Guides and Guiding: A Q&A with Kurt Wedberg

Guides and Guiding: A Q&A with Kurt Wedberg

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Trad Climbing, Sport Climbing, Toprope, Bouldering, Ice Climbing, Aid Climbing, Big Wall, Mixed, Scrambling, Via Ferrata, Canyoneering, Skiing
Many climbers have hired a guide at some time in their career. Questions like, "Do I need a guide?", "How do I choose a guide?", and "Which companies do you recommend?" are discussion board perennials. Climbers with more experience who are looking for ways to marry their love of the mountains with the need to earn a living often wonder what it would be like to work as a guide, and how one goes about becoming a guide. Kurt Wedberg, founder of Sierra Mountaineering International, was gracious enough to offer his answers to some commonly asked questions about guides and guiding.

How did you get into guiding?

I started my guiding career in 1986 with the now defunct outings program at Adventure 16 in Southern California. We taught entry level courses in rock climbing, backpacking, and backcountry navigation. I was working at one of their retail stores (they have 7 in So Cal) and teaching classes on weekends while working my way through college.

After graduating from California State University, Northridge with a degree in Political Science I applied for a job as a guide for RMI on Mt. Rainier. I began guiding for them in 1991. The work is full time but seasonal; May – September. In the off season I would live in Bishop, CA at the base of my all time favorite mountain range—the Sierra Nevada.

During the winter months in the early 90s I worked sporadic guiding jobs doing international expeditions. Some of the trips I did were Mexico’s Volcanoes, Ecuador’s Volcanoes, Aconcagua, and Shishapangma, which was my first Himalayan expedition.

What made you decide to form your own company?

I wanted to guide in the Sierra. It is my favorite mountain range. I felt passionate about introducing people to the Sierra and the opportunity to teach them new mountaineering skills. I also wanted to show people how to treat the Sierra in an environmentally friendly manner so others could enjoy it. I knew that we could be an example for others who weren’t on our trips just by how we conducted ourselves.

In those days there weren’t any companies operating in the Sierra. With no other choice, I formed my own company so I could guide in the Sierra.

How has the profession changed since you got into the business?

The profession is growing in the United States. In Europe it has been an established profession for many generations. Here in the United States it is still in its infancy but it has definitely gained some momentum as a viable profession. There are a number of established companies now who are increasingly able to offer more and more work for guides.

What are the most interesting or exciting new developments in guiding today?

Since the profession is growing there are more opportunities for aspirant guides to learn the skills. As this knowledge gets disseminated among the guiding community it also gets spread through their clientele so the whole mountaineering community can benefit from it.

The American Mountain Guides Association is an organization that formed to help further the profession. They offer courses in different aspects of guiding and they are in increasingly higher demand. They have gained recognition in the international guiding community so a guide who finishes their courses and exams here in the United States can lead trips in other member countries. Included in those countries are most of western Europe, New Zealand, and Canada among others.

What do you consider the greatest challenge facing the profession today?

While there are a growing number of opportunities for guiding it is still difficult to make a full time living at it. The wage for an experienced guide is in the neighborhood of $200 - $250 per day. Starting wages are usually lower. For some companies it can be half that much. If a guide works 200 days a year you can do the math and figure you can make $40,000 - $50,000 a year before taxes plus tips. Depending on the life style one wants to lead this may or may not be acceptable.

What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of your line of work?

I feel very fortunate to be able to guide for a living because it combines two things I love to do: mountaineering and working with people. There is very little I dislike about the job.

Sometimes doing too many trips in too short of a period of time can make me miss home but for the most part I schedule work carefully enough where this doesn’t happen too much anymore.

What is the scariest thing that has happened to you as a guide?

I’ve had one near death experience in all my years guiding. I was leading a rope team of three (including me) on a climb of Mt. Rainier. The gal behind me got blown off her feet in a gust of wind. I self arrested and stopped her but in the process we had pulled off the last person on the rope. He slid down and gained enough momentum that when the rope went tight the force pulled me off my stance. I tried to self arrest and bring us to a stop but I ran out of time and all three of us fell into a crevasse. My two teammates fell about 40 feet and hit a false bottom. I hit a different false bottom about 60 feet down. After regaining consciousness I climbed up to them and made sure they were OK then climbed out of the crevasse. A rescue was initiated from there.

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in becoming guides?

I think it is a great profession if you are willing to look at what the job is realistically. It is a service job and you are there for your clients. In addition to having solid mountaineering skills it requires a lot of patience, a true love of working with people, and an enjoyment of climbing some of the same routes and mountains many times over. Other skills include cooking and psychology.

I have seen some people get into guiding as simply a way to get paid to go climbing, and if this is all you are interested in it is the wrong profession to be in.

The job can be very rewarding if you love working with people though. For me one of the greatest thrills is seeing my clients succeed at something. When they reach the summit of a mountain, the top of a rock climb, or ski something they previously haven’t been able to do there is no greater feeling in the world for me. I share that enthusiasm and joy with them.

What do you consider the most important qualities in a guide?

A good guide has excellent people skills in addition to being a solid mountaineer. There are many great mountaineers who would not make great guides though because of the people skills needed. These are also more difficult to teach guides. Some people have this naturally and others don’t.

Do you have to be a great climber to be a great guide?

I think people would define “great climber” differently. To some it is ability level, to others it is a more deep spiritual meaning. You need to have solid mountaineering skills and be able to physically accomplish whatever it is you are guiding. There are a number of guides who have a very high end ability level. For example, in the rock climbing world there are some guides who can pull hard 5.12s and 5.13s. There are many other guides who I would consider to be excellent climbers who lead high 5.10. If someone is guiding the Swiss Arete on Mt. Sill which is 5.7 they don’t need to be a 5.12 climber to guide it.

Alex Lowe once said “The best climbers are the ones having the most fun”.

Why should a person consider engaging the services of a guide?

There are many benefits to hiring a guide. We see some climbers come to us to learn skills so they can climb on their own. The advantage here is a good guide is going to give you a complete set of skills to work with and hopefully not leave anything out. While some people have learned from friends they might have missed some aspects along the way. Since guides are constantly keeping up on new developments in their field you are learning the latest information. We work with many clubs and organizations now to help them with this. In years past clubs offered avenues to learn skills and some still do. This is how my father learned about mountaineering in the late 50s. While some clubs were doing an excellent job, others were not keeping up with the latest developments in mountaineering, or would get set in their ways and not embrace new ways of doing things. To address this, we work with instructors and members of clubs to help make sure they are current with the latest information and trends in mountaineering.

Another reason people hire guides is to climb mountains or routes that might be beyond their ability level to do on their own. This can serve as an avenue to help bring someone’s skills to a new level.

Sometimes people are raising families, and a spouse feels more comfortable if they engage the services of a professional for piece of mind.

We also see many people on our trips who lead busy lives and while they have time to train and stay in shape they don’t have the time or the partners to do bigger trips such as international destinations.

What is the best way to go about choosing a guide service?

I recommend people choose a guide service by talking to others and getting opinions. Look for a guide service that is interested in your experience and what you are interested in achieving. I also think experience is extremely important. An experienced guide has been around the profession a long time because they are successful at what they do. They are also more likely to have good people skills. Included with experience is their training. Where did the guides learn their skills? Many guide services have excellent in house training programs. Others rely on guides to get the experience on their own either by taking courses and exams through the American Mountain Guides Association or by working for other companies. Most of the larger companies serve as an excellent training ground for guides. Also look at the company’s safety record.

Ensuring a client’s safety is one of the most important duties of a guide, but does that mean a climber can relax and assume that the guide will keep them out of trouble?

Yes, at the top of the list of a guide’s duties is safety. This is also true of mountaineering in general in my opinion. Climbing and mountaineering are inherently dangerous activities that can include serious consequences. While a guide should be doing all they can to minimize the risk they can’t eliminate it. Client’s place a lot of trust in guides to make sound decisions with safety being the biggest factor involved. I always encourage clients to ask questions though and not take things for granted. Guides usually appreciate being asked to explain why they are doing things the way they are. This is also a good habit to get in to in mountaineering in general. That’s why we always check each other when we tie in to a rope or why we have dialogue about snow stability and avalanche danger.

How would you recommend a person work with a guide or service, both before a trip and during it, in order to get the most out of the experience?

When contacting the guide service be sure you are clear in what you want out of the experience. If you are taking a course in mountaineering with the goal of climbing Aconcagua with a guide some day you should make that clear so that you are sure this course will be appropriate for what you are planning to do. If you and your three partners are taking a climber’s self rescue course because you are starting to climb backcountry multi pitch routes in the Sierra, you want to know that the course is going to address all aspects of the type of rock climbing you plan on doing.

When meeting the guide make sure that expectations are talked about from the outset. This should be part of the beginning of a trip but if you don’t feel your questions are adequately addressed be sure to ask them.

I also believe in follow up time. I never feel like a client has been “discharged”. As you go to practice and implement your newly learned skills there should be an avenue to follow up with questions if something isn’t clear later on. I always encourage our clientele to stay in touch and ask questions at any time.

Finally I think it is important to find out what other skills might be helpful for what your intended goals are. If you are taking a backcountry ski/snowboard course because you are interested in getting away from the resorts you might also want to invest in a good avalanche course as well.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-16 of 16
Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Jan 29, 2007 12:00 pm - Voted 10/10

Great interview!

I think both would-be guides and clients would find this interesting.

Does he have any good war stories?

Steve Larson

Steve Larson - Jan 29, 2007 6:32 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great interview!

I'm sure he does, but that wasn't the focus of the interview. His Rainier story is pretty hair raising, though.


Blair - Jan 30, 2007 6:51 am - Voted 10/10

Very Cool

Great interview, with a great guy. I have been lucky enough to meet and talk with Kurt and would recommend him and his services to anyone.


JScoles - Jan 30, 2007 1:51 pm - Hasn't voted

Good Words

Great stuff. An honest and straitforward answers. Kurt points out why in a round about way many peole who get into guiding fail (ie remember you are a service-- ie. lack of people skills on the part of the guide)

He also tells the truth in that is not a way to climbe in far off places/ see the world or make alot of money.

He might want to memtion that working 200 days a year is very optimistic except in some hotbed places like the Alps etc.



MakeItHappen - Jan 30, 2007 4:50 pm - Hasn't voted

Good stuff

Great interview with thoughtful and useful insight. Articles like this are why SP is such a gem.


Haliku - Jan 30, 2007 7:39 pm - Voted 10/10

Great story!

Nice idea to do an interview format. Good advice. Cheers!


96avs01 - Jan 31, 2007 4:01 am - Voted 10/10

Great Article

Thanks for the stimulating interview Steve! It was an excellent read, and very insightful. As JScoles commented, for all those posts about "How Do I Become a Mountain Guide", each should be directed here and posed the question "Why Do You Wish To Be One?" Thanks again for a fine SP contribution. Cheers


wetsponge007 - Jan 31, 2007 5:26 am - Voted 10/10

Great Interview

Kurt stands by what he says in this interview. I have been thinking about taking a skills seminar with SMI and have talked with Kurt multiple times and have asked tons of questions, which Kurt answered and I am sure he has heard them a million times. He is a great guy and practices what he preaches in this interview.

Cy Kaicener

Cy Kaicener - Jan 31, 2007 7:28 pm - Voted 10/10

Great Article

We are lucky to have someone like Kurt to answer our questions and to share his experience with us.


sierrawolf - Feb 3, 2007 7:55 am - Voted 10/10

Informative & interesting

It's a nice interview and a chance to hear from Kurt again. I was lucky that back in 2000 I was on an RMI climb of Mt Rainier (expedition style) with Kurt as the senior guide. He took us all the way to the summit crater with our backpacks, and we spent the night there in the crater before going down the next day. During the trip one guy fell into a crack between ice and rock while at camp. But the crack wasn't really deep, and Kurt got him out quickly - nothing like the crevasse accident he mentioned. No other trip I've done since has topped that experience. Thanks, Kurt.


dmiki - Feb 16, 2007 9:50 am - Voted 10/10

Great interview

A very nice and informative read - thank you!

Chris956 - Aug 19, 2008 11:54 am - Hasn't voted


Fascinating interview - cheers!


dfrancom - Oct 18, 2008 7:06 pm - Voted 10/10


I have a much better understanding of guiding now,, thanks


JanG - Oct 6, 2009 4:40 pm - Voted 10/10

Very informative

This very well written interview should be added to the current Forum comments on this very topic! It puts all the negative comments about using guides into the proper perspective.




olenx - May 6, 2010 3:39 pm - Hasn't voted

Very Useful

Very useful article.Thanks


shahkeer - Mar 6, 2011 11:08 am - Hasn't voted

great job

nice interview and quit usefull awsome keep it up

Viewing: 1-16 of 16