By Ian Haupt
Cascade Mountain Ascents (CMA) is a new-ish, worker-owned mountain guiding collective based in Bellingham.
All previous workers of multiple guiding companies, Mike Elges, Zack McGill, Alyssa Young and Phil Straub decided last winter to take a piece for themselves and create a guiding service of their own. As a collective, they share the administrative work and guiding.
Working for a guiding service, McGill said, guides don’t see most of the profits made from their efforts, or, as he put it, cartilage. The money made goes to the company owner who holds the permit.
“There’s definitely, for all of us, some frustration in working for somebody else,” McGill said. A guiding collective was an opportunity to maximize their input and guide sustainably — maximize cartilage.
Young said there are two other worker-owned guiding collectives/cooperatives in the U.S. While the model is new in the guiding industry, it’s not new in a town like Bellingham, which has become a hub for worker ownership and democratic workplaces. They have transferred those values to CMA, she said.
Hailing from Colorado, northern California and New England, they said they came to Washington to ski glaciers and the diverse, rugged terrain of the North Cascades. They also saw it fit enough to call home.
“I feel like the more you love a place,” Young said, “the more exciting it is to share really, really well.”
Trained under the American Mountain Guides Association, some of the CMA founders have been guiding for over 10 years. Guiding’s romantic, Elges said, with its travel, risk of danger and long-stints in the backcountry. But it can be a financial burden and make it difficult to sustain relationships. He said after a while it becomes time to raise a family.
CMA officially launched in January and has been leading trips in the Baker backcountry and teaching glaciated ski mountaineering in the North Cascades, gym to crag climbing courses and AIARE avalanche courses — to name a few — since.
Courses and trips are available to a wide-range of ages and abilities and can be customized. Itineraries of specific courses are available on their website. They will also be teaching avalanche course in the Olympic Mountains and leading trips in Alaska.
“We’re just friends that like to get out and be in the hills together, and come home safe, and take other people out to do the same thing,” Young said. “Yeah, trying to make a life of it.”
“Yeah, I like that,” Elges said.
For more information, visit cascademountainascents.com.