By Neil Soneson, August 17, 2018
What does it mean to guide someone? How does this differ from simply telling someone what to do? These are questions that I have asked myself many times during my first year as a rock climbing guide. To understand what it means to be a guide requires an understanding of how people communicate. I believe that there are some people with strong leadership qualities who seem to direct people gracefully and effectively towards what they need or want. There are other people with incredible listening skills who are able to communicate with others so that they feel heard, while also evaluating that persons knowledge level, physical skills, and emotional readiness to complete a task. In my opinion, guiding someone in any situation is a balance between directing and listening to the person. The challenge is in recognizing when you are doing one more than the other and coming back to a balanced state of guiding.
I love to guide people for the obvious reasons of knowing where to go, how to get there, and what to do to make the experience safer and more enjoyable for those being guided. These are the things that allow me to feel confident as a guide, mainly because they allow me to make a plan on how to safely navigate objective risks. It makes me feel great to know exactly where a loose rock is on our approach trail, or exactly at what time our route will go into the shade. This information allows me to develop boundaries that I feel comfortable working in as a guide. The more defined and familiar those boundaries become the more attention and energy I can devote to those I am guiding!
I mainly love guiding because I love people! As a guide I am often meeting people for the first time, at the beginning of our trip, and getting to know them throughout our entire time together. This is really what drives me throughout the day and from trip to trip. I simply love meeting people from different parts of the world and learning about their experiences. In asking them about their experiences I can try to guess how much they know about rock climbing and what we are going to do. With that said, while I am asking them about their past experiences with climbing and other outdoor activities, I am always listening to what they say, how they say it, and how they carry themselves in the environment that I am guiding them. Some people can talk the talk, but do they walk the walk? Essentially, this is the central challenge as a guide. Discerning between what people are telling you and what they are showing you. This is where listening skills are paramount. If a person claims to be an experienced climber but has trouble hiking up the trail to get to the actual rock climb, then that is valuable information that I must use as a guide.
As a guide I am also responsible for managing my client’s emotions and expectations. Some people want to learn as much as possible, while others want to be challenged on a physical level. Some people are afraid that the equipment will break, while others are afraid of plant and wildlife. All of these factors are important for me to consider when creating an experience for that person. What route do I select? What equipment do I bring to guide this particular person up that route? What if that route is too difficult or easy for them? I love making these decisions because it encourages me to empathize with the climber I am guiding. I get to learn about them and try to give them an experience that matches their emotions and expectations. Sometimes it can be stressful in the moment, but usually as we are hiking out together I can talk with them and evaluate myself as a guide based on how satisfied they are with their experience. I love to guide for all these reasons, but above all else I love to guide because some people tell me, “That was awesome! This is just what I was looking for.”