What Does It Take to Be a Guide in the Grand Canyon?

GP Correspondent Will McGough hiked to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon last year. This year, he went on the same trip as a guide.

Last year, a man stood atop a rocky outcropping on a canyon wall near Havasu Falls, looking down at the pool 35 feet below. He had successfully done the jump the previous year, plunging like a pencil into the deep water. Now, he prepared for his encore. He shook the jitters from his knees and placed his feet at the edge. He took a deep breath. But as he threw his arms back to jump, he heard something. Looking down, he saw a man running with his hands crossed over his head, screaming loudly. The man darted out into the middle of the pool — the one that had been over 10 feet deep the previous year — and stood there, knee deep. He looked straight up and waved his arms. “Don’t jump!” he yelled.

That man on the ground, who happened to be a multi-day guide coincidentally passing by with his group, saved our dear friend on the cliff from finding out what it feels like to have his femur go through his throat. It is this example, amongst a sea of them, that illustrates how dangerous a living, breathing ecosystem can be, and how easy it is, even for the experienced, to get into trouble within them. Despite this, the job of guiding people through these places is not always taken so seriously. From an outdoorsman’s perspective, guides are perceived as doing for a living what most do for a hobby, getting paid to hike and bike and camp and raft. But how does that perception translate into reality? Isn’t it just a tick more serious than that?

In the beginning of May, I teamed up with Arizona Outback Adventures (AOA) to answer those very questions. Last year, I was a guest on one of its trips to Havasupai Falls in the Grand Canyon, and I thought going again on the same trip, this time as a guide, would help me to understand not only the reality of a guide’s life, but if and how a guide’s responsibilities change the relationship between the outdoorsman and the outdoors. What does it take to really exceed expectations as a guide? Would the wonder of Havasu Falls be the same, or would the guests blind me to its beauty this time around?

I hoped to learn what being a guide was all about, and what it takes to be a great one.

To find out, I assumed the role of a trainee guide on a six-day, five-night trip. There were 12 guests, all of whom were under the impression that I had just come on with the company and that this was my first trip as a guide. This allowed me to get involved but maintain an excuse for any suspicions that might arise from shortcomings in my performance. My duties were to provide support to the two main guides (three of us total). The trip would involve picking up the guests in a 15-passenger van and transporting them the four hours from Scottsdale to the Havasupai trailhead and back; guiding the guests on the 10-mile trail to Havasu Falls and back; building camp (setting up guest tents and a kitchen) and breaking down camp; providing and cooking three meals a day; guiding the guests on daily hikes; providing expert insight and information about the area; and, of course, ensuring the safety of each guest.

Each person paid $2,699 for the trip, so expectations of quality, from the food to the fun facts, were absolutely present. Because of my limited training, I was never put in a position where I was solely responsible for the well-being of the guests. My trip leader and AOA Guide Supervisor, Chris Anderson, is a veteran guide with more than 10 years’ experience in his early 30s. From him, I hoped to learn what being a guide is all about, and what it takes to be a great one.

When I arrived at AOA headquarters in Phoenix to review the trip itinerary, I overheard two guides catching up. One of them asked, “How was your day off?” The other laughed. “Day off? It was 16 hours!” They were pulling snacks from the shelves in the pantry and packing them with extreme precision into a 70-quart cooler. Everyone seemed happy, but I knew the tree had roots. Although seasonal and sporadic when starting off as a novice, veteran guides often keep extremely demanding schedules, returning from one trip and immediately starting another. I walked through the warehouse. The place was an adventurer’s wet dream. Dozens of bikes hung up on racks, and large shelves supported tubs of tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, chairs, and just about any practical camping accessory you could think of. This is where every trip starts and ends.

Tomorrow we would drive to the Grand Canyon, but today was all about packing and prepping. When it comes to food, each outfitter runs the show a little differently. Some companies set a budget and allow their guides the freedom to plan all their own meals. Others, like AOA, preplan each and every trip in the office, setting the menus beforehand. The give and take of each approach is easy to see. Planning your own meals as a guide cuts down on the monotonous routine but poses stress and challenges for those not culinarily inclined. Brian Jump, AOA’s director of multi-day tours, said the company’s decision to preplan the meals is in an effort to take the pressure off his guides. “We provide complete and consistent support for our trip leaders from planning to paperwork so that our leaders can focus their energy and effort on an excellent guest experience,” said Jump, a former guide himself. “Our guides spend a lot of time in the field, often with very little turnaround between trips.”

So, we were given a pre-trip planner that thoroughly broke down all 12 meals for the trip. It was right down to the smallest detail, such as the number of mustard and mayonnaise packets needed for each lunch. Anderson put the departure packet and checklists on the pantry table and removed the menu. Not only had the meals been preplanned, the ingredients had been pre-bought. And it’s a damn good thing for the guides, because these are no quick and easy camping meals. I knew this was the case, having gone on the trip as a guest the year before, but I suppose I never truly thought that hard about what it took to produce them. Looking down the extensive list that ranged from flaked coconut, fresh vegetables and brown sugar to frozen shrimp, heavy cream and gluten-free cookies, I was very happy that we did not have to go shopping ourselves.

Just some of the gear required to lead a professional operation.

After all, packing it was torturous enough. If you can believe it, we packed nine (nine!) 70-liter coolers full of food for the five days we would be in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Through the list we went, filling both dry and cold coolers, organizing them by day. That last part was actually a bit of a lightbulb. Again, something I never thought of last year as a guest: it was Saturday, and there we were packing a cooler with food for the following Friday. Rotten food is not something you want to explain to the guests the morning they are scheduled to hike 10 miles up the rim of the Grand Canyon. We wrapped the food in black trash bags, covered them with foam and stacked Techni-Ice on top. Then we tied the lip down with heavy straps and weighed it. Each of the nine weighed approximately 60 pounds.

It all took over two hours. Then we stuffed sleeping bags and sleeping pads into duffel bags. We had nine of those as well. All told, the total time it took to pack all we needed for the trip (plus a trip to the store for some missing pieces) was about five hours.

That night, we met the 12 guests (average age: 55.8) for an orientation dinner. It was a time to learn names, set expectations, and answer questions. I knew a lot about the guests before meeting them — things like their height, weight, age, medical issues and dietary restrictions. Putting faces and physiques along with them was a different story. So was listening to their questions. It was all a preview of things to come, of five days off the grid in the wilderness. During dinner, it became clear that, in most cases, guests overstate their outdoor résumés and are creative with the word “hike”. A few of the guests who had labeled themselves as experienced hikers backed up their claims with stories of “I walk with the dog every day” and “We hike every year on vacation.”

I also discovered at dinner that guests view guides as mythical creatures. Multiple people had stories of a previous trip where their guide “slept outside on the picnic table” or “climbed the entire mountain barefoot” or “climbed up the wall like Spider-Man”. There are two important things I realized from those claims. One, my role as a leader need not be earned, as I already had their respect as a far superior outdoorsman and their protector. Perhaps more importantly, what I noticed from their stories was that they would remember me. For us guides, those 12 people were another homogenous group. But we would be the subject of their happy hour tales for years to come. Meaning we would have a large role in determining what kind of memories guests would leave with. I understood this, having been on a guided tour the year previously. Thinking back, I could still remember the names of my three guides. No pressure or anything.

The next morning, we arrived at the warehouse at 6:30 a.m. to load the trailer with the coolers and duffels. There would be 14 of us in the 15-passenger van, and within the first few minutes it became obvious that the entire ride would be a question-and-answer session. Having been to Havasupai before, I felt semi-prepared to answer questions. But what I realized was that knowing the terrain or the mileage and being able to describe the trail was only the tip of the iceberg. The questions came constantly and were impressively (and surprisingly) deep. For example, the same person who would later need help screwing on the top of a Camelback asked, “Alcohol is illegal in Havasupai… has that helped to reduce the level of alcoholism within the tribe?” Others unloaded queries about the tribe’s lifestyle, education, and history. “Do they take advantage of scholarships?” “What is the life expectancy?” Most of the time, I felt clueless. Other times, I felt helpless. Like when we whizzed past a field with sprinklers going in it. Immediately the question arose: “Hey guys, what were they watering back there?”

There was more grunt work waiting when we arrived at the trailhead. We unloaded those nine 60-pound coolers and nine duffels, along with a propane tank and everyone’s personal gear, from the van. Luckily, the mule packers took it from there, and it would all be waiting for us when we reached our camp at the bottom of the canyon, where we would unload it. (It took nine mules to carry everything down.) Once we started hiking, the pressure eased off as guests spread out a bit and there was more room to breathe. The trail was 10 miles, slightly downhill, and easy to follow thanks to the canyon walls that shot straight up, keeping hand holding at a minimum. I actually enjoyed chatting with guests one on one about their lives back home, like we were two friends on the trail. But it was never long before responsibility snapped me back to reality. At one point, someone got a blister, and Anderson stopped to tape it up for them. We are definitely traveling at “guest pace”, which, for guides, translates quite literally to a “snail’s pace”. It seemed like every time we passed a rock or cactus or a flower, a guest stopped to take a photo. But in this way, going slower allowed me to appreciate aspects of the trail that weren’t there before, namely the blooming vegetation that came from the spring rain. It also allowed me to conserve energy. Unlike last year, when I arrived to camp soaked in sweat, I strolled into Havasu Falls like I had taken a walk in the park. And it was a good thing, because the real work was about to begin.

When we arrived at Havasu Falls, the guests began to change into their swimwear to take a dip. Us guides were now on the clock: we had about a half hour to an hour to set up camp. The swim would keep the guests occupied for a bit, but very soon fatigue would set in, and they would want to get settled. We marched ahead to the campsite and set up the tents and camp kitchen. The coolers and duffels had arrived at the campground via mule, but we still needed to get them to our site. Using a wheelbarrow, it took me close to 10 trips to move it all. Two coolers fit in the wheelbarrow at a time, and each load weighed about 120 pounds. We set up seven tents for the guests (five couples, two individuals) and one for us three guides to share.


The guests arrived hungry. The plan for the night was a cheese, fruit and cracker appetizer, followed by shrimp tacos and cheesecake. We broke it all out of the coolers and heated up the Brie using a dual-burner camp stove, then watched as the guests dunked crackers into the hot cheese. As they ate, we cooked dinner. Ultimately, the time spent cooking each day was a chunk I came to value greatly, a time when there was just a little more space between myself and the guests, when I didn’t have to be “on”. During dinners, we always sat down and ate with them, and it was pleasant getting to know them a little more each night.

But the rest and relaxation was short-lived. The dishes dirtied by a dozen people had to be cleaned using a three-bucket system. Almost always, we ended up doing the dishes in the dark under the light of a lantern. Each night, the time from when we started cooking appetizers to the time we put away the last dish was, on average, about two and a half to three hours.

And on and on it went. Around every corner was something to do, and nothing was a single-step operation. Even boiling water was a pain in the ass: it took going down to the river to fetch the water, filling a large metal pitcher, firing up a propane tank, waiting 15 minutes, and then pouring the boiling water out of the red-hot pitcher into practical containers. But I found moments of extreme peace in and around these tasks. When I would go down to the banks of the river to fill up the water — in buckets that weighed upwards of 40 pounds when full and were designed to be carried with one hand — I would catch glimpses of the canyon walls and be reminded that I was in one of the world’s most beautiful natural landscapes. In those moments, it was easy to brush off the tedious tasks that were otherwise occupying my time.

And on and on it went. Around every corner was something to do, and nothing was a single-step operation.

Once the sun went down and all the camp chores were done, we guides were pretty much off the hook. If we wanted to go sit by the river, or run to the next camp to say hello to a colleague, we were more than welcome to do that. Most nights a group of guides would sit together and chitchat. It was a nice time to vent about the guests to one another, or simply direct the conversation toward our own interests as outdoorsmen.

The first night wasted no time introducing me to a harsh reality of guiding. When I brought up the fact that I had hiked to the junction of the Havasu and Colorado rivers last year, one of the guides (from another company) said that he had always wanted to go down there. He had been here infinitely more times than me, yet it was I — the guy that had only been once — that had the trump card of completing the canyon’s most unique hike. Around 10 p.m., we were all ready to call it a night. Waking up tired was not a possibility you wanted to flirt with.

The next day, Anderson told me we were going to take the guests to a place called “Hidden Falls”. I had been there the previous year, and knew it well as one of the area’s best cliff-jumping pools. I asked him who he thought would jump from the very top. His answer confused me. “They don’t even need to know it’s there,” he said. I was stunned. Oh come on, I thought. Isn’t it your job to push people into adventure? You’re going to deny them the thrill of the big jump? This brought me to my next lesson: Guiding is just as much a mental game as it is a physical one.

Some of the things you enjoy most as an adventurer are things you have to keep from the guest as a guide. I’m not just talking about secret guide-only, after-dark watering holes (yes, they exist). It all centers on how and when guides encourage guests to push their limits. Bigger is not always better. At the end of the day, the goal of companies like AOA as a guiding service is to provide guests with maximum happiness while taking on the least possible risk. Two people can get to the same level of happiness but take different roads to get there, and so from the moment he first meets a guest, Anderson said he is constantly evaluating what each needs to achieve maximum happiness. From that, he can decide which risks are worth taking.

The most common ways guides get into trouble here is when they project their own parameters for happiness onto the guests.

For example, a 21-year-old may need to jump off a 25-foot cliff to achieve maximum happiness and feel accomplished. But a 55-year-old may only need to jump off a 5-foot cliff to achieve maximum happiness. Encouraging the 55-year-old to jump from 25 feet would be taking on a large amount of injury risk while providing the potential for little or no increase in happiness. In this sense, it’s better for everyone if the 55-year-old jumps from 5 feet and never even considers the 25-foot cliff as a possibility. The most common ways guides get into trouble here is when they project their own parameters for happiness onto the guests.

Another way they get into trouble is by over sharing. For example, one of the most rewarding aspects of guiding the same route several times a year is that you get to see it in all different lights. The different seasons bring different conditions. Last year when I visited in July, the landscape was dry and very desert-like. In winter, snow would cling to the rim of the canyon. There in early May, Havasu was bursting with vivid green vegetation and flowers bloomed on the cacti. Wilderness areas, especially brittle ones like Havasupai, are evolving creatures. Flash floods have reshaped Havasu Canyon each and every year, and only someone making repeat visits can fully appreciate it.

That’s where you walk the line. Anderson explained it best with an example of Havasupai Falls. During certain parts of the year, the eye-popping blue-green waters you see in photos dull due to rainfall and floods that stir dirt. To a guide who has been to Havasu many times, seeing this change may be welcome. But for a guest visiting for the first time? Would they be happy to hear that, normally, the water is more vibrant and colorful? A guide’s job is to provide perspective, but in this way, it is important to consider what information will do more harm than good.

The reality of guiding is this: Some people on trips are in extreme need of your guidance, and it’s going to be far from a weekend in the woods with your buddies. Some on my trip were quite helpless. A few times, I caught myself starting to laugh, thinking their question might be a joke. I swear, one woman needed me to demonstrate how to screw on the top of a Camelback. Others were seemingly unaware that going into the wilderness required a few concessions. One night, a group used the hot water we boiled for tea to shampoo their hair.

Of course these are all things to laugh about individually, but in the moment, when it was one seemingly ridiculous thing after another for five straight days, my patience was tested. As an outdoorsman, the responsibility detracted from my own enjoyment of the experience, little by little. This was another big lesson, and probably the most important thing a prospective guide should understand: The gig is a customer service job above all else. And the people to who turn out to be the best guides are typically the ones who are able to gain personal enjoyment when they see it in others.

The gig is a customer service job above all else. And the people to who turn out to be the best guides are typically the ones who are able to gain personal enjoyment when they see it in others.

“Guiding is a customer service job that happens to be outdoors, not the other way around,” Anderson said. “But it’s cool to look at someone that’s green [inexperienced] and know you will play a big part in their experience. You are going to teach them what they don’t know. And they are either going to love it or hate it.” The analogy I came up with is that I still love movies I’ve seen a million times, and that it feels great when I put it on for someone and they like it too. There’s a satisfaction to be had from sharing something you love with others. Granted, putting on a movie for someone is a lot less work than taking them into the Grand Canyon for a week.

Without question, the hardest part of the trip was the four-hour car ride back to Phoenix. And I thought answering the questions on the way out there was tough. The final exam on that final drive was a test of patience like none other, when you’re tired and cranky and the light at the end of the tunnel is finally coming into sight. I’ll be honest: Dropping them off at the hotel and seeing them go inside coincided with a sigh of relief. For a moment, it overshadowed the fact that we guides had another two hours of unpacking still ahead of us back at the warehouse.

The main question I had before this experience was whether the responsibilities of a guide would change your relationship with the outdoors. The answer is: absolutely. It limits your ability to explore, and the daily grind and realities of taking care of 12 people are nothing to take lightly. You have to be in shape, mentally and physically, to keep a good attitude not only on the current trip, but the one that starts the day after you get back, and then the one after that. Guiding is without question a sharp double-edged sword. There’s all this fucking work to do, like carrying 60-pound coolers and patching blisters, but then there are these vivid, amazing moments when it feels like you’re living a dream. I was in the wilderness, off the grid, getting plenty of exercise, and surrounded by beauty. I was helping people expand their horizons. Like when a guest came up to me on the last day and said, regarding a small waterfall jump they had done earlier in the day, “If [my wife and I] were hiking this alone, we would have taken one look at [that cliff] and split.” Because of us, they did it, and will remember it long after we’ve forgotten them.

That night in the Canyon, I laid down to sleep in the guide tent, lying awake and listening to the river and the wind against the tent. I was thinking about all the moments, from the funny to the frustrating, the things the guests had said to me that made me feel good. But I was mostly listening to the river. In that moment, I wasn’t working. I was camping, going to sleep beside the river just as I would if I wasn’t responsible for the lives of 12 people. The next morning my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m., and I got up and went down to the river to fetch water. A half hour later, a guest emerged from her tent and asked me if we had any non-dairy coconut creamer. I found it in one of the coolers, and asked her if she wanted a piece of leftover carrot cake to go with her coffee.

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