Generation Z Mountain Guide Talks Safety, Inclusivity on the Mountain

words :: Drew Wayland

Standing at just 5’3, Lael Butler pales in comparison to the looming mass that is Mount Rainier. Luckily, one’s stature needn’t be measured against the massive mountain—it’s much more a matter of mental fortitude. While many have summited its peak, it takes a strong and sturdy professional to lead newcomers to the top.

Lael Butler  in her happy place.

At just twenty years old, Lael Butler is one of the youngest peak guides on the mountain. Butler works for one of the three guide companies that operate on Rainier, and throughout the climbing season helps lead dozens of clients on a multi-day technical climb from base to summit. 

The typical route involves an initial ascent up the Muir snowfields on the mountain’s south face, where Butler and other guides run clients through glacier crossing exercises to prepare them for the peak’s icy upper third. The second day is spent climbing to High Camp, followed by an early summit send on the morning of day three and a long descent back into the evergreens.

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“It feels as if a male body is automatically trusted with the same authority I find myself having to earn”

People of all ages, body types, and experience levels rely on Butler to keep them safe on a mountain that kills at least two ambitious climbers every year. 

“Of course there is going to be objective risk, just like with any mountain,” said Butler, “but there are very much parts of Rainier I’m not stoked on taking clients to that we try to avoid.”

Trust between Butler and the clients is essential, but that trust can be a difficult thing to command when you are twenty years old.  If her age, along with the complex route finding, weather patterns, and navigating group dynamics required to make it to the summit weren’t enough of obstacles, Butler also faces the reality of being a woman attempting to break into the male-dominated world of climbing and mountaineering.

“A common example that comes up is short roping my clients on steep terrain,” she said. “It can be hard for people – especially men who are bigger and older than I am – to believe that I can keep them secure.”

Short roping is the use of a small portion of rope to lead clients through exposed terrain. The practice is intended to safeguard clients from danger by arresting a slip before it becomes a fall. The reliability of a good short rope is not based on the lead climber’s physical strength, but rather in their technical skill to gain a mechanical advantage over gravity using the rope. Similar to a belay, a small person can short rope a much bigger person with few issues. 

Exposure doesn’t recognize gender.

Butler says it’s natural for people to be concerned for their safety, but that it’s a problem male guides rarely run into. 

“It feels as if a male body is automatically trusted with the same authority I find myself having to earn,” she said.

Although there are a growing number of women working on peaks in the Coast and Cascade ranges, men still make up the overwhelming majority of guides, climbers and sponsored mountain-athletes. Butler says that representation in media is a start, but like all progress there will need to be big systemic changes before these spaces are as inclusive as they claim to be.

Amelia Bynum, a climber from Oregon, is Butler’s housemate and peer at Western Washington University, where they both work at the campus rock wall. 

“The barrier to entry is already high in these sports,” Bynum says, “and what I’ve seen is a lot of women being even further discouraged from even participating because of how the sport is marketed and what climbing spaces feel like.”

Bynum and Butler talked about the competitive energy that surrounds climbing and mountaineering, something that is thrilling for those in-the-know, but frustrating for beginners still learning the difference between top-rope and lead. They also pointed out that a big barrier is the biological tendency for men to develop muscle more quickly, and make larger strides upon first entry into the sport. 

“These sports are not just dominated by men, but designed for them too,” said Bynum. “It’s difficult because women are obviously capable of performing at the same level as men, climbing just as hard, but the rules can be skewed toward favoring the male body.”

‘Rules’ like the grading of many routes both indoors and on real rock can favor bigger hands and longer torsos, which are not exclusive to men but much more common.

There are less of these baked-in discriminations on the peaks that Butler climbs, but she says the community still treats male climbers with greater respect than their female counterparts. Butler’s brother Peter is a mountaineer in his own right, and Lael says through their conversations she has learned how different it is for her brother to climb with a group of other men versus climbing with her.

At just 20 years old, Lael Butler is a trailblazer—and we can only hope there will be many more who follow in her footsteps.

“It is really interesting to talk to somebody with a completely different perspective,” she said. “It can feel a little bit harder to get my opinions across completely, and it can be frustrating sometimes, but I think that we both get something productive out of discussing the advantages he has and what I feel is needed to support women who want to climb these mountains.”

Climbing and mountaineering are famous for the freedom of movement and the creative, welcoming spirit they allow. So how can climbing and mountaineering actually live up to their reputations and become truly inclusive?

“Representation probably can’t be overstated,” said Butler. “It really does help to see how many women are now being sponsored by the big outdoor companies, but there will need to be cultural change too. As broad as it sounds, conversations on the mountain or in the climbing gym go a long way toward changing people’s perspectives.”

Climbing and mountaineering are famous for the freedom of movement and the creative, welcoming spirit they allow. So how can climbing and mountaineering actually live up to their reputations and become truly inclusive?

Outreach programs like beginner’s nights and hiking clubs for young women are also effective, she said, as long as you continue to provide support for people when they move out of those spaces and into the wider world of outdoor adventures.

As Butler and Bynum continue to spread the message of inclusivity in the mountains, they are showing people of all backgrounds how much they can get out of pursuing these sports. Trust, Butler says, is what she strives for. 

“There was a moment this past year when I was taking a client down the mountain alone, because they had decided not to summit. We were on a shaky slope, and we started to get some rock fall from above, to the point where it was hitting my helmet. We sheltered and everything ended up okay, but it was a reminder that situations can change so quickly on the mountain. At that moment, people have to trust you. They aren’t allowed to care what you look like.”

If seeing is believing, there is no shortage of witnesses to Butler’s accomplishments. Her efforts and those of climbers like her can only strengthen the community. A sponsorship, she jokes, wouldn’t hurt either. —ML