Let’s start with who are you and what do you do?
I am the Director of Operations here at the institute. What that means is that I manage the guide staff and the office staff. I handle our permits and risk management issues, social media, and marketing. I don’t have a lot of direct relationship with clients. The program coordinators generally do that but they commonly ask me for input. I also guide about sixty days a year. The rest of the time I am in the office.
I have been working here since the year 2000. I began working full-time, year-round in Las Vegas by 2001. We operate in six states and sixteen countries. I managed the Las Vegas program for quite sometime. Then in 2008 I was promoted into the office here in Bellingham.
So what does the life of a professional mountain guide look like? To be honest it sounds very glamorous.
It sounds glamorous at the start. When you are twenty-five, living out of a suitcase, and on the road all the time, visiting several different countries throughout the year, climbing mountains, it seems great. At thirty suddenly it’s nice to have a place to call home and follow the seasons. I would say that if being a professional guide is what you wanted to be that may mean living out of a suitcase, bouncing between the seven summits.
There is guide work all over the planet throughout the entire year. For an American guide you travel a lot. You could guide only in the United States, but with that you run into the same thing—you live in one place in the winter and another in the summer. Some people are lucky to live in the same place year round, but it’s not common. For example the places we rock guide in the winter get incredibly hot—100+ degrees in the summer—Las Vegas, Joshua Tree, Moab.
Some guides do two things throughout the year. It’s not uncommon for guides to say live in Washington, ski patrol in the winter and guide in the summer. We do have some guides that live in Washington year round, but there is ten months of work in Washington not twelve. In October and November it’s raining so there is really no guide work then. December through March or April we teach avalanche courses, winter mountaineering, and backcountry ski courses.
Guiding is what you make it. For some people that is a very different thing than for others.
What percentage of the trips that you guide are here in the Cascades or nearby versus abroad?
About one third. If you break our business down by where our income comes from you would see that one third is based in Washington and Southwest B.C., one third is based in Alaska, and one third is everywhere else. So we have quite a lot of programs here in the summer.
We’ll have thirty guides here in the summer. We have a total staff of about forty guides. So those other ten guides will be off in other places. I should say that most of those Washington guides also work in Alaska. The Alaska season is a short two months—May and June. A lot of guides will work Alaska to start the season, avoid the rain and then come here as it starts to get nice.
What is your favorite hike within a day’s drive of Bellingham.
If it is a hike were talking about—and not a climb—I would say probably Heliotrope Ridge. There are lots of fun hikes around here: Skyline Divide, Heliotrope Ridge, Chain Lakes Trail, Yellow Aster Butte—those are really scenic places. Primarily I do those with my children who are ages seven and eight. We will sometimes do those overnight.
And the best climb? I imagine would have to be Baker.
It depends on what you are looking for. The term climb is such a relative thing. Somebody who is bouldering but never climbs anything above fifteen feet is a climber. So is the person who’s climbing in the rock gym but never goes outside. So is the person who never climbs anything beyond thirty-five degrees but is mountaineering with a rope and a harness. So is the person who’s climbing overhung massive walls.
What is the best climb? If you look at it from a mountaineering perspective. The best mountaineering objective around here is the Coleman/Deming route on Mt. Baker. From a slightly more intermediate perspective the Fisher Chimneys on Mt. Shuksan and from an advanced perspective the northeast buttress of Mt. Slesse. Then there are a million great things in there though. For example Northeast Buttress of Slesse as a rock climber isn’t that awesome. There is no single pitch that you go to and say that was great. It’s about the experience of being on a giant ridge on this massive tooth that’s right over the border. Then we have these awesome ice climbs. The North ridge of Mt. Baker is phenomenal. As is the north face of Mt. Shuksan.
It’s hard to say what my favorite climb is. It’s kind of just what I am steaming for next. Ask any guide that and that’s what they’re not gonna say.
What advice would you give to somebody who looks at Mt. Baker and says I would love to do that someday. What’s their next step?
It depends on how they want to do it. There are two ways to do it. On your own or with a guide, On your own with no experience is pretty dangerous. On your own with a buddy who “knows something” is just as sketchy because who knows what he knows. We teach classes to make people climbers, classes that enable people to go do a climb with their buddies without a guide.
We also do guided Mt. Baker summits. That’s a three day Mt. Baker trip. We get a lot of Canadians in that because they can see Baker better than we can actually. Usually about half of the people we get on those climbs are from Surrey or Vancouver. The people who do the Mt. Baker climbs tend to be local, though—within 100 miles of Mt. Baker.
Is the three day summit of Mt. Baker a standard trip for you guys?
Yeah. We run that trip every two weeks and have about ten people per trip. We run that as a public group trip every two weeks but we also have private programs on the mountain constantly. We have six day and twelve day programs that are more oriented towards teaching you all the skills so that you can do it on your own. In the three day program skills are taught but not enough to go do it on your own. You still need to be guided up the mountain. And it’s awesome to take a guided trip up the mountain. But our mission here is to create climbers. We like to see people join our programs and come back, getting more education from us to learn how to climb that next thing.
If you have a free day and you are not in the mountains but are going to hang out in town what do you do? What is your favorite spot in town?
Well I go to the climbing gym a lot.
I am a movie buff. I see a lot of movies and plays. I try to keep my finger in dramatic arts whether that be film or on stage.
What’s the best thing you’ve seen recently?
The Revenant. I was surprised when it didn’t win the oscar for best picture. I have a background in writing for theater and film.
How did you make the switch from writing for theater to mountaineering?
I was a high school drama teacher and I went to graduate school at UNLV to study writing for theater and film. As I started graduate school I started guiding up here. As I finished graduate school I sold a script and made a bunch of money. I thought, guiding and writing go together so well! So I continued to guide and write and when I moved up here I let the dramatic writing drop a bit. I am still an outdoor writer. I still am a playwright too—don’t want to say that I’m not. I just don’t do it as much as I used to.
What is the most common misunderstanding about the American Alpine Institute?
The most common misperception is that we’re the American Alpine Club, which is something different. That’s an advocacy organization for climbers and mountaineers in the U.S. Whereas we’re a climbing school and guide service.
Also our phone number is one digit off from a military child care center. We get a lot of phone calls that go—I have a three year old and my husband is deployed. [laughs]
I would say that there is a style in the U.S. and abroad for climbing guides to create clients—people whose access to the mountain is dependant upon hiring a guide. That is not what we do. We are the opposite. We do definitely make guided ascents but our goal is to teach. People call us and say I want to climb this or I want to climb that and as we get deeper in the conversation with them we realize that we may not be the right fit. We are the right organization for people who want to learn more about the mountain environment, not for the people who just want to tag a summit.
Tell me about why AAI is based in Bellingham. I assume it has a lot to do with access to the Cascades.
It started with Dunham who’s the owner. He started guiding in 1975 when he was in grad school at Western. He took a class from Yvon Chouinard the founder of Patagonia who wrote a book called Climbing Ice. Dunham took the course on ice skills down at Mt. Hood. Then he brought that skill set up here and started teaching it at Mt. Baker. So he ended up creating the first company that taught people who were already climbers higher end skills so that they could access certain types of terrain. He hired people who explored places without much guiding in them. They opened up places like Bolivia. These individuals, these early employees, were determined to get people to the world’s mountains, going places and doing things that were more technical than what other companies were doing.
In the second or third year we started teaching beginner courses too. It didn’t take long to see that that was something we needed to do.
That’s interesting that you built the top end first. That’s the reverse of what most people would do.
I don’t think that’s what Dunham was originally trying to do. I think he was just doing this while he was in school and it blew up. Now here we are with forty guides on staff. What came from that was this idea of expansion and looking at a model where we provide access to the great ranges of the world. Nobody was really doing that. Other companies were very area specific. At the time our greatest competitor was RMI—Rainier Mountain Incorporated.They were climbing one mountain and also going to Alaska. We didn’t want to name ourselves the Mt. Baker Company because we wanted to be more than that.
We want to take people and go explore the world. Today we are still doing these adventure trips. We do a trip to China that nobody else does to a place called Lamoshe. I think the Chinese military climb that mountain as do some Chinese climbing clubs but westerners don’t go there. That’s been our history, seeing what we can find in new areas.
We are great at designing trips. Sometimes the trip will work out and other times it’s just too exotic or unknown so it doesn’t sell. Being obsessed with taking people to new places is not the best business plan. The places that are financially good for us are the names that people recognize.
Our brand is teaching. Core teaching courses really give us our brand. But the other part of our brand is trying to do cool things. We get out to the corner of the globe and we’re like we don’t even know if we can guide these peaks. You guys come along and we’ll see what happens. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. There are several first ascents of peaks and routes around the world that were first done by our guides.
Is there an organization or a business in Bellingham that the world needs to know about. What’s the best kept secret in Bellingham?
Maybe the quarter video arcade. It’s pretty awesome. It’s right across from Lowe’s. I found that with my kids. They have Mrs.Pac Man, Galaga and all that stuff! They have beer there for the adults and soda for the kids. When I was a kid it seems like my parents gave me two dollars for the arcade and it felt like it was gone in an instant. But you give the kids seven bucks in quarters here, they watch each other play and it takes hours. That’s a well kept secret.