I’m Your Guide, and That’s All You Need to Know

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Katrina Bloemsma had a head start. Growing up in Colorado with her “ski bum” dad, she learned to ski at three. Her high school had mandatory outdoor education, which meant bouldering, rock climbing and mountaineering were part of the curriculum. She had her brief periods of rebellion—when she thought she would rather do ballet or work for a congressman—but the mountains pulled her back.

Now Katrina is a senior instructor at the Seattle REI Outdoor School, and she has guided mountain climbing trips in the North Cascades and on Mount Rainier, Aconcagua and Denali. She talked to me about her experiences as a guide.

What’s great about guiding at REI?

We have women and men with very diverse leadership styles and skill sets, and we value them equally. That’s been very refreshing and positive. I’ve had the chance to mentor instructors who love what they do and who bring that passion to their teaching.

How is that different from the guiding industry as a whole?

Guiding is still a very male-dominated vocation. There are some amazing women who are helping challenge the norms, but the expectation of what makes a good guide is still really gendered. I left because I was looking for more women mentors and opportunities for growth in my career.

Have you ever felt underestimated?

All the time. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. How do I get my clients to understand that I’m the expert? It definitely changed how I approached people. I got very good at deflecting when it got uncomfortable, and finding ways to solidify my expertise on the sly. I felt I needed to prove myself more than the guy with a beard and plaid shirt who looks the “mountain man” part.

How did you overcome it?

My first climb as lead guide on Mount Rainier, I ended up with two women assistants, which was really rare. When I met my group—nine guys who went to college together—I thought, oh, this is going to be so hard. I set a really good tone, like, “Hey guys, I’m your guide, and that’s pretty much all you need to know.” They were really receptive to it and we had a ton of fun. At the end of the trip, they admitted they’d been skeptical about having an all-women guide team. Whatever gender baggage they brought with them, they met three women who challenged their expectations and they walked away with a very different perspective about what expertise looks like. That’s super impactful. I just changed how somebody thinks about things.

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