Choosing a Mountain Guide
Historically, in the US, training of professional mountain guides was very loosely organized. While some guide services had conducted their own in-house training in past years, few American guides had any formal, consistent, or comprehensive training. In the last decade, that has changed, largely due to a group of dedicated, professional guides and individuals that have formed the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). This group of guides and individuals has developed and continues to develop the AMGA's internationally recognized guide training and certification programs.
American Mountain Guides Association
Most people expect formal training and certification of a doctor or lawyer. Shouldn't you ask the same from your guide? One of the goals of the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) is to raise the technical and professional standards of mountain guiding in the United States to a worldwide level. For the consumer, AMGA professional credentials are an important part of choosing a guide.
The AMGA is the only American organization to offer a comprehensive training program for mountain guides that is recognized by International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA, or UIAGM in French). Choosing a guide that is certified by the AMGA ensures that the individual has demonstrated accepted minimum skill levels (in client care, risk management, terrain assessment, technical systems, first aid, etc.) that separate the professional guide from the recreational climber. Guide examinations are rigorous field-based practical assessments designed to challenge aspiring guides to excel in difficult and often stressful guiding situations. These assessments are the culmination of years of formal guide training and personal experience.
An IFMGA (UIAGM) Certified Mountain Guide meets the international standards in all three disciplines of rock, alpine, and ski mountaineering and is part of a select group of guides who can legally work amongst the highest professionals in the industry in more than a dozen other IFMGA-member countries. AMGA and IFMGA standards are the standard for guiding proficiency worldwide.
The AMGA also has a program that accredits climbing schools. An AMGA Accredited company has passed a brief review of climbing activities, hiring policies, permits, and insurance. Keep in mind, however, that Accreditation is a general business review, not an in-depth evaluation of the company's guides or their skills. Guides that work for Accredited schools are currently not required to be trained or certified by the AMGA, and many guide services have used Accreditation as a less expensive marketing alternative to getting their guides trained and certified. We have carefully scrutinized the Accreditation process and feel that the standards for this endorsement are too low for us to support. Guide certification is a much higher and more useful professional standard.
Selecting a Guide or Guide Service
In the US (unlike in many other countries), certification is not enough to authorize an individual to operate commercially on most of our public lands. This means that consumers must usually hire a guide through an authorized guide service holding commercial use permits on public lands.
Just because a company has a permit, does not mean that they offer high-quality guided programs. There are generally no performance reviews done by land managers to ensure that standards of care are acceptable. Standards for some permit holders are dictated more by profit margins instead of what actually makes for high quality guided experiences.
Our mission at SMG is to provide the highest quality experiences possible, and we have many guiding friends who feel the same way. We measure quality by the highest levels of both safety and enjoyment. We recommend considering the following when choosing a guide service:
- First consider the guide, then the guide service. Who will be your guide and have they completed AMGA/IFMGA guide training or certification? Worthy guide services will offer you a list of their guides and their qualifications, and will have AMGA certified guides on staff. Any quality guide service will honor specific guide requests whenever possible or practical, and will generally work with a favorite guide from outside of the local area, as long as the guide is AMGA certified for the terrain and has a good working relationship with the company.
- Guiding Ratios. Consider the maximum guiding ratio for the trip. On technical trips, lower ratios generally increase safety margins and enjoyment. On courses, lower ratios give each person more individual coaching and practice on skills. Guiding ratios can make or break a trip, so make sure they seem appropriate. Worthy guide services will offer alternative options that allow you to do similar outings at custom ratios.
- Prices. Shoot for the upper-middle end. Guide services that are chronically low-balling the competition are probably making up for the losses in other ways, most commonly with hidden costs, hiring underqualified guides, or even using illegal business practices. You generally get what you pay for there. On the other hand, guide services that charge exorbitantly for their services may not be concerned for the best interests of their clients. The decision to go to the mountains with a guide is the creation of a partnership that leads to great experiences for both the client and the guide. Both parties should feel that the price is fair at the start. On the greatest trips, in retrospect, clients often feel the price was too low and guides feel they charged too much for their services.
- Local Expertise. Locally based guide services are generally much better in tune with local mountain conditions and are more familiar with the terrain and the options. This is particularly important for certain types of ski and alpine guiding where mountain hazards can be more dynamic and variable. All other factors being equal, we recommend hiring a locally based guide that is familiar with the range over one that is based far away. That said, AMGA certified guides are specifically trained and adequately skilled to guide "on-sight" in unfamiliar destinations. If you don't have a specific guide preference yet, go local and certified for the maximum home field advantage.
- Accident Record. Accidents happen in the mountains, guided or unguided. There is no denying that. Some of the most respected guides and guide services in the world have had accidents, just as many of the greatest mountaineers ever have died in the mountains. The important questions to ask are: If a guide service had an accident, are they willing to talk about it? Can they identify specific factors that contributed to it? Can they discuss with you how their businesses have changed as a result, and how it has altered their guiding philosophy?
- Client Testimonials. Can the guide service offer references from former clients that can attest to the quality of the service provided?
- Wilderness Medical Training. Most guide services are required by land managers these days to have all guides have at least a current Wilderness First Responder certificate. It is a major red flag if a guide service cannot verify that a guide has this training.
- Experience, Skill, and Fitness. This should go without saying, but make sure your guide has loads of experience doing the sort of thing you will be hiring them for. The skill level and mountain fitness of your guide is critical as well. Don't hire a guide that is near their physical or technical limit on your objective. A professional guide will know their personal guiding limits well and refer you to another colleague if necessary. Experience, skill, and fitness are prerequisites for certification, but they also need to continue to be developed and maintained indefinitely afterward.
Other Information Sources:
American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA)
Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG)
International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA/UIAGM)
Cosley Houston Alpine Guides - Our good friends Mark and Kathy are two extremely accomplished American IFMGA guides and have a thriving guide business based in Chamonix, France. They have an excellent web page discussing their astute perspectives on this topic.