AMGA — American Mountain Guides Association
The AMGA is the the US representative to the 25-member IFMGA. The AMGA offers three guide certifications: rock, alpine and ski. To gain certification in one of these disciplines, the candidate must gain guiding experience while passing a series of courses and exams. If a US guide receives all three certificates—rock, alpine and ski—from the AMGA, they become an American Mountain Guide, also known as IFMGA Mountain Guide. Without an IFMGA license you are, for example, a "climbing guide," an "Aspirant Mountain Guide" or an "AMGA Certified Rock Guide."
IFMGA — International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations
The IFMGA 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 150 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.
The AMGA Way
There is no "AMGA way." The AMGA does not create standards. 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 technique to apply to manage the risk and maximize the client’s experience.
How to Choose a Guide
Shop for a guide, not a guide service. The guide is your partner in the mountain. A guide service is just an office.
Make sure your guide is either IFMGA licensed or is certified for the terrain they will be guiding (rock, ski or alpine). For example, if you are hiring a ski guide, make sure they are AMGA ski guide certified.
AMGA accreditation means nothing about guiding. Only AMGA certification relates to a higher skill or training of a guide. This will change in 2022 when the AMGA Standards of Practice go into effect.
Visit Kathy Cosley and Mark Houston's website for more information on how to choose a guide. Although they live in France, they set the standard for professional guides in the US.
How to Become a Mountain Guide
Get a college education. This is your backup if you get hurt or loose interest in guiding.
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. Take guide courses only if you want to make guiding your career. Hobby guides—those who have a 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 below.
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.
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 cut your teeth at 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: On 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 and 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.
Terms from the AMGA Standards of Practice
Instructor: An individual who has passed the Climbing Wall Instructor Certification Course, Single Pitch Instructor Assessment, Rock Instructor Exam, or Ice Instructor Exam. Example: An individual who has passed the Climbing Wall Instructor Certification Course is a Climbing Wall Instructor. An individual who has passed the Single Pitch Instructor assessment is a Single Pitch Instructor. An individual who has passed the Rock Instructor Exam is a Rock Instructor.
Apprentice Guide: An individual who has successfully completed any first level course (Alpine Skills Course, Rock Guide Course, Alpine Guide Course, or Ski Guide Course). Example: An individual who has successfully completed the Ski Guides Course is an Apprentice Ski Guide. Note: An individual who has successfully completed the Alpine Skills Course is an Apprentice Guide, but needs to work under Supervision.
Assistant Guide: An individual who has passed the exam component of an advanced level course. Example: An individual who has passed the Advanced Rock Guide Course and Aspirant Exam is an Assistant Rock Guide.
Aspirant Mountain Guide: An individual who has passed the Aspirant Exam component of all three advanced level courses. Example: An individual who has passed the Rock, Alpine and Ski Aspirant Exams is an Aspirant Guide.
Certified Guide: An individual who has passed a Guide level Exam (Alpine, Rock, or Ski). Example: An individual who has passed his or her Alpine Exam is an Alpine Guide. An individual who has passed his or her Rock Exam, Alpine Aspirant Exam and Ski Guide Course is a Rock Guide/Assistant Alpine Guide/Apprentice Ski Guide.
American Mountain Guide/IFMGA Guide: Any Guide who has passed all three Guide level exams is an American Mountain Guide.