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The Secret Life of Guides

There's more to starting—and keeping—a guide service than simply finding gear and willing patrons. Photo: Justin Vidamo/Flickr

To save the day when the crevasse hits the fan; to be chased by AK-47-wielding bandits; to be the one guy who's gotta say, "Time to turn around, everybody"—this is what it means to be a professional guide. (Still interested?)

At least once in every guide's life comes a time when the best laid plans go wrong in the worst possible way. It's a moment every veteran guide has already faced, or has been preparing for over many years. It is his baseline jump shot at the buzzer, his three-two heater in the bottom of the ninth. The only difference is, if he fumbles or freezes, people may die.

If your name is Jamie Pierce, you faced such a moment last February on a remote stretch of highway in the African interior. Pierce had just led his girlfriend, Tammy Towers, a 32-year-old Seattle doctor, and Dan Newbill, a 67-year-old Honolulu physician and longtime client, on a climb up Mount Kenya and a tour of Masai Mara Reserve. Right before that, he’d guided two other expeditions up Mount Kilimanjaro. All he wanted to do now was get back to Seattle and relax for a couple of weeks before ramping up for Mount McKinley in late spring. But as the trio's minivan huffed up a long mountain pass on the way back to Nairobi, Pierce spotted some people huddled around a van on the side of the road ahead. His driver assured him that it was OK, that they were just broken down. Pierce didn't buy it. "That's bullshit," he said. "Those people are being held up." No sooner had he said it than a masked gunman broke out of the brush and charged the minivan, brandishing an AK-47.

"Back up!" Pierce ordered the driver. "Reverse!" He pushed Towers to the floor, praying that the gunman hadn't seen her, and covered her with tents, sleeping bags, and backpacks. The driver immediately started speeding backward down the hill, navigating with his head out the window. At the bottom, they came upon a group of Kenyan road workers chugging up the pass in a dump truck. With the driver translating, Pierce proposed what might be called the Burly Construction Dude Offense. "These workers knew that if you rob tourists, it takes business away from the economy," he later recalled. "So they got all fired up, started pounding their truck like, 'Yeah! Let's get these guys!'"

With a half-ton of adrenalinized muscle hanging off the truck right behind the minivan, the convoy started up the hill. From beneath her nylon concealment, Towers protested, "Why are we going forward?" Pierce told her that this was their best, and perhaps their only, tactic. "We do not want to be stuck out here," he said. (Less than two weeks later, across the border in Uganda, eight tourists were killed by Rwandan Hutu rebels.) The gambit worked. The highwaymen took one look at the convoy, did the cost-benefit math, and scattered into the bush.

"I had to kinda react quickly to get us out of that situation," Pierce deadpans, recalling his stressful day at the office. Forgive him if he's a little dry today. It's an Indian summer afternoon in Seattle, the day after the end of the busiest guiding season in American history, and he's finally getting a chance to rest. He stretches his back and sighs. "People are tired," he says. "Myself included. You keep doing this stuff week after week after week, not allowing yourself time to recover, your body doesn't heal."

A 30-year-old mountain guide with a perpetual chestnut tan, Pierce does a good job of concealing the physical and mental toll that eight years of guiding has taken on his weather-beaten frame. For the past three months he has led doctors, lawyers, nurses, scientists, FBI agents, and Navy SEALs into the Cascade and Olympic Mountains for Alpine Ascents International, the Seattle outfit owned by renowned Everest guide Todd Burleson. Now he's feeling the pain. The patellar tendon in his right knee is giving him fits. His back aches. The barrage of names and faces, the glare of glacial ice, the smell of white gas, the sound of afternoon rockfall, the musky funk of his own sleeping bag—all of it blends together in a haze. At one point he worked 22 days nonstop. "You get going in a long stretch like that," he says, "it doesn't help to have a day off, crazy as that sounds. You get into a groove and you're like, 'Let's just keep going.'"

You could call that the guide's mantra. As Pierce's joints can testify, these are flush times for the guiding trade. With the computer industry, the Internet, and media-entertainment conglomerates gorging themselves at the Wall Street equivalent of a lazy Susan full of IPO investors and mutual-fund dollars, the roaring nineties economy has allowed the newly affluent to indulge their every whim in adventure travel. As a result, guide services are finding their schedules booked solid months in advance. Climbers who called Rainier Mountaineering Inc. in April were assured they could reserve a spot—for the year 2000. Exum Mountain Guides began selling 1999 trips up the Grand Teton in January and were sold out by mid-February. "We are amazingly busy," says Exum co-owner Al Read. "Our business has grown 10 to 20 percent each of the past two years." The good times are spread wide: Kayaking, fishing, and whitewater guides are all benefitting from the booming economy.

Never has the guide's life seemed more glamorous. As the definition of "work" becomes inexorably shackled to a blinking cursor, the guide's low-tech, high-competence engagement with the physical world appears refreshingly archaic. Soulful, even. Mountaineering guides, in particular, are finding their triumphs and tragedies the focus of intense public interest and not a little envy. While you fired e-mail around the office last week, the guide climbed New Hampshire's Whitehorse Ledge. Twice. While you added your four-wheel-drive Subaru to the evening commute, the guide caught a flight to Ushuaia, Argentina, to meet a sailboat bound for Antarctica. The guide is the hard guy (or more often now, gal) who’ll save your ass when things start going down. He's seen clients seize on Rocky Mountain pinnacles, he's outwitted gunmen in Africa, he's brought the dead back to life on Everest. Once, the guide was Sacajawea or Kit Carson. Today it's a guy like Jamie Pierce.

Like most guides, Pierce isn't famous. He's merely one of the success stories of the 1990s: an Every guide who's making a living at the trade, something his elders only dreamed of. Though he isn't salaried (guides are generally paid by the trip, and Pierce preferred not to tell me how much he makes), he sits here today with both a late-model car and a romantic relationship in good working order, and he may soon purchase his own house. Buying a home at 30 isn't strange in stock-option-besotted Seattle, but even today it's rare in a profession in which one's possessions tend to reside in rented storage units, in which "the back of my pickup" is not an uncommon response to the question, "Where you stayin'?" For Pierce, guiding has become a full-fledged career.

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Wilderness point man Jamie Peirce gets paid by the trip in lieu of salary. Everyguide that he is, he's adept at hefting gear for clients without anyone losing face.   Photo: Rob Howard

The rhythms of Jamie Pierce's life are dictated by "the circuit," the seasonal globe-trot that many mountain guides follow like fruit pickers tracking the harvest. Autumn, the South American season, will find him on the Mexican volcanoes Iztaccihuatl and Orizaba. From December through February, the height of the African season, he'll lead climbing groups up Mounts Kilimanjaro and Kenya. When the Alps open in April, he'll be there with a European guide to lead the classic Haute Route, a ski tour from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland. After that, he'll fly to Alaska's Kahiltna Glacier for the May-June McKinley season and then spend the rest of the summer guiding the Cascades.

"You're in Peru one month, in Alaska the next, in the sunshine of Colorado the next," says Bruce Andrews, 34, the head guide and co-owner of the Colorado Mountain School, based on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado. "You're running around in the mountains, watching people grow, push themselves, experience great things. It's also incredibly hard work. There's a huge draw toward this lifestyle. But once you see what it really involves, it's not as romantic as you think."

Scene: the Alpine Ascents office on a crisp Sunday morning, 6:45. The office has been open for nearly an hour. Pierce is meeting four clients here before they shove off on a six-day ice-climbing seminar. He's been on the road since 5:30, having picked up a client named Jim, an anesthesiologist from Fort Lauderdale, at a nearby hotel. In the office, the main visual diversions are the summit snapshots taped up on the walls, frame after frame of smiling, waving Michelin Men, and owner Todd Burleson's climbing boots and gear piled in the hallway. One by one, Pierce's other three clients lumber in with ridiculously overstuffed packs. There's John, a biotech scientist with bushy eyebrows; Matt, who deals in derivatives on Wall Street; and Mark, a South African software consultant who spent the last year working in Kuwait.

Pierce pulls up a chair and gathers his clients around. "This is an advanced ice-climbing course," he says, "but it's not an easy walk in. Our route objective is the North Ridge of Mount Baker, a very serious mountain. We're working with five days of food, so we need to lose all the weight we can." Pierce sorts through everybody's gear piece by piece, stopping periodically to deliver mini-seminars on ice-tool handles and Windstopper fleece.

"We call that a 'what?' stove,'" he says when Matt holds up MSR's mountain-blaster XKG stove.

"A what?" Matt says.

"A 'what?' stove,'" Pierce repeats. "Because when it's on you can't hear anything."

A trip like this one is Alpine Ascents' bread and butter: Four clients, six days, $950 each. Since it's a full trip (the brochure promises a four-to-one client-to-guide ratio) the company will probably realize a profit—not much, but enough to make it worthwhile. Nobody's getting rich in this thin-margin business; even owners of some of the country's biggest mountain guide services, like Exum's Al Read and RMI's Peter Whittaker, run side businesses in the off-season. As in any service-related enterprise, attracting and keeping clients for the long haul is the name of the game. On bigger trips, to the Himalayas or the Karakoram for instance, one extra client can mean the difference between losing money and edging into the black.

Once upon a time, starting a guide service was a laid-back affair. Burleson launched Alpine Ascents in 1986 with a VW van and a $14,000 loan. When Glenn Exum passed his company on to Al Read and three colleagues in 1976, the new owners found the business records so vague they couldn't even tell when the company had been incorporated. Things are casual no more. Over the past decade, the agencies that oversee the land on which guide services operate—state governments, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management—have reined-in commercial access in the name of conservation and natural-resource management. "The permits," says one veteran guide, "are gone."

From the guide services' point of view, it's as if they were playing musical chairs and the tune stopped for good. Those holding permits flourish; those without may perish. Permits available on the cheap a few years ago are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. "When I started ten years ago, the Forest Service gave out permits for free," says Lori-Ann Murphy, the 42-year-old owner of Reel Women Fly Fishing Outfitters in Victor, Idaho. "If you wanted to buy a permit on the South Fork of the Snake River now, it could run $300,000." At some national parks—which have historically favored long-term exclusive contracts with one or two local companies—an outfitter's very existence is based upon its permit. In terms of net worth, Exum is "really nothing but a name and a permit," says Read; the company owns one of the precious two existing guiding permits in Grand Teton National Park.

The competition for those permits is only getting more fierce. Take, for example, the situation on Mount McKinley. It isn't exactly a bonanza for the six guide services that operate there; it's hard (and expensive) to get to, the weather is notoriously fierce, and the climbing season is short. But the mountain is the logical next step for clients who've climbed in the Cascades or the Rockies and are considering the high peaks of Asia. "When you summit your clients on Denali, they're ready for the big mountains," says one industry insider. Translation: McKinley equals more money down the road. So when Fantasy Ridge Mountain Guides in Telluride, Colorado, got out of the McKinley game a couple of years ago and quietly shopped its permit among competing companies, the asking price was a stiff $200,000. It was ultimately bought by Alpine Ascents International at a price the company will only say was "close to that."

Jamie Pierce's career path began in 1986 with a plane ticket and a white lie. "I went to Colorado for a ski vacation when I was 18," he says. "My parents thought I'd bought a round-trip ticket, but it was one-way. I called and told them I wasn't coming back." The last part was true: Pierce never moved back to the suburban flatlands of Elgin, Illinois.

Armed with a Hummingbird ice ax, a rack of secondhand Hexentrics, and a copy of Royal Robbins's Basic Rockcraft,Pierce embarked on the dirtbag's path to enlightenment, climbing in the Rockies every day and cooking chicken dinners at a guest ranch every night. After a few seasons on the crags he picked up work as an apprentice guide with the Colorado Mountain School, but his big break came when a scientist friend suggested he look into winter work with a locally based but improbably named company called Antarctic Support Associates. "He said they were looking for folks like me who weren't in the nine-to-five life," Pierce recalls. He ended up spending four summers in Antarctica, assisting scientists at the U.S. government's McMurdo and Palmer research stations and later leading a climbing expedition into the mountains that rise up against the Weddell Sea.

This is the required entry exam for aspiring guides: Get yourself out there on nothing but your own guts and cunning. "We have experienced climbers calling up all the time, saying, 'I really want to guide Cho Oyu,'" says Gordon Janow, program director at Alpine Ascents, referring to the world's sixth-highest peak, in Tibet. "Well, I'm not going to pay for your trip to Cho Oyu, and I'm certainly not letting you guide it if you've never been up it! Tell me you've done it two or three times, or have led Mount Baker 30 times, and we might consider you."

A few larger services hire apprentice guides, but many won't even look at an applicant without five to ten years of outdoor leadership experience. "We never had to recruit—ever," says Karen Dickinson, who co-owned Mountain Madness with Scott Fischer, the veteran guide who died on Everest in 1996. "I had a regular spiel for when the guide wannabes called up. I told them they were dreaming. They might have the physical ability or the people skills, but they need to have amassed an incredible volume of wilderness knowledge on top of that. And sometimes that means starving for several years as a rock rat. If they spoke fluent Nepalese or had been to the Himalaya seven times, then they'd catch your ear."

Exum, which employs such stellar names as big-wall specialist Rolando Garibotti, extreme skier Doug Coombs, and Yosemite pioneer Chuck Pratt, doesn't even take applications. "We don't take people we don't know," says Read.

At most mountaineering outfits, female guides find themselves outnumbered ten to one, which isn't too surprising, considering how hostile the climbing culture has been toward women over the years. (The Corporation des Guides—the Chamonix-based old boy's club of European mountain guides—admitted its first female member only in 1980.) But the recent outdoor boom has brought with it an influx of women clients who climb, fish, kayak, and raft just like the boys. The upshot? Women guides are suddenly in demand. Colorado Mountain School co-owner Ed Crothers says he and his partners are actively recruiting within the Boulder climbing community and among their former colleagues at Outward Bound. "We're trying to get out the word to women climbers that we're interested, drop us a line," he says. "If that doesn't work we'll take the aggressive route and start advertising."

"When I started out ten years ago, if you were a woman guide you had to be better than everyone else," recalls Lori-Ann Murphy of Reel Women. "There wasn't any room for mistakes, because everyone was watching, everyone knew who you were." Now Murphy employs four women and two men. In addition to tutoring Meryl Streep on the set of The River Wild, she took Martha Stewart into the Wind River Range in 1995 and taught her how to tie her own woolly buggers. "We've had tremendous support from the other outfitters and guides," she says. "But we had to earn it." This year, in response to surging demand, Murphy established a weeklong women-only guide school in Idaho.

You can't get a Ph.D. in guiding—yet. As the popularity of the outdoors continues to grow, however, more colleges are offering serious wilderness-oriented courses and degrees. The Association for Experiential Education, based in Boulder, Colorado, lists more than two dozen universities offering outdoor education and adventure programs. Colorado State University's Department of Natural Resources, Recreation, and Tourism boasts that it turns out more national park superintendents than any other school; you can receive credit at the University of Utah for selected courses taken at the Lander, Wyoming-based National Outdoor Leadership School; and Cornell University offers a course called High Adventure 101. But for full immersion, nothing comes close to Prescott College, an alternative liberal arts school in Prescott, Arizona, that offers a degree in what it calls adventure education and presents itself as the answer to every eggheaded dirtbag's dream: a place with just the right balance of academics and cragging. "During the spring and fall, Outward Bound and NOLS come on campus to recruit, because they know the product that Prescott is producing," says the Colorado Mountain School's Bruce Andrews, a Prescott alumnus.

Some guides will admit to getting their start with chancy, youthful stints at "bootlegging" or "bandit guiding"—in other words, going it alone with no training, no certification, no permits, no liability insurance. Bootleggers occupy a complicated position in the guiding world; they undercut the prices of legitimate guides and have driven some services out of business entirely. Yet it's difficult for many mountaineers, who stake their professional reputations on boldness and self-sufficiency, to completely condemn them. It may be how they got started in the business themselves. "I started out working with a bunch of Warren Miller photographers, then began guiding more film groups around the Canadian Rockies," says Steve Kuijt, a 38-year-old backcountry ski guide based in Fernie, British Columbia. "I didn't have a clue. Once I got trained, I looked back over my shoulder and went, 'Holy shit! I took those people there?'”

Of course, once they get in the door, it's not unheard-of for guides to work well into their sixties; George Hurley, a 64-year-old New Hampshire climbing guide, still takes clients up 5.11 rock and grade-five ice in the White Mountains. But in most cases, by their early forties guides are looking for a soft landing. "I love Alpine Ascents to death," Pierce says. "But I've got to be realistic. There's no retirement plan." He'd like to start his own guide service someday. He's starting small, leading his own trips to Antarctica and Africa in between Alpine Ascents jobs and being careful not to solicit any of his employer's clients. "I have to create my own niche," he says. "Look at Todd [Burleson]. He had a niche: Everest. That's where Antarctica and Africa come in for me."

Sunday afternoon at the Mount Baker trailhead. Blackflies swarm the climbers. Pierce divides the community ropes among his four clients and then stuffs and festoons his pack with 65 pounds of gear. "I like to achieve that Beverly Hillbillies look," he jokes. The five men clop up the trail in plastic mountaineering boots, Pierce stopping every 20 minutes for a water break and one-minute technical seminars on navigation, barometric pressure, and river crossing. "If you feel yourself falling, lose the pack," he counsels. "These things will suck you right down. Do not play macho with a river. You will lose."

Two hours into the approach, Pierce tells his group to take a rest. While they swat flies, he pulls out a photo he keeps in a Zip-loc bag and shows it to me. "This is Tammy and me on Rainier a couple weeks ago," he says. "The hoarfrost was amazing up there." He talks often about easing off the international circuit, and here is one of the key reasons: Full-time guiding is a notoriously efficient way to lose girlfriends. Things are great with Tammy now, but she won't put up with the world-traveler gig forever. The absences wear on Pierce, too. "You have to bring photos, man," he says, tucking away the picture. "Keep the morale up. You're out so much."

An hour later, Pierce and his clients break for water at a meadow just above tree line and get their first full view of Baker's steep, rough-cut north face. The afternoon sun casts deep shadows into a rutted arm of the Coleman Glacier flowing down a vertical mile from the summit. A slight breeze kicks up, wicking the sweat from their arms and bringing with it the sweet smell of subalpine firs. "There are moments when the stars align," Pierce will say later, recalling that pristine afternoon on the mountain. "It's a blue day, your clients are summiting, the view is stunning. That's when I can't see myself doing anything else."

Guides crave those blue days, but trouble comes nearly as often, and it only stands to reason that caution and a religious devotion to proper limits are hallmarks of the trade. Any guide will tell you: Good guiding and great climbing are mutually exclusive. The trade drills prudence into its practitioners because those without it do not survive. (Or their reputations don't survive the deaths of clients.) The two most famous mountaineering guides in the world—Rob Hall and Scott Fischer—became famous only after their deaths, and their colleagues continue to mull over the miscalculations they made on Everest in May 1996. Pierce thinks about disaster every time he goes out. He hasn't lost anyone yet, but the possibility keeps him on edge. "You can never become complacent," he says. "You've got to understand: On a bad day, people die on our job."

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One false move, one bad piece of gear—there are no second chances in guiding.   Photo: Rob Howard

When it happens, an accident can turn even a veteran into an ex-guide. "I've watched people who've guided for ten years quit after getting involved in a tragedy," says Peter Whittaker, the 41-year-old co-owner of RMI. "But to be a fully rounded guide, I think you have to live through a few rescues. Mountain guides can get pretty cocky, yet we all make mistakes. Experiencing an accident humbles you and gives you an appreciation of how things can go wrong."

Whittaker knows. The son of RMI founder Lou Whittaker, he started guiding when he was 16 and went on to survive the worst mountaineering accident in American history, the 1981 icefall on Rainier that swept away ten climbers and another RMI guide. "I was 22," he recalls, "and lost all four clients on my rope." (Whittaker had clipped out just before the icefall occurred.) After helping with the official inquiry, he and a friend drove south and spent three weeks on the Colorado River. "I had to get my head together," he says. "We had a handful of guides who stopped after that season. They said, 'Eleven people. Jeez, I'm outta here.' But I'd grown up on Mount Rainier. I loved the mountains. I thought, 'There must be a reason I was spared.' So I continued guiding and used everything I learned to prevent other accidents."

The old alpinists called such guides "safe men." It still holds. "There's a fine line between helping people do these things they never imagined they could do, and doing it safely," says Burleson. "The best guides have tremendous foresight: They're always preventing an accident. It's all about prevention. Because once it happens, you're screwed."

Guiding has nearly always been a moonlighter's trade. As early as the twelfth century, local chamois hunters, shepherds, smugglers, and monastic priests took on the side job of leading winter travelers through the passes in the Alps. Among the best known were the clerics of two mountain hospices established in the Pennine Alps by Saint Bernard of Montjoux, who rescued wayward pilgrims with the help of their legendary canines. Most of the historic Alpine ascents of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were accomplished with the assistance of local guides. In 1823, the local mountaineers in Chamonix, France, formed the Corporation des Guides, the world's first guiding trade union, which enforced a higher pay scale and imposed strict closed-shop rules. By the 1850s, any outsider hoping to climb Mont Blanc was required to hire at least four guides at a day rate of 100 francs each—the equivalent, mountaineering historian Walt Unsworth has noted, of a month's wages for an English farm laborer.

American guides often talk about "the European system" with envy. Over there, guiding is considered a professional career, and tight regulation of the industry by the Union International des Guides de Montagne keeps wages respectable. Guides can't work in the Alps without a UIAGM license, which is earned by passing a series of rigorous courses and serving an apprenticeship. The American Mountain Guides Association recently inked an agreement with the UIAGM to allow AMGA-certified guides to work in Europe as long as they have the requisite ski, rock, and alpine certifications. Unfortunately, most American guides are not AMGA certified—the Association reckons only half of the country's estimated 2,100 guides are dues-paying members—and many veterans balk at the idea of taking costly and time-consuming courses to "certify" the expertise they've spent a lifetime acquiring. Al Read, for one, believes that the hyperorganized European system isn't a panacea for coping with increased demand. European-style certification might increase guides' fees by driving bootleggers out of the market, but it could also set popular routes crawling with pros and clients. In the United States, guides don't need permits but work on heavily regulated land. In Europe, once guides are certified, they can guide wherever they want. "If you go to the Matterhorn, it's completely clogged," Read says. "Same on Mont Blanc. You'll walk in line and queue up for pitches."

Even if certification were to become compulsory overnight, it's unlikely that a guide's compensation would ever approach a level that might be called lucrative. Day rates for unseasoned mountain guides in the United States start near $85 (some services require an "audit" period, essentially an unpaid internship) and reach $125­$150 for experienced guides on longer expeditions. In rare cases, a top guide can command more for high-profile international trips. "I've had people say, 'If you want me on that mountain, it'll be $300 a day,'" says one guide-service owner. "And for the best guides, you'll pay it."

If there's anything that unites the guiding fraternity—and in this world of mavericks, few things do—it's the tales they can tell about the sad financial shape their job has left them in. "If you're in it for the money, you got hit over the head too many times," says Bruce Andrews. Guides acquire experiences, not things. A select few receive a stipend for health insurance, but most buy cheap catastrophic coverage on their own. After nine years as a guide with New Hampshire's International Mountain Climbing School, Brad White, who's now a co-owner of the business, says he's finally earning about as much as he did when he drove a truck for Ben & Jerry's. John Bicknell, Andrews's partner at the Colorado Mountain School, decided to compare notes with the brethren at a 1994 AMGA seminar. He asked six eminent American guides if any had made more than $20,000 in a year. "Three of 'em had and three of 'em hadn't," he says.

So what's a guide to do? Barbara Winkler, another Alpine Ascents guide, winters as a midwife in her native Switzerland. John Fischer, a 53-year-old Sierra guide based in Bishop, California, picks up side work as a location scout and set rigger for Hollywood. Many seasonal guides teach during the off-season; others patrol the slopes at ski resorts. "You really need to be a renaissance man," advises Fischer. "Augment your income with carpentry, photography, whatever it is. If it wasn't for my ability to work on film shoots, I wouldn't make it."

Back on Mount Baker, Matt, the Wall Street derivatives dealer, has been lagging slightly and pulls up a little late into the break. As soon as Pierce sees him round the bend he calls out, "Hey man, good job! Come on up, Matt, let's take a break here. We got a good shot of the route; we can pop off our packs. You guys want to take just a couple minutes, we're making great time, camp is not that far away."

"How much farther is it?" Matt asks.

"I'd say an hour, hour and a half. You're doing great, man. Can I take a little weight from you, that rope maybe?"

"No, no, that's all right."

"All right, man. I know, these packs are murder."

"Yeah!" adds Jim, the anesthesiologist. "This thing's killin' me!"

It's a simple conversation, but deceptive, for behind it lies the key to the guide's Inner Game. In a few well-chosen sentences, Pierce has let his client know: (1) I've got you covered. (2) I'm on your side. (3) No shame in easing your burden. (4) We're out here to have fun. (5) We're all in this together. (6) Hang in there, bro, these packs are heavy for me, too, and I'm a pro. The exchange underlines a core truth: Guides are not in the climbing or rafting or fly-fishing business; they're in the care-and-feeding business.

"The psychology of it is one of the biggest parts of the job," Pierce later explains. "You're thinking about the route and the climbing, and at the same time you're pulling this information out of your clients: what their skill level is, how hard they can push, what they want out of the trip. On the first day you may go from a beautiful walk to an epic weather situation. You need to get them comfortable in that situation, get them to trust your judgment, stay motivated, upbeat, and happy when the weather's really bad."

Put another way, a good guide, says Peter Whittaker, "is always on the verge of paranoia." As brutal as the physical work can be, it pales next to the mental game. "It should always look easy," says John Fischer. "But if it feels easy, you're not doing your job. While I'm chitchatting with my clients, I'm also looking at the line of thunderheads coming at us, estimating their speed of approach, calculating whether they're going to hit us or miss us to the west. Are we low enough to be safe, or should we seek shelter right now? Can we still go over the top today with the storm coming in, or should we downclimb immediately? The epitome of the professional alpinist is being able to do all that and make it look like nothing's happening at all."

Five days later, as they near the summit, Pierce and his four clients run into the worst storm the guide has seen the whole year. Rain hammers the mountain all day. Eighty-mile-per-hour gusts knock the climbers off their feet. Ice cakes so thick on their clothes and packs that it becomes a burden. While his clients focus on stepping and breathing, Pierce calculates the risk factors. Avalanche? Low. Hypothermia? High and rising. Six hundred feet from Mount Baker's 10,778-foot summit, Pierce calls a huddle.

"What would you guys do if I wasn't here?" he asks.

Go down, the edgy clients admit.

So they go down.

"That's what I wanted to hear," Pierce says later. "I wanted them to step out of this guiding situation for a second and think about what their decision would be, on their own. You always want to get people out of that summit-or-die mindset."

Turning a client around—persuading him that today is not the day—remains one of the toughest parts of the psychological game, just as getting him to the top remains the job's finest reward. Ask a guide about his most satisfying feat and few will mention a personal first ascent. Instead, like Burleson, he'll tell you about the 70-year-old man he led up Russia's Mount El'brus. Or if he's Jamie Pierce, about the cancer survivor he led up a peak near Mount Kenya. Which is to say, great guiding isn't about being the strongest climber or the toughest hombre on the trail. It's about deflating your ego, subsuming your success into other people's, mastering the Inner Game. If you can do that, the trade will probably still not reward you with a comfortable living. But it will give you a hell of a life.