The Guide Line

Haul Bag? Nope. The six-day AMGA rock guide exam requires climbers to learn client care beyond belays.

The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) is attempting to make sure people who go out climbing, mountaineering and skiing with guides get what they pay for. But in a culture that encourages free enterprise is Euro-style guiding the answer? It may be the only way to go as younger climbers buy into international accreditation and land managers nationwide demand that guides know what the hell they are doing.

Steep, deep and filled with long, challenging multi-pitch routes, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is no place to be on the wall if you are not at the top of your climbing game. There’s no easy way out. That’s why it seemed odd that the National Park Service (NPS) began to put a plan in action to ban guided climbing in the place this past fall.

So odd that four U.S. lawmakers—Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) and Representative Scott Tipton (R-CO)—joined the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and local outfitters in opposing the ban. “While most climbers in the park choose not to climb with a guide, many do utilize guides, and we believe that given the extremely challenging nature of climbing in the Black Canyon, the option to climb with a guide should be available. Without guided climbs and the technical assistance and expertise provided by a guide, we believe many of our constituents would not be able to experience a climb in the Black Canyon,” the senators argued in a letter to the NPS.

The collective weight of those local Western legislators made a difference. In April, the NPS chose not to go through with the ban. That was certainly a big  victory for the companies that guide in Black Canyon, but it was even more of a trumpet call for the AMGA, an organization that accredits guiding services and proved that it has the organizational muscle to involve DC lawmakers in the lives of climbing guides. The AMGA proved that it can not only help train better guides but also help guides run better businesses.

“We played a critical role in stopping the ban on guided climbing access in the Black Canyon. From many discussions with park service representatives, to helping submit over 400 comments during the scoping period, to visiting our Congressman on Capitol Hill, we actively pursued the issue to ensure guided access was preserved in the Black and other National Parks across the country. I’m not sure what the state of guided climbing access would be today in the Black Canyon if the AMGA had not stepped up to the plate. But what I am sure of is that eight Colorado based companies and over 60 Colorado-based employees, many of which are AMGA members, are able to guide there today under their Park Service issued permits,” said Betsy Winter, AMGA’s executive director.

By protecting the livelihood of guides, the AMGA was able to become more than just an organization that certified climbers to haul people up on the rock and feed them chocolate. It gave those guides something the park service was not bargaining for—a voice.

“It was a concerted effort,” said Nate Disser, owner of Southwest Adventure Guides, which operates trips in the Black Canyon. “The AMGA worked close in helping to articulate the plan and our needs so that the guiding community could comment in intelligent way. That made the difference.”

The AMGA has not always had this type of clout. Less than a decade ago, it was still ridiculed as an over-regulating European wanna-be by many old school guides in North America. And the fact remains that in the United States, guides do not have to be certified. Any decent climber or skier can decide that they are a guide and start offering up their services as long as they have the proper outfitting permits (and sometimes even if they don’t). So the idea of going through rigorous training to be able to call yourself a guide didn’t seem appealing to a lot of those in the business.

So how did the AMGA manage to change the culture of guiding in the U.S.? It simply made the most sense to the people who mattered most—the clients. Better guides make for a better experience up in the mountains or on the rock.

The AMGA Way
The AMGA Way: Instructors don’t teach a single technique. The stress smart judgement skills.


First, some background: most countries on the planet demand that the people who take clients on dangerous trips up into the high country require that those guides prove they know what they are doing. To that end, in 1965, alpine guides in Austria, France, Switzerland and Italy formed an organization called the Union Internationale des Associations de Guide de Montagne (UIAGM) in French, the later English translation would be International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA). The goal was to try to create consistent standards for guides in all nations and encourage those guides to work together to create a more enjoyable, safer experience for their clients and themselves.

The umbrella organization has since grown to include guide associations in 21 countries, representing 6,000 guides worldwide. The IFMGA’s standards are notoriously rigorous and the exams nerve-wracking. To become an IFMGA certified guide, one has to pass exams in rock, ice, mountaineering and ski mountaineering. It’s a rigorous process, but it’s also a ticket to a more long-term career in a profession that is not exactly known as stable. At the same time, that tough, multi-dimensional aspect of certification is one reasons many guides in the U.S. were so uninterested for so long. Why would a guide at, say, Joshua Tree even care about passing a difficult ski mountaineering course? Why would she even care about rock certification when her climbing experience and guiding resume spoke for itself here?

Many climbers and guides in the U.S worked in Europe and other parts of the world where the certification was essential to their careers, however, and, more importantly, they also saw how effective the IFMGA was in improving guiding itself. So in 1980, a collection of guides in the Tetons—including Yvon Chouinard—hashed out The Moose Bar Charter, laying the groundwork for the AMGA. The goal was to have the new organization accepted to the IFMGA. At last, in 1997, the AMGA was admitted to the IFMGA, with the ability to teach and certify individual guides in all the disciplines and to accredit companies. The only problem was that most people in the U.S. didn’t know what the AMGA was, or even care. In true American fashion, some guides were vehemently opposed to this European-based regulatory commission telling them how they could run their businesses.

“The US is an entrepreneur culture, where you sink or swim,” explained Eric Henderson, a Jackson-based AMGA certified ski guide (and the first to pass on telemark equipment). “Back before the AMGA, you either had it or you didn’t. With the course and the exams it allows for an influx of new guides and more competition for clients. So some are still scared to be pushed out. Which is weird because the client experience still depends on client relationships and soft skills. You can’t learn that on a course or exam.”

Undeterred by the old guard, the AMGA continued to up its standards and course offerings and 15 years later it is beginning to resonate not just with guides and lawmakers, but also with people hiring guides to take them to challenging spots in the U.S like the Tetons and the Black Canyon.

AMGA Training
Field Training: Mountains are the best classroom.


Beyond the recent political successes, the key to the AMGA’s acceptance has been its training programs and exams. The organization stresses a complex thought response to situations in the wild as opposed to rote response. And that translates into clients feeling better about their guides—these are not dudes yanking folks up up on a rope.

As Henderson says, “In Jackson, it was the turning point between being a cowboy and ranch owner. Once we became an accredited service, our client number doubled.”

Sure, you will still hear guides with vocal gripes about the AMGA on forums, but the organization has turned the corner with most climbers. The AMGA’s focus on training made a huge difference, as well as the ability to be an AMGA guide in the separate disciplines without having to worry about the full IFMGA certification, which is simply not necessary for most trips. There are only 81 American IFMGA guides, but there’s a ballooning  number of AMGA guides in various disciplines. And options like single-pitch rock certification, which is all some guides want or need, soften the process, while still keeping the AMGA within the IFMGA’s global credibility.

“Part of the fun and challenge of the AMGA process is filling the tool-box with as many techniques as possible, but the real elegance is knowing when to pull those tools out. Just as important is when not to pull out the fancy stuff and let your routefinding, pacing, coaching, modeling and communication improve safety and the experience,” explained Rob Coppolillo, an AMGA single-pitch rock guide who is testing for his AMGA ski mountaineering certification.

And if the Black Canyon is any indication, U.S. land managers are taking the efforts of the AMGA seriously. Operators in sections of Denali National Park are required to be AMGA accredited. Other parks may follow suit.

“More and more clients ask me if we are AMGA accredited,” says Southwest Adventure Guides’ Disser. “They don’t know exactly what that means but they get it after they go out with us. And the AMGA’s commitment to improving the certification process just keeps making the client experience better. So we have come a long way. But that’s not to say there’s not still a lot of work to be done.” •

Want to know what’s it’s like to follow the rigorous training and testing it takes to become an AMGA guide? Follow Rob Coppolillo’s blog Master of None ( as he goes through the process. Want to become an AMGA guide yourself? Go

Best Guides

Beyond AMGA accredation, these programs have developed a guiding culture that keeps customers happy and coming back for more.

Jackson Hole Mountain Guides
Jackson is really two resorts—the lift-served mountain and nearly inexhaustable backcountry. Jackson Hole Mountain guides make the trip over the rope safe, monitoring avy conditions daily, and they know where to find the the best untouched goods. Best of all, rumor has it they like to carry lots of chocolate.

Aspen Expeditons
Legendary director Dick Jackson is a AMGA/IFMGA certified guide in Rock and Ice Climbing, Ski Mountaineering, and Alpine Mountaineering and he can get you out doing all of that in his local hills. The guiding here ranges from treks to Everest base camp to learning how to rock climb to wildflower hikes in the Elks.

Crested Butte Guides
Mountain biking may not be part of the AMGA repertoire but Crested Butte mountain guides, which hires guides certifified in the AMGA’s main disciplines brings the same IFMGA level of service to its bike trips. But who wants to just ride bikes when you can scale peaks in the Elks, mountaineer in Alaska, ice climb at Ouray or seek out local powder stashes in the Butte with these guides?

Southwest Adventure Guides
Want to test yourself on the big, vertiginous walls of the Black Canyon? AMGA-accredited Southwest Adventure Guides is one of the companies that the AMGA and Senator Mark Udall fought with to keep guided rock climbing from being banned in the national park. You can also get out climbing and skiing with them in their San Juan backyard or learn mountaineering skills on trips in Alaska and Peru.

Want more about the AMGA? How about the ‘myth’ of the AMGA way

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