Guiding Hands – British Mountain Guide Andy Perkins
Words and photo by Andy Perkins
The role of the hand in our psyche is deeply important. In documentary film work, one of the key shots any cameraman needs to get to complete a sequence is what the subject’s hands are doing. Through gestures and actions our hands communicate much more than we might suppose. This is especially true of the caring professions, where the cliché of “your life in their hands” is often quoted. Along with the classic caring roles such as medical or social care, I include the profession of mountain guide. We care for our clients, their safety and well-being, physically, psychologically and emotionally. Although they’re on holiday, our clients can sometimes be outside their comfort zones, and so the guiding hand becomes crucial in providing that care.
My hands are not only crucial for my work, but also for my life as a rock climber. As a student, I climbed every lunch time on a traversing wall, sometimes unable to take notes in afternoon lectures, as my hands were unable to type or hold a pen. By the time I was 20, my fingers and palms were so thick, stubby and heavily muscled a student friend remarked – “your hands look like tools”.
While I started life as a crag rat, my hands have also been abused horribly in the mountains. Anyone who’s suffered the agony of hot aches in the Scottish winter will be able to relate. It’s pain that can blur your vision, make you dizzy or nauseous with the one saving grace that you know it will be over in a few minutes, leaving your fingers warm and tingling and ready for the next pitch. Just don’t over-grip those axes!
Frostbite is more permanent, and while I’ve never lost entire digits, I was nipped about 25 years ago during an ascent of the 7000m high Pumori in Nepal. The ends of my middle fingers and thumbs went black but luckily all I lost was a few layers of skin. They’re still the part that loses feeling first, ringing alarm bells and telling me to take more care of my hands.
A guide’s hands have a myriad of jobs. The picture of a gloved hand holding coils of rope or an ice axe is a classic cliché, but we also need to adjust ski bindings, press buttons on cameras, avalanche transceivers or GPS units. Not only that; the hand is also a great communicator, especially when so much information is transmitted non-verbally. A hand on a client’s shoulder can make a huge difference at the right time, providing comfort, support or triggering extra concentration while vital verbal instruction is delivered. Arguably it’s even more powerful as an attention grabber than taking sunglasses off!
Hand care and protection are vital for a mountain guide, and clearly gloves are the way forward. Please – not mittens. Mittens are for kittens. For any practical task, I need to have all my fingers working, not just a thumb and one big wide finger. So gloves it is, and the search for the perfect glove continues. The problem is that the perfect glove, like the holy grail or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, doesn’t exist. We’re constantly balancing insulation versus dexterity. How cold, wet, snowy or icy is it? What tasks do our poor mistreated hands and fingers need to perform? For summer alpinism and spring ski touring, I work with fleece-lined leather gloves from the local hardware store. The header card shows a guy in a check shirt sat next to a pile of stacked logs looking very pleased with himself. But sometimes those log-stacking gloves don’t quite cut it, and I need something warmer.
Does the new Lithic glove from Arc’teryx do that job?
I’ve been testing a pair during autumn 2015. Straight off the shelf, they fit my wide hands and stubby fingers, so I can easily manipulate carabiners. The fingers are nicely curved to match my natural half closed grip. The elastic cuffs, both at wrist and forearm, tighten and release easily. The insulation is an excellent combination of warmth and dexterity. I’ve only gone down to about -5°C with a 70kmph wind so far with the Lithic, and kept warm. My feeling is that down to -10 or -15 they’ll be fine. The palm and fingers are lined with TPU which feels exceptionally durable. My gloves always wear out on the right palm from the friction of sliding ropes or picking up skis with well sharpened edges. The grip isn’t as good as a leather palm, but the glove will be warmer and more durable.
The Lithic feels like a great, durable glove. Your fingers should stay toasty, and you’ll be able to keep them on all day from first lift to après ski happy hour.