Pro Ski Mountaineer Sheldon Kerr Pushes the Limits
January 9, 2013
STACK had the chance to sit down with mountain guide and freeskier Sheldon Kerr before she started up another winter season of ski guiding in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Range. Kerr is a professional skier, climber and mountain guide. Having achieved the highest level of avalanche training available in the United States, she is currently working her way through the vigorous American Mountain Guides Associate certification process.
As an experienced mountain guide, Sheldon Kerr’s 9 to 5 is—in many respects—a dream job. However, there’s more to being a mountain guide than the obvious great views and fresh tracks; with each mountain ascent and ski descent, guides tacitly embrace incredible risk. Kerr arms herself with advanced snow knowledge, mountain experience and a keen respect for nature to bring both herself and her party home safe. In the following interview, Kerr takes us through a year in the life of a mountain guide, exposing everything from technical guiding knowledge to harrowing adventure.
STACK: What have you been up to this past year?
Kerr: Makes my head spin just thinking about it. In the past 12 months, I’ve had one five-week stint in the same bed each night. Okay, get ready for a rundown of the past year.
I spent last winter in Silverton, alternating between backcountry skiing out of huts, heli-guiding and teaching avalanche courses. Then I headed north to the Lofoten Islands, above the Arctic Circle in Norway, for a working vacation where I skied first descents and guided ski touring.
By mid-April I skipped back over to Seattle and then up to Haines, Alaska for a vacation-turned-epic when the weather turned and my partner and I were stuck out in Glacier Bay National Park for many days without food.
Then I headed up to Anchorage to guide a multi-week expedition on Mt. Bona in the Wrangell St Elias—which we summited, thank God!
STACK: So what happens when the snow melts?
Kerr: In June, I returned to Washington and guided my way up and down Rainier a dozen or so times. I ended my summer season in northern Washington alpine climbing.
Then, I enter my annual fun-employment season—a climbing road trip. I work my way back down to Silverton, climbing my way through Smith Rock, Oregon; Joshua Tree, California; Red Rock Canyon, Nevada; Zion and Indian Creek, Utah and back home again to Silverton. Whew.
STACK: Speaking of "fun-employment," would you describe your current employment as a career or a lifestyle?
Kerr: I want a lifestyle where I can work my body all day, every day, but also use my brain, hard. A career in mountain guiding allows for that. The physicality of climbing and skiing professionally is obvious, [but] the mental work of making complicated decisions all day, every day, is less obvious—and perhaps less sexy. Staring at weather models, charting acclimatization rates or glaring at snow crystal structures doesn’t make for great posters, but it’s half the fun of this career.
STACK: So where do you call home?
Kerr: Silverton, Colorado. At 9,300 feet, it gives me the most street cred.
STACK: Out of all the guiding you do, what aspect is most rewarding?
Kerr: High altitude expedition mountaineering is certainly the most rewarding for me, especially when I can manage getting every client to the top. We call it "type-two" fun.
STACK: What's "type-two" fun?
Kerr: Fun after it’s over.
STACK: Got it. So what’s "type-one" fun?
Kerr: Skiing is type-one fun, rewarding while you are doing it. The rush from a well-executed expedition can last for weeks. The rush from a ski descent perfectly swished is over at the trailhead.
STACK: How do you maintain your physical strength throughout the season and between seasons?
Kerr: The day-to-day grind of 6- to 20-hour days at altitude definitely makes for some killer baseline fitness. I can completely crush anyone in a walking-up-hill-slowly-with-a-heavy-pack competition. But the weekend warriors and pre-work gym rats—people who actively train—are hard to keep up with in strength and power. So even though I’m active the entire day, I have to take the time to work out before or after the workday. This is especially important since my coworkers and clients are all men.
My favorite quicky workout is 100 Pull-Ups, 100 Push-Ups, 100 Sit-Ups, and 100 Bodyweight Squats. I can do it anywhere, it crushes me, it takes about an hour and there’s no equipment necessary.
STACK: Do you belong to a gym? Or do you consider your gym the "great outdoors"?
Kerr: Depending on where I am, I’ll go to the local CrossFit gym. I think I’ve been to 25 gyms at this point. I go partly for the workout and partly for the camaraderie. I am pre-disposed to loneliness, and it’s nice to walk into a gym and feel a sense of community for an hour before I head back to my tent/hotel/cabin/truck to sleep for the night.
STACK: How is it working with your male coworkers?
Kerr: Most of the time, being in a work environment where I am outnumbered 10 to 1 by men is no big deal. But I’ve certainly had a few experiences that have reminded me why there are so few women in this field, and that we have a long way to go.
STACK: Can you let us in on one of those experiences?
Kerr: This past year, a client used a female-oriented derogatory word to refer to me. To which I very calmly replied, “that is both inappropriate and inaccurate.” Stayed professional, set boundaries, kept it light. I made my point, he felt stupid, his friends were embarrassed and it never happened again. And it ranges from little interactions like that to full-blown workplace harassment. But usually the biggest challenge of being a female in a male-dominated field is trying to find a good spot to take a leak.
STACK: But, wouldn’t it behoove your clients and coworkers to respect you since, after all, you do have their lives in your hands?
Kerr: So much of the work of alpine guiding and ski guiding is not only team-oriented but team-dependent. Much of the time, we are literally tied to our partners and coworkers. We depend on each other’s judgment and abilities in a way that is unique to mountain environments. When we say we depend on each other, it isn’t like we really need to make sure that our teammate finishes those TPS reports or really nails that presentation on Monday. No, we need our clients, coworkers, climbing and skiing partners to literally dig us out of an avalanche in less than 15 minutes, or pull us out of a crevasse before we freeze to death. They need to be able to catch our fall when that rock hold breaks or rappel 1,000 feet to the ground if we get knocked out. It is our confidence in each other that allows us to do great things in the mountains. I think that sort of true dependence on one another makes this field ripe with potential for equality.
STACK: Do you have any tips for young women entering a male-dominated professional community?
Kerr: Be professional. In mountain guiding, professionalism is measured in fitness and physical ability, but also in technical skills, confident decision making and interpersonal abilities. Set boundaries. When you enter a workplace full of dudes, decide early what you are and are not comfortable with, and let your coworkers and clients know. Don’t want to work somewhere that people use female-oriented insults? Nip it in the bud. Be quick-witted. A woman with a sense of humor is a powerful force.
STACK: The responsibility of a mountain guide must be enormous. How do you harness your mental endurance during your expeditions?
Kerr: I just read the Vanity Fair article where the reporter followed President Obama for days on end (Read the article here). The President told the reporter that he tried taking all extraneous decision-making out of his everyday life, because one’s decision-making ability decreases the more decisions one makes. I do something similar on expeditions, where I delegate decisions and possible stressors to assistant guides and clients and empower them to take on those responsibilities fully. I want to worry about avalanche conditions, route finding, crevasse falls, weather forecasting, time management, client security and summiting. Joey will help you fix that crampon.
STACK: Is the feeling of reaching the summit always worth the pain and sacrifice?
Kerr: Yes, within reason. We like to say that going up is optional but coming down in mandatory. So the summit isn’t really the point of success. My stress level on a multi-week guided climbing expedition in Alaska doesn’t go down until we get back to base camp and get in the ski plane. Then I relax, because we still may die but it won’t be my fault. And yes, the beers taste way better after a challenging summit.
STACK: You made a reference earlier about being trapped on a glacier without food for days. Can you elaborate on the physical and mental strength you had to muster during that adventure?
Kerr: This past April, my partner, Mark Allen, and I chartered a plane to Glacier Bay National Park, outside Haines, Alaska, for a four-day skiing trip. As soon as our bush plane dropped us off, the weather descended and trapped us on the glacier for twelve days. On the eighth day, we ran out of food, and ended up on a two-day, cross-country escape, climbing up and over multiple mountain passes and skiing down and through glaciers with about 50 feet of visibility. Once down off the glaciers, we strapped our skis to our pack and bushwhacked miles and miles to the ocean through bogs, bear traps, and giant pricker plants, hoping a boat could pick us up. Two 16-hour days of hard work, grizzlies all around, with nothing but 6 ounces of olive oil and a tortilla to share. But years of being in near-epics on Denali, Rainier, Aconcagua and skiing in Colorado and Alaska had really prepared me for a proper epic.
STACK: At any point, did you think you weren’t going to make it?
Kerr: There was no doubt in my mind that we’d make it. We were really good athletes, used to long days and extremely stressful situations. And my ability to see humor in a dire situation doesn’t hurt. I mean, at least we had no food that the bears would attack us for. And it was an incredible weight loss program.
STACK: Can you leave us with a couple quotes that motivate you?
Kerr: Sure thing. "You don’t need to be faster than the boys or stronger than the boys; you just need to be better than the boys." And, "Your workout is my workday."
Kerr's trail blazing nature has pushed her clear through the limits—in any normal sense of the word. But hey, no risk, no reward; no guts, no glory.