Jeff Stephenson was just 14 years old when construction began on Rutland's Green Mountain Rock Climbing Center; he volunteered to sand floors and hammer nails. Later, he landed a full-time gig there while attending Poultney High School. Now 21, he's the outdoor-programs director for the climbing center's sister, Vermont Adventure Tours. From rookie rock climbers and at-risk youth to Gore-Tex-clad flatlanders and stressed-out alpha males, clients seek Stephenson for a good time in the Green Mountains. It's a year-round job that has sent the Chittenden resident paddling the Otter Creek and Chittenden Reservoir, scaling Smuggler's Notch, and wheeling through Rutland's Muddy Pond. Stephenson even landed a cameo in Frozen Impact -- a made-for-TV movie by Rutland filmmaker David Giancola that appears on TV's PAX Network. Can action flicks be far behind?
SEVEN DAYS: How did you become interested in the outdoors and guiding?
JS: I hunted with my dad as a kid, but stopped after going to conservation camp. I started to do more adventurous activities instead of going out in the woods with a gun: rock climbing in local areas, like up at the Falls of Lana near Middlebury, and a few local cliffs near Poultney. The first time I rappelled I was in Boy Scouts and I was scared to death; we did this 40-foot little moss-covered cliff in the woods that was nothing special, but I remember being scared and shaking on the way over. I got through it, and from there I just started to do more.
SD: You studied criminal justice for a year at Castleton State. Does any of what you learned in college translate into what the outdoors can do for us?
JS: Well, I've worked with youth at risk and found that you can take people who aren't exposed to the outdoor world and put them in the outdoor world and it really changes them. The youth at risk, in the classroom they'd be abusive, physically and mentally, and there were times the police had to come and take the kids to jail. But we'd get them out in the woods and, by the end of three days, most kids were so well behaved, so appreciative of everything. To see a river or to see an animal would just be the coolest thing in the world to them. They used to call me "Mr. Jeff." We pushed respect, and I think they understood that, whether it was respect the land or respect each other.
SD: Have you had any truly unpleasant experiences with clients?
JS: I've been dropped by a client while climbing, but that wasn't the worst thing in the world... There are always the people who have a different attitude, but as a guide you just have to adapt to your client, so you're not putting the people through the same exact pre-packaged thing every time. You make others happy, which makes you happy.
SD: What types of sparks fly, in a good or bad way, out in the wilderness?
JS: Whether it's boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife, a lot of times we'll be out climbing or hiking and the guy's saying, "Honey, this is the way we do it," and I say, "No, she's right." It could be tying a knot or starting a stove or setting up a tent. But it helps form bonds, to build a new respect between people. I had a couple clients out last summer on an overnight, and they sat right in front of me for an hour-and-a-half talking about their relationship. You become like a counselor, helping people deal with their problems and emotions. I was out with a money manager with his own business; he said, "Don't even care if we climb, I just want to be relaxed and be away -- I know you're taking care of everything." It was like a therapy session for him.
SD: What has been your scariest experience as a guide?
JS: I've never had to rescue somebody, but it makes me nervous being out with a group and they're at the top of a cliff just sitting and watching. It's not the person on the rope I'm worried about -- even if they slip they're not going to fall and get hurt -- it's everybody else who's wandering around the woods.
SD: What's the dumbest thing you've ever seen somebody do in the outdoors?
JS: I was with a guy on a free-hanging rappel. He let go of his prusik [a friction knot that locks on a rope], and it was weird how he had it set up, so he decided to use his knife and ended up cutting halfway through his climbing rope -- just hanging there in free space.
SD: And what about the most admirable actions you've seen?
JS: It's more about what a guide is, and what a guide should be. You see a lot of young guys out there who are just there to show off; they'll solo up next to their client, not even on a rope. What kind of example are you setting for your client? A great climber doesn't always make a great guide.
SD: What happens when you wake up and you don't feel like going outside?
JS: You gotta fake it! The first five minutes of meeting your client in the morning is where everything gets set.
SD: Where are your favorite places in Vermont?
JS: I love Smuggler's Notch; you don't see development when you're in the notch. Also the Ripton area, near the Breadloaf Wilderness, because it's so primitive. There is no trail. There is no campsite.
SD: How well do Vermonters appreciate what's in their backyard?
JS: Vermont, just like the rest of the world, has become so fast-paced; people go out and they telemark ski or go for a hike, but the whole time they're out there, they think, "OK, I gotta go to the bank when I get back." There are people who take time, but a lot of people who are missing out.
SD: Where do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years?
JS: I always will do this outdoor stuff; I really enjoy teaching other people. Will I stay here in Vermont? In 20 years... I have no idea. I've been out West a few times; I spent a month in Prescott, Arizona, and it was the same all year round. Here, we're now getting into the rock-climbing season and the mountain biking and swimming, and then in the winter we'll get back into ice climbing. One of the things I really enjoy about Vermont is the change.