In the cool and quiet of the very early morning, I listened to the rhythmic chopping at the ice rising above us. Two rope-teams hammered their tools, and crampon points one at a time into the hard ice of the Kautz ice chute on Mount Rainier. Their efforts, mostly obscured in darkness but where briefly illuminated by headlamp, produced a steady fusillade of ice and rock that had us dodging unseen projectiles while we waited our turn to climb. This was a guided trip with Alpine Ascents International and hence there were more climbers in the group than I was accustomed to. This is the nature of guided climbing on big mountains like Rainier.
While making my way up the pitch with my team, I contemplated a question: Should I be on this climb? The entire thing felt pretty easy. The route-finding seemed straight forward, the climbing well within my ability, the physical demands easily within my fitness. At the time of this writing, I still haven’t led steep ice but I have definitely soloed easier terrain than I found in the Kautz ice chute, the technical crux of this climb. The more mundane aspects of the trip like skirting yawning crevasses and camping at elevation on the snow etc were not like a typical approach I had done but at no point did I feel out of my depth.
At the end of the day, this problem comes down to preference in style. In my case, I didn’t get to climb the peak in the style I would have preferred. Reflecting on this trip now, I think that for me it comes down to a preference for a smaller team and faster pace. I don’t claim to be superior, far from it. Rather, I find the pacing, extra people and all the gear for camping, eating, even pooping to be overly burdensome. I would rather carry, half-the weight and move at twice the speed. I think it’s also worth noting that I couldn’t have arrived at this point with the level of confidence I had in my skills and fitness before climbing with a guided team. It’s just another experience I needed to reinforce my confidence. I have a little bit better idea of where I’m at and what level of risk and difficulty I’m ready to tackle as a member of a much smaller team. Despite the burdens of a big group climb, I still found it to be a valuable experience and had a great time overall.
So, should you hire a climbing guide?
Do you have the request skill set and confidence to attempt the objective without a guide?
This is probably the biggest reason people hire guides. Personally, I have had better luck hiring a guide to teach me skills rather than for specific climbs which I now prefer to tackle with a private party. Be sure your guides hired for this purpose hold the appropriate AMGA certifications so that you can count on reliable information being passed on to you.
Are you looking for someone to manage all the logistics, permits so you can just focus on the climbing?
Some of the more popular climbing destinations around the world require that some red tape be taken care of in order to legally climb. Add to that bullet items like transportation, food, gear procurement and highly trained medical support and a guide’s services start to look more valuable than simply their climbing expertise. Even veteran climbers will often hire guides to handle these items so their team can focus on climbing. Some countries even require the use of a local guide which is a semi-controversial practice but a reality nonetheless.
Do your friends all think you’re nuts for climbing or have different priorities for climbing?
If you don’t really hang out socially with other climbers a lot or if they all want to tackle different objectives than you do, a climbing guide may be a nice way of dispensing with the difficulty of recruiting partners with a compatible schedule with whom you might climb.
Can you use a guided trip as an opportunity to increase your skill set?
A good climbing guide functions as more than a tour guide. There are some amazing guides out there that are excited to teach skills to clients and the smart ones realize that this insures future business via word of mouth
Do you already own all the gear you need for your chosen objective?
Outdoor gear get’s pretty expensive, especially if you are looking at items you only use once in a while, like expedition tents, multiple stoves, etc. It could make sense to hire a guide or rent this gear instead.
I’ll probably climb Rainier again in the next few years and if you see me out there, I’ll be with two other climbers and we’ll be doing the route in two days instead of four. On our way past guided parties, we’ll be friendly and appreciative towards guides who figure out ways of getting so many folks safely through the hazards offered by Rainier while still bolstering the confidence and skills of their charges.
If you need a climbing guide in Washington, I can recommend Alpine Ascents International. If you need one in Colorado, check out Pikes Peak Alpine School. I’ve used both these services and found them to be outstanding.