If you are crazy for granite and perilous heights and foolish enough to believe that life rewards passion, your obsession probably began here. It's known, officially, as Camp 4 of Yosemite National Park. But among climbers and mountaineers, it's called Medina. As in the second-holiest place in Islam. The precise location of summit mecca depends on the flavor of adrenaline you prefer. For some, it's Everest. For others, it's the top of El Capitan, the famously difficult crag that overlooks this crowded campground of tattooed and dreadlocked youths. Regardless of which direction you face to pray, you've come here for the same reason Muhammad went to his mountains: because of a dream.
"I'd wake up every day and just climb," explained Heidi Wirtz, 32, a small woman with rosy cheeks and arms like lead pipes who doesn't say things as much as laugh them. "And I'd come home, and my parents would spend all night telling me that I'm wasting my life. But it's all I wanted to do."
Wirtz, raised in Sacramento and now based in Boulder, Colo., has been chasing her dream for a decade, when she's not working construction or waitressing or shoveling snow. The same dream infects Dylan Taylor, 28, who's huddled in a tent at 14,000 feet at the base of the Bhagirathi Mountains in the Indian Himalaya, hoping to ascend to heights that will put his climbing career on the map.
Both of them think, maybe, they're beginning to figure out the rules, the rules that allow you to do this all the time. Others have figured them out -- Ed Viesturs, for instance. Viesturs is probably the most famous climber in the United States, the first American to summit 13 of the 14 tallest peaks in the world without supplemental oxygen. Viesturs is a professional climber, sponsored by multiple companies who pay him -- pay him! -- to climb.
He seems to know the rules. And Taylor and Wirtz think maybe they've figured them out. They're pretty sure.
Try to get famous.
When Britain's Royal Geographical Society opened its doors in 1830 as a gathering place for gentleman adventurers, it formalized the career paths for mountaineers. Exploring terra incognita was, unfortunately, expensive and largely unprofitable. So those seeking full-time employment could either be born into great wealth or, by dint of exploits or old-boy connections, persuade the wealthy to hire them as guides or company representatives.
Today it's still tough to live what you love as a professional adventurer. Most climbing and mountaineering guides earn, on average, $8,000 to $10,000 per year. Elite independent guides might make as much as $30,000 to $50,000. But jobs are scarce -- professional guiding services report 60 to 100 applications for every open position -- and guiding can intrude on exploring new terrain.
Rock climbing and mountaineering, however, are popular as never before. Over the last five years, the number of Americans scaling cliff walls and slopes has increased 60% to 16.7 million, according to the Outdoor Industry Assn. Climbing has become a $5-billion-a-year industry, and a trip up Everest or a similar peak can cost upward of $75,000.
The popularity has created a demand for celebrities and spokespersons, and outdoor companies are lining up to sponsor the daring and celebrated. Fame, though, is elusive.
"I get about 50 to 100 applications per month from people who want us to fund an expedition," said Aaron Imholt, athletic expeditions manager at the North Face, a California-based outdoor company that sponsors 15 to 18 trips a year. "We're looking for athletes who are known for something like a first ascent or an unrepeatable climb. Someone who is a great storyteller with stories people want to hear."
So you begin by doing anything you can to get noticed. New climbs. Fast climbs. More mountains in one day than anyone before. Anything unique, which is increasingly difficult in this well-explored world.
And always bring a photographer.
"People started asking if they could take my picture," Wirtz said. "I didn't really want to do it. But someone put me in a movie they were making, and a friend needed my picture to sell an article to a climbing magazine, and suddenly people started knowing who I am."
Wirtz is the newest member of the North Face Athlete Team, so she's in a hurry to make sure she understands the rules. Many of them concern celebrity and marketing. Sponsors, for instance, frequently offer climbers a paycheck if they are photographed by a magazine and the sponsor's logo is visible. Conversations around campfires these days may dwell on the finer points of contract law.
Mountaineering, in short, is changing from a sport of rugged individualism to a new, more "domestic activity," said Karl "Baba" Bralich, a climbing guide who divides his time between Yosemite and Joshua Tree, east of Los Angeles. "Guiding has always been about dangerous and senseless activities. All this money is chasing that romance out."
But Dylan Taylor wouldn't mind trading some romance for dollars. Taylor has guided trips through the Cascade Mountains for the Washington state-based American Alpine Institute, and gained some notice when his team was the first to ascend the daunting north face of Domo Blanco in Patagonia.
Last year he and a friend received $11,000 in grants from outdoor companies and climbing associations to travel to India.
Their proposal was to climb three peaks in the 21,500-foot Bhagirathi Mountains in a single assault -- something no one had done.
After hiking for three days, they reached base camp. Eight days later they began to climb, carrying as little food and water as possible so they could finish in three to six days.
By the end of the first day, they had climbed two-thirds up the first mountain of granite and slate, moving faster than expected.
They found a 5-foot ledge, spread their tent, a sleeping bag and packs over themselves, and roped in for a few hours' sleep. If things continued this well, at trip's end they would send notice of their accomplishment to the American Alpine Journal, which publishes an annual summary of significant climbs.
They would be on their way, a step closer to making the dream real.
Begin a campaign
"You really have to hound people" is how Wirtz explains her strategy for getting someone to pay her to climb.
"I didn't write the same person every day or anything," Wirtz said. "I would write about once a week. Well, maybe more. I mean, I didn't write everyone every day. Only some people I would write every day."
She pauses slightly.
"I'd call sometimes too. But never more than once a day. Almost never."
In case you have telemarketer issues, there are ways besides cold-calling to achieve the mountaineering lifestyle. Mark Houston started as a mountain guide with the American Alpine Institute on a key training ground for climbing pros, Mt. Rainier, eventually convincing his girlfriend, Kathy Cosley, to join him. They started like everyone else, guiding solely to pay bills and climbing because it was all they wanted to do. But slowly, subtly, other desires started creeping in. It might be nice, Cosley thought, to have a house and a regular salary someday.
So they started a company out of Bishop, Calif., leading mountain tours in the Alps, Peru, New Zealand, Africa and Canada. That's where they discovered how to forge a life outdoors -- and that climbing and guiding are not the same thing. Guiding isn't about technical ability or taking exciting risks. It's about communication skills.
"Clients want to be in this big uncontrolled environment that holds so much potential for danger, because it's so awe-inspiring," explained Cosley, "but they don't really want to be exposed to that risk. You are the one who has to make sure they not only are safe, but feel safe too."
"To be a good guide," she added, "you have to like people more than you like climbing."
So unless you'd rather teach than climb, unless you want to own a home and have a regular salary, you have to continue harassing.
Conquer the trade show.
After you have written letters to every company you can think of, after you have called, left messages, applied for grants and sought every opportunity to introduce yourself, you go direct, breaking through the voicemail barrier at the trade show, specifically the Outdoor Retailer show, held summer and winter in Salt Lake City.
The show's vast convention center is, in many ways, scarier than a mountain. The icy canyons of risk are gone, but in their stead are cavernous rooms overflowing with booths and screens and screaming company representatives. But the people you need to meet are here in the flesh, and the bold may score a hit. Taylor laid siege to a show before leaving for India, wandering commercial crevasses lit by neon.
Drawing on lessons learned from years on rock faces, he plunged in. "I've got a plan for a trip that is going to be amazing," he began with anyone who would listen. And that's when he began to learn: Companies want something. They want their products seen, they want you to help them make money. And most of all, they want you to explain what you can do for them, not what they can do for you.
"If we're not selling any product, none of us gets paid," explained Imholt of the North Face.
So Taylor began to learn how to sell himself -- and a company's tents, carabiners and clothes. He learned how to tell a story magazines want to hear, and how to mention who made his great jacket and boots.
When Wirtz attended her first trade show, it was a little easier. Because there are fewer elite female climbers, "being a girl really helped," she said. Wirtz came to the show with a fancy-looking folder that contained the magazines in which she had appeared, a plan for the coming year and a winning smile. "I tried to act professional," she said. She went from booth to booth, pestering everybody until someone would talk to her. Wirtz left the conference with two more sponsorships and enough free gear to last her six months. "You just have to be persistent," she said.
Taylor also made some contacts at the show, but everyone told him to check back after his India climb.
"Sometimes I love this lifestyle," he said afterward. "Other times, though, I hate it. I have no idea where I'm going to be in two months. I got a master's in geology I've never used. Sometimes I wake up wondering if I made the right decision."
But as Taylor and his partner, clinging to the slopes of Bhagirathi III, start their final assault on the first summit, he begins to allow himself to believe the dream might be within reach. The peak is only 500 feet away. They try one route, but the rock becomes unstable. They descend and try another route, but it also peters out. Clouds now are swirling around them and the temperature is dropping, so they set up their tent on a ledge and pause to wait out the weather. They sit on that ledge for two days as the snow piles up around them. Two days in a tent on a 5-foot ledge thousands of feet above the ground, eating and drinking as little as possible. And only thinking one thing: If I can just get to the top, I'll have it made.
Just keep climbing,
until you can't.
The snow has stopped falling on the Bhagirathi Mountains, but now, on the fourth day of his climb, at 20,000 feet, Taylor's ropes have frozen solid. And because he is eating as little as possible, conserving his food for the grueling climb ahead, his body is starting to deteriorate. He grudgingly decides to rappel to base camp and give the weather a few days to improve. A week later, although it is still desperately cold and Taylor has lost all feeling in some of his toes, they try again. They rescale the rock face of the mountain. But on the first night their stove malfunctions. After a few hours of fiddling, it's fixed. Then, when they wake at 2 a.m. to start climbing, colder than ever amid a hailstorm of small rocks in a raging wind, the stove malfunctions again. Climbers don't carry water. Instead they carry stoves to melt snow every night. So if the stove doesn't work, you can't drink. After more than a month on this mountain, after waiting through hail and boredom, when the snow finally stops and Taylor is willing to brave freezing winds to prove that he deserves to do this all the time -- that's when the stove stops working! That wasn't in the rules!
There are no rules.
"There really aren't any rules for success," explained Ed Viesturs -- the Ed Viesturs. The one who is supposed to have figured it all out. "It took me 15 years to learn that and become an overnight success. I was guiding and thinking there must be more to life than this, so I started calling companies and telling them that their products are great and here's what I can do to help you promote them. But sometimes I wonder, will people still consider me a valuable asset 15 years from now?"
Wirtz has five sponsorships that bring her less than $10,000 a year and all the gear she wants, but she's still working construction to pay her bills. As a famous mountaineer, Viesturs can support himself through sponsorships, slide shows, books and guiding. He does one to two major expeditions a year, including a trip next year to Annapurna, the 14th and final mountain in his quest to climb all the 8,000-meter peaks (26,400 feet). The rest of the year is filled with 40 to 50 appearances at stores and trade shows, and speeches at corporate events. He gets paid more to be a climber than for his actual climbing.
And that's ultimately what Taylor realizes on this mountain: His quest for rules isn't working out. He needs to make his own rules. So he creates Taylor Rule No. 1: You have to survive to climb. If he freezes to death on this exposed face, it won't bring him closer to his goals. He packs up his rope and heads down. At that exact moment, the weather clears enough that he can see the peak. It is so close. The frustration floods through him. He thinks about all the work, the scraping for funds and, mostly, the lost dream. Bitterness begins to rise, but it's overtaken by the surge of another rule, Taylor Rule No. 2: Never give up. He'll be back.
"The odds of success are never high," he said. "If they were, I probably wouldn't like climbing."
And maybe that indicates the truest rule of climbing. "If you're passionate about climbing and keep plugging away at it, you'll figure out how to make it happen," said Viesturs. "It's very hard and very frustrating, but in the meantime, you still get to climb."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Top guns for hire
If you want to follow in the footsteps of a pro mountaineer -- at least the climbing part of it -- hire one as a guide. What should you be looking for?
Many mountaineers recommend guides certified by the American Mountain Guides Assn. Founded in 1979, the organization offers guide training and certification in rock, alpine and ski mountaineering.
The pros also suggest hiring guides familiar with emergency medicine and rescue techniques, and finding someone who makes you comfortable. "A lot of new guides underestimate the human element," says Kathy Cosley, a guide based in Bishop, Calif.
But not every climbing guide believes you need the AMGA seal of approval to get clients up in the world.
"Guiding was never about organizations or official approval," says Karl "Baba" Bralich, a guide working unofficially in Yosemite.
Official or unofficial, look out for climbing skills, expertise in local terrain and satisfied customers.
Here are a few places to start your search:
American Mountain Guides Assn.
Southern California Mountaineers Assn.
Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School
Joshua Tree, Calif.
Yosemite Mountaineering School
American Alpine Institute