The Art of Guiding

Shhic… Shhick… It is 4:00 am and still dark out. I kick the next step. Shhick. The snow is fairly hard, and it is taking some effort to make the steps flat enough for my clients following  behind. I am working to keep them at a 45 degree angle to allow either foot to be placed in either step. My clients aren’t working at all however due to one of them being an IFMGA guide and the other a guide in training. Just as I think they are probably asleep, I hear Jeff Ward from the back say, “Make your steps look good.” I thought to myself for a second, “Who the hell cares?” I replied, “What do you mean?” Jeff goes on, “You want the next climber to come up here and see all these steps up the mountain, but choose yours because they look the best–because they are! You’re the guide, make it look good!” Shhic, Shhick…

I was in the middle of my American Mountain Guides Advanced Alpine Guides Course and Jeff has been one of my mentors through this tough process. I had plenty of hours over the remaining nine days of the course to ponder this and have thought about it quite a bit in the last couple of years. There is a book I refer my clients to a lot called The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. Brad was the world’s greatest chess player and decided to quit and take on a new challenge of becoming a Tai Chi artist. He did it in what would be a very short time and in fact became number one in the world at that too.  The main idea that I took away from this book was the idea of learning in circles. I try to always relate these learning circles to driving. When we first started driving, it was all we could do to keep our hands at ten and two, check the speedometer, then the rearview mirror, back to the speedometer and so on. Now most of us fly down the road and talk on the cell phone while eating our last few bites of breakfast and plan out our day at work while steering with our knee. How is this possible? Our minds have adapted to the feel of the gas pedal and all the traffic signs and signals and we drive on mostly “auto-pilot.”Our learning circles have become smaller.  As our learning circles get smaller we are able to see the specific details of the task at hand and concentrate on these thoughts versus the bigger picture functions. We are able to take on more as our mind relaxes to the input that it becomes used to. It is only at this point that we can start to take the task and make it an art form.

In guiding it is the same way. Once the technical systems have been mastered, one can start using their brain function towards other tasks such as client care. In SPI assessments, I tell the candidates they will know that they are ready when they can do the rescue scenario while talking to the examiner about the previous night’s football game. This allows them to focus on the many other tasks at hand and start to add their own  personality to the guiding, and it becomes their art. Guiding is the palate for an artist to try to produce the perfect piece of mountain art. With so many changing variables and different client goals the brush strokes start with the first phone call and may never see an end. As guides we will strive for perfection but probably never achieve it. The work that goes into our art may never be seen but by a very few. Nevertheless we will keep painting….and kicking those steps.




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