You Will Follow Him

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Adventure Found, January 1998

You Will Follow Him
How to settle on the most critical component of your trip: the guide

By David Noland

It was early afternoon, and our group had almost summited Mexico's Popocatepetl, when, in my worst moment on a mountain, an electrical storm blew in. Sparks flew from our ice axes. My impulse, like most of my companions', was to fly at breakneck speed down the icy slope or to cower cravenly out in the open, hoping that someone else would be struck first. But our leader, the beautifully named Sergio Fitch-Watkins, calmly herded us downhill, singing rollicking antigovernment tunes as he went. In his younger days, he'd been an AK-47-toting revolutionary, with bullet scars to prove it.

That moment taught me the single most important lesson in adventure travel: Have a great guide. He needn't have insurgency experience. But other qualifications are essential ù beginning, of course, with intimate knowledge of the country involved. Medical training is also comforting, preferably certification as an EMT. And though this is a more nebulous quality, your guide should be a mensch, however you define that term. Prefer your authority figures gruff? Or do you respond better to nudging than to orders? Do a little introspection. Then ask the outfitter for the names and numbers of former clients who've been with your prospective leader, and call them. Next, ring up the leader. Ask about his experience. Ask about support staff ù if he's the cook as well as guide, for example, he'll have less time to cajole and tend to trekkers. Finally, ask ù diplomatically ù if he's ever lost a client, whether to death, discontent, or boredom. You want a guide in whom you can have confidence. Because I guarantee that at some point you'll be following him down the side of a mountain in a lightning storm, at least metaphorically.

"It was early morning in Botswana. I heard a 'ROARRRRRRR!' and peeked through the window of my tent to see a full-grown male lion running straight for me. I almost passed out. But by some miracle, the lion missed me. He trampled my tent and ran on, crushing each tent in his way. It turns out he was furiously chasing two other lions and we were caught in the middle." ù Gary Clarke, Cowabunga Safaris

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