When we face trying encounters with nature, we often discover what really matters in our lives. That’s the reason so many people undertake outdoor adventures, from day trips to backcountry expeditions – to learn about themselves by surviving tough challenges.
And Josh Kling is the man who takes them there.
Kling (Business Administration & Marketing, ’05) leads adventurers into the wild through his Durango-based guide service, Kling Mountain Guides. “You put these people out of their element,” he says of his clients. “And the experience brings everything back to the very simple. Everything else fades away while you’re out there.”
The seven guides at KMG lead a range of trips year-round, from skiing to backpacking to climbing, as well as training wilderness and backcountry guides for certification across the country. The company offers tours from family-friendly rock climbing trips in the Four Corners region to highly technical expeditions. Kling and his team lead tours in places as far-flung as Alaska, Russia, and Africa, and as close to home as the San Juan Mountains’ Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado’s largest wilderness area (for which KMG recently received its permit after nine years of waiting).
Kling digs every aspect of his job, from taking children rock climbing for an afternoon all the way to helping folks attempt their extreme goals. One of his recent clients, for example, is a woman who has climbed every 14,000-, 13,000-, and 12,000-foot peak in Colorado. “She’s working on the eleven thousand-foot peaks,” he says. “One of those is a fifth-class technical rock climb. She came to us and said, ‘This is a very specific objective. Can you guide me on that?’”
Yet for all the technical challenges of guiding, an even greater challenge for Kling is working with the human element on a trip. For instance, this summer, he led a trip to Jagged Mountain, Colorado’s most remote thirteener, way back in the Weminuche outside of Durango. Or, rather, he started to lead it.
“People often overestimate their skills and fitness, and they tend to underestimate the objective,” Kling acknowledges. “This guy swore up and down he was ready to go. By the time we hiked to our camp, he said, ‘Hey, I can’t do this.’ He called it himself. If anything, I was trying to talk him into going, and he knew he was done. I try to let the mountains turn people around. I’m bummed when it happens, but they have to make that call for themselves.”
That’s how Kling handles a situation when a trip is easy to bail on. When an objective is more technical or more remote, though, he ensures that the clients are truly prepared to achieve it.
“Other trips, like in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the only way out is climbing out. There’s no bail,” he says. “That’s when we’ll have people do other stuff with us ahead of time. They’ll have to do, say, eight other days with us before that trip, with the guide they’re going to climb with on that peak. When the guide says you’re good to go, then we’ll totally do it. But it’s our discretion.”
Once clients get into the wilds with KMG, though, he observes how the experience alters their perception of (and appreciation for) so-called “regular” life.
“When you’re out here, you need to stay dry, you need to stay warm, and you need to stay fed,” Kling says. “You don’t worry about taxes, you don’t worry about getting your car fixed, you don’t worry about the leaky roof on your house that needs to be replaced. That all just goes away, because you have to focus on what you’re doing right now. Warm, dry, and fed.”
“My thought is, when they go back to their normal life, everything else is not as big of a deal,” he adds. “They can say, ‘I’m sitting in my office. We’re not in rockfall hazard right now. There’s no ice fall. No one’s going to die. I can feel my hands. I’m not wet and cold. I’m going to walk to the coffee machine and get some hot water.’ There’s a lot of learning that comes from that.”
Leading amateur adventurers into extreme environments would daunt most people. For Kling, though, being in the wilderness puts him in his element. It’s an aspect of himself he didn’t come to realize until he got involved with the outdoors at FLC.
“I’m originally from Chicago, and the Outdoor Pursuits program opened my eyes,” he says. “Backpacking in the Grand Canyon, ice climbing, all the adventure trips they run. I started going on every trip I could, soaking it in, and then I got a job working at the climbing wall and in the office.”
By the time Kling graduated, he was hooked. He knew he wanted to work in outdoor education; he just didn’t know how feasible that career path could be.
“I thought that after college you went and worked for Outward Bound, and when you burned out on that you got a real job,” he says. “That was my understanding of life.”
But Kling soon discovered that he had plenty of career opportunities. He guided for several years in Colorado and Washington. Then FLC started its Adventure Education program in 2007, and Kling was hired as one of the first faculty members. Once he set out on his own the next year, he continued coming back to campus to run avalanche courses and other offerings for Adventure Education.
For all the uncertainty Kling perceived in the outdoor adventure field, he ultimately decided to take the lead in guiding his own career. That’s why, in 2008, he opened the doors at KMG.
“I think having a solid business degree from Fort Lewis as well as training and certification from the AMGA has benefitted more than if I just had one or the other,” he says. “It’s a more lethal combination.”
This dual approach to running a business helps Kling handle the most challenging parts of the job, which aren’t technical climbs or strenuous excursions in remote locations. Nope – he admits that the hardest parts for him are the finances.
“The accounting and the bookkeeping are the hardest, for sure,” he laughs.
But he manages to succeed at these challenges, too. “I run the whole business,” he says. “I do our website. I do our bookkeeping, with the tremendous help of my awesome wife. I respond to the emails. I joke with my clients that if they see me on my phone, I’m now helping the person who’s going to be here after them. I do all that.”
Bookkeeping may be Kling’s greatest challenge, but for most of us, it’s these outdoor accomplishments in nature’s most challenging terrains that can push us to grow as individuals. And for nearly ten years now, Kling has been leading that growth in the Durango area and abroad.
“We take it for granted that we can look out the window and see snow on the La Platas or drive up to Red Mountain Pass or whatever,” Kling says of living in the Four Corners. “But a lot of our clients, this is maybe a once in a lifetime trip. They’re never going to do anything like this again. And with our help, they achieve it. That’s super rewarding.”