How to Find a Climbing Job

Work in the Climbing Industry

Brian, a senior guide with Front Range Climbing Company, demonstrates how a cam works for protection on a guided climb at Garden of the Gods. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

How do you get a job in the climbing industry? You’ve been climbing for a few years, traveling around the country on your vacation days and doing routes at Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Moab, and the New River Gorge. Mostly you’re a weekend warrior, cranking a bunch of climbs and hanging with the buds. But every Sunday evening, as you drive home, you dread the thought that tomorrow is Monday. Work day. You think, “Man, I got to get a climbing job.”

Most Climbing Jobs are Low Paying

There are lots of jobs in the climbing industry, but most, unfortunately, are low paying. Rule out being a sponsored pro climber unless you’re the best of the elite, like Chris Sharma, Emily Harrington, or Alex Honnold. You can be a rock guide but the pay is not great and it tends to be seasonal work. You can work in a climbing shop or indoor rock gym but again, the wages are subsistence level. But don’t be discouraged. If you put your nose to the grindstone, ear to the wind, eat lots of beans, rice, and Ramen, and work hard, then you may eventually find success in the business of climbing. And don’t forget—it is a business.

Forget the Glamorous Jobs

Forget about getting much of a foothold on the seemingly glamorous jobs, like climbing photographer, climbing writer, event organizer, sponsored climber, gear tester, and filmmaker. Those jobs take a lot of hard work, a lot of rejection, and a fair amount of business sense and networking.

Get Experience and a College Degree

The best way to work in the climbing industry, especially if you have zero experience, is by working as an intern for no pay. If you do have experience, your resume of climbing routes and grades is probably going to be at the bottom. Instead you need a solid background, in fields like finance, sales, marketing, design, and education.

It’s best to have a college education coupled with experience. Other jobs that utilize your vertical skills usually require experience in electronics, construction, and carpentry. For a manufacturing job with companies that make gear like Black Diamond Equipment, it is necessary to have machine and industrial experience.

What Qualities Do You Need for a Climbing Job?

What qualities do you need to work in the climbing industry? Enthusiasm, climbing knowledge, sales ability, appearance, and a congenial personality are a few necessary traits. It’s important to remember that many climbing jobs require contact with clients so you need to be comfortable interacting with people and keeping them safe. At Front Range Climbing Company (I’m part-owner of this Colorado guide service), we tell all our guides at the beginning of the summer season that we don’t care that they can climb 5.12 or just got back from a three-month road trip. Every guided climbing day is not about the guide. It’s about the client and their safe and fun experience. We tell the guides, “You’re going to be living in a 5.7 world all summer.”

3 Common Climbing Industry Jobs

Here are the three most common kinds of climbing industry jobs.

It is best to remember that these are jobs, not careers. They can only become careers if you become an owner of a climbing industry business.

CLIMBING GYM EMPLOYEE

Indoor climbing gyms are located all over the United States from Florida to Washington. Most require a fair number of employees to keep the doors open seven days a week. Climbing gyms need a bunch of employees to work during busy times of the day, usually evenings, and few during the rest of the day; so most jobs are part-time, usually from 10 to 20 hours a week.

If you have basic climbing knowledge and are personable then you can probably get a front desk job. This is basic work—sitting behind a desk, selling memberships, checking members in, and answering the phone. Other workers do safety checks, enforce safety rules for belaying and lowering, climbing instruction, and stripping holds off the wall.

More experienced employees usually do the routesetting, creating new routes. Most of these jobs pay minimum wage with no benefits. Do the math—it’s pretty much impossible to survive on a gym rat’s wages.

ROCK CLIMBING GUIDE

A climbing guide is one of the glam jobs, not.  Actually it’s hard work to be a guide. If you go the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) route then you will spend a lot of time and money to earn certifications that allow you to run toprope and single-pitch climbing venues or advanced climbing courses. Many guide services, however, don’t require certifications.

Requirements to be a successful climbing guide are a broad base of climbing knowledge and experience, ability to always keep clients safe, ability to make sound safety decisions, first aid training like Wilderness First Responder certification, and great people skills. Remember that this is a people business. Your clients’ fun and safety are always your number one priority. Guide services run two basic kinds of climbing trips: the “carnival ride” for clients who want to go home to Texas and say they went rock climbing, and the educational trip that actually teaches climbing and safety skills.

It is hard to get a good job as a climbing guide. The best gigs are usually taken by older guides, so you have to work as a part-time belayer and junior guide under the direction of an experienced guide. Guiding is seasonal work also so many guides work other jobs in the off-season, save their cash and go on a road trip, or find a job as an ice guide or do lead other kinds of trips.

Most guides are paid an hourly wage based on their experience, skills, and certifications, and rely on tips for extra money. It is also easy to get burned out on guiding with its long hours as well as difficult clients. Every guide can tell you a story about their “client from hell.”

CLIMBING STORE SALESPERSON

Many climbers work as salespeople at retail stores that sell climbing, clothing, and outdoor gear. Most cities have at least one independently-owned outdoor equipment store as well as the big retailers like REI and EMS. The sales staff is often a collection of part-time employees who work for minimum wage and discounts on climbing gear. Most retail sales jobs have a pay ceiling and limited opportunities for advancement. The best way to earn more than marginal wages is to transition into a retail management job but you will usually need other skills besides sales to continue upward. It’s best to work at your local climbing shop for a year or two to earn some cash, increase the size of your rack, and pad your resume, then move on to other better opportunities. 

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Green, Stewart. "How to Find a Climbing Job." ThoughtCo, Jan. 12, 2016, thoughtco.com/how-to-find-a-climbing-job-755256. Green, Stewart. (2016, January 12). How to Find a Climbing Job. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-find-a-climbing-job-755256 Green, Stewart. "How to Find a Climbing Job." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-find-a-climbing-job-755256 (accessed November 24, 2017).