Home/Mountaineering/Tuan's corner

On keeping a job while climbing, a few thoughts

By Tuan

I am often asked "how have you managed to keep your job and still focus on climbing so much?". While a number of successful climbers are guides, or professionals affiliated with the outdoors industry, it has to be noted that there are many people who manage to have a good career and to remain at the top of the climbing world. One of the best example was the late french alpinist Pierre Beghin, the greatest himalayist ever produced by that nation, who also worked as an engineer in a research center in Grenoble. There are plenty of other notorious amateurs, and plenty of lesser known but extremely talented and accomplished climbers. For example, Jim Herson, one of my colleagues at SRI has almost freeded the Salathe Wall (as of the end of 98, he red-pointed everything but 10 meters), and holds two big-wall speed records in Yosemite. In France, I had plenty of working friends who were climbing 8a/b.

First, I did most of my climbing when I was a student in grad school. I know some people who work pretty hard in grad school, but I know also a few folks who thought that if it was going to take them one more year to finish, what's the hell, as long as they are having a good time. I was part of these folks. Imagine that you're taking five years to do what someone else might do in four. Then it's one year of free time !

After finishing grad school, instead of getting a highly paid job in the industry, I chose a career in research. That's more or less the continuation of grad school in the sense that it is a rather low pressure environment with a lot of freedom. In particular I have flexible work hours and vacations. Each year, I always take a few weeks of leave without pay. At a recent reunion, when I presented what I did during the year, people asked me whether I was independantly wealthy. Of course, I am not. I actually have less money than they do, but instead of buying possessions I buy time for myself. I know a few folks who work as consultants who do basically the same. The alternative strategy, trying to make a lot of money first so that you would have a lot of freedom later, might also work well.

Second, I chose carefully the place where I live, and in order to do so, I also traded other opportunities. If you want to become a mountaineer and you live only a couple of hours away from the mountains, you can go there often enough to make progress. Besides, since you will be making frequent trips, each hour that you can save in your travels to the mountains is significant. When I was in grad school, I lived less than half an hour away from local crags, less than one hour away from world-class crags, and two hours away from mountains. Chamonix was further away, but still easy enough to reach with the night trains. In the states, I chose Berkeley at first because among the great universities, it was the closest to Yosemite.

Third, I was quite focussed. Even if you climb only two days per week, if you do that every week, you'll end up being quite good.

On finding the money to climb

A dual question that I've been asked is where do climbers get the money it takes to get all of the gear (plus lessons, logistics, ...).

You can save a lot on instruction and guide fees if you learn through friends and non-profit organizations. If you speak French, you can check ucpa.com. The price I paid there for a two-week course which included lodging and food was about the same as three days worth of guide fees.

During my first years of climbing, I was a grad student, and didn't own much. I wore a lowly nike goretex jacket I bought on sale for $25, owned only four camming devices, used russian made titanium ice screws that I bought from visiting Eastern European climbers right on the Bossons glacier in Chamonix for a few dollars, and so on. The fact is that for most alpine climbing you don't need that much gear, while for sport climbing you need only shoes, a rope, harness, and quickdraws. By far my most valuable pieces of equipement were my three Charlet Moser Pulsars which I used exclusively in the course of my ice-climber career.

I sure got lots of stuff in the states, first to gear up for Mt McKinley, and then for big wall climbing, but I consider those pursuits to be quite gear intensive, and somewhat not central to what motivated me in the first place, alpine climbing. It was interesting to realize that in America, I owned so much more gear than in France, but eventually accomplished significantly less. The spirit just doesn't have anything to do with gear. When we climbed the North Face of Les Droites in winter conditions, Liviu wore old ski boots that he got for next to nothing, and was wearing a cheap ski anorak. How many climbers ladden with the latest gear can even think about climbing such a route ?

The most expensive form of climbing might be Himalayan expeditions, yet $10000 will get you to almost any summit in the world, including most of the 8000 meter peaks. Think about how much you spent on this new car. Mine was still going strong after 170000 miles.

Unless you are already a professional, and the only job that I know which involves climbing is to be a guide, you shoudn't think about getting funding. Funding is mostly advertising fees, and you need to have a record of accomplishments. There is one exception to that: a few summits in the world (typically Mt Everest) hold a mediatic appeal which is sufficient for anyone who attempts to get some kind of sponsorship.

View or add comments

Home/ Mountaineering/ Tuan's corner