Guide friends all recommended the annual meeting of the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). They guaranteed dialed clinics and that I’d learn a ton. I love to learn and am fascinated by the evolution of mountain travel. So I went.
I did attend one other AMGA annual meeting. That was in the Gunks, in New York state, back in 2011. For some reason that meeting left me feeling way out of sorts. Maybe it was the looming stress still writing a guidebook with no payoff so far. Maybe it was claustrophobia of back-to-back indoor clinics that didn’t teach me much. Or maybe it was that feeling of loneliness that can occasionally crush me in crowds. Six years later I was ready to give it another go.
I went into the 2017 meeting with an open mind. Stoked to learn. Ready to improve my guiding and gather some ideas for business. Maybe even catch up with some buddies.
Two hundred and thirty guides attended this year’s meeting at the Petzl Technical Institute out in the commercial sprawl of western Salt Lake City. Business at Petzl must be good because it’s a sparkling and elaborate complex with an indoor ropework training facility.
The core of the meeting lasted three days, from October 26-28. During the day, clinics were held both indoor and out on the crags. The evenings were busy including the board of directors meeting and an awards ceremony for new guides. On either side of the main event was instructor training and a Wilderness First Responder refresher.
The main event on the last night was the award ceremony, including pinning 12 new Mountain Guides, so they are licensed by the International Federation of Mountain Guide Association (IFMGA). This is the highest level in guiding. One of the new guides, Andy Polloczek (third blue shirt from the right), I’d last seen 15 years ago, when I dropped him off at the hospital in Krabi, Thailand, sick as a dog with dengue fever. It was good to see Andy back from the dead.
Each clinic I attended was concise and well-taught. One full day I spent at a crag up Big Cottonwood Canyon taking a clinic taught by my buddy Eric Larson on transitions from short-roping to rappel. I also took three indoor, hands-on clinics and two classroom clinics. Each clinic had a range of students, from Single Pitch Instructors to IFMGA Mountain Guides.
Technical Testing with Dylan Taylor
My first clinic was technical testing taught by IFMGA Mountain Guide Dylan Taylor, a buddy who I’ve shared many a super-slog across the wastelands of Alaska. We used Petzl’s drop tower and tensile testing machine to see how biners, knots and anchors fail in extreme situations.
The top three things I learned from Dylan’s technical testing clinic were:
1) The flat overhand is a very good knot for joining two ropes together for rappelling, even if the ropes are different sizes. The knot starts rolling, very slowly, at about 14 kiloNewtons. This means it’s strong and reliable as long as it’s dressed, stressed (tight) and has an 18-inch tail. You don’t need any fancy finishes like stacked overhands or an extra overhand around one tail strand.
2) I learned those flimsy-looking little aluminum SMC descending rings are strong! The one we tested broke at 15 kiloNewtons or about 3,300 pounds. SMC rates them at a minimum breaking strength of 14 kiloNewtons or 3,147 pounds. Two SMC descending rings at a rap station is plenty. Still better is using a Mallion Rapide quick link, which is steel and has a gate.
3) Small burrs on a biner can rip the sheath off a rope. When we drop tested 175 pounds onto a Petzl Reverso belay device in plaquette (guide) mode to see the rope slip, we were shocked when the rope de-sheathed. Upon close inspection, we found burrs on the braking biner from previous tests. The takeaway is to watch for burrs, especially when sport climbing. Consider having sport-specific draws, which have one biner for bolt-clipping—which can become burred from the bolt hanger—and one side for rope-clipping.
Facilitating a Guide Service with Russell Hunter
My favorite classroom clinic was by Russell Hunter on facilitating a guide service. Russell is the new owner of Colorado Mountain School, the largest guide service in the Colorado Front Range. I worked at Colorado Mountain School in 2008 and 2009, back when Russell was a guide, and loved working with him. Now he is leading the front on a progressive large guide service that puts guides first.
The top three things I learned from Russel’s facilitating a guide service clinic were:
1) I was reminded that many guides just want to guide. They don’t want to do the office work such as talking with clients, collecting permits and dealing with insurance. I’m very proud to be an independent mountain guide, so I need the occasional reminder that there’s other ways to be successful in the guide industry.
2) Russell highly recommends the book Making Money is Killing your Business, by Chuck Blakeman. I have to get that.
3) We talked about the importance of a client data base. It gave me incentive to keep working on the intricacies of Gmail, Google Contacts, Google Sheets and Google Calendar to manage client information.
Crevasse Rescue with Matt Farmer
When I told friends I was taking a crevasse rescue course they said, “You? Taking a crevasse rescue clinic? You should be teaching it!” Yes, I do often teach crevasse rescue courses, but they are on this island called Alaska, where Joe is teaching by himself, often with this nagging voice in the back of his head saying, “Is this what they teach on the mainland?” I’m constantly searching for the latest greatest technique.
The top three things I learned from Farmer’s crevasse rescue clinic were:
1) To pull a victim from a crevasse, the 6:1 mechanical advantage haul system is more simple than a 5:1. While the 5:1 does have advantages including less distance to operate, has less friction and one less prusik to reset, it has felt complicated for me to teach. Farmer reminded me that simplicity rules during rescue. I’m going back to the 6:1.
2) If a victim is down in a crevasse, unresponsive after a crevasse fall, how do you connect the standard 2:1 drop loop to the victim? Normally this requires the victim to clip the drop loop pulley into their harness. Farmer showed me a trick. Use a Micro Traxion (a progress capture pulley made by Petzl) as the drop loop pulley. Slide it down the victim’s loaded rope until it reaches the victim. This fixes the drop loop pulley at the victim. For the Micro Traxion to slide down the victim’s line, it needs to be weighted, with a bag of snow for example. This trick only works if there are no stopper knots on the victim’s line.
3) I’m now thinking the 85-gram Petzl Micro Traxion may be worth the weight. It has sealed bearings making it 91% efficient. Plus, the progress capture cam is simple. Simplicity rules, right?
After the meeting, I hit the road back to Moab. I felt empowered about the guiding life and proud to be part of an impressive organization. My notebook and brain were full of ideas. For any guide, no matter your level of guide certification, the AMGA annual meeting is worth your time. Where else can you get three days of instruction from certified guides for $175?
The trick is going into the meeting with no expectations, your mind open, ready to absorb any information that comes your way. Being surrounded by 230 guides may feel intimidating. There is a lot of testosterone and big egos. But keep in mind, that guides don’t get far in the business without some serious people skills. Guides are extremely passionate and smart people. Prepare yourself for an intense experience!
I’m going again next year. See you there!