When the weather has allowed, Brian Houle has been on the trails surrounding Harmon Lake near Mandan, working with Blue Sky Trails to develop mountain biking paths around the lake. That’s a far cry from where he could be, like a mountain in Mongolia, Russia or Argentina, or deep in a cave in Thailand.
Houle, who grew up in Mandan and now lives in Bismarck with his wife and young child, is more than a trailblazer. He’s a guide, and not just one that takes you to nearby parks or trails. He’s a world-class professional guide who’s as comfortable at 19,000 feet in Denali or several hundred feet underground in a cave in Southeast Asia.
“My wife is a social worker,” the 32-year-old adventurer said. “She calls me a high-altitude social worker because you really are managing people (guiding). You have to feed people and get them water and there’s avalanche conditions and all these other factors. The people make or break a climb.”
Houle was looking for something, anything, in the outdoors when he completed college at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Having taken college classes as Bismarck State College while in high school, Houle said he was out of college in 2 ½ years. So it was off to work.
“I have a past in construction and geotechnical drilling, and my dad owns a company that does a bunch of that,” Houle said. “I worked in the archaeology field for 3 ½ years in Colorado and Utah and Alaska.”
He also worked for a local engineering firm. But Houle wasn’t built for office work.
“Honestly, I tried the office thing and it’s hard. I can do it for a short period of time but I like being outside. So I quit and said ‘(forget) this, I’m gonna go do something,’ he said. "I spent about two years climbing and getting certifications and started guiding soon after that.”
Soon he was guiding mountain climbing expeditions to Mongolia, Russia, Argentina, the Cascades of the U.S. northwest and Denali in Alaska. He was also taking people deep into pitch-black caves in Thailand.
“Cavers are like a strange group of people. I got into it by happenstance,” Houle said.
His old boss was Josh Morris, who was integral in rescuing the Thailand soccer team trapped in a cave.
“Deep diving, deep penetration in a cave is interesting, but you’re reaching a threshold of acceptable risk that I don’t get my thrill from anymore,” he said.
While there is a certain amount of excitement that comes with going where few people ever will go -- and in some cases is life-threatening -- Houle said he rarely gets an adrenaline rush.
“When I’m personal climbing, that’s a different space,” Houle said. “When I’m guiding, I’m hyper-vigilant. I’m not focused on adrenaline. Some things I’ve climbed, I could have died right there. But I’m a pretty safe person, actually.”
Houle said he has taken four groups on successful summits of Aconcagua in Argentina, three to Elbrus in Russia and two to Mongolia. Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of Asia at 22,841 feet or just 7,000 shorter than Mount Everest. Houle is in the early stages of another trip to Mongolia and might go back to Argentina.
He will guide most people, but he has his favorites.
“There are Type A, they want to conquer something to prove they can do something,” Houle explained. “They’re the worst clients to have because inevitably something happens and they can’t meet that goal. And they take it out on the guide.
“Type B are strong and capable and realize it’s climbing and not summiting and realize you’re not going to get to the top every time,” Houle went on. “They go to see the mountain and be in that space and maybe they’ve learned something about themselves and the environment.
“The Type C people are the ones who have money and say, ‘Hey, I want to try that.’”
Of all the places Houle has been, Denali (McKinley in Alaska) might be the most difficult.
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“It’s a long time to be away, about a month,” Houle said. “The second you get on the glacier, you have zero communication. It’s a blue-collar mountain. If something goes wrong, you’re gonna have long days.”
Houle said like anything else, climbing takes time to master the skill.
“In any sports like mountain biking, snowboarding, skiing and climbing, you don’t jump in head first,” he said. “You can, and if you survive the learning curve, you might stay in it. My approach is to dabble and push it a little bit each time until you’re comfortable, then go further.”
Houle now takes his love of the outdoors to Harmon Lake, where he can see how the less adventurous recreate.
“I didn’t really understand how much work went into trail building until I started doing it,” Houle said. “Now I have newfound respect for the existing trails because it takes a lot of humor, effort and thought. We complement the environment rather than cut a huge swatch. It’s a way for people to come out and access nature here. That’s cool.”
Dawn Packard needed somebody to work with her company -- Blue Sky Trails -- to extend the mountain biking and hiking trail at Harmon Lake near Mandan. Houle needed a job.
It was a perfect match.
“My wife actually saw a newsreel and we were moving back and I needed some employment,” Houle said. “I’m an avid mountain biker and said that’s a great little project to help out with. I emailed Dawn and talked to her.”
Houle was hired for the project that began in late June.
The weather hasn’t been cooperative, but Blue Sky Trails is still hoping to finish before real winter sets in.
“This is our second big project at Harmon Lake,” Packard said. “We’re doing 6 ½ miles. We did the Epic Loop in 2014. It was 4.2 miles. It’s pretty much designed for mountain bikes but hikers and mountain bikers are allowed. And trail runners.”
New trails will be opened at Fort Abraham Lincoln and the Turtle Mountains. Blue Sky has worked on many state park trails, including those at Fort Ransom, Fort Stevenson, Lake Metigoshe, Icelandic, Beaver Lake and Little Missouri state parks.
It has worked trails in the Pembina Gorge and Indian Hills Resort and Turtle Mountain State Forest.
“It’s government bidding or we work for mountain bike clubs, whatever come down the pike,” Packard said.
What will Houle do when this project is up? Russia? Argentina? Alaska? More trails?
“I had entertained the idea of working for a windmill company, climbing those,” Houle said. “That might be a direction I may go. Being outside and being mechanically-minded fits my skill sets.”
Go to www.bhoule.com for more information.