Adventuring Without or With a Guide Part 2​

Adventuring Without or With a Guide Part 2

The ULTIMATE GOAL OF ADVENTURE is to return home with a meaningful story. 

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve adventured into wild places I have never seen. If you grew up like me, you always had an adult with you in your early pre- and middle school years. In my case, it was a parent, uncle, aunt, or elder cousin. They set me up for success, took care of my bumps and bangs, and got me home safely, applauding my courageous exploration. 

As years passed, I ventured out with more experienced friends. At 14, I did my first overnight backpacking trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains, led by friends Mark and Kevin. How wild it all seemed there, in the “Birds Nest 4” shelter on the Appalachian Trail. Those years lead to the Dolly Sods Wilderness, The Great Smokey Mountains, and Southern Arizona. Eventually, I landed in Central Colorado as a climbing guide on technical peaks, a horse-packing guide in the wilderness, and a raft/kayak guide on wild rivers. 

The Journey To Becoming A Guide

As of today, I have been guiding individuals, families, and groups for almost 40 years. I have adventured into some of the world’s most remote settings, on my own and with a guide, and I have led small groups into places I have never been, acting as their guide and trip leader. This post intends to explore the virtues of using a guide.

If I go somewhere on my own, to paddle, climb, or hike, I always research the area well before arriving. Once I arrive, I do a great deal more. In some instances, I have flown to a far location for one year to research with locals before returning the following year to attempt the adventure. Inevitably, I ask locals of all sorts for information and get the skinny on what has been done and where the best spots are for everything from launching the journey to finding fresh water and waiting out storms. But there are things that, even with my background, I will be uncertain of when entering a new area.

My friend Eric, who has some impressive solo and small group trips under his crampons and ice axe, once told me, after an aborted long-range traverse in a remote mountain range: “Every mountain range has its personality, its peculiar way of manifesting weather, and its voodoo. You have to feel it if you want to succeed, and sometimes you don’t. You have to know when to pull out.”

This last bit may be the most important. In my research, the single most likely cause of mishaps is time sensitivity. This includes everything from padding your days with layover days for bad weather to getting up super early and sticking to your turnaround time.

I love doing my research, getting out the chart or map and compass, laying a route, figuring distances, days, food, and gear, and making it all happen. While on my own, I have had both tremendous, unbelievable successes and quite surprising and disappointing failures. The most astounding successes sometimes came alongside pretty wild, unplanned detours.

One such is getting lost in the Andes and stumbling onto an Altiplano soccer match on the edge of an unmapped village that set up a wild series of remarkable adventures. First ascents of long high-country rock routes and first descents of rivers are others, as is a five-month sea-kayak adventure in South Central and Southeast Alaska. But in all of these cases, I arrived in the region the year prior, spent a ton of time talking to guides, explored their suggested routes, and then organized my trip for the following year or two years later.

A Cautionary Tale

Not long ago, a group came up to do a 16-day trip on their own. They had a ton of experience, rented gear, and didn’t want any suggestions — about anything. Sitka Wild Coast Kayaks outfitted them, and they headed out by water taxi. Things started going wrong from the get-go when the water taxi driver they hired dropped them in the wrong place, only about a quarter of the distance they had contracted and paid for. Things continued to go sideways, and most of the group pulled out after eight days, aborting the last eight entirely.

Hiring a local guide or even simply asking about reliable charter services and accepting a recommendation would have significantly changed the outcome here. They have yet to receive a partial refund on a very expensive charter, which would be expected. That particular water taxi company is reputed to have done the same thing in the past, and if they had been willing to receive advice, we could have referred them to a reliable operator. We don’t get kickbacks for this. We do it because we are a guide service that has everyone’s best interests at heart.

The Value of Research and Local Knowledge

The ultimate goal of adventure is to return home with a meaningful story that reflects not only the challenges faced but also the wisdom gained. Over the years, my experiences—both solo and guided—have underscored the value of local knowledge and the importance of careful planning. Whether you’re a seasoned adventurer or a newcomer to the wild, having a guide can make the difference between a memorable journey and a perilous one.

In my next post, I will conclude this three-part series on adventuring without or with a guide. Discover how a guide can enrich your adventures and ensure your safety, providing insights and expertise that enhance your storytelling when you return home.