Is Your Guide Certified?
AMGA—American Mountain Guides Association
is the the US representative to the 25-member IFMGA. The AMGA offers three guide certifications: rock, alpine and ski mountaineering. To gain certification in one of these disciplines, the candidate must gain guiding experience while passing a series of courses and exams. A US guide becomes an IFMGA Mountain Guide after receiving all three certificates from the AMGA.
The AMGA does not create standards. There is no "AMGA way." The AMGA provides training so that guides can use their experience and knowledge to apply the right technique, at the right place, at the right time. Guides are trained to assess the situation—terrain, environment, people—and choose an appropriate application of techniques to manage the risk and maximize the client’s experience.
IFMGA—International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations
is the international governing body responsible for guiding standards and education around the world. When an Aspirant Mountain Guide become certified in all three disciplines by the AMGA, the IFMGA licenses them as an international Mountain Guide. There are about 100 IFMGA guides
in the United States. Receiving IFMGA status is known as "having your pin." This pin, the silver logo shown here, is worn and recognized by professional guides world-wide. You become a Mountain Guide when you receive your pin.
A Mountain Guide (in caps) is an IFMGA-licensed guide. That's the nomenclature used in countries with a mountain guiding culture such as New Zealand, Canada, France, Switzerland and Italy. In the United States, any guide who has passed all three guide level exams is called an American Mountain Guide. Without an IFMGA license you are, for example, a "climbing guide," an "Aspirant Mountain Guide" or an "AMGA Certified Rock Guide."
Why Should Your Guide Be Certified?
Your Life is in Their Hands—Like a pilot or surgeon, you trust your life to a mountain guide. Make sure they have the best training in the world. And proof of it.
Training—All credible professions require formal education or training and proof of competency. AMGA certified guides are the most trained and examined guides in the US. The standard for their assessment is set by an internationally recognized, professional body called the IFMGA.
Professionalism—AMGA certified guides are dedicated to conducting their business in the most professional manner. Mountain guiding is their real job. It is their career, typically their lifelong career, and they take it very seriously.
Experience—Most certified guides have been mountain guiding for over a decade and climbing for longer.
Local Knowledge—Guides know their local terrain and weather. Even if onsight guiding a route, their knowledge of the area will translate to that route.
Quality—AMGA certified guides undergo their training with two key factors in mind: becoming the best mountain guides possible and delivering the greatest reward for their clients. This translates into the highest quality experience. Certified guides cost more to hire, but you get what you pay for.
Safety—Safety is the number one concern of certified guides. They are trained to recognize subjective and objective hazards such as avalanche danger, rock fall potential, bad weather and fatigue. Certified guides are drilled in self-rescue skills.
Personal Attention—Certified guides are dedicated to client reward. Their priority is understanding and delivering the skills and summits that clients desire.
Teaching—AMGA certified guides are some of the best educators in the field. They work to understand a client’s learning style and then adapt instruction to provide a personal experience that allows clients to excel at any endeavor.
Value—Certified guides appreciate how important mountain experiences are for their clients. These guides build relationships and provide adventures that create memories to last a lifetime.
How to Choose a Guide
- Shop for a guide, not a guide service. The guide will keep you alive. A guide service is just an office that takes a good portion of the guide's wage. Also, the guide service may sell you a bad guide.
- Understand that AMGA accreditation means nothing about guiding. Only AMGA certification relates to a higher skill or training of a guide.
- Hire an IFMGA Mountain Guide in countries where this is possible. In the USA and Canada be sure your guide is either IFMGA licensed or is certified in the discipline appropriate for the terrain, either rock, alpine or ski.
- Visit Kathy Cosley and Mark Houston's website for a discussion of how to choose a guide. Although they live in France, they set the standard for professional guides in the USA.
How to Become a Mountain Guide
- Get a college education. This is your backup if you get hurt or loose interest in guiding. In other words, don't go to college to be a guide.
- Build a solid foundation. Build experience on weekends and free time. You have to be obsessed about climbing and skiing to become a certified guide. If you are just "building your resume" then you are not passionate enough about the sport to become a guide.
- Practice all skills. Bouldering, sport climbing, trad climbing, ice climbing, resort skiing, nordic skiing, backcountry skiing, endurance running, snowmobiling...practice it all and don't be shy. The mountains require all skills.
- Decide if it's worth it. Guiding is hard and dangerous. Start the guide courses only if you want to make it your career and earn a livable wage. Hobby guides—those who have another better paying job—dilute the market and make career guides struggle.
- Start the AMGA process. Certification is your route to making guiding a career, a real job, with a real wage. See the program flowchart.
Joe's Process to Becoming a Mountain Guide
Receiving my pin took 11 years. Mostly because the courses, exams and training were time consuming and expensive. I also took several years off to try other work. With each AMGA course and exam, the guiding work and pay became better and better. See the AMGA program flowchart
1998 My certification process began when I was hired by the American Alpine Institute in Bellingham, Washington. Michael Powers, then the president of the AMGA, gave us three weeks of guide training before work started. This was the equivalent of the AMGA Alpine Guide Course. A nice incentive to work for the American Alpine Institute!
2000 Ski Guide Course in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. Held at Ruby Mountain Heli Ski, this course had many instructors: Bela Vadasz, Mark Houston, Freddy Grossniklaus, Tom Carter and Joe Royer.
2002 Advanced Alpine Guide Course in the North Cascades of Washington. A low-stress and incredible learning experience with instructor Eli Helmuth.
2003 Alpine Guide Exam in the North Cascades with examiners Martin Volken and Steve House. After three weeks of intense training, and another 12 days of examining, I was one of two guides to pass the Alpine Guide Exam in 2003. Although I passed, this experience was rough. Not because it was storming during the exam, or because the routes were tough, but because it felt unnecessarily stressful. This experience, combined with 53 days on Denali earlier in the summer, turned me away from guiding for several years.
2006 My love for guiding was re-instilled after a couple years working as a hydrologist. I eased back into the certification process with the Ski Mountaineering Guide Course at Thompson Pass, near Valdez, Alaska.
2008 Ski Mountaineering Guide Exam at Thompson Pass. My strongest memory from this trip was my training partner Erik Leidecker, owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides. I'd never met Erik, but on the drive to Valdez, we realized we had a similar training hit list. For a week, we did back to back 7,000-foot days of touring, stopping often to work on skills. Erik is rock solid in the hills and was my dream training partner. Thanks Erik!
2008 Rock Instructor Course in Boulder, Colorado. I spent summer 2008 and 2009 working for the Colorado Mountain School, where I was completely immersed in the rock world. John Bicknell, owner of CMS and an AMGA course provider, gave me a private Rock Instructor Course. I was often guiding John and a real client on routes such as the Love Route on Hallett Peak.
2008 Rock Guide Course and Aspirant Exam at Red Rocks, on the edge of Las Vegas. At the end of the summer I took the first rock exam. The AMGA had just started the Aspirant Exam, which means the second course is not really a course, but an exam, and is actually harder than the real exam. The course/exam started with a movement test on The Fox, a desert-style 5.10d, to make sure our climbing was up to snuff. I'd torn my finger A2 pulley several weeks earlier and was climbing with a splinted finger. This made The Fox feel solid 5.11. Although the climbing was tough, this course/exam was great experience.
2009 Rock Guide Exam at Red Rocks. After another summer at CMS I headed back to Vegas for a month of training and examining. With a healed finger, the climbing felt easy, my examiners fair and my training partners were excellent friends. Twelve of us lived in a rented Vegas house together for the month.
2009 October 6 at 10pm examiners John Kear and Mark Chauvin gave Jonathan Spitzer and I our pins. We headed out to Fremont Street in Vegas for a legendary evening. Also celebrating were Caroline George, Eric Larson, Vince Anderson and Adam George. Adam had received his pin several weeks earlier in the lonely town of Marblemount, Washington. Adam was due for a celebration. The perfect cap to a long process.
A Note to Foreign Mountain Guides
American Mountain Guides feel terrible that is difficult for foreigners to guide in the US. We want you to feel welcome in our country. We want to show you around our mountains. We want to drink beer with you and your customers. We want reciprocity.
There are two main problems facing foreign guides in the US: visas and permits. Obtaining a work visa in the US for foreign Mountain Guides is near impossible. Unfortunately the situation is not improving. Changing this federal regulation is out of our control. The second problem facing foreign guides is the US lands we guide on are managed by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and state lands such as the Department of Natural Resources. These land managers are each monumental beasts that require elusive permits. The AMGA is working to improve this permit situation for both American Mountain Guides and foreign Mountain Guides.
Accredited Guide Service—Being AMGA accredited means a guide service has the necessary permits, insurance and that operations manuals are in place. Accreditation means nothing about the quality of the guiding, or the qualification of the guiding staff.
AMGA—American Mountain Guides Association
AMGA Certified Guide—A guide that has received a certificate from the AMGA in one or more of the following:
- AMGA Certified Climbing Wall Instructor
- AMGA Certified Single Pitch Instructor
- AMGA Certified Rock Instructor (a.k.a rock instructor)
- AMGA Apprentice Rock Guide
- AMGA Assistant Rock Guide
- AMGA Certified Rock Guide (a.k.a rock guide)
- AMGA Apprentice Alpine Guide
- AMGA Assistant Alpine Guide
- AMGA Certified Alpine Guide (a.k.a. alpine guide)
- AMGA Apprentice Ski Guide
- AMGA Assistant Ski Guide
- AMGA Certified Ski Guide (a.k.a. ski guide)
- AMGA Aspirant Mountain Guide
- IFMGA Mountain Guide
- See the AMGA Program Flowchart.
Aspirant Exam—The second course in each discipline (rock, alpine, ski) is half exam. If a candidate passes this exam, he is known as, or example, an Aspirant Rock Guide.
Aspirant Mountain Guide—A guide who has passed an Aspirant Exam in one or more of the guiding disciplines and is working toward IFMGA certification.
IFMGA—International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations
International Mountain Guide—A guide that holds a license from the IFMGA. To become IFMGA-licensed in the US requires having AMGA certificates in rock, alpine and ski mountaineering.
Mountain Guide—An IFMGA-licensed guide.