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Guiding through a pandemic

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Story and photos by Jason D. Martin
American Alpine Institute executive director

Though there had been news about Covid-19, most of us weren’t following it closely until the morning of March 3. It was in a closed Facebook forum. And it was the first real indication of a problem for the mountain guiding community. American guides from several different companies began to discuss the need to cancel spring programs in Italy. The Italian government was discussing quarantines, and ski areas in Northern Italy were closing.

Things snowballed from there. Within days of that first communication, it was clear that the Alps of Italy, France, and Switzerland, would be closed. At that time, it still seemed like the mountains and crags in the United States would be okay.

We were wrong.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, Mt. Baker Ski Area shut down on March 15. On March 20, Denali National Park – a place where many Northwest guides work in the spring – canceled the climbing season. On March 22, the American Alpine Institute saw its last day of guiding (a private family snowshoe trip in the Baker Backcountry). On March 23, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee issued his Stay Home Stay Safe Order. And then on March 27, the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests both shut down.

It wasn’t much different in the rest of the country. Joshua Tree National Park, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Smith Rock State Park, the BLM lands around Moab, Rocky Mountain National Park, they all started to issue closure orders. Guided climbing and skiing in the United States was effectively dead.

So, in 24 days we went from wondering if there would be an Alps season, to wondering if there would be a guide season at all anywhere. And tragically, as we were coming to terms with closure after closure, thousands of people died.

At our core, mountain guides are risk managers. We are constantly assessing whether a climb is safe, whether a participant is strong enough to get up and down in a reasonable amount of time, or whether a slope is skiable. But assessing weather, terrain, and human hazards are only a part of the job. Guides are also constantly assessing hazards to health, whether that be in untreated water, or the threat of a sinus infection ravaging an expedition. Guides are used to worrying about the health and safety of those in their care.

So, while there was pushback against closure orders and mask mandates in some quarters, mountain guides are almost universally supportive of social distancing efforts, even as those efforts crush the livelihoods of guides throughout the United States.

The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) is the non-profit organization that educates and certifies guides, accredits guide businesses and advocates for the guiding industry with land managers and politicians. During this crisis, the AMGA – which is also suffering financially – has taken on a larger-than-normal leadership role in the guiding community. The AMGA has provided webinars for guides and guide businesses providing advice on accessing money in the federal stimulus packages, mental health, marketing advice, and perhaps most importantly, unemployment insurance advice.

Professional unemployment help has been essential to the American guide community. While a large percentage of guides live in the same place year-round and work for the same company, many – especially young guides – live transient lifestyles, working for several companies each year. They move around the country, following their work passions to several states. Add a #vanlife component to that, and you’ll understand how unstable the transient guide lifestyle is during the pandemic, and how hard it might be to access emergency unemployment funds.

While the industry was on lockdown, a lot of questions began to arise. It’s not terribly easy to run certain types of programs under the threat of coronavirus. Do people ride together to a crag? Do they share tents? Cook together? What kind of equipment can be shared safely? Are there liability concerns around coronavirus? Every guide service and outdoor education program in the country had to make decisions around these types of issues. On top of that, there was also the question of public lands.

Many land managers didn’t know what to do with the pandemic. For the most part, they closed up and then waited for someone else to tell them what to do. In Washington State, at least, some guidance was finally provided by Governor Inslee’s phased approach to reopening. This document detailed what was allowed in each stage for some kinds of outdoor recreation…but outfitting and guiding had been left out.

Two Bellingham locals stepped up and took the lead on communicating with the state on behalf of the outfitter/guide industry. Todd Elsworth (Washington Outdoor Business Alliance) and Kristi Kucera (Moondance Sea Kayak Adventures) lead the charge by bringing together a wide array of outdoor recreation business leaders. The group ultimately worked with Jon Snyder, the governor’s senior policy advisor on outdoor recreation and economic development, to craft a plan that would work for diverse outfitter and guide operations throughout the state.

On June 8, with Whatcom County in phase 2, the American Alpine Institute ran its annual new guide training. And on June 20, the first trips left Bellingham for Mt. Baker and other objectives.

But things do not look the same. Participants are cooking for themselves, staying in one-person tents, and traveling alone. Trailheads are being rocked by a new philosophy that eschews carpooling with anyone that isn’t a member of your household. And masks have become ubiquitous everywhere in the outdoors where physical distancing isn’t possible.

The spring of 2020 has been far more difficult for outdoor adventure recreation and guide industry than any other crisis in modern memory. Many businesses will certainly fold during this event. But it won’t be the end. Guides are a tenacious bunch.