San Juan Mountain Guides Set to Change Hands
OURAY – An intense snowstorm had just dumped several inches of powder on the San Juan Mountains between Durango and Ouray, and highway crews were shooting down avalanches, but it wasn’t enough to keep Nate Disser from driving over Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain Passes to meet with Clint Cook on Tuesday morning this week.
After all, that snowy expanse of mountain terrain has been both of their passion and bread and butter, in surprisingly parallel careers spanning the past decade: Cook, at the helm of San Juan Mountain Guides in Ouray, and Disser, running his company Southwest Adventure Guides in Durango.
Now, the two “brother” companies will be merging. Disser is buying San Juan Mountain Guides from Cook in a deal that is set to close on April 1.
“We’ve been thinking about selling for a year or so,” Cook said of the business he’s owned and nurtured along since 2003, when it was still a three-guide seasonal business housed in the boiler room of the Victorian Inn. The International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA)-certified Cook grew San Juan Mountain Guides into a thriving year-round guide service employing upwards of 20 guides in the winter.
“Ice climbing is an emerging sport, and Ouray is the best place for it,” Cook said. “We’ve really been blessed with that. The winters are pretty darn busy, for sure. San Juan Mountain Guides has grown to the point to where it really needs a dedicated administrator, and that’s not necessarily what I want to do with the next chapter of my life. So I’m going to pass it along to somebody else.”
Disser, meanwhile, was looking for a chance to grow his Durango-based guiding business, which is similar to San Juan Mountain Guides in both size and scope, with one full time administrative assistant and 12 guides.
Disser is an American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA)-certified rock and alpine guide, and Southwest Adventure Guides is an AMGA-accredited company. He was born in the midwest, and grew up in upstate New York, where he cut his climbing teeth in the Adirondacks. He has lived in Durango for over a decade, and has owned Southwest Adventure Guides for much of that time.
Disser and Cook, both 34, have always held each other and their respective businesses in high regard, often referring clients to each other. “It’s been pretty collaborative, as far as two guide services go in the same range,” Disser said.
But San Juan Mountain Guides has always had one thing going for it that no other guiding service can claim: as the holder of the guiding concession at the Ouray Ice Park, it has developed a name for itself as “the premier ice climbing guiding service in the United States,” Disser said. “We have always had a permit in the Ice Park as a subcontracting guide service under the concession contract with San Juan Mountain Guides, but have always had a competitive disadvantage.”
Now, he’s buying into this legacy and reputation. “We want to maintain that local flair and appeal and really focus on the kinds of things we’re the best at,” he said. “The San Juan Mountains and Ouray, there’s no place like this in the world. There’s no other Ouray Ice Park anywhere.”
When the sale goes through, Disser’s immediate plan is to maintain the two guide services as separate businesses but over the long term he’d like to absorb Southwest Adventure Guides into the San Juan Mountain Guides brand.
“It’s a great opportunity, to combine these two guide services, combine the focus they’ve had over the last decade, and bring those focuses together to encompass the well-rounded aspects of the San Juan Mountain Range,” he said.
“That’s what it’s about to me, is taking a look at what the San Juan Mountains themselves are the best at – great skiing, avalanche course certification, ice climbing, and mountaineering in both summer and winter – there’s so many activities here. We’ll certainly be a major guide service in the US. It’s gonna be a power house.”
Disser intends to keep San Juan Mountain Guides headquartered in Ouray, and will continue to employ all of the local guides, “if they’ll have me,” he said.
But for now, he and his young family, including wife Keeton who owns the Rock Lounge (a Durango climbing gym), and their one-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, will keep their home base in Durango and will run the business-end of San Juan Mountain Guides from afar.
Cook, meanwhile, said he’s ready to give his body a break from the intensity of the guiding he’s been doing for the last 10 years, and ready to give his mind a break from the huge responsibility of running a thriving guiding business. He’ll stay on as a lead guide at SJMG, however, for the next year or so, to help ease the transition into the new ownership.