Q: What's the difference between a large pizza and a mountain guide?
A: A large pizza can feed a family of four...
Mountain guide jokes...they've been around as long as, well, as long as mountain guides, I guess. (Check out a collection of them here...but know that some are a bit on the lewd side...but all are pretty darn funny, I must admit, and may even be a bit true!)
Along with the jokes, we mountain guides have often been the subject of some degree of scorn from fellow climbers. Some climbers accuse guides of not being "real" climbers. (Not sure how "real" is defined.) Others despise us for bringing novices into the mountains. (Weren't we all novices once upon a time?)
I chose to become a mountain guide early in my climbing career. In fact, I remember exactly when it was: February, 1986, climbing Standard Route on Frankenstein Cliff in New Hampshire with our guide, Nick Yardley. Nick was - and still is - the consummate guide: skilled, strong, compassionate, empathetic, and passionate about his chosen field. He taught me the fundamentals of climbing - not just where to put my foot or swing my axe, but how to climb, how to respect the mountains, the mountain environment, and how to get into - and out of - the mountains safely, efficiently, and with at least some degree of fun.
As my climbing progressed, other great guides would inspire me as well: Phil Ershler in 1986, Bernard Prudhomme in 1987, Dave Hahn in 1988, Dave Colke in 1989, and more. All of them were great climbers, but also, like Nick, great teachers. And, most importantly, they loved to share the mountains and the mountain spirit with others. They had a deep desire to see others realize the seemingly impossible, to gain the perspective many of us find in the high, remote realms, and to learn to apply that perspective on our daily lives on terra firma.
In that way guides are, I guess, no different than teachers. The medium of course is different: mountains are our books, ropes and carabiners our pencils and calculators (or iPads). Like teachers, we guides have chosen deliberately to devote ourselves not as much to the pursuit of our personal climbing goals and dreams, but rather to the development of new climbers and in assisting them in pursuing their dreams, their craft, their passion.
We were two men in a land of stone and we walked toward the same star. I was happy to be on the drus, but here as elsewhere, my happiness was to lead a companion. What would a guide be without someone to lead? Good weather, bad weather, easy, difficult, I need to sing the same tune as he. That was the gift of our mountains. Climbing to the summit, one man does his job, another is on vacation and the luxury of their efforts is friendship.
For those who are interested, here's a great video of Gaston climbing in the Alps from the documentary Between Heaven and Earth: