“The perks are getting to be a part of people’s best days, their worst days, and to be a part of this significant event in people’s life.”
“The perks are getting to be a part of people’s best days, their worst days, and to be a part of this significant event in people’s life.” (Photo: Stephen Matera/TandemStock)

How a Mountain Guide Makes It Work on $35,000 a Year

We dig into the finances of an Alpine Ascents International guide

“The perks are getting to be a part of people’s best days, their worst days, and to be a part of this significant event in people’s life.”

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Name: Mike Coyle
Occupation: Mountain guide and outdoor educator
Age: 30
Location: Split between the Cascades and the Front Range
Salary: $35,000

What are your monthly expenses? Last year, I only paid two months of rent at $400 per month. This year, I haven’t paid any rent because I was in Argentina from December 1 through March 1, staying in employee housing while guiding on Aconcagua for Alpine Ascents International. When I came back, I stayed at employee housing while I was working for Colorado Mountain School in Estes Park, Colorado. Other than that, I was camping in Moab or staying with friends or my girlfriend. When I’m moving around so much, it doesn’t make sense to sign a lease. I make it work between the truck—I drive a 2004 Toyota Tacoma and in a pinch can sleep in the back—and friend’s houses. Each month, I pay $120 in student loans, $70 for car insurance, $10 for Netflix, $15 for my Audible subscription, and $100 for my phone bill. I don’t pay for internet, utilities, or health insurance (I’m still on Medicaid from a work injury). I contribute to a Roth IRA when I can; last month I put in $180. I usually save whatever I make in tips.

How much time off do you have? It depends on the season. Summer is consistently my busiest time. There are periods, like when I was on Denali in Alaska, where I work for a month straight. In the Cascades, I might work nine out of ten days doing back-to-back summit climbs and then get five days off or something. In fall, I teach at a community college and have two days off per week, though I might get work guiding on those days. Generally, October and November are my least busy months. December used to be slow, but I teach a lot more avalanche safety classes now and work a trip or two on Aconcagua every year. I try to work when I can, but I don’t really plan time off unless it’s a big trip. I just climb or ski on the days off I get.

How did you become a mountain guide? I went on an Outward Bound course when I was 15. That was my first real expedition, and I loved it. Honestly, it kind of changed my life in terms of how I perceived what is possible outside. I decided pretty much right then that I wanted to be able to provide that experience for other people, at the time really having no idea what that meant. I wasn’t a mountain person or climber then. I just knew I wanted to be involved in giving other people that experience. I moved to Taos, New Mexico, after high school, where there are mountains, and continued to pursue the outdoors by ski instructing and raft guiding. I still didn’t know what it meant to be a guide. I found the adventure education major at Fort Lewis in Durango, Colorado, and that’s when it really became a more solidified dream of exactly what I wanted to do and how. I became more involved in climbing culture and learning about what this profession is about, and opportunities opened up from there.

Walk us through a year of work. In January, I was already in Argentina—I got there in December 2017—finishing my first Aconcagua expedition, and then I turned around did a second Aconcagua trip. In March, I came back to the States and taught an ice-climbing course and a mountaineering course at Red Rock Community College. I taught a bunch of avalanche courses for a guiding service and did a couple days of backcountry ski guiding. In late April, I came to Washington and started guiding in the Cascades on Rainier, Baker, and Shuksan. I spent June and half of July on Denali, then was back in the Cascades. From now through October, I’m teaching classes at the community college and picking up other local guiding work. In November, I’m doing a climbing trip in Nepal for fun, and then I’ll be back on Aconcagua for two trips.

What do you do for fun? Rock climbing or skiing. In the past year I climbed in Red Rock Canyon, the Flatirons, El Dorado Canyon, Potrero Chico, the Frey in Bariloche, ice climbing and skiing in the San Juans, and a few climbing trips to Moab and Pacific Northwest climbing hubs like Leavenworth, Index, Squamish, and I climbed for fun in the Cascades. It’s been a good year, and getting to travel and have random times off to do trips is a huge job perk.

What’s the hardest part of your job? Finding time for myself and a routine, in terms of working out and eating good food and all that. The hardest thing day to day is trying to find those moments to develop some kind of routine for myself, but in terms of the bigger picture, all my stuff is in my truck all the time. In Seattle, I worry about my car getting broken into. In Colorado, I’m not worried about theft, it’s just not having a permanent space for myself. The most difficult hurdle I’ve had was when I fell and broke my ankle and dislocated my shoulder while climbing. I had to move back in with my parents, because I couldn’t drive the truck I was living in, and I couldn’t do my job while injured. That was incredibly hard. My income depends entirely on my body being healthy. The fear of that happening again is a constant nagging thought. I can’t work if I’m hurt. I’ve been able to save some money, but the job we do as seasonal employees doesn’t give us benefits or PTO or worker’s comp unless I get hurt while I’m doing my job.

Job perks? The perks are getting to be a part of people’s best days, their worst days, and to be a part of this significant event in people’s life. I feel like I’m spreading joy and opening up a part of the world that would otherwise be inaccessible for people. It’s a perk to be able to share a part of the world that I feel like is essential, at least in my life.

What do you drive? A 2004 Toyota Tacoma.

What was your biggest purchase this year? A plane ticket to Nepal and fixing my truck.

What are your biggest spending categories every month? Going out to eat and groceries. I spend too much money on that. I’ll buy vegetables and have them go bad while I’m working. I feel pressured into eating out quite a bit. I have to cook out of my truck or in the office because I don’t have a kitchen, so sometimes it’s easier to go out.

Things you can’t live without buying? Food. Gas—I’m constantly driving. Clothes and replacing gear is a big expense. Climbing gear. Dog food and the occasional kitschy sweater for my dog, Yonder.

Something you want but can’t afford? A house.

What are your long-term financial goals? To earn enough money to afford a mortgage.

How do you feel about the state of your finances? Better than I did last year.

Are you happy with the state of your finances? Yeah. I have what I need, and that’s great. I think I’ve been able to save a bit of money this year, but I still feel like I’m recovering from breaking my ankle. That was a big setback. I feel good now.

Lead Photo: Stephen Matera/TandemStock