Guided vs. unguided climbing

As long as I’m still planning my trip, I thought I’d share my thoughts on whether to hire guides or not when going out. Given that I got into the mountains relatively late in life, and with a full-time desk job to boot, I always found it a bit difficult to break into the climbing and alpine community in a way that allowed me to build the type of mentor relationships that give you a solid foundation. As a result, I’ve spent more than my fair share of money on guided learning and development trips. In each case, I’ve either taken a full-blown course with a reputable outpost (e.g., Adventure Consultants, AAI), or gone on a multi-day trip with an AMGA-certified guide. I’ve found these trips invaluable, and I think they’ve given me a pretty robust skillset and judgment across rock, snow and ice terrain. In each of these trips, I’ve always prioritized skill building and decision-making over “getting dragged up the hill,” so I can say I’ve summited something.

As I started planning my trip this year, I originally envisioned going out with guides to both the Cordillera Blanca and the Himalaya. In both cases, the hassle of finding partners and organizing my own trip seemed a bit overwhelming, while one of the great advantages of having a guide service is that all you have to do is show up at the country’s capital city, and then enjoy the ride (obviously, you have to be fit, competentent, have enough experience, etc.). In what I now consider a stroke of luck, the guided expedition to Peru got cancelled, and after spending a few hours on summit post, I found likeminded souls with similar objectives, and, next thing you know, we had ourselves a climbing party. We are spending the month of July in the Cordillera Blanca, and, with some luck, we will be able to summit a handful of the peaks we want to attempt.

This whole experience, got me thinking about the differences between guided and unguided expeditions, and, having not found a ton online, I thought I’d share my thought process.

The advantages of having a guided trip are many.

  • They handle logistics. This includes everything from transfers, lodging, porters, meals, communal gear (ropes, tents, protection), sat phones, and local bureaucracy.
  • They know the routes. Reputable outfits know the routes quite well and tend to have deep connections in the local climbing community.
  • They screen your partners. This is huge. Rather than meet folks online or at the bar, you can have some assurance that the folks in your climbing party have been screened and have a minimum of fitness. Though, your mileage may vary here, and, from my limited experience, this only applies to Western-operated outfits.

These benefits don’t come cheap, however, and as a result guided trips are pricey. Ballpark, a guided trip to Alpamayo and Artesonraju (considered separate trips by most guiding companies) can run between $9,000 to $13,000 per person with a Western company. If you take care of logistics and just hire a local guide for a few days, it can be $2,000 to $3,000 (this includes hiring donkeys and a cook). Without the guide, you are looking at an even lower rate, and if you take out the donkeys and the cook even lower. However, as is the case with climbing gear, in my view money is a terrible way to make decisions that have literal life or death consequences.

The real difference is that you outsource decision-making and responsibility. In a guided trip, the guide makes the decisions. As I see it, you pay not for logistics or better tents (though those are nice!) but to have someone who is highly qualified ascertain conditions, weather, and just general gut feeling to decide how to keep you and the party safe. Sure, you can also play those decisions in your head and discuss them with your guide, but, in the end, it’s a little bit like playing poker without real money or doing mock leads: It’s great training, but most definitely not the real thing. For a moment, you can even forget that the mountains are serious business. The plus side is, by doing that you can attain climbing objectives that would otherwise be out of your reach.

To me at least, and putting the money aside, that’s generally not a good trade. Decision-making and judgment is at the core of what I love about the mountains; it’s both the agency and freedom that come with an equally great amount of responsibility that lead to the lasting rewards and fulfilment of climbing. And, thus, with the possible exception of the Himalaya, where I just can’t see how I’ll be able to organize an expedition on my own (though I’m still strategizing), the goal of my trip is to go unguided on my objectives as much as possible. The exception being, of course, skills-building and training trips where, assuming you can afford it, there is simply no better teacher than a great guide.