When Eli Helmuth raised his hand volunteering for extra credit in his freshman Biology class, little did he know that the path of his life was about to be permanently altered.
The slightly hungover athlete was just looking to raise his grade and maintain his academic eligibility for the Lacrosse team at Radford University. So when he found himself the following week being strapped into a climbing harness and lowered several hundred feet into a cave to count bats, he was understandably nervoushe had never been in the wilderness in his life.
“I was a military kid who grew up in cities across the United States. We never were in any one area long enough for me to venture outside the city limits, I was a mall rat,” says Helmuth. “Turned out I was one of the few non-professional spelunkers working on my professor’s project, so I was surrounded by excellent teachers who ignited in me a love for adventure I previously did not know existed. From that moment on, I started looking for ways to get outside.”
After taking a climbing class at school (who says college is not enlightening), Eli was searching out crags across the east coast with a small group of fellow dirtbag wannabes. But they faced a significant problem in their quest to climb—in the early 1980s much of the climbing infrastructure in place today was non-existent.
“We would head to Seneca Rocks or New River in West Virginia where we would meet older climbers and learn by watching them,” Helmuth says. “I would build up strength by buildering. I found an old abandoned sandstone building with great edges where I would spend hours traversing and scaling the walls.”
After a post-graduation run in with the law in 1987, where he spent a night in jail for possession of chalk (this was the Reagan era), he ended up in California working for Outward Bound as a guide and instructor. It was the opportunity for a pay raise that would lead him toward becoming one of the first American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) certified rock guides in 1991. “There were six of us that went to the second AMGA rock guide course ever offered, it was an intensive three-weeks where we were exposed to techniques and skills we had never seen. The class was taught by Charlie Fowler and was tough. I was the only one who passed,” says Helmuth.
The Route to the Top
The American guiding scene was a bit chaotic in the late seventies and early eighties. No formal accreditation was available and attempts to create a centralized system were rebuffed. Even though the European guides had been following the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) system since 1965, the Americans saw no need for one. That all changed during the 1980s, however, when the rising cost of insurance threatened to drive guiding operations out of business. By the early 1990s, the AMGA was offering two guide certifications, climbing and alpine, followed a few years later by skiing.
Due to his newly won credentials and previous experience, Helmuth landed the coveted job of senior guide with the American Alpine Institute based in Washington State. The next five years were a blur of first accents, far-flung adventures and constant travel. “I spent roughly five years climbing and guiding non-stop across the globe. I would spend winters in South America, spring in the Sierras, summer in Alaska, and fall in the Cascades,” he recalls. “I thought I would continue my vagabond lifestyle forever.”
A change in ownership in 1999 at the Colorado Mountain School (CMS) in Boulder brought him to the Front Range as its AMGA alpine instructor and examiner. Over the next nine years he became the school’s head guide and helped manage staffing at both the Boulder Rock Club and CMS. The beauty of working at CMS was the fact that it is the only service allowed to guide rock climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).
“I spent as much of my time as possible guiding in the park, I liked to lead the difficult multi-pitch climbs like the Diamond on Longs and Lumpy Ridge. I really fell in love with the park,” he says.
Once a guide has achieved the highest level of certification in rock, skiing, and alpine with the AMGA they are able to apply to be a fully certified IFMGA mountain guide. Eli is one of ninety-four in the United States and twenty-six in Colorado. It’s safe to say he exists in rarefied air.
The Climbing Life
In 2005 Eli launched Climbing Life, a website dedicated to sharing training videos, climbing beta for RMNP, and just about anything else related to informing climbers and making them safer. It quickly grew to over 10,000 monthly followers and became one of a handful of websites professional guides regularly use as a reference.
With the birth of his two children, Helmuth decided in 2009 to hang out his own shingle and launch his own guide service. He used Climbing Life to promote his company and specialized in guiding in RMNP. There was just one problem. Now that he was no longer affiliated with CMS, he could not lead people on roped climbs, until fate and a slow-moving government agency intervened.
Like a child trying to fit a square peg into the proverbial round hole, our government has sometimes been accused of anachronistic solutions to situations they don’t quite understand. The granting of guide permits inside of national parks could be seen as one such issue. For the last ninety-nine years, there has been only one permit offered for a guiding company to lead roped climbs inside RMNP. That permit is currently held by the CMS. It is good for ten years and is up for renewal next year.
The same situation is played out at national parks across the country and is decried as anti-free market. For years, numerous guiding companies have called for opening up the permit process and allowing more companies to operate inside our parks. In an effort to gauge the effects of opening RMNP to other guides, the park issued three separate fifteen-day climbing permits this year in a lottery. Eli Helmuth was one of the winners.
The hope is that this one-year experiment becomes a permanent policy change and soon more than one guide company will be leading clients up some of the parks iconic climbs. “I am usually in the park most of the winter leading skiers into hidden powder stashes and during the warmer months I can lead them on hikes up to grade three climbs, but no ropes. “If they decide to issue me a ten year permit I can easily see my company growing to four to six guides exposing individuals to the beauty of the Rockies,” Helmuth said. “I easily filled my 15 days and could have tripled my days if it was available.”
As he moves into his fifth decade on the planet, Eli is more active than ever before, which is good for all aspiring climbers on the Front Range.
“I feel pretty good these days and don’t see myself slowing down anytime soon. I am having too much fun,” quips Helmuth. “Thank God I was having too much fun in college to study and had to do that extra credit. You never know when an opportunity will present itself!”
Think you might like to spend your time in the wilderness and get paid? It requires commitment. “We have seen people complete all training in as little as five years, but they are the exception, usually it requires eight to ten years,” says Jane Anderson, manager of programs for the AMGA.
Here are the steps:
IFMGA Mountain Guide: The highest certification recognized in the world. Currently 24 countries are members. You must have certification to guide in Europe. You receive your certification pin once you have completed your country’s highest level of certification.
AMGA Mountain Guide: The American association for professional guides, created in 1979, offers guide certifications in three disciplines (rock, ski, and alpine). Once an American climber has completed all three they are a certified mountain guide and can apply for IMFGA certification. All certifications require CPR training and 80+ hours of Wilderness First Responder training.
Rock Guide: Ten Day Rock Guide Course. Ten Day Advanced Rock Guide Course/Aspirant Exam. Six Day Rock Guide Exam (must have guided at least 20+ days on multi-pitch routes).
Ski Guide: Twelve Day Ski Guide Course. Ten Day Advanced Ski Guide Course/Aspirant Exam. Eight Day Ski Guide Exam (must show ability to ascend and descend over 6,000+ vertical feet in a day).
Alpine Guide: Must first either complete rock or ski guide course. Consists of five separate courses to reach highest certification. Four Day Alpine Skills Course. Nine Day Alpine Guide Course. Five Day Ice Instructor Course. Ten Day Advanced Alpine Guide Course/ Aspirant Exam. Ten Day alpine Guide Exam (must have lead or shared lead on ten different traditional rock climbs rated 5.10a or harder).