Climbing + Career

12:02 a.m. on July 22, 2006 (EDT)
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I am posting this on the climbing forum because I find that climbing requires more regular practice and time investment than backpacking in order to retain some kind of skill level.
I'll try not to make this too long: I will graduate University this coming spring with an engineering degree, I intend to do a NOLS semester after I graduate, and although I do want a career in engineering, climbing and being outside is an important part of my life. Today my boss at my internship and I had a conversation in which we talked about my future plans and further possible employment with them. I have one more three month period in which I would like to work for him before NOLS, and who knows what for after NOLS- maybe some outdoor instruction/guiding somewhere. My boss says that I can work for him if I want to, but if I want to go climbing then I should go climbing (ie he isn't interested in employing anyone who won't return his investment in them). If I don't know what I want to do, then he doesn't know what he wants to do with me. He doesn't care about me beyond my ability to do work for him, and vacations are seemingly unjustifiable....

There are some pretty well climbed and professionally accomplished readers out there. Any thoughts and advice for negotiating this rocky transition from college to real world while not stunting my climbing aspirations at the same time? I have pursued an engineering degree with the intention of designing products to be less harmful/do more good for the natural world, I would hate not to be able to enjoy the world I want to help preserve.

8:15 a.m. on July 22, 2006 (EDT)
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"...and vacations are seemingly unjustifiable..."

I guess it depends on how much vacation you're asking for and if he'd let you work extra hours as comp time but if he really feels vacations are unjustifiable, find another boss. If he expects you to work without the benefit of personal time off he won't be very good to work for in the long run. Benefits are just as important as the pay along with your own satisfaction with the job.


8:15 a.m. on July 22, 2006 (EDT)
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Great topic.

Work/life balance is a tough thing, but you're at a great point in your life to experiment and find out what's right for you. (It doesn't get any easier with a family and a mortgage.)

It sounds like you're considering two distinctly different paths:

1) Work in the outdoor industry doing what you love. You'll be outside a lot and you'll be working with other people who share your passions. On the downside, the pay isn't great and, depending on where you guide, the majority of your time may be leading clients up the same few routes over and over (and over). And if you're not a people person, forget it.

2) Work in engineering, preferably in a job that lets you get out to climb often. As a recent grad, you're probably not in a real good position to be negotiating flex time and extra vacation days from most employers. It sounds like you have a real committment to the environment, so the key is to seek out companies that share your values, both in terms of the environment and being flexible with vacation time.

Both of those -- and lots of options in between -- can and do work for lots of people. Part of it is figuring out how important your climbing and career goals are relative to each other, then finding the work situation that can fulfill both. Maybe it's being a full-time dirtbag. Maybe it's a part-time or contract engineering gig combined with guiding and a couple big trips a year. Maybe it's full-time engineering in a location where you can sneak in a couple pitches before or after work. Work/life balance is entirely individual.

(For me, that meant starting my own business at 25 so that I could have the flexibility to get out and climb/hike/bike/travel whenever I wanted. Of course I work more hours now than I ever did for anyone else, and there are all sorts of other stresses involved, but overall it's still pretty liberating.)

So start with your goals:

What do you want to accomplish with your climbing? Are you going to be putting together big alpine expeditions? Or working challenging sport routes close to home? Or something in between? Those mesh with work in very different ways.

How about work? Do you want to make a lot of money? Or work just enough to pay the bills? Create one great product that will change the world? Work on lots of different projects? Again, these can imply different styles of work and different kinds of companies for which you can succesfully work.

9:28 p.m. on July 22, 2006 (EDT)
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I strongly echo adam's statement. It sounds like your boss wants a slave, not an assistant. What are the advancement opportunities?

There are lots of ways to go, and Dave has covered part of them. Among my many friends, colleagues, fellow climbers, and acquaintances, there is the whole gamut from full time climbers to full time geeks and nerds who live and breathe engineering and science. Well, ok, science is very different from engineering - science is a way of life, where engineering is more of a career with a definite retirement date.

Consider this - a statistic circulated widely in the aerospace industry and well-documented is that a very large fraction of those whose entire life was dedicated to a professional career (meaning not only their 8 hours a day, but their social circle and often dedication to 70-80 hour weeks pushing to get contracts and complete them by deadlines), then retired at the prescribed retirement age die within a year of retirement. Those who have outside interests and can make the transition from the office to those outside interests in retirement live more like 10-20 years.

Another piece of advice that I was told back when I was in high school and have heard repeated, which I gave many times in my academic career and pass on to you now - if the career, occupation, or job is not one you enjoy, you are in the wrong job. Choose a way of life that is one which brings joy, fun, and lots of pleasure. (that's one of the attractions of science).

That said, there are many of my professional colleagues who are great scientists and engineers who are also active in the outdoors as climbers, backcountry skiers, backpackers, birdwatchers, etc. One of the foremost astrophysicists of the 20th Century, Lyman Spitzer was an active climber who made a bequest to the American Alpine Club to provide support to young climbers for expeditions (Spitzer was a friend, although our research was in quite different areas). Another of the great astrophysicists of the 20th century and a mentor of mine was an avid birder and often would arrive early for the twice a year meetings of the American Astronomical Society and lead a group of us on birding treks in the area where the meeting was to be held (I am a fairly accomplished photographer, with published bird photos).

A number of the Yosemite hardmen of the 60s and 70s were aerospace engineers, as were many climbers in other areas. Some of these (Chouinard, Robbins, and Frost perhaps the most famous) started companies that manufacture climbing gear and outdoor clothing. Ray Jardine, who perfected the Friend cam and is also famous for ultralight packing, was an engineer in his early years.

At CalTech, my undergrad school, our motto was "work hard, play hard." One of my professors, Chuck Wilts, devised the Tahquitz Decimal System, now referred to as the Yosemite Decimal System, by which most climbs in the US are rated. He also devised methods of testing climbing gear which eventually developed into the methods used for UIAA and CEN for climbing gear certification.

I mention people I know, not because that makes me special, but because these are people who followed a path that connected the outdoors and their science and engineering careers. Another connection is this - you show an interest in guiding and teaching about the outdoors. A number of climbers earn their real livings in the teaching profession (I don't mean "educators", but real teachers). They include everything from university professors to community college teachers to K-12 teachers (who can bring the real world into the classrooms).

Ok, you say you want to do some guiding. I entertained the idea of professional guiding as a post-retirement way of earning some money, but mostly occupying some time and letting others pay for my outdoor activities. But a good friend who runs a guide service and climber/guide training program told me to consider the following - "you really enjoy climbing, but do you really want to do what you enjoy with a group of inept clients?" If you are having to earn a living as a guide, you will end up with a lot of very nice folks, but also with a certain number who fall into the Guide's Rules of Clients - "1. the client is out to kill you; 2. the client is trying to kill himself; and 3. the client is trying to kill the other clients." These days, in retirement, I conduct workshops and training sessions for a couple of volunteer organizations. I have encountered such people (and as a volunteer, no pay, maybe some expenses). In a climbing instructor workshop, I had a guy who insisted he knew all about climbing, including that you don't really know how to climb until you can do it free-solo (i.e., no rope or pro, even at the limit of your ability). And rock climbing is best done barefoot. These instructor-candidates, by the way, were learning to instruct teenagers.

Final comment, one which Dave hinted at - guiding, whether fishing, hunting, backpacking, river running, or climbing, pays very poorly. You have to be licensed and/or certified by a recognized organization and/or governmental agency. Insurance and permits (you need commercial permits to guide in federal and state territories, like parks) cost a fair amount. You also are running a business, whether you are employed by a guide service or are independent, so you need insurance and have all the recordkeeping and tax-reporting of any business (many guide services contract with their guides as "independent contractors", though they may provide some insurance and other expense coverage). Very few guides continue in the career more than 5-10 years. After that, they may move into the management and administrative end of things (some do continue to teach, Bela and Mimi Vadasz of Alpine Skills International being 2 of the few exceptions I know). I know many who left guiding altogether after a few years, often because they acquired family obligations and had to start saving for their kids' educations. Most guides I know personally have "real jobs" during the off-season (guiding is seasonal, ya know, no matter what you guide).

Still, if it's "just a job", find something else that you enjoy. It may well be worth it to you to guide. Teaching others is very rewarding for those few of your clients who go on to excel, and satisfying for those many you get to enjoy even a bit of the outdoors. A big part of it is conveying your own personal enjoyment of the wilderness to others.

10:40 a.m. on July 24, 2006 (EDT)
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Wow, great posts on this.

I got some advice early on from an uncle who dabbled in climbing. Said to strongly consider a career outside recreation and to not mix vocation and recreation, as to not taint either. Hindsite, 20+ years after college, was that it was good advice.

For me, post college, was all about LOCATION. I had to live somewhere I could both work, and recreate. Being able to head out for a ski tour, or, a rock climb, post work, is a huge deal to me.

Good luck!

-Brian in SLC

8:00 p.m. on July 24, 2006 (EDT)
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Carl -
Brian in SLC is a perfect example of what I referred to in mentioning professional scientists and engineers who are outstanding climbers. His comments are right on! He has climbed in many of the major mountain ranges of the world, as well as being an accomplished backcountry skier. I have enjoyed immensely the times we have climbed together.

Hey, Brian, I'm going to be in SLC for the OR. I will be pulling into town Sunday beforehand. I'm a bit put off by the temperatures (abt 5 deg cooler than here right now), but hope we can do something. I may stay a couple days after, too. I'll post a note over on MtnCom to catch Matt and some others.

10:55 a.m. on July 25, 2006 (EDT)
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>...who are outstanding climbers.

I dunno 'bout "outstanding", unless you meant, out standing over there wishing I could climb harder...ha ha. Just an avid do'er. Bunch of us here.

>Hey, Brian, I'm going to be in SLC for the OR. I will be pulling into town Sunday beforehand. I'm a bit put off by the temperatures (abt 5 deg cooler than here right now), but hope we can do something. I may stay a couple days after, too. I'll post a note over on MtnCom to catch Matt and some others.

You and me both with the hot. Hopefully will break soon. We're maxed out for number of days over 100 this year already, and, rumor is that temps should be dropping south of 100 pretty soon.

Uinta's will be cool and the skeeters shouldn't be so fierce by the time you're here. Take bug dope, though. Upper LCC and BCC will be cooler too. Plenty of cool hikes and the wild flowers are poppin' up high now.

Always cool enough in the early a.m. and usually enough so by post work for me that gettin' out and climbing is good, especially up high or on the shady side.

We'll have to get out. I'll have a few friends here, as usual. Hopin' they don't sweat to death, although, they know what they're gettin' into.

-Brian in SLC

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