Most Colorado mountain guides try to draw you in with promises of heart-pounding ski runs, unforgettable vistas, and bucket-list summits. But Ridgway-based Moxie Mountain Guides hopes to give their clients a whole lot more.

Co-founded in January 2023 by Kristin Arnold and Sheldon Kerr, Moxie is currently the only guide service in Colorado with female guides accredited by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) at the helm. Arnold and Kerr can—and do—help high-paying clients summit some of the most difficult peaks in the world, but through programming designed for populations that have historically been on the margins and a pay-what-you-should compensation structure, they’re also working to expand participation in outdoor sports.

“There’s this culture where being a guide has traditionally meant that you can climb hard, you can ski the sickest lines,” Arnold says. “There hasn’t necessarily been this focus on what actually is a good guide?”

The Adventurers’ Origin Stories

Sheldon Kerr, left, and Kristin Arnold, right. Photo by Jenny Walters

No doubt, Arnold and Kerr are qualified to answer that question. Arnold grew up near Denver, hiking fourteeners, camping, and skiing to 10th Mountain Division Huts starting when she was eight years old. She went on to play collegiate soccer at Texas A&M University, where she studied sports management and international cultural diversity. Arnold played professional soccer for a year with National Women’s Soccer League’s Sky Blue FC (now known as NJ/NY Gotham FC), and in 2010, began guiding backpackers through rugged country in Alaska’s Wrangell and St. Elias mountains.

Kerr, originally from Vermont, also spent her formative years adventuring, which set her up to help lead trips for the mountain club at Colorado College, where she studied feminist and co-gender studies. Her foray into climbing started with a training regimen for Denali, which she came close to summiting with a friend when she was 20 years old. After a brief stint as a pro skier (she competed in the 2007 U.S. Freeskiing World Championships), she began guiding in Washington, Alaska, and Colorado.

Both women went on to earn AMGA/IFMGA certifications, which is considered the equivalent of a doctorate among mountain guides. Full accreditation involves more than 84 days of training specifically with the AMGA, as well as CPR certification, Wilderness First Responder certification (or higher), and advanced avalanche training for professionals.

“In all of my programs and in all of Sheldon’s programs,” Arnold says, “there was just a dearth of humans who looked like us.” The data backs that up. Colorado-based AMGA confirms that, to date, of the 200 individuals who currently hold its certification, just 17 are women.

Meeting in the Margins

As one of just a few, or more often, the only women in their trainings, Arnold and Kerr had to share tents with men they’d just met, dealt with their menstrual cycles alone in the backcountry, and endured misogynistic comments.

“When you have to continually show up in an environment in which you’re the only one, you have to be more prepared,” Arnold says. “People with marginal identities have to work harder to get to the same level as someone who holds more power and privilege than them.”

When the two women met while working for the same Ouray-based guiding company in 2016, Arnold jokes that they “glommed on to each other.” They bonded over the good: guiding queer and trans folks, leading women-only expeditions, training military special forces units, and traveling around the world. They also discussed the bad, like the fact that women guides were often asked to run kids’ climbing programs while their male counterparts led high-dollar backcountry ski trips. The result: decreased earning potential, since tips for the former are typically far less than the latter.

Kristin Arnold instructs a group of climbers. Photo courtesy of Moxie Mountain Guides

The women noticed that although their profession had been making strides toward more inclusive practices and programming, the progress was slow. Arnold and Kerr knew they could do better for themselves and their industry.

“We asked ourselves what a guide service would look like if it met the highest standards, not only in expert technical execution of inspiring climbing/skiing objectives, but in service to underrepresented professionals and recreationalists, in community engagement, and in social and environmental justice,” Kerr says. “It would look like Moxie.”

Reshaping Recreation

Through Moxie, the duo now offers guiding and guide-training services, many specifically for typically underrepresented groups. They take clients backcountry skiing on Chilean volcanoes, alpine climbing in the North Cascades, and rock climbing at Smith Rock outside of Bend, Oregon. They teach courses on advanced mountaineering, ice climbing, rock climbing, backcountry skiing, and avalanche education. They mentor burgeoning guides from non-binary and trans communities, as well as adaptive athletes and people of color. In January, they’ll provide supervision and mentorship at Ouray’s inclusive All-In Ice Festival. A couple months after that, they’ll “share ropes” on an expedition to the Alaska Range with women, non-binary, trans, and queer climbers.

Moxie’s pay-what-you-should structure facilitates its inclusive programming. Arnold and Kerr will set a price, say $1,150 for a three-day climbing clinic, and then encourage participants to pay what they feel they can without creating financial hardship. Some pay 200 percent of the asking price, others much less or nothing at all. Extra money goes toward sponsoring either another participant or a future participant. Thanks to the generosity of their high-paying clients and brand partners like Osprey, Petzl and Sterling, Moxie’s budget has largely balanced out so far.

Support for the duo’s dream of creating a more inclusive outdoor recreation industry goes beyond big brands. Other guides, like Ian Peterson, who works for the Colorado Mountain School and the American Alpine Institute, are encouraged by Moxie’s mission.

“They’re creating space for folks who rightly belong in the mountains and the outdoors who haven’t seen themselves there,” says Peterson, an apprentice mountain guide with the American Mountain Guide Association. “They’re essentially lowering the financial barriers to entry as well as these social and emotional barriers to entry that folks might be running into.”

Arnold is quick to acknowledge her and Kerr’s own privilege as white individuals. They continue to educate themselves about their own underlying biases. “Eventually we want to be able to pass this profession on,” Arnold says, whether that’s to AMGA-certified climbers of color, IMGA-certified queer women, or another group that’s been on the margins for too long. “Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job.”