Operating a Climbing Guide Service in a small town with Kurt Wedberg [EP 218]

May 26, 2020

Operating a Climbing Guide Service in a small town with Kurt Wedberg [EP 218]

Photographer: Ross Stone | Source: Unsplash

Let's start out with your Facebook profile. It says Christian, Husband, Father, Foodie, Mountain Guide, Climber, Skier, Travel Junkie, Foodie, and Goofy. Tell us about the Foodie Goofy Christian part.

It goes into everything else that I do, whether that's how I am as a father, how I conduct myself as a husband or a mountain guide, or everything else. In life and my climbing guide service I try to follow those principles. So it all starts there. I'm a foodie, I just happened to love food.
Your wife sounds like a great cook.
She's an amazing cook. Cool. Yes, it does help. I'm married well that way. You know, they say behind every good man is a great woman. She certainly does that wonderfully in many other ways besides just cooking.

Tell us about the goofy stuff.

I feel like it's important to remember the humor and everything and see the humor in everything that's out there. I think it's a healthy trait to have. I'm one that sets a lot of people at ease and it just helps you see the world. There's definitely a time to be serious, but there's so much out there in the world that is fun and loving and, that goofy part comes out a lot of times when I'm guiding trips and if I'm out having fun with my friends. Whether we're ski touring or climbing or whatever else we're doing. Whether I'm with my family and my son. He's three years old and talks up a storm and some of the things he says at three years old is just precious and, and unforgettable.
I'll bet it helps you from a guiding perspective. When someone is having a tough day or they're struggling for whatever reason, they're tired or whatever, you can bring a little entertainment, silliness to the situation, and probably help them get up that trail or pass.
You're right. When you bring somebody out in the mountains on a trip, they are many times coming out of their comfort zone. And that takes a certain type of personality just to do in and of itself, to put yourself out there, out of your normal realm of life. You know, and many of the people that we take on trips are wherever they come from. They are experts in their field and they're used to being the ones that are being approached by others and they're the ones that, you know, answer the questions and such. And now they're going into our world in the mountains and they're looking at this mountain guide for those same questions and answers that they normally give. So, yeah, being able to inject a little bit of humor and just to put everybody at ease and let them know that, Hey, it's okay. Everybody has a hard time with this particular move too.

Tell us how you got into the outdoors. Your dad was an outdoor person, right?

He sure was. He was brought up going camping with the family and such. He was born in 1928. And during those depression years and into the war years, he was in high school and the family always went camping for a couple of weeks every summer. And then as he grew into his twenties, he got introduced to backpacking and then mountaineering. And back in the early fifties he started climbing peaks in the Sierra and going skiing in the backcountry of the Sierra. He was well into that when he started raising kids. I got brought up around that from a toddler. My mom hiked Mount Baldy in Southern California two weeks before I was born. From there I was put in a baby carrier. And back in those days, the baby carriers were made by a company called Jerry. And everybody just called it the Jerry carrier. It wasn't a baby carrier. It was a Jerry carrier. That's what I got brought up on until I could walk.

Did you know early on that you wanted to be a mountain guide?

No. I grew up, you know, going to the mountains in the summertime. We'd go every weekend in the Sierra and in the wintertime we'd come skiing at mammoth and going backcountry skiing and such. When I was in college was going to Cal State Northridge, getting a degree in political science. And my original plan was I wanted to become an environmental attorney. I love the environment and I thought, here's something that could be a good way to make that passion useful. But I took some time off after I graduated from Cal State Northridge to go play, and have some fun. I applied for a job guiding on Mount Rainier in Washington. At that point I'd been teaching classes when I was in college through an outdoor store called Adventure 16. Yeah, I'm an alum there. We taught a lot of programs and backpacking and rock climbing and navigation courses.
My plan was to get a job guiding at Mount Rainier and have some fun for a few years and then go back and figure out law school. While I was guiding ay Mount Rainier, I met a lot of attorneys who came on our climbs. And after our climbs they would invite me out to dinner with them and they'd want to give me my tip over a couple of rounds of our favorite beverages. I'd have great Face Time with these guys. And a lot of them were really unhappy people and, sometimes I had better face time with them than their own families. I talked to them about their line of work. And the more of those guys I talked to, a lot of them were overworked and unhappy. They're telling me all this and then at the same time they're saying, well, can you take us to climb volcanoes in Mexico? They want to go everywhere. Can you take us to climb Kilimanjaro? And so as a matter of fact, it sort of falls under the heading of life is what happens while you're making other plans. So I just kind of pursued guiding in that direction and started a climbing guide service.

When did you start your Climbing guide service, Sierra Mountaineering International?

I started it in 1995, in December of 95 after climbing Everest the first time in the spring of 95. I came back from that and opened my climbing guide service that fall.
Were you, were you living here in Bishop? How did you end up in Bishop?
I moved here in 92 and that happened just after graduating from college and going to Mount Rainier in the summer. I came back to work one more winter at A16. I went back for a second summer on Mount Rainier and then came back to Bishop instead. At the time my parents had just bought a house up here but hadn't retired from LA, so I had a place to live and everything. So from my home base and I realized that you know, I'm enjoying Mount Rainier, but the Sierra has always been my home and I always felt like I was coming back home when I came here. So I started a climbing guide service.

When you started you obviously had connections from the clients you guided on Rainier. Did you also have any connections in Southern California, how did you get started? What did you do?

Yeah, it was, you know, people I've met on Mount Rainier who wanted to climb in the Sierra and also people I'd met at in Southern California over the years working at Adventure 16. Through the outings program and customers in the store and the employees, they're were referring people to me as well. So it was kind of a double whammy that way. I had a couple of different streams of people coming in and that's a great opportunity.
Photographer: Greg Bulla | Source: Unsplash

What are some of the challenges of operating a climbing guide service in a small town like Bishop?

The Sierra in a lot of ways is an easy sell. I mean it's such a beautiful mountain range and so much variety. You can spend a lifetime just, or hiking or mountaineering, rock climbing, ski touring, you name it. There's a lifetime of stuff to do. You’re just scratching the surface. As many of us know.
What were some of the challenges of being in a small town with limited services?
Yeah, small-town living back in the mid-nineties was different than it is now. There was no internet, there were no cell phones. One of my biggest business expenses was my phone bill. You had a small town carrier here who kind of raped you on the phone charges and, some of the cost of living being higher like gas for your car was higher, limited places to rent and things like that. There were a few of those issues but at the same time, Bishop has enough amenities that you don't have to get out of town much to get too many things. Now, of course, it's a lot different. It seems like we have to get out of town to get toilet paper, but that's a different thing.
It's gotta be great to be able to guide in your backyard.
I just love it. And you're right, I call it my backyard all the time. People ask me a lot because they know I've climbed on every continent of the world. I've done the highest point in each continent, the proverbial seven summits. I've been on hundred and 20 plus expeditions all over the world now. And they say, well, what's your favorite place? And I tell them, well, the Sierra, this is it. To be able to live here and to operate a climbing guide service, be in our backyard, show people this beautiful part of the world, show them how to take care of it, you know, try to impart a lasting impression about what this place means to us and therefore to them, I feel very blessed to be able to do that.

Your climbing guide service is affiliated with the American Mountain Guides Association, how does that work these days on the certifications and all those things?

It's sort of an ongoing evolving process and guiding in general in the United States is still a pretty new profession compared to Europe. If you go to Europe, you might find somebody whose great grandfather was a mountain guide and then his grandfather was a mountain guide and his father was a mountain guide. Now he's a mountain guide and he's raising a son who wants to be one. You walk, the city streets of a place like Geneva and you say the word mountain guide and everybody knows what that is. It's a very well known, very well respected profession. You go into a bar and say I need to hire a mountain guide and everybody's head turns and looks at you.
Yet I still have friends in college who still don't understand really what I do. They say I know this great that this guy Wedberg, he owns a climbing guide service and climbs mountains for a living. And they have no idea how that works. The American Mountain Guides Association is also a new organization, relatively speaking. They're still going through growing pains, getting their feet wet and things.
I was working at a 16 when they had that first formal meeting at the ski show back in 1985 I think.
That's where they kind of recognized that there's this guiding profession here and maybe we could try to standardize it and grow it. Ever since then it has been doing that and they've modeled a lot of what they do after the international community in Europe. They've developed courses and exams and there are three disciplines. Alpine guiding, Rock Guiding, and Ski guiding. I'd say most of the guides in the United States probably pursue one or two of those disciplines. A smaller percentage of them pursue all three. That is what they concentrate on. Get the basics down so you can see if we execute it. It's more geared to that versus what I would call the soft skills. They don't talk a lot about how to engage clients and be personable.

How often do you do international trips?

I'm doing about five or six a year personally. Our company, we'll do a few more with some of my other guides leading them. But it's about five or six a year and it depends on the time of year.
So in the fall and winter we're heading to places in South America, Mexico's volcanoes, Aconcagua in Argentina. That is usually a December, January timeframe as it’s summertime down there. We'll go to places like say Mount Elbrus in Russia, that's more of a summertime thing cause their latitude is similar to the Northwest here. We go to Kilimanjaro a couple of times a year and that being an equatorial climate, we can go there more months of the year. Some of the more exotic places like Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia, which is always a fun one to mix it up.

Do you throw some new ones in there every year?

My goal has always been to do one new international trip every year, and I've accomplished that in all except maybe one year. The rule of thumb with it is if I am doing a new trip, it's with a client that I've already climbed with before and they know it's a new place for me. We already have a relationship and we know we're figuring it out together. I know their skills, they know my skills. They know what I'm doing, part of the fun of it for them is seeing how we get this figured out. Right. There's be some curveballs thrown at us and that's okay.

Have you had a pretty wild trip? Anything major, like bad weather or something?

Oh, sure. I mean weather-wise, you know, the weather is always going to be an issue is when you're in the mountains guiding. For example, we were pinned down on Aconcagua at 16,000 feet with winds that were gusting to a good hundred miles an hour. You gotta build up rock walls around your tents and get your tents guyed out well and keep checking them all the time. Living like that for days until the winds subside. So it's good that you know your clients you're with. That you’re not gonna have issues with them. They're not gonna have issues with you. We've had that a number of times and I've had storms pin us down on other mountains around the world.
I've had other things get thrown at us. For example, I had some guys I was going with to Turkey to climb Mount Ararat and at the very last minute Turkey stopped issuing visas to Americans. These people I was climbing with were actually from Australia and they were able to go to Turkey, but I wasn't. We were chatting about it and we came up with this idea of instead of going to Turkey, we would go to the country of Georgia and climb a mountain called Mount Kazbek in the Caucuses. Cool deep remote mountain, 19,000 plus feet high and not visited by hardly anybody. What ended up kind of being a last-minute change of plans ended up being a really magical experience. This spontaneous thing and sometimes those things end up being a lot of fun. This certainly was, it was a blast.

The anniversary of your three Everest Summits were recent, right? It's an incredible achievement. What were those like?

Each one of them was different and unique. The first time was 1995 and that was a special anniversary. This year is the 25th anniversary. We had a zoom call or a reunion that was fun. It was a trip that we planned in the sort of traditional style, you know, we weren't guiding it and we weren't being guided. We were just a bunch of friends who put this expedition together and went and raised all our own money and all that and went on the Northside of the mountain to climb the Northeast Ridge. We had 20 people, 12 of whom were climbing team members and the other eight were base camp managers and support people, the team doctor, and such. Out of the 12 climbers, eight of us got to the top. Honestly, pretty successful actually.
The other two trips were on the Southside through Nepal and I was guiding both of those times which was different, different aspects, a different perspective, different to be guiding it. I made a decision early on in my guiding career that I did not want to run big Everest expeditions and the only way I'd guide it is one-on-one. So if I had one client who I knew I and climbed with them before and I really felt he had an honest shot at reaching the summit, I would consider it. Someone who would be honest with you if he couldn't, cause there's already a relationship there, we climbed together and such.
I did the Southside twice, once in 2008 and once in 2012. The client I was with a neat guy who I climbed with on several peaks, but at Everest, he got sick at base camp and coughed so hard he actually separated the lining from his lungs, which then got infected and he had pleurisy. So he had to be evacuated and sent home. I ended up sticking around and climbing it on my own because I was there and I could, I hadn't done the Southside yet. That was my new trip for that year too. Then I went back in 2012 with another good friend of mine, Fred Simmons. We summited together and that was, that was a pretty special experience. You know, like any trip, when you share that time together with people, it creates a bond of friendship that you really can't duplicate in any other way. That just gets magnified at a place like Mount Everest.

What outdoor activities do you participate in for fun?

The latest thing is mountain biking. I rediscovered that last year when a couple of clients of mine who had climbed a bunch of the California fourteeners with me in the Sierra knew I'd been to Kilimanjaro many, many times. They were avid mountain bikers and they came to me and said they wanted to mountain bike Kilimanjaro. And they knew that since I've been to Kilimanjaro so much, I could probably figure out the permitting and how to get all that done. I said, well yeah, I could, I had all the connections to get that done.
We mountain biked it last October all the way to the top of that mountain. What that required me to do, you know, they weren't coming to me for my biking expertise. They were coming to me cause I knew Kilimanjaro. So my job was just to hold my own on a mountain bike. It was great. I bought a new mountain bike and spent all summer here around Bishop going mountain biking to get in shape to just get ready for this. I went to the top of White Mountain with my mountain bike and went all over chipmunk Canyon. I mean there's tons of mountain biking here. We did a variation of the standard, they call it the Kilema/Marangu route. And basically it combines the standard Marangu route with kind of an emergency road the park service has set up. In case they need a vehicle to pull somebody off the mountain. Being a dirt road we were able to do a dirt road partway up. So it took five days or so,

Do you have any advice or suggestions for folks wanting to get into the outdoor adventure biz or start a business?

I would say in terms of the outdoor business in general, there are lots of different avenues to take. For both you and I who have been in this industry for so long, we know how special of an industry it is and it attracts a certain type of people. Fun-loving people who care about the environment and really share a common thread with that, which is neat. It can take so many avenues. You can get a job with a company, a manufacturer, you can get into land management, forest service, park service, and administration kind of a thing. There are retail shops, climbing guide service such as myself. There are so many avenues to take.
My advice to people is to get to know the industry a little bit. And if you're somebody still in college, get a part-time job at a mountaineering store, there's no better way than to learn the industry and learn about the customers that come in and frequently and go to the outdoors. I think a lot of us that have worked retail and have that experience, you don't really realize it at the time you were working in retail. But afterward, if you stay in the industry and you go back and you're designing packs or you're in the media, or you're a guide you draw on that experience daily, hourly, daily, every single day.
You and I, knowing the company adventure 16 as we do, after 58 years they hung it up and called it, the end of a long career. They had a great run of it. And you know, one of the things that the president, John Mead, one of his selling points to employees or prospective employees is that, you know, use us as a stepping stone to get into the industry. And I joke about it now because we're familiar with the outdoor industry trade show that happens a couple of times a year. And I've always joked that our ex-employees are littered throughout that trade show floor. And anybody listening to this who's from that alumni group, they would laugh at that because it's so true. You know, you run into these guys in all aspects of the business. Some of them are still operating retail stores, some of them are presidents of companies, some of them have started companies. And the reunions that have happened at those shows of our ex-employees have been so much fun. You end up meeting these great people. I worked there in 1978, somebody else who worked there in 1992 and even though they never worked together, all of a sudden there's this instant connection and they become great friends. It's like meeting long lost brothers and sisters, you just hit it off immediately right away. It's a great community. It really is.

What is your favorite piece of outdoor gear under a hundred dollars that you probably bought at A16?

I'm going to go with the Bomber hat which has been a great favorite of ours. I'll tell you another one. A16 made these little Tri-zip pouches, they made them in different sizes, I still have two of them and they're about four by six and I still use them as my climbing guide service repair kits. I'm also going to go with a very obscure one here that, if our old friend Mike Wallenfels is listening, he will laugh at this. Mountain Hardware made this little tent and it just looked like a mini tent. It was about, I'm going to guess about two feet by two and a half feet by two feet with a big door on it. I brought that with me on my Denali expeditions and I put our stoves inside to melt our snow for water. They were out of the wind and it was designed to be a little mini tent for cooking. You had to be super careful with these things cause you could easily burn it. I'm sure that any stove manufacturer listening is just cringing knowing that we did this with their stoves cause you had to be really careful. But man, having your stoves inside this thing melting all this snow for water, it was the difference of several gallons worth of white gas on a Twentyone day expedition on Denali. They don't make them anymore.
Mike shoot me an email, let me know what the name of that tent was so I can put it in the show notes.

How about favorite books?

My all-time favorite has to be the Bible because it's composed of 66 books written over a 1400 year time span, over 40 different authors. And it covers everything from philosophy to history.
More traditionally, I read two books recently by an author named Greg Laurie. He's actually a pastor of a big church down Riverside. He wrote a book called, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon. Previous to that he wrote two other books, one kind of similar about Steve McQueen. He was a little before my time as far as being one of my idols. But I did grow up watching Steve McQueen movies, the King of cool. That was an interesting book. And then he wrote another one, he called Jesus Revolution. And it talked about that those days in the sixties when there were long-haired hippies strung out on drugs just coming into churches with cutoff Levis and no shirts.

How can people reach out to you if they want to follow up?

We have a website, Sierramountaineering.com. You can find links to reach out to us by phone or email. Our Email is: info@sierramountaineering.com or our phone number is (760) 872-4929 and we always love hearing from people. Whether you're interested in a trip or just you want to know conditions, what's going on in the Sierra. We're up there all the time.
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