I used to treat mountain guides like many people treat ski instructors; once they showed you the rudimentary basics, you were on your own to figure out the slopes all the way to double diamond.
Part of that approach is appealing to me (in mountaineering). Many great climbers from the past learned to climb virtually on their own and then improved through their own tenacity for climbing. The idea of approaching a mountain on your own, just you and it, was part of the romantic wilderness experience. It also has the potential for greatness or a great fall, separating the bold as either brilliant or foolish.
Among non-climbers, mountain guides are often thought of in terms of the client-guide relationship described in Krakauer’s book of the 1996 Everest disaster, Into Thin Air. In that relationship, the guide was similar to a shepherd, herding the wealthy (or semi-wealthy) clients to get to the summit. I’d like to debunk that stereotype.
Now that I climb much, much less than I dreamed I would at this point in my life, I value guides differently than when Rock and River Guides in the Adirondacks taught me years ago. For me today, mountain guides are still teaching me, reminding me of things I have forgotten or pointing out how to do things better. This is especially true as gear continues to change and improve. For instance, there are some better belay devices out there today than the ATC I initially learned to use.
Guides are also the guardians of the future of the sport. Depsite that the Outdoor Foundation reports that climbing has declined with new entrants in the past four years (I suspect because of the economic downturn, which began in late 2006 with the delinquency and foreclosure crisis), the refinement of climbing depends on the knowledge of mountain skills and the quality of the instructors. Even people (especially young people) are not flocking to the sport as they did several years ago, those that are sending ought to continue and develop their skills until other priorities (God forbid!) take over. For me, I rely on guides to give me the pointers before I venture out again.
They’re value is appreciated even more so when things go wrong for hikers and climbers alike. It is often a mountain guide that comes to the rescue. In these events, the mountain guides expertise is appreciated even more and respected more than simply a recreational skiing instructor.
As an old issue of Climbing said, they have all the responsibility of a surgeon, despite a plumbers wage. In that, they are part of the working class, at least in teh United States and Canada. After a rescue (or hopefully you think so without one) they should be recognized as professionals.