Women’s RGC | Anna Hicks

Some of my friends who are guides dreamed about becoming a guide for a long time.  Personally, when I started guiding in 2015, it was because I desperately needed a job.  After 9 years working for the Park Service at Mount Rainier, I was not ready to leave the mountain, but I could no longer be on trail crew due to chronic carpal tunnel syndrome.  When a friend suggested I apply to be a mountaineering guide on Rainier, I replied that I always thought that I would not like guiding.  However, it seemed like a practical thing to do, and I had heard really great things about International Mountain Guides, so I found myself sitting down with co-owner George Dunn at an interview.  The first thing George said to me was “I won’t be able to offer you a job today.”  After about an hour of listening to George talk about IMG and tell stories about his past, he wrapped up the interview by saying “I’d like to offer you a job.”  And so it began…

After feeling like I had plateaued in the Park Service, guiding was exactly what I needed to launch me into a new phase of self-discovery and growth.  The most important thing that I learned is that I absolutely love guiding.  More specifically, I love teaching people what they need to know to be competent in the mountains as they also learn to love wild places where you inevitably learn and grow as a person and build stronger interpersonal relationships. After alpine guiding for IMG for 4 years I wanted to grow into ski guiding and rock guiding as well.   In alpine guiding it is easier to team guide and have great mentorship, but with rock and ski guiding I realized you are on your own a lot.  I knew that I needed to up my game by taking courses from the AMGA.

I first applied to take the AMGA Rock Guide Course in the spring of 2019.  I was accepted into the program and was really looking forward to it.  I applied for but did not receive any scholarships, but I had just enough savings scraped together that I was going to make it happen.  Then the car trouble started and didn’t quit, quickly draining my savings account.  It was so devastating to know that I was going to have to cancel the course that I just kept putting it off, hoping for a financial miracle before the cancellation deadline.  While I didn’t figure out the cash for that course, just a few days before the deadline to cancel a friend sent me an email letting me know there was going to be an all-women’s AMGA RGC.

At IMG I created and guided their first ever all-women’s programs.  When I heard about the women’s RGC I was in the process of switching companies to Pro Guiding Service, in part because they were in support of me developing and guiding women’s trips and courses across multiple disciplines.  I hoped it was my destiny to be in the women’s RGC, but I was also incredibly nervous that I would not be accepted.  Jesse Littleton at the AMGA was extremely kind and helpful, and we got my application fee transferred and applications in.  Now all I had to do was wait.

I started working for Pro Guiding Service as part-time operations manager and part-time guide in November 2019, and my office is in a corner of our retail store, Pro Ski and Mountain Service.  I usually show up about an hour before the store opens and it is dark and quiet.  One morning in May as I was firing up my computer I logged into my personal email to see if there was any word from the AMGA.  Sure enough, I nervously clicked open the email and my knuckles turned white on the mouse as my heart pumped nervously and loudly in my ears.

“On behalf of the AMGA, and our scholarship committee, we’d like to thank you for submitting your application for the Women’s Rock Guide Course. We appreciate your pursuit of continuing education and supporting equity and inclusion at the AMGA. This course saw a record number of applications, making the selection process more difficult than ever. I’m happy to say that you have been accepted in to the Women’s Rock Guide Course and selected to receive a Scholarship – in the amount of $2,000 to go toward your Women’s Rock Guide Course, sponsored by the North Face.”

I had to read it two or three times before it sank in.  I was accepted!  I leapt out of my chair and was actually jumping up and down with joy.  I cannot remember another moment in my life when I was this excited.  I called my parents and sister and started madly texting my friends.  I was indescribably stoked!

Then there was nothing to do but wait.  For 5 months.  And get incredibly nervous.  They must have made a mistake.  I am not good enough.  I am not experienced enough.  I am not strong enough.  I am not who they think I am.  The other women will be better climbers than me, nicer than me, smarter than me.  I tried everything from bottling these feelings up, to rationalizing them away, to letting them overwhelm me.  And in the end, it was the fact that it was an all women’s course that I was able to overcome my insecurities.

The primary reason I want all-women’s courses and trips is because I just want more gender equity in the outdoor pursuits that I love. When there is more gender balance everything feels more balanced.  Groups tend to be more communicative, kinder, safer, more supportive, and more rational.  I kept telling myself that if I go into this course judging myself, I will also go into it judging other people, and that is not who I want to be.  I want to embody the environment that I want the climbing community to be:  welcoming, accepting, compassionate.

Finally the time had come.  About 6 women from the course got together the night before our first day, and I felt very comfortable with them.  The next day all 12 students and 4 instructors sat down around a table in the morning and had our first of many go-arounds.  Listening to each person made me relax.  The group as a whole was down to earth, smart without presumption, strong without ego, and kind without falsity. After two days of ground school, on our first day out climbing together, the one fear I could not shake was realized.  We were all to lead a single pitch climb to prove our movement skills at a certain grade.  It was really hot.  I had been at a desk or walking up and down volcanoes for that past 5 months with too little time on rock.  My heart was pounding with nerves and too much coffee.  At the crux of the climb I felt like my feet were going to pop off and I didn’t want to fall so I hung on the rope.  After a couple of days out on the rocks, however, I felt more calm and on my game, and went back and climbed another route at the same grade with no problems.  Phew!

In our intros on the first day we had each talked about what we wanted to get out of the course.   I had not thought about that question with such focus before, and the more I heard others list their specific goals the more I realized that I didn’t have any!  When my turn came I said that I just expected it to be like a tidal wave of information that I would probably sift through for a long time after the course was over.  This got a good laugh from the instructors as they heartily agreed with the analogy.

I was very relieved that everything we went over in the two days of ground school was not totally new to me.  I have been rock climbing for 17 years and guiding for 5, so I felt comfortable with the material and glad that we were all getting on the same page and learning new tips and tricks to be more efficient.  However, out on the rocks during the rest of the course is where the magic really happens.  It is valuable beyond words to observe the other students while you are their client or the “ghost,” then get time as the guide, and get real time feedback from incredibly experienced and knowledgeable instructors.

Participating in this course showed me where I currently am with my knowledge, skills and abilities relative to the other women in the course.  This is valuable so I can gauge my strengths and clearly see areas that I want to improve.  Having four highly knowledgeable and experienced instructors allowed me to see the possibilities for where I can be someday.  And finally, the community and network of 15 other women who are all working toward improving their own guiding game is a resource that I would not have otherwise attained in decades of guiding.

Our group intentionally and naturally engaged in many conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion during our time together.  Other people’s background in DEI work brought something to the table that is powerful, immensely valuable, and often neglected when we talk only about women’s programs.  We discussed that when we talk about gender equality, we must always talk about inclusivity and equity for absolutely everybody.  I appreciated this part of the conversations immensely, and came home inspired to be more inclusive when I talk about gender equity.

As I mentioned before, taking an AMGA course was a financial impossibility for me without the scholarship from the North Face.  The process has been an incredible adventure of self-analysis and self-discovery, and the course has helped me shape my goals for who I want to be as a guide, and given me a framework for how to achieve them.  I cannot thank the North Face enough for their generosity and support of the women’s Rock Guide Course.  Our group had a powerful impact on every individual who encountered us while we were on the rocks, at the [Regional Event] event we all attended one evening, and now as it reverberates throughout social media networks and word of mouth.