Bonds are strong among teammates and friends, when you grow up skiing or riding every day with SVSEF. Follow along with this series, ALUMNI SPOTLIGHTS, to learn what SVSEF alumni took away from their time with the organization, and what they’re up to now.
We caught up with Geoff Unger, a moguls (freestyle) alumni who graduated from the program in 1997. After leaving the Wood River Valley, Geoff attended Colorado College before pursuing a career in mountain guiding. An American Mountain Guides Association Certified Rock, Alpine and Ski Guide with over 15 years of experience, he now calls Rosendale, New York home, where he owns and operates Extreme Alpine.
What was it like to make the transition from growing up in the Wood River Valley to attending college? Did you feel prepared for that change?
The Wood River Valley was an incredible place to grow up. It offered me so many opportunities to explore the outdoors and hone my abilities on skis. SVSEF was a huge part of that. By the winter season in sophomore year of high school, I was training six days a week on the mountain. When we weren’t training we were off competing. It was tricky to balance the academic work load at school and on the mountain, but I think that helped me transition to college and life outside the Valley.
How did you decide that you wanted to be a climbing guide?
I was involved in the outdoor program at Community School, which showed me that it was okay to pursue something outside the classroom. Community School was also very supportive of my participation on ski team. After high school I took some time away from skiing. It wasn’t the same to have to drive two hours each way to get to the mountains. Consequently, I embraced rock climbing, as it was much more accessible. During college I spent as much time climbing as I could and it became my second passion after skiing. The college experience led me to an even deeper connection with the outdoors and drove me away from wanting to be involved in politics and business (my double major). So I moved back to the Valley and coached ski team for SVSEF on the weekends and worked as a trip leader for the Community School. From there, it wasn’t difficult to find my way into guiding as a full time job.
What do you enjoy most about the job?
The best thing about guiding is sharing the places I love and care for with my guests. Increasingly, our outdoor recreation areas are under threat of development and exploitation. As true wilderness becomes rare its value goes up as does the need to protect it. It is also important to me to have a real connection with my clientele. If I am able to teach people to engage with the land in a way that is sustainable and help them to see the value, then I feel satisfied that I’ve done a good job.
What are some challenges associated with your line of work, and how do you address these?
For a long time the main challenge was financial. Mountain Guiding is not the most lucrative profession. I would say it took me 15 years to really get my feet under me and make a living where I could afford to live comfortably. Before that it was a lifestyle that I chose and I lived out of the back of my truck and out of a duffel bag for years. In 2005 I got involved with the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) to become a Certified Mountain Guide. It took me three years of time and dedication, but I was able to achieve my IFMGA Guide Qualification. The AMGA has done a lot for the professional of guiding and continues to set standards for guides and the industry. It is difficult to make a connection between the work the organization has done and wages, but my view is there has been a positive impact on guide wages based on the increased visibility and recognition of the training and certification programs. The way that I have addressed the challenges present in the guiding industry is to get involved. I am on the AMGA Board of Directors and have worked hard to strengthen the organization and the guide training programs. I believe this has gone a long way toward making the guiding profession sustainable in the US.
How do you describe the value of a program like SVSEF? What has been your biggest takeaway?
The most direct value for me is that I will always feel comfortable on my skis. For my guiding job this is huge because it allows me the bandwidth to help my guests. Digging a little deeper, I would say the program taught me to have a strong work ethic. From dry-land training through the season, we trained hard and were expected to show up prepared. It didn’t have the feel of being regimented since there is a lot of room for expression in freestyle skiing, but the structure was there for us to grow and succeed.
What aspects of the program have you carried over or applied to your current job, life in general, or any steps or experiences that have come in between?
A common thread for me is community. SVSEF, the Community School and the Wood River Valley are strong communities. Coming out of those environments, I have sought out opportunities that have strong communities and have tried to help them grow stronger. I certainly have found a lot of strength and support from the guide community. It has allowed me to grow and develop at my own pace, but also to become the best guide I can be while continuing to supporting others.
Was there an individual coach who made a big impression or had a big impact on you?
John Zuck was the head coach while I was on the team and when I coached for SVSEF. John was the single most influential coach and mentor for me. He put in a lot of effort to help me succeed as a mogul skier and as a person. In the summer time I also worked construction with John. It was an extension of ski team. He taught me to be responsible and honest about error correction. He would say, “It’s all about linked recoveries,’ whether that was on the construction site, on the mogul course or in life. It is really difficult to be perfect, but we can work toward it if we constantly recognize our errors and make corrections.
Is there any specific memory or story that stands out to you, that embodies your experience at SVSEF?
I always enjoyed the competitions we held at home, but what stands out to me is the Lane Parish Combined Super G and Dual Moguls Competition that was held for years. The mogul competition was held on Race Arena. It brought everyone together for a festive event. The racers would compete in moguls and some of the bump skiers would even race gates. To me, that was the embodiment of a strong community. Things got competitive, but in the end it was about fun and friends.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
My father was heavily involved in SVSEF and the local community. I have always had the utmost respect for how he carried himself and conducted business. Of the many things I learned from him was to lead by example. If you set a tone of respect and leadership, then others will follow you. That is the best way to get things accomplished and be successful.
What advice would you give athletes about applying what they’ve learned at SVSEF to college or future experiences?
It will likely be different for everyone. I was never on the podium, but ski team taught me to do my best and never give up. After my years on the team, I didn’t become a professional mogul skier, but I did become a mountain professional and use what I learned on the team for my career in the mountains. I have a deep love of skiing and it will always be with me because of my days with SVSEF. I hope that all SVSEF athletes find this to be true, and that it enriches their lives to have come from such a great community.
How have you come to define success?
Success is something you can define for yourself. There is a lot of pressure in the world to look and act a certain way or do things ‘the right way.’ I think it is important to be who and what you want to be. If you put your heart and soul into it and keep at it, you can achieve success by making it your own.
Thank you so much, Geoff!
To learn more about Geoff and his Mountain Guiding business, Extreme Alpine, visit his website here!