience, and I am humbled to have tied into a rope with such a fine guide.
The lessons about professionalism that I have learned from climbing in the mountains and from other Exum Guides have stuck with me in my daily life, and serve as life lessons, not just climbing tips. Take responsibility for your actions always. Show up early and be prepared. Surround yourself with the right people. Do the best you can with what you have. Learn from your mistakes, and don’t make them again. Cherish the bonds that you create with those around you, because nothing lasts forever.