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3 Things This Female Mountain Guide Has Learned On the Job

"The mountain guide stereotype is a six-foot tall lanky male who lives out of his truck, always has a coffee travel mug in hand, and every piece of clothing he owns has duct tape or a patch on it. That is not me."

I grew up in New England as a competitor ski racer and continued to pursue my passion of skiing in Colorado. I found myself taking a lot of avalanche courses and getting into backcountry skiing. After reaching out to friends in the guiding industry I got my first job guiding eight years ago for Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated (RMI). Since then, I've worked for RMI, Pacific Alpine Guides, San Juan Mountain Guides, and Keely's Ski Camp for girls. 

Here's what I've learned.

1. I like Guiding Women-Specific Climbs. Here’s Why:

For several years I have led women-specific climbs on Mt. Rainier and a backcountry ski camp in Montana for adolescent girls. Many female guides bristle at guiding women-only trips for fear of getting stuck only guiding women. Not me. I like guiding these women-specific trips.

At the beginning of each season, the same male guide asks me about my women-only trips, “How many women do you think will cry this year?”

“Hopefully everyone,” I respond. The women on these trips do not cry because their backpacks are too heavy, or the trail is too steep. They cry at the end of the trip because they feel challenged and supported. Going in, each woman is nervous about the weight of her pack, if she packed the right food, and if she’s fit enough for the trip.

Teaching Keely's Backcountry Camp for Girls. Kt Miller photo. 

The trip trepidation unites the clients, and when they see their female guides and teammates working hard they are inspired to push aside their fear and embrace the challenge.

Women often feel coddled when climbing with men. There is no coddling on my women-only trips. Women do the work and share the responsibility themselves and the experience builds the confidence to pursue further mountain goals.

The doing empowers them. It opens their minds to a multitude of mountain possibilities.

Ultimately, if they cry at the end of a trip it is joyful because they feel a part of a team, and inspired with a new confidence in themselves.

As a mountain professional, and a female, watching this process unfold inspires me, as well. The female clients and I connect because we share a deep appreciation for the mountains. For some clients it's all about the summit but for these women specific trips it's about what the mountains can teach them about themselves. The mountains do the same for me.

These climbs also provide me with the opportunity to work with other female guides and learn from them. It is rare that I have the chance to work with other female guides. The same is true for me as for the female climber, seeing another woman perform particular tasks or employ particular skills expands my perspectives and reminds me that learning opportunities are endless.

2. I tried to be a Dirtbag, But it wasn’t me.

The mountain guide stereotype is a six-foot tall lanky male who lives out of his truck, always has a coffee travel mug in hand, and every piece of clothing he owns has duct tape or a patch on it. He has shaggy hair and is easy going.

This is not me.

I am five foot four and 120 pounds. I pay rent and seem to lose all of my coffee travel mugs. When I meet my clients for the first time during orientation they often assume that I am one of the office staff members, rather than their climbing guide.

Because of my physique and my gender, my ability to guide is often questioned.

Early on in my career, a supervisor told me I needed to “look and act” more like a mountain guide. And at first I tried to mold myself to a female version of the guide stereotype.

But the supervisor’s criticism pointed to a deeper issue. My abilities were being questioned because I didn’t come in the expected package.

I have dealt with this in different forms not only from my supervisors and co-workers but also from clients. I once had a client who upon meeting me announced that he would not listen to me or be on my rope team because I was a female.

I was offended by this comment, but also found his honesty, refreshing.

Usually, in those situations where I know a client doubts my abilities, I work extra hard to prove myself. But this time, instead of wasting energy on trying to prove myself to him, I was able to focus on the clients that did respect me.

My male co-workers on this trip were more upset by his comments than I. They knew my ability and couldn’t believe that a client would treat a female guide in that manner. It proved to be an eye-opening experience for all of us.

One mistake I made early on was mothering my clients. As I have matured as a mountain guide, I have found it’s important for my clients to see me in a leadership role. I have focused on becoming assertive, more technically savvy, and in doing so, I am a more confident guide.

Now with seven years of guiding under my belt, my abilities are no longer questioned regularly. I have developed my own voice and style of guiding.

It didn’t work for me to pretend to be someone else, and act the way I felt like I should. Looking back, that whole process was exhausting. I’ve learned to find solutions and ways to accomplish goals while staying true to who I am.

This has proven to be one of the most rewarding parts of guiding.

3. Dating Other Guides? Not for me.

In a typical office setting, there are usually clear rules on fraternization between co-workers and strict sexual harassment policies. The guiding environment seems to fall into a gray area where you are working and living in close proximity to one another in intense environments.

As a female, this means that I am almost always sharing a tent with a male guide. Having had these experiences, it has become very important to me to set clear boundaries in my personal and professional life.

Because we work in an intense environment where we are responsible for the well-being of others, and making some life and death decisions, guides feel a very strong bond and trust for each other. This can sometimes lead to romantic relationships.

One of my first years guiding someone told me specifically not to get involved with another mountain guide and if you do don’t be dramatic. This is something that I have grown to be very aware of—we do work in a setting where our personal and professional lives are heavily intertwined.

When guides have become emotionally involved, and later broken up, I have seen it lead to missed opportunities for the female. Even without a breakup, often the female guide’s advancement is diminished by the rumor that the relationship enhanced her career.

There are certainly happily married mountain guide couples.

But for me not dating another guide is a conscious choice and led to some great friendships with my male co-workers, without the questions arising about what boundaries may be crossed.

This story was originally published on 

From The Column: Women in the Mountains

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