top of page
  • Writer's pictureHenry Kvietok

Backcountry Buzz: Interview with IFMGA Mountain Guide Ben Markhart

December 13, 2023

© 2023 by Henry Kvietok


Do you want free newsletters like this sent to your email? Sign up here


And just like that, December is already upon us! I hope you all have had a great kick off to your season - whether that’s getting some laps in at the resort or breaking out your touring gear for the first time.

I’m so stoked to share Ben's interview with you all. First, however, thank you to Boulder Wine Merchant for sponsoring this month's newsletter. They have a really neat shop located in North Boulder where they specialize in wine, craft beer, spirits, and gourmet food. Be sure to check them out next time you're in the area! Here's a word from them:

 

Boulder Wine Merchant stands as an exceptional purveyor of fine wines, uniquely positioned to enhance the experience of backcountry skiers. Our carefully curated selection of wines transcends the ordinary, offering not just a beverage but a celebration of craftsmanship, terroir, and unparalleled taste.

For the adventurous souls venturing into the backcountry, the significance of thoughtful provisions cannot be overstated. Boulder Wine Merchant is not merely a wine retailer; it is a destination for those who appreciate the art of living well, even in the rugged embrace of the backcountry. Our knowledgeable staff can guide you in choosing wines that not only tantalize your taste buds but also contribute to post-adventure recovery.

 

Now let's dive in to Ben's interview!


Some background: Ben and I first met when he was my guide for AIARE 2 (an incredibly empowering experience, by the way). He was also my guide for an awesome linkup of a few couloirs several years ago (see below), and we even ran into each other at midnight halfway up Rainier.

He’s based out of Boulder and, beyond just being a great guy, he is an incredibly talented climbing and skiing guide. I was fortunate to interview him last week in the midst of his very busy schedule (he’s on the mountain guiding 250+ per year!).

We discussed everything from how he got into guiding to his perspective on the industry to risk perspective to advice for those starting out - and even his favorite cookware (affiliate link).

Thanks again to Ben for sharing your knowledge and time. If you are interested in booking him as a guide, reach out via his website or social media. Side note - he’s definitely worth a follow.

I hope you all find the interview insightful for your own backcountry skiing journey and also consider his responses when booking your own guide for any mountain activity.

 

Here I am scoping out the final couloir of the day on a guided trip with Ben.

Book a trip with him to ski cool places like this!





 

Henry: When did you know that you wanted to be a guide?

Ben: I had no idea that you could even be a guide! I grew up in Minnesota and visited Colorado very regularly to see my Mom’s family. I started skiing out here as a three year old. But, I didn't realize until I moved out here after college to be a ski bum that guiding was a thing you could do - I had no idea that was an industry.

Henry: How did you go from ski bum to guide?

Ben: I moved out here to be a ski bum and had plans to maybe go to law school after that. And, very quickly it became clear that the people living in ski towns weren’t really there for the mountains as much as the party - and I was not a part of that scene. In 2013, I ended up finding a job on Craigslist setting up top ropes, and that's how I got into it.

Henry: Huh, that’s an interesting way to get into it! I had no idea.

Ben: Actually that’s how a lot of people get into it. If you’re coming into the industry with no experience, you find shitty podunk guide services that look for guides on Craigslist and that's how you get started!

Henry: Yeah - gotta start somewhere I suppose. So not a lot of people are familiar with guides or what you do. What would you say is a common misconception about guides?

Ben: One thing people should understand is a lot of guides really don’t make very much money. Even though it’s expensive to hire guides, it’s a pretty abusive industry as far as labor practices are concerned. And, most guides are making substandard wages - wages that would probably be illegal in most places. But, it’s such a small industry that no one is about to go sue.

Henry: That’s really unfortunate to hear… Could you talk a little bit more about that, and the value that someone might get out of hiring a guide?

Ben: It really depends on the quality of the guide, right? In the United States, there's no regulation whatsoever. To be a mountain guide, you just need to stay you’re a mountain guide.

So, it's challenging for the customer to discern what they should pay for. The starting points are the certification process through the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association), and ultimately you want to have someone who’s IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations) or at least certified in the discipline that they're interested in.

Otherwise, it’s like hiring your next door neighbor to do the electrical work in your house. Like, it’s fine that you made it work at your house without burning it down, but I want someone with a license to do this. You know, there's a reason it's required by the government!

The biggest guiding companies in the world have really good guides and really bad guides, and they're going to charge you the same and tell you you're getting the same product - but you aren’t. And, it's up to you to determine what you’re going to pay for.

Henry: Those are really good points, especially for someone looking to get into backcountry skiing and hiring a guide. Obviously, a big qualification for yourself is being an IFMGA guide. Could you tell me a little bit more about what exactly that means and why that sets you apart?

Ben: There are 200 American IFMGA guides now. Essentially, that means the training that we received here in the United States is recognized as appropriate in other mountain guiding cultures. Having passed all the exams for the AMGA, means that even the Swiss, the French, the Austrian, and the Italians (who have these hundred year long guiding traditions) recognize that as being expert level training.

Henry: That’s amazing. And I don’t think a lot of people really know about that or appreciate the level of skill and training that you have.

Switching gears here - let’s talk about risk tolerance. How do you personally view risk tolerance in the mountains?

Ben: That's a really interesting one, and I think a lot about that. It's interesting for me because I don't really think a lot about my personal risk tolerance very often. I think about what is the risk tolerance of the people I'm going into the mountains with, and what is the group’s risk tolerance.

I think that's really important to having fun days out in a professional or personal setting - meeting the risk tolerance of the group. So, that's a really important discussion and that's where we're operating from, not necessarily what I personally am comfortable with.

The other thing I think to keep in mind with risk tolerance is it's a risk-reward benefit. I mean, everything we do is a level of risk in the mountains. So, it's a question of weighing: what are the rewards?

For a lot of people being guided in the mountains, they're not even fully equipped to understand those risks. Ultimately, the job of a guide is to communicate and manage risks in a way that the customer is comfortable with. And, if that customer can't actually fathom those risks, that job becomes pretty challenging to do. A lot of times I end up dialing it back from what the customer says they want because, if they really understood the risk they were taking, they wouldn’t be stoked on it.

Henry: Definitely shows how much more complex your role is than just taking people outside. I'm curious, though, when you go out with your friends on an unguided day in the mountains - are you still in “guide mode” or does your perspective shift?

Ben: Oh, big time. It feels a little different if it's with someone who actually understands the risk, like other professionals or experienced friends, and we don't need to have those conversations as much.


But, many times I am out with friends who don’t have a lot of experience and that doesn't feel much different than work. On that same note, I go out on trips with customers who are paying me and are pretty experienced climbers and skiers in their own right, and it’ll feel a lot more like a trip with friends.


It really just depends on the group we're going out with and whether they have the expertise to assess that risk themselves.

Henry: On a related note, a lot of folks reading this newsletter are just getting into backcountry skiing. If you could give one piece of advice to them, what would you say?

Ben: There are so many elements and complexities to something like backcountry skiing. I think it's really important to fully grasp the endeavor you're embarking on in trying to become a good backcountry skier. Having that bigger picture and understanding of the journey, and then setting reasonable goals is key. In that, finding mentorship that can really help you achieve those goals is the other key element.


That brings us to: well, what is a mentor and where do we find them? It's really challenging in this day and age because there's a lot more people interested in entering the space than there are available to teach. It's sometimes unrealistic to think you're going to be able to find that without hiring someone at some point.

That's where I think building a relationship with a guide as a mentor, not just as a customer, is important. That obviously involves hiring them, but approaching professionals from that capacity is really valuable.

Henry: Makes a lot of sense - viewing it less like a one time transaction and more as an ongoing relationship.

Ben: Absolutely. I’m psyched about this! For people who are really psyched and motivated, I frequently go skiing without them paying me. If someone's really picking things up fast, going out, planning cool tours, and they invite me along - why am I not going to do a rad tour in good conditions?

Henry: Speaking of cool tours, you've obviously been to some very cool places and seen some pretty rad stuff. What else is on your bucket list?

Ben: That's a tricky one - I don't think I have a bucket list. There are a lot of cool mountain ranges out there that I don't have any experience in and haven't learned anything from. I think that any new mountain range is definitely on that list because it definitely has something to teach.

Henry: Let’s go back to your job - what would you say is the biggest challenge that you're facing right now in your guiding career?

Ben: I think it all ties into some of the same issues that face the larger guiding industry. A lot of it comes from the bureaucracy around American land management. There are maybe like three principal land management agencies in the United States and then like half a dozen other smaller agencies that control the land we need to use to guide.

A lot of those bureaucracies are quite antiquated and in many cases are very restrictive on the permits they issue. What essentially ends up happening is that these monopolies form and 2 or 3 guide services will control all commercial access to a certain area. Those companies then are really motivated to actually hire unprofessional, untrained guides who cost less.

That really is a detriment to the industry and makes it really hard for me trying to guide in that terrain because essentially they don't want to pay me a fair wage if I come to them trying to use their permits. It becomes prohibitively expensive for customers to be able to have access to that terrain with a certified guide.

Henry: I can see how it can get very, very complex very quickly with different stakeholders involved, and then you get the short end of the stick as the guide.

Ben: Yeah. The infrastructure in the United States is built less around guides’ relationships with customers, but rather guides’ relationships with terrain. It ends up being: you're a guide who works only here for this company and it's not really feasible to go other places for people who want to work with you.


I think maybe that could be fine if the companies were really more motivated to provide for really high level guides, but when they have these monopolistic structures, they feel like they're actually incentivized to hire less professional guides so they don't have to pay as much.

Or, the European model is: you're a certified guide and you know what you're doing, so you essentially have access to all public lands. Then, you can really just do your job, and it really becomes much more like an actual free market where the best guides are able to do the trips they want to do and they attract the best customers. And, the worst guides - well, they can’t hang. And in this case, it provides for the exact opposite in the United States, which is kind of entertaining considering the free market that the United States is supposed to be.

Henry: Ok - let's say Ben Markhart was elected president of the US - would you adopt the European model, or would you want to have certain changes implemented?

Ben: Well, I don't think it'd be feasible to make changes to that model overnight. But, I think if you were to allow certified guides to operate in a cost effective fashion, all of a sudden you'd have significantly more certified guides because it would be a financially viable avenue.

The challenge that the industry faces now is only people with significant periods in their life are able to actually make it work as guides. And, this is part of the reason why, like 90% of guides are 30 year old white dudes. You can't become a guide if you have any kind of financial uncertainty or insecurity around any of your basic needs.

Henry: I appreciate the honest response. It seems like to get into guiding, you have to be willing to, as you've done, do those Craigslist top rope jobs for next to no pay. If you have outstanding debts and if you don't have a support system, you are incredibly limited.

Ben: The reality is even if you go to Washington and get a job at the largest, most prestigious service there and put in ten years of your life, you're going to max out the pay scale at like $22 an hour.

So, you tell someone that, and the only people who are doing it are people who have never had a financial burden facing them. But, you get over-stoked and privileged outdoor guides and those are the ones who end up doing it. That being said, there is a way to find hustles that work in and around that infrastructure, it’s just not something that most people are going to take a chance at.

Henry: So, 20 or 30 years down the line, do you envision yourself retiring from guiding and shifting into a little bit more of a management role? Would you ever want to own your own guide service?

Ben: I think about it a lot, but I definitely have 10-15 years to figure that out. It's challenging coming from my perspective as a working guide who wants a fair wage from an employer. Thinking about what it would take to provide a fair wage and also make enough money to run a business - it's pretty challenging to do that, to be honest. I don't know if I'd be comfortable just switching roles and taking advantage of young peoples’ stoke and then milking them for my own money, you know?

So, I'm not sure what that will look like that far out of right now. I get to spend 250 days a year in the mountains, and that's the mission for me right now.

Henry: Being someone that is in the mountains 250 days a year, tell me a little bit more about your strength training. I imagine you must have a pretty dialed routine to stay healthy for your job.

Ben: For every three days in the field, I need to be in the gym at least one day. And that's not for fun, that's for work. That's definitely an unseen cost for guides. The ability to maintain your body effectively - that's an actual job. I grew up training pretty hard as a junior athlete and spent time with some really high level coaches, and I think that that served me very well now making my body work for this job.

Henry: That’s amazing, and definitely a reminder of what goes on behind the scenes for successful mountain athletes. Switching gears again, what’s the best and worst meal in the backcountry you've ever had? And, I only bring this up because I was camping with my buddy Luke this past weekend, and we had a freeze dried green curry that was the most absolutely atrocious thing I've ever consumed.

Ben: I don't know if anything sticks out to me. I think you need three things from food (on long expedition style trips especially): sugar, protein, and soul food. Food is definitely something that can really help with the mood of the program.

I have found myself more and more bringing with me the fry pan that MSR makes (affiliate link), which really effectively allows you to make toasty delicious snacks out of just about everything. It is really cost effective in the weight department, too. Man, I love that metal frying pan - that thing is an awesome tool.

Henry: That’s awesome - I’ll have to grab one for myself! I know you have to run, so final question before I let you go: if people are interested, how do they find and book you for guiding?

Ben: Just send me a message on my website (https://benmarkhart.com/) or through social media (https://www.instagram.com/benmarkhartguiding/), and then we'll hop on a phone call. I just want to get an idea of what they really are trying to get out of hiring a guide and give them advice on the best way to do it.


 

Thank you again to Ben for your time. I could easily pick your brain for hours but I’ll save that for the next time we’re on the skintrack together!

That just about wraps it up for the December edition of the Backcountry Buzz, but it wouldn’t be complete without Made Me Chuckle and Subscriber Stoke. Keep those photos coming in! I love to see what people are getting after.


 

Made Me Chuckle


Click to view Instagram post.

 

We've all been there....right?












Subscriber Stoke

December 5th - Tristan gettin' the goods! Want to be featured? Email hkvietok@gmail.com or Instagram DM me a pic and the date it was taken.









 

As always, feel free to email hkvietok@gmail.com or DM me directly with feedback, questions, gear recommendation requests (what skis/boots/poles/skins should I buy?), newsletter sponsorship requests, or topics you'd like me to cover in future newsletters. Have a friend that's interested in backcountry skiing? Tell them to sign up here for future editions.

Ski on, and do your snow dances!

Best, Henry




Disclaimer: Recreating in the backcountry is inherently dangerous. It is the responsibility of all users to inform themselves of proper backcountry safety protocols, especially in regards to avalanche conditions. It is your responsibility to make your own decisions. I assume absolutely no liability or responsibility for the use of information provided here.


Affiliate Disclosure: There are product links where I may earn a small commission from purchases made through those links (at no charge to you).


382 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page