Jacob Schmitz spends over 200 nights a year in a tent and the rest of his time trying to drum up business as a pro climbing guide all over the planet.
By Chris Van Leuven
Jacob Schmitz guides so consistently he’s away from home in Bend, Oregon, for seven months or more out of a year. He recently finished his seventh back-to-back commercial trip, including his personal twenty-fifth summit of Aconcagua and six ascents of Mt. Vinson. He’s been pushing this pace for the decade that he’s been guiding, counting 85 expeditions on seven continents, and is ready to slow down. With the extra time he’s been working, Schmitz hopes to save up enough to buy a house—and actually spend time in it.
Recently, while Schmitz was in Puerto Natales, on the southernmost tip of Chilean Patagonia, 600 miles north of Antarctica, I interviewed him over Skype. We talked while he was in his hotel room packing bags with food he’d purchased, “the un-glorious parts of guiding.” He was preparing for Mt. Vinson, and would be leaving for Antarctica the following evening at midnight. He spent hours with me over the phone. I imagined him in his hotel room struggling to get his Skype call to go through while balancing his other obligations.
Seventeen years ago I met Schmitz in the Yosemite concession housing area called Boystown in the far end of Curry Village. Though we’ve stayed in touch, I hadn’t seen much of him until a recent wedding in Yosemite. He had just returned from Everest, and his arms were atrophied. He said he’d lost 10 pounds, and he was relatively quiet. Other than looking worn out from shepherding clients to 8,848m, he sounded as thrilled as ever for his next foray, this time to Antarctica.
When living and climbing in Yosemite Schmitz often said that work got in the way of his big-wall climbing. He was quick to bail if he thought there’d be a chance he’d be late. Sometimes we gave him a hard time when he did this, especially after blasting up the wall several hours before dawn only to retreat unexpectedly.
It didn’t take Schmitz long to head to the big peaks after he started guiding a decade ago. When one guide couldn’t make a big trip he immediately offered to fill the spot. He acclimates well and his success rate is high at 85 percent. He’s summited Denali 12 out of 14 times.
Schmitz’s seven-month work schedule usually includes a month in Antarctica, two months in Argentina, two months in Asia and a month in Alaska. He averages over 200 nights in a tent annually.
To make it work he’s talking with clients or potential clients all year. Schmitz has many repeat customers, saying, “When it’s a good trip and people have a lot of fun they get comfortable with that particular guide. And they want to do the [more peaks] with them.”
Many are very wealthy, but some he says, do what it takes like mortgaging a house to climb Everest. Schmitz noted that this client will likely spend decades paying off this debt. “For the most part we get white-collar business guys,” he says.
Others are on a quest to complete the seven summits (the tallest peaks on the seven summits). For example, three of the clients he had on Everest were repeat customers. One party is a group of Texas firemen who save money for two years, climbed one mountain and went back to work and saved up for two more years for the next peak. “They always ask for me, which is really flattering,” says Schmitz. “[I’ve] become passionate about these clients doing the seven summits.” Some clients he’s known for upwards of a decade.
Comparing guiding clients to regularly climbing partners he said, “Typically the clients are like-minded, active people. Every once in awhile you get some client who has signed up for something they shouldn’t be on or expected something else. Especially when they spend this much money and take a month [off of work]. Generally I have a great time with all my clients, [but] like everything in life you get a lot of different personalities.”
In the Puerto Natales hotel room, we picked up on a conversation we had started at the wedding in California. I’d never been to the Greater Ranges and wanted to know how guiding in the big mountains compared to what I knew best: climbing big walls.
Regarding packing for his trips Schmitz says, “You can’t carry too much fuel or food up the mountain. The big part of it is that we don’t [want to] have too much [of anything]. It takes years of experience and planning. Each camp I’m thinking of the next camp. It’s hard to carry a lot of equipment to 20,000 feet. On Everest it’s even harder. “
I asked him how he handles the risk. “With experience you can make better judgment calls,” he said. “It’s just being comfortable [and] being able to read your clients to see how well they are doing. You can’t climb too high too fast. And, like the rest of climbing, you assess conditions. You can play it safe. But that lowers your chance of summiting. The windows for summiting some things are small. It’s calculated risk [and] I always emphasis safety. I’ve never had an accident in the mountain. You think of what time of the day you’re traveling to reduce rock fall. But you can never eliminate the possibility.”
Some areas, he explains, like the Windy Corner and 16.2 Foot Ridge on Denali, the Lhotse Face on Everest and the Cantatela near the summit of Aconcagua are notorious. In those areas you have “very little control of rock, snow and falling ice,” he said, “over the past few years a few guides I know have died.”
I ask him about his scariest moments while guiding. “There have been some extremely bad winds on Aconcagua,” he said. “We were losing our tents; they were being broken. We were caught in a windstorm up high. The winds also cause frostbite.”
His worst moment was “on Aconcagua one season in November…. I wasn’t acclimatized but had 15 Aconcaguas under my belt. I decided to do the Polish Glacier in a day from Base Camp to set up weather ports, [otherwise known as] dining tents. [It has] 9,000 feet elevation gain. I left at 3 a.m. and summited. Not being acclimatized, I had acute mountain sickness and starting losing it between 19,000 and 17,000 feet.”
“On my way down after summiting I just had this weird delusional [experience]. I was kind of wandering around. I wasn’t really sure where I was. I saw this lady dressed in traditional Peruvian clothes. She said there was a hut on the north side; [but I knew] there is nothing on the north side. I think she was kind of screwing me over [laughs].
It was very, very cold. In what seemed like many hours I woke up with extreme pain in my heels. They were uncovered and freezing. [The temperature was] negative something; I was just lying on the ground with no bivy gear. [Finally] I went down to base camp. It was 27 hours round trip.”
“[The woman I imagined] reminded me of my first visit to an indigenous village. That was in 2001 when I was [near] Lake Titicaca (on the boarder of Peru and Bolivia). It was one of my early trips, and it really stayed with me. Those people had no electricity. The men fished and the women grew corn. A lady from that village dressed that same way as my vision. She had a big impression on me.”
But despite that experience, Schmitz is more afraid of climbing when he’s not guiding, when things are less structured. “I’ve been freaked out while rock climbing with my buddies [due to] rock fall. When climbing with Aaron Martin (his housemate; an avid soloist, alpinist and hard aid climber) in Patagonia it’s definitely sketchy.”
“I always tell my dad he doesn’t have to worry when I guide peaks. Guiding on these bigger mountains is generally safe. But in the back of your mind you worry about avalanches.”
As a freelancer, I frequently write about the climbing I do, but my work rarely affects the way I climb. I wondered if guiding for a living took pleasure out of climbing mountains for Schmitz. He answered simply: “no.” He has a “wish list” of other peaks he’d still like to climb, and he looks forward to cragging at Smith Rocks, doing solo missions in the Cascades and climbing in the Sierras. He said guiding provides him with incredible endurance that transfers to his personal climbing goals. In 2008, he soloed the north ridge of Mt. Stewart in 20 hours.
Between his relentless work schedule and non-work climb and ski trips, Schmitz is home so rarely that he says it is trying on relationships. He sees his old Yosemite friends maybe once a year.
“Every once in a while [I] meet an incredible woman,” he said. She thinks it’s amazing that [I’m] an Everest guide.” But they don’t stick around when he says he’ll see them in again in three months or more. “In that time people move away [and] take different jobs. It’s a lot to ask to ask a woman to be on standby.”