Though a growing number of today’s guides began tying figure-eights in the cradle and learned to ski as they learned to walk, much of the old guard of mountain guiding came into the scene by way of classical coincidence. That is to say: with a course charted toward a more conventional career, an experience in the mountains changed their way of thinking, and the possibility of turning passion into profession became reality.
Veteran Alpenglow guide Jaime Avíla was three years into business school when he led a group of hopeful mountaineers to the summit of Cotopaxi (19,347’/5,897m). Unbeknownst to Jaime, these were paying clients, and it wasn’t until his friend and co-trip leader sent him $100 a few weeks later that he learned he’d been guiding in the first place.
“People pay to climb?”, he asked. To Jaime, his friend had simply organized a trip through the local climbing club with a group of foreigners who looked to the two Ecuadorians as de facto trip leaders with knowledge of the route. The notion that he’d been hired as a professional guide never occurred to him.
After their ascent of Cotopaxi, the friend who’d organized the trip shared Jaime’s number with other climbers looking for a guide.
“Pretty soon, people just kept calling and calling,” he remembers. “I dropped out of university, and that was the end of my career in business. I started guiding full time.”
Years earlier, Jaime fell in love with the mountains around the age of 18, when he joined a local climbing club with some experience as a trekker. There he met other ambitious young enthusiasts like him, and over time Jaime learned how to plan and execute progressively bigger climbs.
Through the club, Jaime also befriended the IFMGA-certified Swiss mountain guide Jean Pavillard, widely-renowned climber, mountaineer, and founder of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). As their friendship grew, Pavillard asked Jaime to co-guide with him on Denali, where Jaime became versed in client management, risk mitigation, route finding, ropework, and other technical climbing skills.
“When I went to Denali with [Jean], it opened my eyes. He helped me to improve my guiding, but also my personal climbing. Every time I climb, I apply lessons that I learned from him,” Jaime says.
“When Adrian [Ballinger] started Alpenglow Expeditions in 2004, it was basically just him and me,” Jaime recalls. The two met while guiding in Ecuador for the same company, Earth Treks. Adrian was looking for guides to start his own company, and he and Jaime were fast friends.
“He asked me to help him organize and lead his expeditions. ‘I don’t really know much about this,’ I told him. But he said we could learn along the way.”
Jaime got in with Alpenglow on the ground floor in 2004, and began leading trips in 2005. Together, the two began to shape an expedition company with a vision to do things differently. From the very beginning, Alpenglow has elected for smaller teams in the mountains that form genuine, cohesive relationships between all team members including clients, guides, and support staff.
“At first, it was just about the happiness of being in the mountains: the outdoors, the big skies, the landscape, the joy of being with friends…it amazed me,” Jaime says. “When I started guiding, it was about sharing that happiness with clients. Since then, I’ve loved seeing the growth of the company and the results of this decision. Friends have become family. ”
Jaime is now IFMGA-certified and Alpenglow’s senior-most lead guide, with countless trips led throughout the great mountain ranges of the world. Jaime’s most notable ticks include Cho Oyu (21,864’/8,188m), the Southwest Ridge of Nepal’s Ama Dablam (20,349’/6,812m), the Shield Route of Peru’s tallest mountain, Huascaran (22,205’/6,768m), over 500 summits of Cotopaxi (19,347’/5,897m), 12 summits on Alpamayo (19,511’/5,947m) by all three major routes, and the Polish Direct on Aconcagua (22,837’/6,959m).
“In 2017, Adrian convinced me to pursue IFMGA status. I didn’t want to do it at first, because of my age and thinking I was at the end of my career. But here I am, with the pin on my chest.”
Moreover, Jaime is also responsible for expanding Alpenglow’s Ecuadorian team and bringing in some of our most accomplished guides, including Esteban ‘Topo’ Mena and Gaspar Navarrete, both of whom are now fully-certified IFMGA mountain guides.
“As a guide, Jaime has been my best mentor,” says Topo. “He was the first one who really trusted me to guide internationally, and the one who introduced me to Alpenglow and to Adrian.”
“I don’t consider myself a mentor,” Jaime counters, “but I’m very lucky to be able to read people’s personalities. Now, Topo is an Alpenglow guide, and so are Christian [Llivicura] and Gaspar, because I brought them into the Alpenglow Expeditions family. I hope they find someone to do the same in the future.”
As Jaime has overseen growth within the Alpenglow Expeditions family, he also credits his own family as his main source of drive, inspiration, and decision-making:
As my life has continued and I’ve become a dad, my family is what motivates me. The need to feed them, to educate them, to give them good health and a good life…it motivated me to climb and to be safe. Clients used to ask me how I could continue to take on difficult or dangerous climbs when I have a family, but I’ve been lucky to have them. They’ve helped me find the balance between risk and ambition. When things were risky and my children were little, I’d keep them in mind. I’d think about going home to them, and how happy they would be to see me. Becoming a dad made the decision to manage risk very easy.
For Jaime, things have since come full circle over the course of his career: “Now that my kids are grown and they don’t need me anymore, it is again happiness that motivates me. It’s difficult to explain the joy I feel when I go to the mountains.”
However ambiguous, climbers are likely to sympathize with Jaime’s inability to articulate precisely what keeps him coming back. And so, he has sought first and foremost to share this intangible joy with the hundreds that have had the chance to climb with him. Community in the mountains has always been Jaime’s top priority, and this is still the case after more than three decades both as a guide and a recreational climber.
“I go for the mountain that is more aesthetic than it is difficult, but company is still the first thing on my list. If the mountain is especially difficult, then you need a super solid partner that makes you feel safe, makes you happy, and makes you laugh.”
Ultimately, Jaime has been that super solid partner for the countless clients he has guided throughout his career. No matter the conditions, Jaime possesses a unique ability to keep his clients smiling through exposure to his potent and contagious sense of joy, all while acting as a source of knowledge, guidance, and inspiration in the mountains.
“I’ve never tried to be an example for anyone but my kids, truly. But it was only because I was never keen to show off,” he admits. “Now, seeing happy faces is what motivates me.”
Stoked to climb with Jaime? He continues to bring smiles and laughter to summits all over the world as Alpenglow’s lead guide on multiple expeditions every year. Give us a call at 877-873-5376 or send an email to info@alpenglowexpeditions to chat with our staff.