Many of the top mountaineering guides in the U.S., including from Seattle, are working on elevating their profession with extra training and skills.
NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — Succeeding in the business of guiding clients up sheer cliffs or into untamed backcountry is a balancing act that demands the entrepreneurial spirit of a dot-com startup, the patience of a first-grade teacher and the physical gifts of a professional athlete — all without the benefit of a seven-figure salary.
Many of the top guides in the United States worked on some of those skills during the annual conference of the American Mountain Guides Association at New York’s Shawangunks climbing area recently.
They spent much of their October week at the “Gunks” in clinics on subjects that ranged from thermal physiology in extreme environments to crevasse rescue, avalanches, human factors in decision-making, GPS navigation, rope work, permit sharing, international trip planning and dealing with insurance underwriters.
The AMGA certifies guides in the U.S. with the goal of building their credentials, whether it’s for a day of rock climbing at the local crag, a multiday excursion up peaks in the Tetons or Rockies, or a weekslong expedition to Alaska, the Andes or Himalayas.
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The association also is focused on elevating the profession so it is respected in the U.S. — and economically feasible — as it is in Europe.
“If you are a guide in Italy or in France you get special treatment at the huts and discounts on the chairlifts,” said Betsy Winter, the AMGA’s executive director.
The Colorado-based organization is the U.S. representative to the 21-member International Federation of Mountain Guides Association, which sets international standards.
Since 1997, the AMGA has certified 78 guides in the U.S. to top international standards, while another 647 are certified in a single discipline, either rock climbing, Alpine climbing or ski mountaineering, Winter said. Another 1,600 AMGA-certified climbing instructors have achieved an entry-level certification that has prerequisites of one year’s experience and the ascent of at least 15 climbs.
The AMGA’s full set of courses costs about $30,000 and takes 93 training days, including exams, requires four years of experience in a discipline and at least 90 climbs or ski descents of advanced difficulty.
“We have high standards,” Winter said. “And we really believe in establishing a profession in this country.”
While climbing puts a premium on physical abilities such as balance, upper body strength and endurance, being a guide also requires an understanding of physics and an aptitude for problem solving.
Jesse Williams, a guide from Keene Valley, N.Y., started out as an apprentice to experienced Adirondack guides and now needs to complete just one more of 12 courses to have all three full AMGA certifications plus its sequence on avalanche forecasting. He likened the rigorous training to graduate school, with exams, demonstrations of technical skills and critiques identifying areas for improvement.
To have the complete package, however, guides also must possess the people skills needed to relate to their clients, ensuring that they have a safe and enjoyable experience.
Williams said guides in mountain communities across the country tend to be assertive and self-directed.
“I always joke about mountain towns; same person, different face,” he said.
Many of these attributes were on display at the conference’s annual Guide’s Olympics, where about 30 guides started by donning Halloween costumes and competing in timed events that took offbeat twists amid hoots, cheers and laughter. Williams said it was a break for professional athletes who have to be “dialed in” nearly all the time.
“The lowest cumulative time plus the most amount of fun equals the best win,” organizer Matt Farmer said.
The guides then walked the quarter-mile from the parking lot to the cliff, joking, chatting and effortlessly carrying heavy backpacks up the steep trail.
In one event at the cliff, Markus Jolliff, a 45-year-old guide from Joshua Tree, Calif., quickly scaled a 50-foot face while wearing a gorilla mask. Competitors in that relay first submerged their hands in cold water, donned waterproof gear, and got squirted with water to simulate New England’s sometimes chilly, wet conditions.
Teammate Dominic Asselin also climbed a vertical crack in the cliff in about a minute, shouting “frozen hands” when his grip slipped once due to the pre-climb dunking. The 32-year-old wore a fright wig, and in between events a red clown nose.
A certified rock instructor, Jolliff said he makes a living in the popular California climbing area by keeping his overhead low. He calls his approach Jollification, saying the goal is to spread merrymaking.
“When I push people to the edge of their comfort zone I want to include them having a good time,” he said.
Asselin, who has the rock guide certification and is pursuing it in Alpine, said business was slow in the beginning, but clients in Ste. Adele are starting to appreciate that difference and he now has three people working full time.
“We could live off that, but we’re not rich,” he said. “Currently we do it because we like what we’re doing.”
Asselin, who takes clients to Quebec’s Laurentians, New York’s Adirondacks and New Hampshire’s White Mountains, said passing the certification exams is just a starting point.
“You need to maintain that standard to be able to guide your clients in any terrain they want to go,” he said. “They expect that if you guide them you will be able to do the routes. It is for the rest of your career you have to be able to do that.”
Association President Margaret Wheeler, a 37-year-old guide from Seattle, worked a part-time engineering job during the five years it took her to acquire full certifications in rock, Alpine and ski mountaineering, and kept the side job for a few years afterward.
“It’s taken a while to build up enough work,” said Wheeler, who is affiliated with a guide service and has private clients. Her outings are mostly in the Pacific Northwest and Europe’s Alps, with trips to places such as Colorado and Alaska thrown in.
“You have to take good care of yourself. It’s a very physical job,” she said. ” … You also have to be healthy and strong all of the time. There’s no sick days.”
The guides all say the profession’s biggest challenge in the United States is getting access to public lands, with the federal government regarding guides like the concessionaires who sell ice cream or souvenirs, not “connectors” to the wilderness as the guides see themselves, Winter said.
That can result in guides being allowed to work only on certain days or permits for a specific cliff or mountain range being limited to one or two services.