Teton Valley Mountain Guides

By J. Scott McGee
Photo by Kevin Steele

When you look up at the Grand Teton in the early morning summer light, you’re ‘sharing a moment’ with hundreds of Teton Valley residents and visitors, who are regularly treated to this inspiring view. What you may not realize is that looking back from the summit on any given (fair weather) morning is a jubilant team of climbers and guides—celebrating their summit, snapping photos, taking in the view, snacking, and preparing for the long descent to the Exum hut and then the valley floor, some 7,000 feet below the top of the Grand. Who are these guides who make it their profession to teach neophytes, and lead experience-chiseled climbers alike, in the ways of ascending the Teton peaks? Do they have a dream job, or just one that’s lost some grandeur coming true? Let’s meet some Teton Valley mountain gurus who’ve made it their path to show others the way.But first, a glimpse into the lifestyle of a guide. While some aspire to year-round guiding, others devote only their summers to the pursuit, taking up other endeavors in the fall, winter, and spring months. That’s when weather and conditions for climbing are much more challenging, keeping at bay the majority of potential climbing clients. Among winter “off-season” jobs, guides may choose to drive snow cats, patrol at ski resorts, teach skiing or avalanche courses, or even take up the pen. Teton Valley has become a winter roost for guides in search of safe haven with dependable snow, a typically stable snowpack, and an availability of quality work.To get a better idea of what makes these guides tick, Teton Valley Magazine asked a few of the locals to carve a little time out from chasing powder last winter to share their histories and motivations.

Photo by Kevin Steele

With a broad smile and a vise-like handshake, Christian Santelices leaves a first impression of confidence and competence. Ready to take the lighter side of everything other than safety, his easy demeanor and obvious clarity put climbers and fellow guides at ease. Christian got in to climbing during college thirty years ago, and he has logged twenty-seven guiding seasons to date. “I was working for Patagonia in their retail store in Santa Barbara, California,” Christian says. “I initially climbed with friends from the shop, including photographer Kevin Steele and good friend Sean Ferrel. Once I transferred to UC Berkeley, I got a job at one of the early climbing gyms, CityROCK. There I had incredible mentors including cutting-edge Yosemite climbers and guides such as Peter Mayfield, Scott Cosgrove, Steve Schneider, and Hans Florine.“What motivates me to guide is the satisfaction that my work changes people’s lives,” he adds. “My role as a guide is not just to take someone climbing but to invite them into another world and show them how to navigate it. In that process I’m able to make close connections with my guests and watch as they learn new skills that enhance their lives.” Christian sums up some of his most difficult situations as “trying to manage expectations about someone’s capabilities. I’ve had guests on climbs that just did not properly prepare for the adventure but expected to get to the summit. It’s sometimes a difficult lesson in understanding your limitations and the need to be honest about preparation. It’s a great metaphor for life.“One of the most difficult things I find with guiding is finding time for my personal mountain pursuits.” Travel for work, he says, “leaves little time for me to put enough energy into my family and still have time to pursue my personal climbing and skiing.” About his goals, he is clear: “My number-one goal is to continue learning and improving my craft. I also really enjoy teaching guiding to the next generation and find great satisfaction doing that as a member of the National Instructor Team of the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA).”Christian says he aims to help clients approach goals with a mixture of challenging themselves, while being completely honest and humble about their abilities and experience.

Photo by Georgie Stanley

Lynne Wolfe started climbing in 1976, and first guided in 1988. She got into climbing when her parents sent her on a three-week trip to the mountains. “It pretty much blew my mind,” she says. “I wrote about my experience for my high school newspaper in an article I titled ‘On Belay!’” After that, Lynne spent “a bunch of time” pursuing her newly discovered passions for climbing and the mountains. Personal experience in climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing is the foundation of guiding—having that base to draw on—and Lynne earned her stripes early, honing her craft on summer and winter courses for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and refining her mountain sense and avy savvy.Now, Lynne puts others first when explaining what motivates her to climb. “I don’t climb that much for fun; it’s not what inspires me anymore. I have a bad knee, so when it comes to big routes it’s just not going to happen. Instead, I try to figure out what clients want and need.”Beyond describing how she doesn’t climb or guide for herself anymore, Lynne says, “I want to make sure the clients have fun.” She also relates it to maturity: “Young guides can be much more ‘self-oriented’; older guides, it seems, are more externally client-centered in their motivations.”As for tough tangles, Lynne espouses wisdom over valor. “The hardest situations are when the mountain gives you one answer and the clients want something else … and having to turn around” after weighing risk against reward. “One time we got up to the Upper Saddle (five hundred feet shy of the Grand Teton’s summit) and waited there with a couple of other guides to see what the weather would do. The storm intensified, and we made the call to turn back. It was on our way down, too late to reconsider, that the sky went bluebird. It was right after a string of lightning incidents, which had us all [acting] really conservative.” Even a seasoned guide can be wrong about the weather. With lightning, you can afford to be wrong—but only in one direction, down. She sums it up like this: “It’s about striking the balance between wisdom and desire.” The guiding life isn’t necessarily easy, and it’s certainly not for everyone. “For me, I’ve always loved contract-based work,” Lynne says. “I like to do my work seasons with long stretches of something different in between.” She has distinguished herself as editor of The Avalanche Review, the periodical of the American Avalanche Association (AAA), and has taught courses for the AAA, Prescott College, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center, and other avalanche schools. Listening to Lynne reflect on guiding, I realized it’s not something she just likes or chooses to pursue; it’s steeped into the marrow of her bones. Yet it’s as easy to imagine her laser pointing in the direction of an avalanche course, as leading a rock route or skinning up a ridge among the high peaks.

Photo by Alf Randell

“My first day of climbing was at an indoor gym in Plymouth, New Hampshire,” says Scott Palmer. Early on he was taken under the wing of a guide named Jim Shimberg, who took him out on his first outdoor climbing trip. “We climbed at Rumney [New Hampshire]. Much later, I had the pleasure of running into Jim during my first season at Exum while he was ‘guest guiding.’ It was pretty cool to get to work alongside someone who first introduced me to climbing.“I was a gym rat through most of high school,” Scott adds, “with the occasional trip to one of New Jersey’s fine top-roping crags.” Following a brief hiatus for college and its priorities, “I really learned to climb outdoors here in Wydaho in the summer of 2007, placing gear at Badger Creek Boulders; [experiencing] my first trad [traditional] lead, a multi-pitch 5.7 in Teton Canyon]; and endless sport climbing on the limestone in Sinks Canyon [outside Lander, Wyoming].“Prior to Exum, I worked fulltime for NOLS as a field instructor, beginning in 2008, working in the climbing, skiing, and mountaineering programs out of the Rocky Mountain Branch, Teton Valley Branch, and Southwest Branch.” Racking up field days, Scott gained experience and bolstered his resume. “I started guiding for Exum in the summer of 2014. I have been lucky enough to guide both skiing and climbing the last two seasons.” Scott also guides for Driggs-based Yostmark Backcountry Tours in the winter months, leading ski tours on the west slope of the Tetons. Scott shares Lynne Wolfe’s motivation of wishing to help others fulfill their mountain dreams. “I love being outside and sharing this amazing place with people from all over,” he says. “Working with new people and new challenges every day is a huge draw to the guiding profession.” But challenge isn’t just for the clients.“Sometimes people get in over their heads pretty quickly. It is our job to see this happening before it gets out of control, but every once in a while something can sneak up on you. On the Upper Exum Ridge I had a guest who froze up and could not go up or down. The cloud ceiling was dropping and the air was getting heavy as we tried to get going. For about five minutes—it felt like an eternity—the guest sat there on the ridge having a moment of personal crisis, and we could do very little about it. Eventually, we got the client to ‘come back’ and continue up so we could get down to the rappels and the Lower Saddle. “There are so many variables in the mountains, but the human factor can be the most interesting/challenging one to deal with. Some days take a fair amount of patience and sensitivity. “Guiding is a lifestyle and Teton Valley fits it perfectly,” Scott adds. “I love guiding because it allows me to support myself by doing things I feel very passionate about and share that passion with others. I love Teton Valley because of the great partners to go into the mountains with and the access to the mountains. Having world-class climbing and skiing in our backyards is a very important part of living in the Teton Valley, and worth any other ‘sacrifices’ we might have to make.” And home provides respite. “After a hard trip on the Grand there is no better place to relax than the open space of Teton Valley. One of my favorite ways to recuperate after back-to-back days of guiding is drinking a beer on the Grand Teton Brewery lawn and eating grub from the food truck. Music on Main is also a great way to chill after a hot summer day at Hidden Falls.” As for what’s next, Scott seems content and on track to continue his professional development. “I want to continue guiding in the Tetons for the foreseeable future,” he says. “I will continue to seek AMGA training and mentorship from other seasoned guides, and to guide new objectives in this amazing mountain range.”