The Snow Report
At some point in every outdoorsman’s life, you fantasize about being a guide—a life of starry nights, limitless powder, rainbow trout, and crag. An existence free from the cubicle, where toiling among rock, snow, and mountains make up the rungs of the corporate ladder. But for the layman, the leap from recreational outdoorsman to professional seems so great, that it remains just that—a dream.
Not for Nat Patridge, who has been guiding since 1993. Originally, from New Hampshire, Patridge was turned on to the mountains at the age of 16, when a family friend took him rock climbing for the first time. Since then, he’s parlayed his passion for the outdoors into a career. He first worked summers at NOLS and then as a ski guide for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. In 1998, he began working for Exum Mountain Guides, one of the oldest and most prestigious guiding outfits in North America, where he works year-round as the corporate president, splitting time between Exum’s Jackson Hole office, guiding clients up the Grand Teton (and beyond) in the summer and into the Tetons’ infamous backcountry during the winter. In 2008, he co-guided the first winter ski descent down the Grand. At the moment, he’s featured in a documentary called The Space Between, a film about a ski accident in Chamonix, France, that nearly killed him.
Here, Patridge, now one of the most revered guides in the United States, demystifies the life of a guide, explains what it takes to become one, and shares other insights gleaned from a life spent in the mountains.
How did you get into the outdoors?
When I was 16, I had a friend’s father bring me rock climbing and that was life changing. It was a sport that captivated me immediately. It was what I wanted to do whenever there wasn’t snow on the ground. It’s what I’ve focused on since then—rock climbing in the dry months and skiing in the winter.
How has guiding changed or evolved in recent years?
In the last 15 to 20 years, there’s been a trend toward guides making a living and a career solely from guiding. They’re guiding year-round, around the world, doing a variety of different things. It’s not just a summer job anymore.
What did you attribute that to?
People can now make a living and have a great lifestyle. People have some free time that they can use to hire a guide to travel and ski or climb. And, American guiding has become a very recognized profession. The A.M.G.A. has helped tremendously to legitimize the whole career. Now, there’s that whole certified guide track that people can pursue and be internationally recognized.
What’s the role of a guide? Is it solely to get you home alive or is it something else?
Largely, I think guides are educators, educators of mountain travel, of the landscape, and your natural surroundings. An educator of how to behave in the mountains as a traveler through the mountains. And someone who manages risk. All of those other things play more of a part than the risk manager, because you’re not always at risk. So all that time you’re not at risk, the guide is bringing value to your experience, allowing you to perceive things that you wouldn’t perceive on your own—the geology, the weather and how that plays into your day, route finding, navigation. A guide is a facilitator of that kind of travel through the mountains.
Whether you’re a guide or recreational skier, how do you find a mentor?
It’s a challenge. It has to happen organically. It has to happen between people of differing experience levels simply because they are drawn to each other. To force it in any way just doesn’t work.