Midlife Reflections from a Full-Time Climbing Guide

Elaina Arenz

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I never expected to be “living the dream;” getting paid to rock climb working as a full time certified climbing guide. I'm 43 years old, and looking back, it was all just dumb luck and being in the right place at the right time. It's been 23 years since I started climbing as a pastime during college and I've managed to turn it into a professional career path. That whole saying, "do what you love, love what you do," rings true for me. Getting paid to play outdoors in exotic locales is every desk jockey's dream come true- or is it?

The truth is that getting paid to do what I love comes with a price. You might think being a climbing guide means you get paid to climb to your heart's content. This statement is only partly true; I am not able to go out and do the routes that inspire me to get out of bed early in the morning. Typically, I am climbing routes that the less experienced clients are capable of attempting. While some of the routes may be classics, I end up repeating routes that I have climbed dozens of times. This monotony is the very thing I sought to avoid in the first place.

I never expected to be “living the dream;” getting paid to rock climb working as a full time certified climbing guide

Clients have their limitations, be it physical ability or mental tenacity, plus gaps in skill, understanding, and knowledge, all of which they are paying me to fulfill. Often they misrepresent themselves as more capable than they are. They don't do that intentionally. It's human nature to present oneself in the best light possible because everyone wants to good in the eyes of others and sell themselves as the badasses they aspire to be. 

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Guiding is not the most lucrative career choice, but it is an enrichening lifestyle choice. There are no retirement plans, benefits, health insurance or year-end bonuses. What I do get in return for my rope gunning abilities are lasting friendships with people I may have never had the chance to know. I enjoy travel opportunities to new places and the ability to experience new things. Perhaps the greatest job benefit for me is the gratification of helping others achieve their version of impossible. I share amazing moments with people accomplishing things they never thought were possible. I help stretch them beyond their self-imposed limitations and allow them to expand beyond their comfort zones. I help people escape realities at home and assist them in unplugging from life and becoming present.

Everyone is pulled in a million directions, be it work, family or other obligations that suck up time and energy. Usually, it's the weight of self-imposed choices that clients wish to shed. This common situation presents a paradox because the financial reward that comes with long hours of work is what enables most to break free from those ties that hold people hostage.

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Rock climbing is an escape from all of that; one must solely focus on what is immediate, not the overdue bills or the emails that are piling up in the inbox. When climbing, the mind goes quiet. The sense of exposure high above the ground strips one down to the very core of being. All those worries fall away, and what’s left is an intense feeling of being present and the joy that accompanies it.

Time slows down allowing enjoyment of the moment. There are no feelings of regret from the past, no fear of the present and not a single worry about what is yet to come. Climbing allows being right here, right now. Nothing else matters, and that is truly a gift that keeps on giving no matter which end of the rope one occupies.