The latest in “date night” ideas for relationship survival involves hiring a Colorado mountain guide
Marc and I have been climbing together for over a decade and married for nearly as long. The many ups and downs of our adventures have tested our physical and emotional strength but also our love. We’ve climbed divorce ridge, biked break-up trail, and rafted relationship-killer rapid. Finally, I have found the best medicine for Colorado adventure relationships: a mountain guide.
I’m joking, but only sort of.
After all, I can’t count the number of times my fear and frustration have turned into a fight as I try to keep up, clean climbing gear, or find myself on a “one day” climb that lasted 23 hours. On the bright side, such lessons have made us better communicators. We ask more questions, gather specific details and have clearer expectations on upcoming climbs.
Men, Take Note
But, oh, to have a mountain guide leading me up a climb? What an entirely different experience. Men, if you want to learn how to take your girlfriend on a successful climb, become a certified American Mountain Guide Association guide. Ladies, if you want a gentleman that will break trail for you, compliment your footwork, and patiently teach you new skills, a guide is the answer.
Things I heard from my mountain guide that I rarely hear from my climbing partner:
- “How are you feeling — are you comfortable there?”
- “This would be a good spot for a snack, would you like some hot tea with lemon and summit charcuterie?”
- “You’re doing great! You’re a natural.”
Somehow when my climbing partner tells me to “just trust my feet” it comes out different than my mountain guide reminding me to “stand tall, weight over your feet. That’s it! Perfect, nicely done!”
The day before our winter ascent of Guides Ridge on Mt. Crested Butte, I had started to talk myself out of it. That’s something I often do, let fear replace excitement and doubt cloud my joy. The problem was, it had been awhile since I’d done anything quite like that.
I knew I’d be with Marc and we would also have a guide. There was nothing to fear. But fear doesn’t care about reasons or justifications, it simply swallows you whole and tries to prevent you from reaching the summit.
The day of the climb I woke up feeling significantly more confident. It may simply have been a defense mechanism, but confidence is what I needed. Again, I had nothing to fear because I’d be with Marc and a guide. And yet, when you’re on the mountain you can feel completely alone even when you’re not. It’s quiet, peaceful, and you’re focused on one step after another.
The last time I was on a guided mountaineering trip was 2008. I remember learning a lot of new skills, many of which I still use regularly and some that I would be reaching to remember on the climb.
We started the day meeting our guide, Jake, at the Irwin Guides offices. The plan was for all of us to get to know each other. I knew that was code for Jake taking the time to evaluate our skill level and make sure we had the appropriate gear. His job was to get us up and down the mountain safely. He was methodical, intentional, and thorough while somehow also being personable. He even took notes.
At the start of the climb he remained methodical, giving plenty of detailed instruction and information for both our benefit and his. Without the experience of climbing together, there are many unknowns. Much of the information was a refresher for me, some was new, but all of it had the additional benefit of building my confidence and making me feel comfortable.
By the time we got to more technical sections of the climb, Jake knew I could handle it and I was ready to.
In it Together
At one point I was joking with Jake about how nice it was to be guided. Climbing partners don’t always take the time to make sure everyone is comfortable or teach a skill. As Jake said, it’s the difference between climbing partners being “in it together” versus a guide taking the lead.
However, I wonder if there might be more to it such as egos getting in the way of teaching and learning. Hiring a guide humbles you, putting you in the position of student. I asked Jake if he has to deal with overconfidence as well. He answered as expected, saying it happens but the mountains have a way of leveling the playing field fairly quickly.
It seems that mountain guides have systems in place to keep us safe, techniques they use for belaying and so forth. And they also have systems in place to keep us safe from the real danger, ourselves. Underconfidence or overconfidence, which one are you most guilty of?
All I know is that I am inspired to have more honest, thorough, and methodical conversations with myself and my climbing partners about skills and expectations. I may even take notes.
Why the Wait
As we made our way up the ridge and I learned that Guides Ridge is one of the least requested trips offered by Irwin Guides. I conclude that it’s because of the technical difficulty of the climb. Sure, it’s probably also because more people come to Crested Butte for skiing, not mountaineering, as pointed out by Jake. However, I can’t help but wonder why it’s been so long since I’ve hired a guide.
I think there’s a perception that beginners hire a guide. But a beginner had no business on Guides Ridge. And I had no business on the route without a guide. While I have logged hours in crampons on glaciers and ice, climbing mixed snow and rock in them was fairly new and having someone there to give me tips was invaluable.
There was no hesitation in asking if I should position my foot like this or like that. I wasn’t embarrassed to ask questions, I was there to learn. Of course, this wasn’t the result of simply hiring a guide. Jake was in the service of making me feel comfortable and understood. Regardless, all competitive notions or impulses were absent from this climbing experience.
Route-finding on a ridge climb is fairly straightforward: follow the ridge. But with loose rock covered in snow, I would have struggled to choose the best path on this new — to me — route. Marc might have fared better both in confidence and route finding; his experience exceeds my own. But even he admitted that it was nice to climb together without worry.
Some of my favorite climbing is on easy 5th class big mountain routes when I’m strong enough to climb up to 5.11. It’s nice to feel like I’m at play in the mountains without stress and fear clouding my abilities.
After this experience, I realize that climbing with a guide provides the freedom to enjoy that playfulness on something more technical. While the guide breaks trail, I’m free to check out the views or snap photos.
My game is mostly a mental one. Can I trust my feet? Can I keep forward progress? Our body wants to crouch, slouch, cling, and grasp when what we really need to do is trust, stand tall, and breath. Next time I’m on a mountain, hopefully I can hear the calming words of a mountain guide.
“Stand tall, weight over your feet. That’s it! Perfect, nicely done!”
I find it also helps to pause and look around. Look around, soak in the beauty, and memorize the view. I said look around, not down. Certainly don’t look down.
BRENDA BERGREEN is a storyteller and photographer living in Evergreen, Colorado, with her husband and adventure partner, Marc Bergreen. When she’s not writing or taking photos, you might find her climbing mountains. Perhaps even with a guide. For more from the Bergreens visit www.bergreenphotography.com and www.thebergreens.com.