American Mountain Guide Emilie Drinkwater Shares What It’s Really like Being a Professional Mountain Guide

If you are into outdoor activities, you have probably dreamt about becoming a professional mountain guide.

But it isn’t as easy as you might think.

It takes a lot of skill and preserverance, so climber Emilie Drinkwater is only the 9th woman certified as an IFMGA/UIAGM American Mountain Guide!

In this interview, Emilie shares her best recommendations for aspiring and experienced mountain climbers and what it’s really like to be a professional mountain guide.

So read on if you also love mountains and the big outdoors!

Mountain Guide Emilie Drinkwater
Photo credit: Matthew Irving

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Emilie Drinkwater. My day job is a mountain guide. I grew up in New Hampshire but live in Salt Lake City, Utah now. I’m currently guiding summer alpine climbs in the Tetons in Wyoming. My favorite activities and hobbies are kind of the same as my work, which are climbing, skiing, and traveling.

How and why did you get into climbing?

Friends introduced me to climbing in college and I was immediately addicted. I’ve done other sports, too, and I competed for several years in Ironman Triathlons (and short distance triathlons to train for the long ones). As for climbing, the best way to get in shape for it is by climbing. Same for skiing though year-round fitness, including lots of running and hiking, are valuable.

Mountain Guide Emilie Drinkwater
Rock climbing, Gunks, NY. Photo credit: Tomas Donoso

Why is climbing important for you?

Climbing is mental problem solving and I enjoy the focus it creates. Climbing always makes me look at things and wonder if they could be climbed (anything from buildings to mountains). Being outside creates a greater appreciation of the outdoors and the environment in general. It’s also just good to get away from computers, and artificial light, and the stresses of work and home.

How do you train and become better at climbing?

Getting better at climbing largely means getting smarter and more efficient. Though I haven’t necessarily become physically stronger, I have become a smarter climber over the years. I train occasionally at an indoor rock gym to keep the arms and fingers in condition but mostly I train by getting outside and climbing.

Currently, I don’t follow any specific training program but I have in the past and it has made a big difference.

Mountain Guide Emilie Drinkwater

What are the hardest parts of climbing?

Maintaining a high level of fitness for all types of climbing (mountain, rock, ice, and alpine). I find that I’m often just getting back into shape for, for example, rock climbing and then all of sudden it’s ice climbing season. There is some overlap in fitness but there’s also enough difference in disciplines that being in shape for rock climbing is very different than being in shape for ice climbing. For better or worse, I’m an ‘all-arounder’ — never spectacular at anything but reasonably good at most of my sports (climbing and skiing) but this also means that when my legs are strong, my arms probably aren’t.

It’s still surprisingly difficult to make enough money as a guide to survive. I’m highly trained and experienced but, at least in N. America, that isn’t necessarily seen as valuable when actually hiring a guide.

In mountain climbing and ski mountaineering, whether training or not, there are always hazards. Anything from avalanches, rock fall, and lightning to simply falling and getting hurt. I do everything I can to minimize these risks.

When everything is a mess, sometimes there’s not a choice. If you’re on top of a peak, getting down is mandatory so you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. If my fatigue is cumulative (like at the end of the season or the end of a big objective), I have no problem taking days or even weeks to recover. I’m not that driven to constantly being do hard exercise so down time is easy for me!

Mountain Guide Emilie Drinkwater

How do you prepare for your expeditions?

My preparation for expeditions or bigger climbing goals often means a lot of time looking at guidebooks and maps, and figuring out a lot of travel logistics. The climbing itself is often the easier (well, less time consuming part). Sometimes I just look for cheap plane tickets and then make a trip happen to that area. Otherwise I spend a lot of time looking at my National Geographic World Map and daydreaming up trips to interesting, remote areas. I also look for grants and any kind of other way to subsidize trips.

I spend a little bit of time in the gym lifting weights or doing exercises to help with strength and/or power (both are areas that I’m lacking in).

The Internet is also a good source.

Mountain Guide Emilie Drinkwater

How do you eat and sleep?

I eat a lot and usually pretty well! I don’t follow a specific diet, nope, not at all. I do try to eat a reasonably balanced diet though. I take Turmeric when I remember to and I try to get eight hours of sleep at night.

The reality with my busy and very physical job is that calories are calories and there’s often little time to prepare fresh foods that will tolerate being out in the heat (or sub zero cold) and in a backpack all day long (or for multiple days).

How do you handle injuries and recovery?

Not well! In 2016, I was out with a knee injury for nine months and it was a dark, depressing time. For fast recovery, I would say have a positive mental outlook, keep resting/recovering even if you think you’re recovered, eat well and go to physical therapy. I did lots of PT when I was injured as I couldn’t do much else in the way of training.

Mountain Guide Emilie Drinkwater

What is your best advice people new to climbing?

Hire a guide or get some professional instruction!

Making poor decisions (unfortunately, making good decisions comes with lots of time and practice). The result of poor decisions may be as inconsequential as not really achieving what was set out to be done or as consequential as severe injury or death.

Whether you’re prepared or not, just go ahead and sign up for that class, clinic, or race or buy that plane ticket, or invite a friend to join you on whatever it is that you’ve been dreaming about doing. These are all tactics that force some commitment but are also (at least for me) very motivating.

Mountain Guide Emilie Drinkwater

Best advice for people who have been climbing for years?

Keep climbing, don’t take it for granted!

Some experienced people are not evolving and are not embracing new technology or systems. The idea that you can train a lot indoors for the big mountains is something that I would like to change. Yes, it’s good to be strong but that is only a very small part of mountain climbing. The larger part is intuition or ‘mountain sense’ (which comes from actual mountain experience), good route finding/navigation (also comes from experience), ability to be really uncomfortable in the mountains (cold, tired, scared, lost), and mental strength (perseverance).

How do you balance normal life with climbing?

I’m married and no children.

I don’t think I do… There’s not too much that’s normal about my lifestyle. I work a lot and am away from home a lot followed by stretches of being at home a lot but not having any money. It drives my husband crazy, he hates it!

Balancing earning money with climbing is a symbiotic relationship for me. I have to work to make money but I also have to maintain a high level of fitness to be proficient at my job.

What kind of climbing shoes and clothes do you use?

I’m an Outdoor Research athlete/ambassador so most of my clothes come from OR. Luckily they make great stuff! My other shoes and hardware are a mish-mash of what I can get for cheap or what works well.

My favorite brands are Petzl, LaSportiva, Scarpa. I have probably about 20 pairs, including ski boots, mountain boots, and flip-flops. I love wearing warm clothes! Down jackets, fuzzy fleeces, hats. But when it’s hot I like airy, cotton shirts, and loose pants.

Mountain Guide Emilie Drinkwater

What has been your best sport purchase below $100?

Probably my used (got it on ebay for about $100) Panasonic Lumix point and shoot camera that I take everywhere with me! It’s survived a lot of abuse but has also been invaluable for everything from taking photos of clients to taking photos of routes (beta photos) to acting as my best form of documentation of trips.

What other favorite gear do you have?

  • Black Diamond carbon z-poles (trekking poles) — great for all the steep up and downhill approaches required of many climbs
  • My iPhone — great because this is my main navigational/mapping tool (Gaia GPS) as well as other great features like the alarm clock for pre-dawn starts, camera, communication, note-taking, ability to check weather when there’s service, etc, etc. I don’t go into the field without this modern tool!
  • Good footwear for lots of time on the feet — LaSportiva rock shoes, Scarpa ski and mountain boots, and Five-Ten Guide Tennies for scrambling and approaches.

Mountain Guide Emilie Drinkwater

What will the future bring?

Well, I head to the Alps in a few weeks for a personal climbing trip. My climbing partner and I are hoping to get on some classic alpine routes but also hope to try a big and committing ridge climb on Mt Blanc. Further in the future, I’d like to travel more in Persia (Iran, Iraq)…someday. I’d also like to try snowboarding, paragliding, and trapeze.

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