The Work Behind the Body
The expression old soul exists to describe people like Rachel Glass. She would probably grimace at such a descriptor, being a self-defacing humorist and the first in a conversation to name her shadows and thus own them. But that’s part of what makes her wise beyond her years. She'll both admit her imperfections and forgive herself for them.
This, to me, is strength.
As a mountaineering and rock-climbing guide, Rachel is also physically strong. She spends a lot of time in the elements, often under pressure. Those hours logged on glaciers and sandstone, granite and ice have shaped an understanding of the self as fluid. She describes below a training regiment that is “wildly inconsistent,” though the common denominator seems to be prioritizing time outside and maintaining muscular balance through stretching and rest.
Though it wasn’t always this way for Rachel. She also describes darker times, when an ego-driven relationship to athletics caused her to overtrain. I think this mentality is relatable and common, though not often talked about, especially not as openly as Rachel does so in this interview. We don’t frequently admit when we strive for perfectionism out of fear, or when we think we need to look a certain way to perform well. And yet these shadows are ones many of us all walk through at some point in our individual lives.
Each Work Behind the Body interview offers a surprise. The women I ask to participate inspire me, often because they demonstrate prowess in their outdoor pursuits. Rachel’s willingness to openly express her journey through those darker times was the unexpected gem of the interview. By sharing her story, Rachel offers company on our own paths towards radical self-acceptance.
Meet Rachel Glass
mountaineer and rock-climbing guide
Kelsey: What sports do you enjoy?
Rachel: I spend most of my time nowadays rock climbing, skiing or trail running, depending on the season. I go through phases of adding in yoga, ice climbing or mountain biking but always seem to come back to climbing.
My parents tried to get me to enjoy being in the mountains as a kid; they moved from the east coast to Washington state specifically to be closer to large, glaciated peaks. Like most kids, I made a point to dislike whatever my parents suggested.
When I was younger I raced bikes, (mostly track and road, some mountain and downhill), but I haven’t spent much time on a bike since I moved to Bozeman. In my teenage years, I played competitive soccer year round and then became heavily involved in the classical music world. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I started climbing and since then I haven’t looked back.
K: How often do you workout? What do those workouts usually involve?
R: I would describe my workout schedule as “wildly inconsistent.” One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced being an outdoor educator and guide is finding time to prioritize a consistent training schedule with so much travel.
When I am working, my body doesn’t have a lot of time to recover, so I try to make time to rest and avoid injury when I am off. Over the years, I’ve engaged in a variety of training plans and schedules, mostly during the winter when I’m not rock-guiding.
These have had mixed results and I’m guilty of sometimes pushing myself to the point of injury. These days I try to spend more time out in nature doing the things that I love and supplementing with time at the climbing gym or morning runs on the trails near my house.
For a handful of years, I battled injury, specifically in my left shoulder and bicep.
I used to think that in order to get better in climbing, I needed to destroy myself every session. I was also attached to my physical body looking a certain way in order to be strong or to progress in climbing.
I’ve learned that I don’t always need to be at my leanest to climb the things I want. In fact, making sure that my body is resilient enough to carry a large pack, stay warm in the mountains and go for a long time is really important to me for long-term health.
I try to boulder and rope climb in the gym to increase power/endurance but otherwise do most of my training outside. A significant portion of the “training” that I do these days is more akin to physical therapy to help with overall balance in my body. I’ve appreciated the huge gains that can be made simply by stretching, yoga or maintaining structural balance and mobility.
K: How often would you say you get “out” to enjoy your sports?
R: Right now I’m lucky to be able to spend all summer and large portions of fall and spring teaching glacier mountaineering, alpine rock and front-country rock climbing courses.
This means I often spend a few months spending almost every day doing some sort of activity I love. In the fall and spring I usually spend about 3-5 days a week outside doing some sort of climbing, depending on the weather.
K: What are some of your favorite places to go?
R: I’m just scratching the surface of all that Montana has to offer. I’ve “lived” in Bozeman for just under two years but have realistically only spent a little over a year of my time here. My goal is to sample as many areas as possible when I am around. Some local favorites are Wolverine, Avalanche/Hellgate, the Absarokas and Gallatin Canyon.
Outside of Montana, there are tons of places that inspire me, so my list is a little chaotic: I love the Sierra/Yosemite; Index, WA; Squamish, BC; the sandstone deserts of Utah; Wild Iris in Lander (where I lived before I moved to Bozeman); Fremont Canyon, WY and mountaineering in the North Cascades.
My goal is to climb in lots of new spots each year to continue to developing different styles of movement. Last year I was able to visit the southeast and go to Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama.
K: Tell us about being a mountain guide: what got you into guiding, and why do you do it?
R: I started climbing in my early 20’s after going to Patagonia with an outdoor education school. That was a really formative period in my life. Prior to going to South America, I had been working as a bike courier in Seattle after dropping out of a conservatory music program. My parents saw outdoor education as a way to help me continue my education (earning college credits through the program) while also exposing me to non-classroom based learning.
Climbing sparked my interest the moment I left the ground. It was a way for me to feel free and in the moment, and involved the same type of dedication as classical music.
Both disciplines share a lot of the same traits for me. They each require a complete focus in the moment and can feel meditative or tap into “flow”.
I loved being a part of the larger ecosystem around me and getting to step away from a digital and busy, city-centered life.
Additionally, moving fast through the mountains or being on rock gave me a sense of joy that music was lacking. I felt really isolated through my late teens and early 20s, spending so much time in a practice room, alone. Climbing was a way to share and express joy with others more of the time. Being a guide has only increased this feeling for me.
I value getting to know my clients or students on a deep, personal level and watching them progress technically, emotionally, with their risk assessment in the mountains and, ultimately, with their perception of themselves through the lens of a climber.
Seeing the natural world through someone else’s eyes has been really rewarding.
Ultimately, I appreciate the freedom of real-time decision-making when I am guiding. I feel empowered to make choices that have a real impact on people’s lives and am also able to curate an experience that allows for the most growth possible for an individual.
Ultimately, guiding and outdoor education have given me a chance to spend time in beautiful places while connecting with others.
K: What are the challenges of being a mountain guide? And the rewards?
One of the biggest challenges working in the backcountry is being out of touch with the front-country for long periods of time. This sometimes has made it harder to build stable community, especially in moving to a new place or bouncing around so often.
I’m lucky to have friends all over the world, but many of them I only get to see once or twice a year. I’ve found it challenging to keep up with artistic pursuits such as silver-smithing and I’d love to have a dog in my life, but some of those things will need to wait until I’m a little more grounded in a place. Bozeman has been a really exciting place to land for the past few years. The community here is very supportive of a seasonal lifestyle and I always feel welcomed back with open arms.
Guiding is hard on the physical body, especially if I develop nagging, small pains that turn into ongoing injuries. I’m less resilient to chronic inflammation now and understand that my body will change significantly over the course of a season. It’s not uncommon for me to drop a bit of weight while carrying a heavy pack for a few weeks. For me, this often results in a short period of “performance” rock climbing when I return.
However, I’ve learned that if I don’t try to regain some of that weight and give myself lots of time to adapt to rock climbing again, I often have long periods of extreme fatigue where my body is trying to recover. I’ve had a few seasons where I pushed too hard and wasn’t able to enjoy continuous performance year round because I was so maxed out from six months guiding (May-October) and then going on personal climbing trips in the fall.
The biggest challenge for me has been the on-going impact of losing friends in the mountains. It feels common in the industry to have several friends who have died in the mountains, and the reality that this can happen weighs heavy on me.
In 2014, my close friend and climbing mentor died in a rock fall incident in Patagonia when a rappel anchor on a standard descent route failed. His death had a significant effect on my life, climbing and otherwise, that took me years to heal from. I became irrationally afraid of things in the mountains and carried a lot of undue stress and anxiousness that sucked the joy out of climbing for me.
During that time, I was overly conservative with my decision-making and perceived the mountains to be a chaotic and hostile place that could take people and things I loved without warning.
Instead of taking a break, though, I tried to push it all down and pretend that everything was fine. During this time my climbing became more ego-focused and less of a way to express joy. Ultimately, I became fixated on performance in all areas (glacier mountaineering, alpine rock, trad climbing, sport climbing) as a coping mechanism for wanting to be in control of the outcome of things.
This perfectionism bled over into other parts of my life and was challenging to reconcile. I missed feeling free and wild in the mountains but lived in fear that catastrophe was just around the corner.
This resulted in a long period of being gripped by fear and perfectionism, the combination of which made me almost quit climbing entirely several times. That was a pretty dark period in my life: I felt lost professionally and it took a toll on some of my climbing partnerships.
Working through the root of that anxiety has freed me up to rediscover climbing with a lot more compassion.
The result has been two-fold; I now enjoy climbing so much more than I ever was able to in the past and spend most of my time feeling in awe of how cool it is being out in the natural world.
The other outcome is that I’m able to push myself much harder and further while climbing, and have improved significantly in all the cross-disciplines that I participate in.
Climbing and guiding have continuously challenged me to face that I am not in control of everything in life. Accepting that helps me find joy in the mountains, deep-rooted partnerships and has allowed me to laugh a lot more.
I know that there is risk inherent to anything, including living a life without climbing or time in the mountains. The intentionality of working through those dark shadows has been one of the single most formative actions in my life. I teach my students and clients to slow down while decision-making in the mountains, trust their instincts and acknowledge that some healthy fear is a positive thing in life.
K: What’s it like being a woman working in a male-dominated industry? Do you experience any challenges unique to your gender?
R: Overall, I’ve found a lot of support while working in a male-dominated industry.
At times, it can feel as though guiding and outdoor education heavily value what societally are thought of as “masculine” traits such as physical strength, directive leadership styles or a stoic attitude.
This has led to some assumptions about me based on my gender or my style while guiding. For instance, it is not uncommon that when I am working with male co-workers for most technical questions to initially be directed their way. However, as gender-roles and leadership styles have become more of a topic of conversation within the industry, it has become acceptable to talk about these things before meeting students or clients.
I prefer not to interject in scenarios where negative assumptions are made about me and instead try to let my abilities speak for themselves.
K: What advice would you give anyone pursuing a career in the mountains?
R: Go for it!
Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that you’re ready.
Build a solid base in the mountains developing judgement on objectives that aren’t too far above your head. Having a series of “non-epics” is really important in building confidence.
Guiding and outdoor education both require a central focus on being an efficient and thoughtful mountain traveler and less on just sending hard pitches. It’s important to know how to keep yourself warm and dry and minimize risk to yourself and climbing partners in order to have the mental/emotional space to give to others.
The best way to develop these skills is to get out a bunch and expose your self to many different methodologies of learning and teaching. In my opinion, there are a multitude of solutions to problems in the mountains and executing with confidence can help keep the stress down when things start to deviate from the plan.
K: What does beautiful mean to you?
R: Beautiful, to me, is having a wild spirit.
So often it feels like beauty in our society is judged from an external perspective. Lots of friends, both men and women, fixate on how their physical body looks as a climber, instead of what it can do.
I have gone through periods in my life where I was unable to find joy in the mechanics of my physical form and instead chose to work out or train to look a certain way first and foremost. This often led me to perform less well while climbing and also feel disconnected from my body.
A few years ago, I made a goal that none of my training would be focused on how things made me look. If the training helped me to feel stronger, more flexible, or embedded some sort of joy in my day, it stayed.
I spent an entire year trying out a bunch of random combinations to stay limber and happy. In the end, climbing outside as much as possible, drinking lots of water, doing yoga and going for casual runs in the mountains has ended up being the best combo for maximum happiness.
K: How has/have your sport(s) shaped your body image and your relationship to your body in general?
R: Climbing has taught me to love my physical form as it adapts to various challenges over time, ultimately changing shape, density and adapting to all the different stresses I put it through.
I no longer assume that I will stay the same throughout the year. Embracing the natural ebb and flow of my physical form means I spend more time observing and trying to respond to what my body really wants.
Climbing also helps me to feel strong and have a deep appreciation to live in a (mostly) healthy form.
K: What advice would you give women and/or fellow athletes in general to better enjoy their unique bodies?
R: Give your body lots of love. Some days may feel great, and others, mysteriously, feel so hard. Embrace the ups and downs of it all and try to find joy in being outside, in nature, and with good friends.
Thank you, Rachel, for sharing your generous and wild spirit here on These Words.