Stacks of cash, bright yellow Bentleys, hangin’ with rappers and hot tubs crammed with Swedish minxes. Yes indeed, friends, these are the reasons I began my apprenticeship as a mountain guide over a decade ago. Life doesn’t always deliver on our little fantasies, however. Being an AMGA Certified Guide requires a little more effort than that.
It’s now fall of 2013 and the reality of guiding looks a little different for me. A silver Honda Fit in place of the Bentley. No hot tub, but a gear room that would make Walter Bonatti’s gnocchi tingle. And oh yeah, the only rapper I know is Timmy O’Neill. But hot damn, folks, I’ve finished all my courses with the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) recognizes me as an “aspirant guide” on rock, on skis, and in the alpine. Three final exams separate me from full recognition with the AMGA and IFMGA.
It’s been a long, expensive, tough journey, totally devoid of Swedish minxes. So why do it, you ask?
I met Markus Beck, a Swiss-born resident of the U.S., in 2005. He had just finished his guide exams that year and showed up with a good tan and a silver pin on his sweater. Little did I know at the time this little trinket—a round medallion the size of a 50-cent piece with a mountain in the middle—would become the source of great motivation and stress for me and a posse of men and women who’d soon be my friends.
Internationally certified guides wear these pins to announce themselves. Once upon a time mountain villages like Zermatt, Chamonix and Grindelwald had their own designs, but today it’s the standard IFMGA version.
Markus had his and I was interested. He and I discussed working as a guide, what it entailed, and whether or not I was suited to it. I managed to convince him I might have the goods, so we agreed on a climb in Eldorado Canyon just to make sure I wasn’t a total punter. Days later we met there and did the West Buttress (5.9+) on the Bastille. I’d been racing bikes for a decade (read: tiny arms, big ass) and took a gulp. 5.9 in Eldo, I’d flail for sure.
I faked it as best I could, pulling on gear when Markus wasn’t looking, trying not to cry like a wuss when I was leading. My “performance” bought me a season of apprenticeship.
I felt lucky—Markus’s company, Alpine World Ascents, had a bunch of good guides working for it. Brian Lazar was a co-founder and he’s since gone on to become the Assistant Director with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and Executive Director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). Tim Brown, became an IFMGA guide, CAIC avalanche forecaster, and now spends summers in the Tetons working for Exum. Suddenly I was around this crew, hanging on the back, trying to learn as much as I could. I took training trips with to Utah, Washington and Nevada. I took notes, I imitated, I asked questions. I practiced coiling ropes and placing fast anchors, obsessed over skinning technique and rehearsed complicated rescue procedures.
It would be two years before I tied a client into a rope, but it seemed worth it. Markus and his boys had high standards and took the gig seriously.
By 2006, Markus urged me to start my AMGA courses if I was going to pursue certification. I enrolled in a “ski guide course” in Aspen that winter. I did pretty well and for the first time envisioned getting my own pin. Half my family is from Italy and the idea of going to the Alps to guide gave the scheme a veneer of practicality—after all, to guide on big peaks in Europe, you need the pin, no exceptions. Guiding without it can land you in jail.
I moved through coursework in places like Aspen, Valdez, the North Cascades and the Sierras. My instructors included Vince Anderson, a winner of the “Piolet d’Or,” alpinism’s Oscar award, and Silas Rossi, whose name popped up in the magazines the last two years for major first ascents in Alaska. In short, I’ve gotten a thorough education from world-class guides and alpinists.
The AMGA certifies guides in three disciplines—rock, alpine and ski. Each of those disciplines has a beginning and an advanced course, to be followed by a three-day “aspirant” exam and a year or two later, a final exam (five days for rock, seven for the ski, and 10 for alpine). Alpine also includes a five-day ice-climbing course. To complete the ski and alpine, you also need the AIARE 1, 2, and 3 avy-safety courses. To progress through the courses, you must amass bunches of days guiding, too.
By the time it’s done, it’s over 100 days of instruction and examination, with dozens of days (at a minimum) of work in the field. Factor in missed work, travel and lodging expenses, and it’s a $30,000 investment. This assumes the candidate is pursuing her certification in all three disciplines, which entitles her to receive that elusive pin from the IFMGA. To date, less than 100 American men and 10 American women have received it.
What is a Guide, Anyway?
So I’m getting close to my pin, but what’s that really mean? What’s a person “get” when he hires an AMGA certified guide?
Training, technical proficiency with ropes, the ability to climb more demanding routes (5.10+ is the exam standard)—sure, all those things, but the rope stuff and guide tools are easy enough to learn (come climb for a day and you’ll see!). The real value in working with a guide is judgment, route-finding, that sixth sense of when to push on, and general “mountain sense”. Add to those qualities, the willingness to deliver a “great day”—a safe, appropriately challenging, fruitful day in the hills. You learn more, waste less time looking for trailheads. You pick up little skills that make you a better, more competent skier or climber on your own.
In large part, you’re buying judgment, hard work, courage, experience and the knowledge this person’s been tested to a minimum standard when you hire an AMGA-certified guide. Hopefully you get the whole package, too—all the skills in a friendly, no-attitude, all-fun mountain (wo)man. If you’re not, then look elsewhere. There are plenty of friendly, respectful guides to work with—don’t compromise on somebody you don’t like and respect. Simple.
Back to the big question—why? Like I said, you need your pin to guide in Europe, which made a ton of sense for me a decade ago. Nowadays with kids and my wife working here in Boulder, it’s more of a stretch. The cash? As wages increase, sure, but I make more dough writing (believe it or not) and renting out a little farm we inherited.
Most guides enjoy being in the mountains with (usually) cool people. Most of us take pride in the work, too. It seems to me the allure of the trade is the simple satisfaction of showing folks a good time in potentially dangerous and uncomfortable environments. Maybe the real reward is waking up the next day and just having the opportunity to do it again. That’s a pretty good payoff in itself.
Rob Coppolillo is a contributing editor at Elevation Outdoors. Read his blog, Master of None, and follow his training on ElevationOutdoors.com.