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When to become indepedent

Hi all, 

I haven't posted in quite some time, been very busy, but I've been lingering in the background occasionally. 

My post is for experienced alpine mountaineers who have climbed some big mountains out west and outside of the 48.

I have taken training courses on ice climbing, avalanche assessment, basic mountaineering skills, crevasse rescue, and had countless teachable moments when hiking with my father in-law who has been at it for 30 years. This winter I am putting my independent skills to the test more when I go climbing and mountaineering in my backyard in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

My question is this - When do I stop worrying about training courses and guide services, and when do I start doing it on my own. I already do a fair amount of research on mountains and routes before I go on a trip anyways, but I'm getting to the point where I'd like to do something bigger. No reason to debate where I'm going, but I've picked an appropriate, beginner/intermediate route on a couple of mountains in the Northern Cascades. 

What I'm unsure of is whether or not I should bother paying $600+ for a guide service, when their only real use to me would be the knowledge they have of the area.

Should I just save that hard earned money and do it with just my party? I can research the route, buy a guide book, and buy maps. Shouldn't that tell me what the guide will also tell me? I feel like part of the purpose of the guide is to instruct climbers, but I've had that instruction and I'm starting to feel like I shouldn't keep paying for it.

Thanks in advance!


That's a question you can only answer for yourself. The way to answer it is the same advice given many times under the Beginners and Backcountry forums - start with short, simple, easy routes and work your way up. Do some of the same practice scenarios you got in the training classes with the guide/training organizations.

Obviously, in most cases, you don't want to go solo in the big mountains and remote places. So you do want your companions to have similar or more extensive experience, and you want to have been on easier trips with them - it is really interesting to find out how different some people are after a couple weeks into a challenging expedition. I have had the experience a couple times of having someone in the party who we were all asking "whose friend is he?" or "who invited him along?" (one of those was the nominal expedition leader). I had a tentmate say, about the 3rd day sitting out a storm in the tent, "This is like being in prison, except you can't escape!" By the end of the trip, the rest of us were about ready to toss him into the nearest crevasse.

The NH Whites and the North Cascades are quite different in their challenges. The Whites have lots of steep ice and unexpected storms. The North Cascades have lots of heavily crevassed glaciers with lots of hidden crevasses covered by thin snow bridges and unexpected storms. 

One suggestion is to head out west and spend a month doing climbs in the Cascades. Shasta is a good starting point with Avalanche Gulch a "beginner" route, Whitney Glacier a bit more challenging, and the routes on the north side going all the way up to large crevasses and overhanging ice. Getting into Oregon, South and Middle Sister are basically hikes, Hood is more challenging with some glacier routes with active crevasses (people have gotten thoroughly lost on the "standard", "dog route" when coming down after dark or in whiteouts, plus has serious unexpected storms). I do not recommend doing North Sister, though - lots of rotten, loose rock. In Washington, Adams is a long, though basically hiking route by the "standard" route (people have gotten thoroughly lost on that route in whiteouts and staying out too long after dark). Baker is a good intermediate mountain by several routes from the north, with lots of crevasses, and with ice climbing by the north ridge. Rainier can be done from the Paradise side (I don't recommend that route, since that's the one "everyone" takes, especially the RMI huge guided parties - don't get stuck behind them!). Better is the approach from Sunrise, with a night in Glacier Basin to acclimatize and do some refresher practice with self-arrest, then a night at Camp Schurman, where you can do some "for real" crevasse rescue refresher practice, then off up the mountain at midnight (the guided parties mostly stop in the crater, so you are likely to get the summit to yourself).

If you work your way up, step at a time, you will be able to readily judge for yourself your readiness.

One thing I might note, since you mention the potential of going abroad - the logistics of doing really big mountains is such that sometimes it is advisable to use a guide service. For example, going to South America, you will need to hire arrieros (muleteers) to haul the multi-day supplies for the approaches. If your Spanish is fluent, you can deal with the arrieros and porters (although some tend to speak in their local languages - Quechua and Aymara in the Peruvian Andes, for example). In some areas, you may take a taxi to the higher villages or even partway up the valleys, then pick up porters. In Patagonia, the climbs of interest are mostly serious rock climbs, which you can approach and do on your own if you can climb 5.9 and above in storms, but the logistical challenge is getting from the closest airport to Paine and Fitzroy (bus, then taxi, though they speak fairly standard Spanish - except the Chileans tend to drop final syllables and sometimes a few words, since "everybody" knows what they are talking about).

In Alaska and the Yukon, you can, with experience, get a bush pilot to drop you and your supplies off, then haul your loads (multi-carries, since you will be carrying a full month's supplies) up to your high camp (you only have to fight the B29-sized mosquitoes up to 4000 ft or so, which means no real problems for the Alaska Range, Wrangell, and so on since you will be landed on a glacier - if you think I am joking about the mosquitoes, just ask anyone who has been in the Arctic).

All of this has a BIG caveat - you need to be ready to deal with being completely on your own. While you can get rescued in a couple of days if you get caught in a storm on Rainier or Hood, it may take a week or so for problems on Denali or in the Sheldon or Ruth Amphitheaters, and even longer if you are in the Brooks Range or Wrangell-St Elias area. I have had to wait close to a week to get in and similarly to get out up there, due to bad weather. Really remote places like Antarctica, much of the Himalaya, and even much of the Andes don't have even that much plane access.

There are some big mountains in certain 3rd World countries where you are required to hire local guides and porters, although for many of those, the "guides" are only to get you to the base of the climbing area and can not guide you on the climbs - Mt. Kenya, for example.

On the other hand, some of the most rewarding and fun time I have spent in the mountains has been when off with a few friends, knowing that we wouldn't be retrieved for 3 or 4 weeks, and sitting out a multi-day storm.

I like Bill’s advice, he covers lots of ground.

You question has lots of ways of being answered.

I think confidence that comes from knowledge is a primary consideration.  Obviously there is lots of terrain you feel confident venturing out into, given your current knowledge.  You wouldn’t bother taking a course or hiring a guide just to be safe in these venues.  As you press to harder challenges you realize the need for better skills or better local knowledge.  You may get these hiring a guide, but part of the confidence needed to prevail comes with knowing you can execute, which comes with practice.  Lastly what you need to know depends on where you go and how you expect to get about.  Are you expecting to move fast on skis and route accordingly, or are you taking the hardest route?  Is there glacier travel, how high is high, and what time of the season?  You may be good for certain venues but lack the knowledge to do others.  Hopefully you approach the sport with enough respect that you don’t go off willy nilly on something new, that instead you first ask enough questions to understand what you are getting into before you embark.  Likewise once out you will eventually encounter situations that seem beyond your will or skill level; hopefully you possess the wisdom to respect your limitations and find an alternative option or turn back.  The most important knowledge is knowing the Number One objective is getting back alive, hopefully with all of your digits.

But I am not certain anyone is done with school.  Every so often I’ll retake certain classes as the art of the sport evolves.  For example when I first learned rock climbing people did not use the same techniques to build a belay station as used today.  In fact much has changed in that sport.  But some courses I take just to refresh my memory, for example snow pack analysis.  Even when a venue is well within our capabilities we still sometimes hire a guide, when their experience saves considerable time we would otherwise spend on logistics and route plotting. 


As Bill has said so well, Hood and the other Cascade volcanos can have serious storms. Though the routes on many of these are fairly easy "long slogs" in good conditions, they can turn into serious undertakings when the weather turns. A broken crampon strap can slow the party down and the window of good weather disappears. There were deaths this year on Rainier, as in many years, and Hood has killed many as well.

As far as guidebooks, they can only tell you so much, and sometimes there are errors. Beckey's books are quite good, but I found through experience that it was necessary to read between the lines. On one peak, what Beckey described as 4th Class, was 4th Class, but only because the rock was so rotten that there was no way to put in any reliable protection.

And no matter how many courses or years of experience, the beauty and challenge is that you are always learning and evolving your skills.

BTW, I would disagree that mosquitos in the North are the size of B29s. They aren't really any bigger than elsewhere. But there are millions of them. Enough that on the Barrens I've seen caribou throw themselves into rivers to escape the hordes. There are, of course, all manner of other biting flies, horse , moose, midges, no-see-ums, deer, and black. Be forewarned!


Duriing WWII, there was a secret project to crossbreed mosquitoes with B29s. You are defaming Alaska's state bird. Here is proof of the results of that Top Secret Program, geared in large part to discourage Cheechakos (that's non-Alaska natives to you). (I can't insert the image, since it is copyrighted)

I almost bought a T-shirt showing a typical Alaska mosquito, with a drop of blood dripping from its needle-shaped proboscis, and the title in LARGE BOLD letters - "I GAVE!"

There are 35 species of mosquito in Alaska, the largest measuring an inch in body length. Considering that our Sierra mosquitoes, voracious as they are, only measure about a half inch or less when gorged, I am willing to grant the legend of cross-breeding some credibility. I have found the time-release DEET from 3M and Sawyer to work pretty well - about a 4-5 hour respite for me, as well as Ex Officio's Buzz-Off shirts and caps. Better still is to get up onto the glaciers. You don't see them in the cities (except in Earthquake Park in Anchortown, where they are in dark clouds, sometimes blotting out the Sun - ok, slight exaggeration, though they are dense). And it does depend on the time of year - spring through the summer seems worst.

Ed's comment reminded me that I should have added the following two rules -

A. My three top goals for any outing are:

       1. Return alive

       2. With all parts of my body intact

       3. Reach the summit (or other nominal goal of the trip).

B. Remember that the mountain will always be there. Be sure that you can say the same for yourself. (partial exception to this rule - I have made two visits to Mt. St. Helens - one before and one after; the one after found the mountain 1300 feet shorter)

I agree with Ed that periodic re-training is important. Since Wilderness First Aid is, to my mind, a basic requirement for everyone heading into the woods and hills, faithfully follow the 3-year recert rule (the thinking on CPR, which is not part of WFR courses, has changed significantly over the past 20-30 years, as have several other aspects of first aid). Avalanche awareness is another skill that really requires retraining on a frequent basis (especially if you are a ski patroller, where frequent retraining is required). Climbing tools and techniques have also changed significantly not only since I started climbing seriously in the 1950s, but even in the past 5-10 years. Cams today are much different from Ray Jardine's original Friends and current thought on using them has changed as well. Ice tools of today work differently and handle differently from even a few years ago, and same with crampons. 

One interesting change is the thought on anchoring for both snow/ice and rock. A couple decades ago, common practice in the US was to use the "American Triangle", since shown to have significant weaknesses. A decade ago, it was the "equalized" cordelette, which turns out to NOT be equalized (turns out that if the lengths of the arms are unequal or are at angles to one another which is unavoidable anyway, the elasticity of the cord leads directly to unequal loading - see the discussions in John Long's anchoring books and how they have changed with the various editions). Used to be we thought you should tilt the ice screws upward, where tests have shown that tilting slightly downward is stronger. The old way of placing your brake hand on the belay end of the rope as it comes from your ATC or grigri, basically using the same "hands up" position that was used for hip belays, turns out to leave you vulnerable to the "praying hands" position (climber and belay strands parallel, resulting in much less friction and braking power). The "hands down" position is much safer for belay devices, and is what you should use for rappel devices anyway (you can see this in the videos on Petzl's website).

You can get this kind of update by reading, but periodic re-training by an experienced certified guide will keep you up to date.

Thanks everyone -

My post was not an attempt to undermine the importance of training or local knowledge - retraining, and continually educating myself on techniques and practices is very important.

My plan, now that I have several trainings under my belt, is to do more independent climbing this winter in the Whites. I will be doing several routes on Mt Washington where the weather is horrendous and avalanche danger is constant. Some of these routes are very technical mixed alpine terrain with ice climbing and the need for rock protection as well.

Once I feel that my skills and training can make me independent with these routes, I will feel comfortable enough to take on mountains out west as well. The main difference between those mountains and the Whites is the elevation gain. Other than that, there's similarities between how to manage the cold and the weather, and the technical climbing I'm learning in the Whites should translate to anywhere.

Bill, I still have a hard time believing that any mosquito could be the size of a B29. However, there was an early bush pilot, in the days when the Pleistocene Beaver still lived in the North. The big radial on his Norseman wasn't powerful enough to lift his heavy load. So he tied mosquitos to his wings and with the help of a local musher was able to lift off.

Cliff Jacobsen is a frequent traveler to the Barrens. Here is what he says about the biting bugs.

One of the best, if not the best, bug clothing comes from the Original Bug Shirt Company.


Thanks for the link to Jacobson's insect page. What he says agrees with my experience, though I hadn't tried using the Susie bug net, particularly for bathing.

The 3M product I referred to is Ultrathon, which is time-release DEET (Jacobson doesn't mention that it is time-release). The Sawyer's that he mentions as time release DEET (and I noted) is about the same for me. One thing he doesn't mention is that your diet makes a difference - eating lots of soft fruits (especially bananas, but also peaches, pears, etc) attracts several different biting insects, as well as mosquitoes.

Back on topic - iClimb, you said:

Once I feel that my skills and training can make me independent with these routes, I will feel comfortable enough to take on mountains out west as well. The main difference between those mountains and the Whites is the elevation gain.

You left out the biggest difference between East Coast and Western mountains - the western mountains, particularly the Cascades, Canadian, and Alaskan big mountains are heavily glaciated. That means they have crevasses, lots of crevasses, frequently hidden, and often really huge. But the narrow, tapered ones can be quite deadly, since if you fall in, you get wedged, and then when you breathe out and narrow your body, you slide farther down in. You get hypothermia really quickly in that type of "deep freeze". Timing your moves on the glaciers is important - move at night or early morning when the temperatures are lowest and the snow bridges are strongest. On one trip, we made the mistake of wanting to move a load as soon as possible and headed up the glacier in the afternoon. Everyone in the party (6 of us, 3 each on the 2 ropes) stuck a leg in a slot at least once during the couple miles we moved the gear to a convenient cache location, thanks to the snow over the crevasses being soft. Thankfully, no one actually did more than punch a leg through. 

Hey lets not scare iclimb from trying the west; there are lots of mountains out here with no glaciers!  Glaciers are basically a non-issue in the Sierras, and I didn't stumble upon any of significance in the Rockies either.  Most of these mountains and most of the Cascades have only seasonal snow pack, so there is still lots to explore without the need for glacier travel skills. 


I have taken a course of glacier travel skills and crevasse rescue. Doesn't scare me, it's just one more thing to respect and be cautious about!

Myself and climbing buddies have started the plans for out west. Likely in June. We are thinking Baker via North Ridge route for some technical stuff, and Rainier via Disappointment Cleaver for some non technical stuff. Not going to use guides, so we're furthering research that I've already done on both routes, getting maps, buying permits, talking logistics, and checking out plane tickets which are surprisingly under $400 round trip from Maine.

Pretty pumped!

I've often climbed with the same ACMG guides in the Rockies, and after a short while the relationships have become more friendships than professional ones.

There's no substitute for local knowledge and hands-on experience with that particular chunk of terrain IMHO, but to me the biggest advantage is a climbing partner and belayer you know you can count on in a crunch.

And for what it's worth, I've never found a guidebook that was 100% accurate or complete in ever necessary detail. 


If I were you, I would pick any route on Rainier that does not go via Muir Camp, and particularly Disappointment Cleaver. The reason is that those routes are by far the most popular and crowded. That's where the huge guided parties go. You would find going through Glacier Basin, over the Interglacier, camping at Camp Schurman. and up the Emmons-Winthrop route much less crowded and more interesting.

thanks bill I'll look at that route option

"their only real use to me would be the knowledge they have of the area."  that can be pretty important on a big mountain with which you aren't familiar.  i think you have to use your best judgment, and by that i mean making conservative decisions that allow you to enjoy it but minimize the risk of a mishap.  

i started hiking and climbing in the white mountains and adirondacks on my own (with friends my age as opposed to my parents) when i was 18.  summer hiking, i learned by doing without guides and ended up guiding trips myself in the Adirondacks for a a few summers.  before i started tackling the big east coast mountains in the winter, i took a few clinics about snow travel and ice climbing, and i worked my way into the more challenging stuff by taking a bunch of trips and gradually increasing the difficulty.   for me, the bigger the mountain, the greater the challenge, the more remote or unfamiliar the location, the more inclined i am to hire a guide.  i agree with the comments above that you have to be the ultimate judge of what you are ready for, and when.  

after nearly 30 years of doing this, i'll go a lot of places in the lower 48 without a guide based on research, a map, and a GPS - the rockies or the tetons, for example - though they aren't really my home territory.  i still hire a guide if i'm in utterly unfamiliar places.  did that this fall in Eastern Europe and a few years ago up a volcano in Central America.  Because Rainier presents some big mountain challenges that i think are fundamentally different from many other mountains in the US, i would probably hire a guide for that one too.  

Beyond Bill's and Leadbelly's reasons to hire a guide, there is the safety factor of another body along on the trip.

I am ok soloing almost anywhere, any season, in the lower 48 states, but there are many adventures beyond these borders I would hesitate to do solo.  Guides can also serve as a safety measure - a second companion - for what otherwise would be a solo trip; something to seriously consider if your ambitions eventually take you to remote and challenging venues such as those up north in the some of the less visited mountain ranges of Alaska and Canada.


October 21, 2020
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