The scenario was classic, Gilbert multi-tasking: talking on the phone to the people she guided over Blue Lakes Pass earlier that day, thumbing though her computer for photos for the paper, and listening in on friend and neighbor Mike Pennings tell one of his many epic adventure stories – and not once did she miss a beat.
“Maybe not, but I had to break the window on my truck today because I forgot my keys,” Gilbert laughed.
While her clients waited, they used a trailer hitch ball joint to smash the window, and it just bounced off the tempered glass once, then twice, before finally breaking through –only to find that the keys weren’t there either. Such is the no-holds-barred life of this Ph.D. student turned mountain guide.
Originally from a small town near Greeley, Gilbert graduated from high school in Fort Collins, spent a year as a ski bum in Crested Butte, then left Colorado, seemingly for good. “I didn’t think I was ever coming back,” she said.
She moved to Oregon to attend Pacific University, where she graduated with a degree in biology and chemistry. After a year of graduate school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, she moved to the University of Washington, where she earned a masters degree in botany. In Ithaca, N.Y., she began work on a Ph.D. Her research took her to Nepal, where she spent the better part of two years studying the ecology of lower-elevation grasslands, specifically the role of plants in climate change. Growing unrest and political instability in Nepal put an end to her research project. She then spent a year in Berkeley, searching for academic direction, but, burned out and lacking interest, she quit graduate school just short of a doctorate.
“So I went to work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and did something completely out of my field: forecasting turbulence for aircraft,” Gilbert said.
Her position there was only supposed to last six weeks; almost four years later, she was still at it. But by this time, she was beginning to find a new direction.
“That’s when I started guiding for Women’s Wilderness Institute, and that’s when I bought my house in Elk Meadows,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert learned to guide in college, where, as a born-and-bred Colorado outdoorswoman, she led trips for the school’s outdoors program. She continued to guide on the side, leading trips for family and friends. She started guiding with the institute as a volunteer on weekends, but “I just had so much fun,” she said. The institute was in need of more staff, and Gilbert fit the bill. Still, she didn’t quit her day job, at least not yet. She became a telecommuter across the Great Divide.
Gilbert had always been drawn to the Western Slope. “My grandfather was born and raised near Kannah Creek between Delta and Grand Junction, and I had a great uncle who lived in Telluride when I was tiny. So I’ve been coming down here ever since I was born,” she said.
After she bought her house in Elk Meadows, Gilbert tele-commuted, and physically commuted every other week, to her job in Boulder for nine months. She finally quit NCAR to go to work as the executive director of Top of the Pines, a former Girl Scout camp turned experiential learning facility up in Elk Meadows.
“Outdoor education and experiential learning is the way to go for kids,” Gilbert said. “But also, TOP is such a great resource for the community, as open space and as an outdoor recreation area.”
Gilbert succeeded in winning a Great Outdoors Colorado grant to pay for renovation of Top of the Pine’s buildings, but she was unable to raise enough money for her own salary. After pouring her heart and soul – and countless hours of hard labor – into the facility, she let go of that job to pursue guiding full time.
Currently, Gilbert guides most of her trips with San Juan Mountain Guides and Women’s Wilderness Institute, leading trips that range from ice climbing and day hiking in the San Juans to backpacking and yoga in the desert. Fly fishing, mountain biking, rock climbing, and good old fashioned mountaineering are among her areas of expertise as well.
Oh, and don’t forget painting, construction and home renovation. Gilbert spends most of her free time working on fixing up her house. It may just lead to another career change. “MonkE Hazen is trying to talk me into teaching a course on power tools for women in Ridgway,” Gilbert laughed.