MR. & MRS. SMART
Being a mountain guide in Chamonix, France can be as romantic as it sounds, but it’s also hard on the mind and taxing on the body. And romance and fatigue usually don’t go together. So what if your lover is also a guide? Maybe your business partner, too? Meet Miles and Elizabeth Smart. They can get you into some of the hairiest places on the planet. And they share socks.
“Can you try to stay in sync a little more?”
“But his legs are so short!”
“Take shorter steps and let him stretch out!”
There are no echoes here on the ice of the Argentière Glacier, but the comedy playing ahead between the photographer and the guide sticks, if not for its content, for its meaning. It’s kind of a romantic comedy, I guess, and I’m glad my wife, Holly, is here laughing with me as we skin backstage.
The long-legged one is 33-year-old mountain guide Elizabeth “Liz” Smart. At 5’8”, blue-eyed and impossibly blonde, she’s Kate Upton in a climbing harness. Or, in this case, maybe Amy Poehler. An inch shorter, her husband, Miles, also a mountain guide, is built more like a wrestler and was once compared to Kevin Bacon by Outside Magazine. The skintrack banter between the two says he likes being her straight man, and his tempo says he’s used to her long legs.
They’re doing the old guide trick of modeling, but not as Miles did yesterday to get Holly over a slick stretch of ice above a crevasse field. (“You don’t want to edge too hard,” he’d said, then showed her.) No, this is the regular, old modeling for the camera, the lens of which frames both an astonishing backdrop of north faces—the Aiguilles Verte, Les Droites and Les Courtes—and a remarkable young couple, partners in love and work that happens to be taking people down some of those lines. And photographer Jeff Diener is calling the shots.
Their strides might not suggest syncopation, but nearly everything else about Miles and Elizabeth Smart suggests total tune: Young, fit, healthy, handsome, both internationally certified mountain guides running a beyond-successful guiding operation in Chamonix where there’s no shortage of competition. Husband and wife, business partners, ski partners, friends and lovers, they seem to have the world at their feet. The truth of it is, they do.
I think I understand the love part and the part about building a life together in the mountains. I work with Holly every day. We finish each other’s sentences and somehow wrangle two kids and get the laundry done. But maintaining and managing all of that in the context of having a client’s life in your hands, amid glaciers, fall-and-you-die terrain and foreign languages?
The Smarts’ story starts in Jackson, Wyoming where they met working for Exum Guides in 2002. Their backgrounds, in a mountain sense, couldn’t have been more disparate: He was from the city and she was from a trailer park. OK, the city was Seattle and the trailer park was in Aspen (where some trailers have wine cellars), but still. Both learned to ski early: Miles started when he was three years old, and Liz at two. Her father, Ken Oakes, was a supervisor at the Aspen ski school until she was 20, when he retired. By age four she was in ski school every weekend. By the time she was 15, she was backcountry skiing in the Elk Mountains.
Like many kids from the Emerald City, Miles skied almost every weekend at Stevens Pass and sometimes at Crystal. But as a teenager, it was climbing, not skiing, that drew him. Snow would take a back seat while he spent months at a time in Yosemite, where his compact style caught the eyes of both partners and the outdoor industry. Before long, he was more than just a climbing bum: he was putting up hard climbs and even a new route on El Capitan, Disorderly Conduct, attracting sponsors and working on Search and Rescue.
And though his first memories of these mountains here are from the great ski movie, “Blizzard of Aahhhs,” it was the rock, not the skiing, that first attracted Miles to Chamonix.
“When I went to Cham for the first time it was a climbing trip, and I was given a hit list by Mark Twight,” he remembers. The list included the Frendo Spur on the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi, the Super Couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul and Beyond Good and Evil on the Aiguille des Pélerins. He started to tick them off in the fall of 1998. And then it started to snow.
“I rented a pair of fat skis and did three runs off the Aiguille du Midi,” Miles had mentioned yesterday over a beer at the Moo Bar, a haunt in town where the Smarts bring clients after a day of skiing. “There’s nothing like skiing 9,000 vertical feet of powder on fat skis to get you reinvigorated about skiing.”
It was also on that trip when Miles saw, for the first time, how European guides make a living in the mountains. At 21, he enrolled in an AMGA course to become an IFGMA guide. By 2001, he was taking Exum clients up the Grand Teton. By 2003, he was an aspirant guide working in France.
Liz’s path to guiding started at home in Aspen. She may have gotten her skiing chops from her father, but she got her nudge into guiding from one of America’s early pioneers in the profession. “In high school I was an apprentice guide at Aspen Expeditions for [founder] Dick Jackson. But I really wanted to be a ski guide,” Liz says today. “Dick told me, ‘You’re either a mountain guide or you’re not a mountain guide.’ He was one of the early Americans to be fully certified. So I learned to climb because I wanted to be a ski guide. It wasn’t until I came to Europe that first time that I was like, ‘Wow, you can do this as a living year round.’”
By the end of that summer in the Tetons, Miles had bought Liz a ticket to Europe, where he’d be working with Doug Coombs in his Steep Camps in La Grave, France.
It turns out Miles didn’t only have a crush on Liz, but, according to both she and Emily Coombs, also on the late Doug. And, says Emily, Doug’s wife and partner in numerous mountain guiding exploits including Valdez Heli Ski Guides and the Steep Camps, in Miles, Doug found someone with whom he could really push his limits.
“They reminded us of ourselves a little,” she says of Miles and Liz. “They just hung out together and wanted to do things in the mountains together. Kind of a non-traditional relationship. The girl doesn’t stay home and cook; the girl is out there with you.”
It was in the Coombs’s marriage and business partnership that Miles and Liz saw what life could be like making a living together in the mountains. And it was in Doug himself that Miles saw what was possible on skis.
“Emily and I used to joke that the two of them were going to run away together and leave us,” Liz recalled at the Moo Bar, eyes moistening either out of joy or sadness, or, likely, both. “They had this mutual admiration for each other and for different reasons. They’d go out and play in the mountains.”
It’s baking on the glacier, and during lunch the boots come off to air out. It’s been a lean winter in much of the Alps, and we’re hunting for April scraps of snow, the best of which will be, with luck, sun-ripened corn on the south slopes above us. That’s hours away, both by foot and by the sun’s work.
Miles and Liz arrange their packs so that, somehow, his head ends up innocently her lap. “Hey, are those my socks?” she asks with a snort pointing to his pink socks. He doesn’t offer a defense. “We share a lot of the same clothes,” she adds. Not out-on-the-town clothes, but mountain clothes, she means. It’s hard not to find it adorable.
After lunch on the hot ice, Holly decides she’s going to hang out and cook a little bit in the T-shirt weather on the Argentière Glacier while Miles, Liz, a client, Jordan, Jeff and I skin up to what Miles is calling the Steep Camp Couloirs (SCC). They’re two south-facing sister shots that spike back onto the ice above us. He guesses one is 40° and the other 45°, and if we leave now, in the hour it takes to skin up and around them on the Glacier des Améthystes, they could be in perfect corn conditions.
For a moment I’m disappointed that Holly wants to stay behind. “You can totally handle it,” I say. “I think it’s a great afternoon to hang out,” Liz says before I can say another word. Hey, she’s the guide.
Falling in behind Miles, I see that, while his legs are indeed short, he’s got the cadence of a professional cyclist. He sets a gentle skintrack, which leads from the Argentière to a snow-covered moraine and back to the smaller glacier. Occasionally, he looks back to locate each member of the group, but there’s little risk here, short of rock fall from the towering granite above us. The recent warm spell has scorched the face clean of ice and snow.
As we climb, he briefs me on the current status of the Steep Skiing Camps. Immediately after Coombs died from injuries sustained in a fall in April of 2006, Emily asked Miles and Liz to take over. They continued to run the camps in La Grave for years before moving them here a few seasons ago. They only do one camp now—Miles says they’re merely caretaking it for the Coombs’s now 10-year-old son, David—and where it was once a big part of their living, now it’s regular, private clients or groups that keep them fully booked nearly all season. Even so, it’s the camps and their relationship with Doug and Emily that put Smart Mountain Guides on the map.
“Doug made this huge impression on me right away, and I wanted to ski with him as much as possible,” Miles had said at the Moo Bar. “At that time Doug was going through a UIAGM guiding program and was climbing loads. He was psyched to be out with me.”
“When I first started skiing with Doug, he influenced my skiing in so many ways,” Miles recalled.
He remembered to me Coombs’s Twinkie turn and windshield-wiper turn, and mantras about being a terrain skier, not a snow skier—all things he and Liz work on every day with their clients both in the camps and on private trips.
It’s amazing really, that Miles and Liz, just off an epic stint of work, have the energy to make any turns today. While Miles was planning and guiding for Warren Miller’s latest film, “No Turning Back,” Liz was icing the last details for a huge European media group, which would and did include managing a half dozen guides, while simultaneously shooting a marketing film for Marmot and Polartec. Plus, there was their regular client work, which has grown over the last several years to necessitate hiring additional guides. It’s an astonishing amount of work and logistics for any outfit. But Liz and Miles negotiate and coordinate the day-to-day minutia of their lives and work with passion and intensity.
“Together they’re just formidable,” says Tim Petrick of K2 Sports, who once taught skiing with Ken in Aspen and who first met Miles when he tail guided for Doug on a Warren Miller shoot. “It’s not easy to go to a foreign country and learn the language and learn the culture and that kind of terrain that they’re guiding in. There’s no more difficult terrain in the world….”
It’s true. Talk to any guide in Chamonix, and Miles—American and only 34 years old—is, without question, one of the most respected guides in town. Guides years his senior travel from Switzerland and other parts of France to work with the he and Liz. One French guide, an 18-year veteran from La Grave, told me that because they are so organized and professional “no one is better with the clients.”
“You have something in your teeth, dear,” Liz says as Miles pulls up to give her a kiss after slashing a few windshield-wiper turns halfway down the choke at the top of the couloir. He smiles big and gloves at his teeth, feigning that he cares. “It’s still there,” she says. Miles gives a silent OK, whatever.
Liz slips down and into a turn as Miles, a red silhouette against granite, watches over her descending. If Miles came to guiding from rock, Liz came from snow and ice. While he’s got an athletic, racer’s stance and skis with pure power, she’s more nuanced and it’s clear there’s some PSIA influence there. Her upper body is compact beneath her blue pack as her legs stretch across the couloir’s fall line as if she’s practicing yoga, reaching for the rock with her heels at the apex of each turn. Her skis are constantly in contact with the snow as she arcs down the pitch.
The only thing bouncy about Liz’s skiing is her ponytail. Maybe her dangly earrings, too. It’s not her skiing, however, or her jewelry, or height, or Americanness, or blondness that draws the most attention here in Cham. It’s her UIAGM pin that rattles most men, and sometimes women, of a certain age. Yesterday, as we walked through the ice tunnel at the top of the Aiguille du Midi, a French-speaking tourist asked her why she wears the guide pin.
“The guy looked at my badge and asked me, in French, ‘Are you a mountain guide?’” she’d told me at the bar. “I responded in French, ‘No, I just think it’s pretty jewelry.’ Normally, I have more patience for that question.” But not at the end of 100-plus days of guiding.
“I don’t fit the stereotype of being a mountain guide,” she’d said. “I’m not as young as I look, but I got my pin before I was 30 (She’s now 33). Still fairly young to be a qualified guide.” Miles got his pin when he was only 24. They were married in 2007 in Seattle.
All of this, the terrain management, the clients, sponsors, other guides, is tough to manage, or should be, I think. So, how, at such a young age, do they keep together their work life and their marriage? Does it take discipline to make time for each other? How deliberate do they need to be? There’s an old joke—what is the difference between God and a mountain guide? The answer: God doesn’t think he’s a mountain guide. But that doesn’t apply to Miles or Liz. Rather than love themselves, they love each other.
As for the questions, I guess if you lead with the heart and not the head, the answers will sort themselves out. In marriage, in the mountains, in business, conditions change. Every temperature spike, gust of wind, flurry, you name it, can necessitate serious changes of plan. Sounds a lot like guiding. Or skiing: sometimes when you edge too hard, you spin out. And sometimes, if you don’t edge hard enough, you slip into a crevasse. Sometimes, “there’s something in your teeth,” could be the equivalent of “don’t stand too long beneath that serac!” or, “Honey, we need to talk.”
So there’s the love part of it. But what else makes this all, well, work? Turns out, it’s just plain old work itself, and teamwork, too. And ever since the La Grave days, these two have been full gas.
“When we came over here, Miles was an aspirant guide,” Liz had said. “I couldn’t work, so Miles would work, and I would run the business. As I was training (for her own guiding certification), I learned website development. The only thing we’ve ever hired out for is the logo. Everything else we’ve done ourselves.
“Miles and I work really well together because of that,” she had added, admitting that it was at first a challenge when she started guiding more, leaving less time for the office work. As her role has changed, so has his. “When I get home and throw my pack on the ground, he’ll unpack my pack and lay the rope out to dry. He deals with the equipment.” And while she’s dealing with the website, he’s studying the weather, talking with other guides about conditions and scouring guidebook after guidebook.
“He knows all the routes in the valley, he’s always watching conditions, and he’s always watching out for what to do. And it’s like, OK Miles, what’s going to be great tomorrow? What should we do? It’s a huge amount of terrain here, and it’s a lot to keep track of. He doesn’t know who he’s guiding the next day, I do, and he knows where to go.
“Maybe Miles and I are super lucky, but we love being together, and we have so much fun in the mountains. I think, if anything, with us being more busy and we don’t get to guide together very often, we miss each other. I would love to be able to go skiing with him. We love working together. He’s my favorite partner in the mountains.”
We’re milking this couloir, and Miles and Liz are as relaxed as I’ve seen them in 10 days of intense guiding, massive groups, complicated shuttles and marginal conditions. But the sun is getting low over town, and they say it’s time to get moving. We’ve still got to ski all the way out the Argentière, and it will take at least an hour once we get to Holly to reach the car at the bottom of Les Grands Montets tram.
This isn’t really no-fall terrain, but it’s still steep enough that I don’t want to come off my feet for any period of time. And I certainly can’t sit down while we wait for the procession to session. I look across the Argentière to the North Face of Les Courtes and imagine being on that dark, exposed face. The Smarts don’t often guide there, but they do get into plenty of spicy situations. I wonder how they manage that part of the relationship, professional or otherwise.
“It’s easier for me when I’m in the mountains than when I’m at home, funny enough,” Miles had told me in the Moo Bar. “I can watch Liz in the most engaging and extreme situation in the mountains, and when I’m there, in the element, we’re communicating and…. I trust her. That’s a lot easier than if I know that she’s on a really serious ski descent or serious climb and I’m just sitting at home on my day off.
“It’s the same for her. And that helps me appreciate how difficult it is for my mother or anyone else. When I’m actually there and I’m watching Liz in a fall-and-you-die situation that’s easier for me, if I can look in her eyes and see the control.”
I look down at the spec next to the moraine that must be Holly, the one I want to be with in the mountains. The snow on this aspect is firming up, and it really is time to go. I stand on my downhill ski and push out into the couloir, feather my edge, modulate a little as I come up to speed, and, following the Smarts, start the long slide toward her.
This story was originally published in the February/March 2015 issue of Backcountry Magazine. Find a copy here, and for more on Miles and Elizabeth Smart, visit smartmountainguides.com.