When Miranda Oakley rolled into Yosemite Valley in the mid-2000s, she had $50 in her bank account and modest dreams. “I was intimidated by the giant looming walls and the big, burly dudes that climbed them,” she said. “I never thought that I could land a job taking people climbing.”
Not only is that now her job, Oakley is one of the only full-time female climbing guides in the Valley, in a typically male dominated field. Here’s how she got there.
If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asked you what you did for work, what would you tell them?
Climbing guide in Yosemite National Park.
What was a typical day like for you, starting when you got to work and ending when you got home for the day?
I meet the clients at Yosemite Mountaineering School office in Yosemite Valley at around 8:30 a.m. We talk about their climbing experience and goals for the day. Half of the time I do classes with up to six people and the other half I do private guided climbs. The clinics range from basic, learn-to-rock-climb classes to aid and self-rescue or lead and multi-pitch classes. The private guided climbs can also vary. Some clients are total beginners, others are experienced climbers on a short trip in need of a climbing partner/rope gun. The climbs I do for these private climbs are as varied as the clients. Over the years it has gotten easier to choose appropriate objectives for clients based on the short 15 minutes I know them before we start the day. Generally the day goes well and by the end we are pals.
How does your job affect someone’s day?
The most important and fulfilling part of my job as a vertical tour guide is that I get to help people safely interact with the very thing that makes Yosemite so special; its granite cliffs. Guiding people up these walls allows them to gain perspective on the geology, wildlife and unique history of Yosemite NP. My clients also learn about the sport of rock climbing. Some of my clients have only a vague idea of what climbing is in the beginning of the day. I explain all the different types of climbing we have in the park from bouldering to big wall aid climbing. They learn all about the gear and ethics of climbing and how both of those things have simultaneously evolved over the years. The gear has gotten lighter and easier to use but standards of free climbing and clean climbing have gotten higher. Telling people about climbers that pride themselves on how little they can alter the rock in order to get to the top helps them think about what their own small impact means to our fragile environment. They also get to learn a bit about me and my own strange world of dirtbag climbers. Telling people I live in my van for six months a year blows their mind almost as much as telling them I’ve climbed El Capitan (typically a three-day rock climb) in under 12 hours.
What was your first job in the outdoor industry?”¨
Lead climbing instructor at a Quaker backpacking camp in Virginia called Shiloh.
How does someone get a job as a climbing guide in Yosemite Valley?
I worked my way up, starting out washing dishes and waiting tables for six summers at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge in Yosemite’s high country. I then became a hiking guide at YMS and my boss encouraged me to take a climbing guide training course so that I could start guiding rock climbs. It sounds easy but I paid my dues those first seven seasons working other jobs in the park. I climbed all the time. After growing up in the suburbs of Maryland, I had to learn the basics of climbing big routes. I had epics on the very climbs I guide people up today. I gradually turned from Yosemite student to Yosemite professor. By the time I started guiding I was regularly cruising up Yosemite test pieces.
What are the pros of your job?
Living in Yosemite is the best perk of my job. Millions of people from all over the world spend lots of vacation time and money just to get the chance to visit, and I get to live there. I’m surrounded by granite walls and the climbing is limitless. It’s beautiful, the cost of living is low, and I get to work outside. It’s a seasonal job so I get winters off to travel and climb where it’s warm. The community of Yosemite is unique and more supportive than I could ever ask for. I am surrounded by mentors and friends that I get to live, work and climb with. They have similar goals in climbing and life and loads of experience that I can learn from. Living and working in Yosemite keeps me in great shape. My bike is my main mode of transportation in the valley, I climb moderate routes for work and climb harder longer routes on my weekends. Climbing long routes and pulling ropes all day is great training for doing pushes on El Capitan.
What are the cons?
The cons are the same as the pros. I live in Yosemite Valley, a strange world at the bottom of a giant glorified ditch. There’s never an end to what you can climb here so as a climber I’m never quite satisfied with what I’ve done. Summers are hot and crowded with tourists. I have to drive hours to buy decent produce. I get elbow tendonitis from pulling ropes all the time. The work is seasonal so I can never really settle down. By the end of the summer I’m worked from climbing every day, whether working or on days off.
Top photo: Gabriel Mann