Guiding during pandemic

Mountain Trip guide Fischer Hazen leads a party on the summit ridge of the iconic 14er Wilson Peak. Hazen, who normally guides Denali in Alaska and internationally, will be guiding an expanded array of local offerings this summer. (Photos courtesy of Josh King/Mountain Trip)

For a mountain guide, adaptation is the name of the game. Perhaps they’re guiding a party on a scenic hike above treeline when dark-bellied clouds start scuttling their way. Perhaps they’re tethered to the steel cables just before the cliffside traverse on the Via Ferrata when their client suddenly realizes they are deathly afraid of heights. Or perhaps they run a local mountain guiding business, offering alpine adventures near and far, when a global pandemic strikes, forcing them to reroute their entire summer season.

“What is true in the mountains holds true in everyday life. Change is the only constant. Adaptation is the only option,” said Ryan Howe, operations manager and co-owner of Telluride Mountain Guides. “We lost a lot of spring trips this year, which was a real bummer, both emotionally and financially. Great people and fun trips had to be set back for next year, hopefully. As far as summer leading into fall, uncertainty has been an obstacle. But as guides, we're pretty good at dealing with uncertainty.”

Local outfitter Mountain Trip, which offers guided excursions and expeditions locally, in Alaska and internationally, also experienced the heavy losses of an axed spring season.

“Unfortunately, we had to cancel our entire Mount Everest and Denali climbing seasons, which are the biggest programs we run each year,” said Todd Rutledge, co-owner of Mountain Trip. “We had to lay off about 50 guides through the first half of May, most of whom support our Denali season. Thankfully, we just received a loan through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), so we'll be able to bring the majority of those guides back onto payroll beginning next week.”

With summer approaching, guiding outfitters have been looking to guidance from public health officials regarding reopening such services, but question marks still surround the realities of guiding and tourism in rural mountain communities. In the meantime, guiding companies have been busy behind the scenes, developing protocols for appropriate social distancing, sanitizing shared gear, screening clients for possible health and fitness concerns, and preparing for business under the new normal as restrictions ease. New local offerings have also been expanded to adapt to travel restrictions.

“We have been working on a comprehensive COVID-19 response plan for the past several weeks, based on local, state and federal health guidelines,” said Rutledge, adding that the company has worked in conjunction with numerous other guide services, as well as the American Mountain Guides Association to develop the plan. Precautions, he said, will include measures such as requiring clients to meet guides at trailheads instead of offering transportation, doing all bookings online and reserving the Telluride office for staff only, offering only private trips instead of open sign-ups, and ensuring clients have prior access to the response plan and accept the risks, given the impossibility of completely eliminating the risk of an airborne virus.

Howe, too, emphasized the numerous actions taken at Telluride Mountain Guides to mitigate COVID-19 risk and make sure clients and guides are on the same page regarding additional safety measures, such as pre-excursion phone conversations with clients, possible use of personal protective equipment, health and travel questionnaires, and equipment cleaning requirements.

Josh Butson, owner and lead guide for San Juan Outdoor Adventures, agreed that “safety is our number one rule on all of our trips,” and that the company has adopted a range of new policies “to do our best to limit the spread of this virus.” 

Despite the new logistical juggling acts imposed by the pandemic, the companies have found excitement in creating expanded local opportunities for adventures and being able to share those responsibly with both locals and visitors. Howe expressed excitement for new permits that will allow Telluride Mountain Guides to offer fall and winter hiking, climbing, and canyoneering opportunities in Paradox and Big Gypsum valleys, both of which, he said, “offer solitude and several lifetimes of options for rock climbing, hiking and canyoning trips to all ability levels.” 

Rutledge explained plans for new programs to climb nearby 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks, as well as multi-day itineraries designed to build skills in climbing and mountaineering.

In the end, the ability to adapt — a foundational skill for mountain guides — is keeping local guide companies hopeful.

“I'm confident that Mountain Trip will weather this challenge. We're adaptable, and I have been incredibly impressed by the resilience of our guides and clients,” Rutledge said, noting the long work hours required since the shutdown of the ski resort to safeguard the wellbeing of both clients and guides. With the arrival of funds from the PPP, he said, he can finally rest a little easier knowing the company can support its guides. 

“Taking care of our people; that’s what we do as guides,” he added.

Butson remained positive as well, saying, “We have been taking it day to day and looking at all the positives such as that our family, guides and owners are in good health. We hope for everyone to have a safe and healthy summer season.”