story and photos by David Hanson
The crux is not on the map. It comes early and by surprise. We’ve just slogged up several thousand feet of sloppy, steep snow to reach the first pass on a three-day traverse across Washington’s little-known Chiwaukum Range in the Cascades. We’re already six hours behind schedule thanks to a five-mile, dry bushwack of an approach. Now we need to travel at max efficiency to make it out by Sunday night. One of our party of three has a real job Monday morning.
In other words, this is not the time to send my brakeless ski sliding two hours back into the bowl we just ascended. But there it goes. Slowly at first, from where I tapped it loose as I fumbled with my transition. Then faster, almost floating away.
And then heroically into the frame appears Shane Robinson. Shane is my buddy and AMGA full Ski Guide. He’s still clipped into his skis, and, moving like a cornerback, he tackles the ski and saves the day.
“Do they teach that move in guide class?” I ask him, imagining a sort of special forces winter training camp where green cadets graduate as bronzed, wind-toughened snow warriors.
It’s easy to caricature the ski or mountain guide as a certified hard-ass with the key to the castle of summits, driving through life in a van full of freedom. But guides are as varied as their clients. Some, like Simi Hamilton, (see page 33) start as teens. Others only find guiding after experimenting with many careers and life paths.
Shane represents the latter. First off, he’s 43. He’s also married, with a mortgage and student loan debt. His job choice prior to ski guiding was lawyer. During school and after, he worked in construction, most recently building ornate tree houses. But at age 39, another synapse fired and he decided to pursue guiding. Shepherding strangers around the mountains sounds glamorous, and it is, but it’s also inconsistent and unpredictable. With ski guiding, one can only be certain of low pay and long days on low angles. In the U.S., only a tiny minority earn a livable wage working, essentially, as mountaineering PhD’s.
At an age when most of us settle into our preordained midlife rhythms, Shane’s decision to guide both fascinates and baffles me. Why, Shane, why? Since he’s also a pal, I decided to ski the Chiwaukum with him and find out.
With the Forbidden and Isolation Traverses, both Cascadian classics, rendered untenable due to washed-out roads, our party—Shane’s wife Jen Daniels has joined us— opted for the Chiwaukum, a seldom-skied range to the east of central Washington’s Stevens Pass. The route offers the best hope for a successful April tour: south-facing traverses and climbs and north-facing descents across 22 miles.
With my ski safely returned to my boot, the three of us slide into two days of climbing and descending. We stay high on the long traverse between Grindstone and Snowgrass Mountains during our first day on the route. It’s easy skinning and the snow’s holding firm despite the midday sun. Our skins zip below us as Shane unravels his background.
He grew up in the tiny (pop. 546) eastern Colorado ranching community of Deer Trail. At Colorado State University, he worked winters ski patrolling and summers guiding rafts on the Arkansas. Later, he moved to Tahoe for the mountains, met Jen, and followed her to Seattle, where he attended law school. He earned his degree and tried to jump onto the righteous path of environmental lawyer. But the construction work he’d learned to live on kept him busy enough to pay the bills, while giving him loads of time to ski and boat. He paid his student loans. Years became a decade. He wasn’t strapped to a law firm and still had plenty of time to recreate, but the guiding life called him. It sounded like revolution.
“I wouldn’t call my decision to become a guide a midlife crisis,” says Shane. In fact, he saw pursuing his AMGA certification as staving off a future watershed. “The construction work was stagnant,” he says. “They tapped me to project manage, but I didn’t take it. I knew I was happiest outside exploring. I didn’t want to wake up 20 years later and see that I’d been doing a job I didn’t love.”
Below Snowgrass Mountain, we peek over the edge into the north-facing descent, our first opportunity for turns. The 40-degree slope is a steely sheen of wind-scour before it rolls into the cirque.
“How’re you feeling?” asks Shane.
“Afraid,” I say. I grew up in the South, and moving through big mountains on skis is still new to me.
He smiles. Aside from a do-or-die rescue involving technical alpine skills and military-like command, this is where a guide’s bona fides emerge. Shane has to determine the safest line and recognize possible negative consequences for someone he has never skied—with me. He has to project calm confidence without slipping into impatience or condescension. Good guides can read people as well as they read terrain. Have I merely soiled my bib, or am I about to go into shock? The profession Shane is entering has grown up. Guides aren’t just mountain cowboys slinging ropes.
“Back in the day, the old joke was, ‘Any man with a baseball cap could call himself a guide,’” says Brenda Hollon, a Seattle-based mountain guide and friend of Shane, also pursuing AMGA certification. In 1997, the only thing then 24-year-old Hollon wanted was to hang out in wild places. She took a job as camp cook for Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI) the following year. A year later, she did her second guide tryout and was signed on as a paid guide. Then, as now, it took some experience—but not an exorbitant amount—to get a job.
Historically, guiding in the U.S. has always come down to land permits, which are administered by federal land management agencies to insured guiding businesses. And those federal agencies don’t necessarily care if your company is comprised of seasoned Conrad Ankers, or Bozo Clowns. Slowly, the rules are changing. The AMGA wants to create a Scope of Practice for a U.S. guide that mimics the tighter criteria found in Canada and much of Europe. To be a guide in Europe, one must work an ascending series of apprenticeships and evaluations before earning the all-encompassing Mountain Guide pin. This will in many ways help legitimize the American profession in international terms and raise guide wages in the U.S.
Hollon did it the old way. She worked for RMI from 1997 to 2005 while also logging an ascent on Mount Everest. Her résumé makes her more than qualified to guide by current U.S. standards, but instead, she got a business degree and started a family. Now her kids are in school and she’s back on the AMGA track, hoping to open a business bringing women and youth into the outdoors. Hollon sees value in spending the roughly $25,000 to complete her AMGA certification. An AMGA-certified guide makes roughly 30 percent more than a non-certified guide per day. Most guides want the credibility afforded by climbing the certification ladder, and motivation for self improvment.
We drop into the shadow on Snowgrass’ north side, then into the Lake Charles basin. We’ve been going hard for almost nine hours and we’re worked. Shane cuts a long traverse around the cirque to the day’s last patch of sunshine. The payoff? Six turns of corn-ish snow en route to our second camp.
Along the way, I tell Shane and Jen the classic, beaten-down joke: What’s the difference between a large pizza and a ski guide? The pizza can feed a family of four. I want to know about money.
An apprentice guide makes about $165 a day and a full guide about $250. Guides get little perks like pro deals and free energy bars, but on a 12-hour day, that’s roughly $20 per hour with no benefits and a wildly unreliable schedule. In other words, no one gets into this for the money. Even in Europe, where IFMGA guides make upwards of $450 per day, the cost of living is higher, and the old pizza-guide joke lives on.
Shane doesn’t complain. He and Jen, a naturopathic doctor and nurse practitioner with student loans of her own, would rather pay off their debt doing what they love, even if it takes decades. They remain in the house he fixed up a decade ago, and they’re determinedly childless. But even with the tough compensation, Shane is happy to invest in his guiding education. “I place a high value on formal education, despite the debt burden,” he says. “And the tide is shifting. Employers are requiring certifications. Once more people pay the course fees, they’ll be less willing to take $100 a day. So that could lift all wages, even for first-year Rainier guides, though the certified guides see the most benefit.” Shane recently became a full AMGA Ski Guide after four years of training and evaluations. To achieve IFMGA Full Mountain Guide, it would take Shane, based on his life situation and skill set, another eight years or so, just in time to reassess his life choices.
No, the money isn’t great, but as a freelance photographer and writer, who the hell am I to second-guess anyone? I crunch across the alpine snow to my tent as stars pinhole the sky. Overnight, cold air settles into Lake Charles’s frozen basin as silently and surely as falling leaves. Pleasantly tired but not exhausted, I lie in my tent imagining the guide’s mentality out here. There must be a deep satisfaction knowing you’ve brought people into a rare place they might not otherwise get to know. Sleep comes easily. The occasional ice crystal sliding down nylon is the only sound I hear until we unzip the tents at dawn.
Our final day begins with a 1,000-foot climb back onto our traverse contour. We’re racing the sun across an east-facing section with wet slide potential from above and cliffs below. Shane patiently waits for and encourages Jen. Skiing has always been their thing.
After skinning, we rip our best turns down a north-facing slope that hasn’t been raided by the wind. We cut tracks up the final pass and traverse to the tip of the Chiwaukum Range, a flat prow of snow overlooking Highway 2 and the “Swauth.” It’s a 2,000-foot dagger slashing almost to the road. Shane eases into the chute’s lip.
The Swauth looks heinous—an hourglass of wind-scoured steeps ending in a football field of rotten avalanche chunks. I’d be gripped if I were in charge, but Shane’s confidence is a comfort. And that’s the other allure of guiding: shepherding people outside their comfort zones while subtly keeping them away from the edges.
Shane computes the scenario, computes us, and turns back to the mountain, seeking the best line down.
From the Deep Winter issue.