By Laura Bush
Hiking Program Supervisor
Have you ever been on a YMCA guided hike? Not only do we go all over the National Park and surrounding Forest Service areas, but our guides are incredibly knowledgeable about these areas. On our guided hikes, you can learn about the mountains you are seeing, the trees and flowers you’re passing and the history of the destination you’re hiking to. After being on one of our guided hikes, it’s easy to wonder: how do I become a hikemaster for YMCA of the Rockies?
The first step is easy: apply! Like all of our seasonal staff at YMCA of the Rockies, you need to apply and interview in order to get the position. While interviewing, I look for a candidate that is exuberant about the environment, excited about exploring the wilderness, and, most importantly, a great conversationalist. It takes a special personality to be able to hold conversations with people they just met for hours on end!
After getting accepted in the position and arriving at the YMCA, the work begins. The first 3 weeks of being a hikemaster are packed full of learning, memorizing and training. During these first weeks, hikemasters take classes and apply them on the trail for 40+ hours each week. Known as the most intimidating and stressful part of becoming a hikemaster, these few weeks of training are necessary to reach the high standard of competency that our guides are known for.
The classes hikemaster must take include:
- Snow Safety Training:
- In the early part of our hiking season, we often deal with varying snow conditions. Some years, there’s tons of snow that starts out super stable and degrades very quickly. In this class, we hike to high elevation in order to get to good snow. Then, we go over what a stable snow field looks like and what to look out for if you are planning on glissading (sliding) down the snow. Next, we practice glissading and learn how to do that safely and in control. Lastly, we practice stopping each other while sliding in case a hiker would lose control while glissading on one of our guided hikes.
- Hike Leadership
- This class goes over how to manage people, the environment and unique situations. We discuss strategies for creating a fun atmosphere, keeping morale high, setting a comfortable pace and leading through crisis situations.
- This class is usually split up into multiple days because there is so much to cover. We go over the different lifezones (the separation of living things based on elevation) and ecosystems that exist in our corner of Colorado. This class includes info on birds, animals, trees and wildflower identification.
- Fire Ecology
- Due to the recent wildfires very close to home, we are adding a class on wildfire ecology this year. In this class, we learn about why megafires are beginning to rage across Colorado and what adaptations plants and animals have to wildfires that allow them to survive, and sometimes thrive, in burn areas. We will also be looking into the history of wildfires in Rocky Mountain National Park and surrounding areas and how our current forest management style both helps the forest and hurts it.
- Emergency Management
- Though we hope to avoid it, there is always a possibility of someone getting hurt on hikes, sometimes seriously. This class goes over our policies when it comes to handling emergencies while on the trail. We go over different types of emergencies, who to contact for each type of emergency and what role the hikemaster has in a wilderness emergency.
- Orienteering and Route Finding
- This class has two parts. First, we learn how to use a map and compass to find our way to a destination that we cannot see. We use our orienteering course on YMCA property to learn how to trust the compass to lead us where we need to go. Secondly, we get taught how to plan a route to an unfamiliar destination using only a map and compass. The next day, we put that plan into action by following the route developed by our trainees. Hopefully they were paying attention!
- There are three different sections of history we cover during training. First, we talk about the Native Americans that inhabited this area and how they have left an impact to this day. Next, we talk about Estes Park history, including the first homesteaders who settled in the area and how Estes Park became a tourist destination. Lastly, we talk about the National Park system, how Rocky Mountain became a national park and how Rocky Mountain National Park has changed through the years.
In addition to our prescribed courses, our first priority as guides is to keep the group safe. In order to accomplish this, all of our hikemasters spend their first 2 weekends taking CPR and Wilderness First Aid.
After completing all of the course work, there is a three-part test to officially earn the title of hikemaster. The first test is a photo ID test. We project pictures of flowers, mountains, plants and animals that our hikemasters may encounter on the trail, and they must give the common name for each. The second test is a written test consisting of multiple-choice questions, short answer questions and 4 essay questions. Lastly, each of our hikemaster trainees must lead a practicum hike. Their hike is in our regularly scheduled hikes, and there’s another, incognito, hikemaster on the hike grading their performance.
All of our hikemasters must get passing grades on each test in order to gain the official hikemaster title. If a trainee fails any part of the test, they will go through a week of shadowing other hikemasters in order to learn from them. Then they will be able to retake the part of the test that needed work.
Visit the YMCA of the Rockies employment site to apply to be a hikemaster or other positions!