A case for guide certification from the Sierra

In From the Range of Light & Fast by Howie Schwartz111 Comments

Today I ran into a local climber and mountain enthusiast in the Black Sheep Coffeehouse in Bishop. She worked for us as a porter and as a camp cook last summer, and I asked if she might be interested and available for some of that work again. She said “yes” but she explained that she just took a Wilderness First Responder course and has been hired by another local mountain guide service as a guide, specifically for trips on Mt. Whitney and in the Palisades. She has had no mountain guide training, and limited alpine climbing experience.

AMGA Alpine Guide Training in the Palisades

AMGA Alpine Guide Training in the Palisades

This scenario is way too common. A guide service owner/manager needs guides and recruits an enthusiastic, often young and/or maybe attractive climber, with the minimum medical certifications to be allowed to take on the role of “guide.” The same local company just last year recruited one of our part-time backpacking guides who is also a solid rock climber, had him shadow one trip on Whitney with a lead guide, and then sent him out to guide their paying guests in the Palisades with another barely qualified guide. They led climbers up an alpine snow and ice route that our guide service had already deemed too dangerous to climb due to rockfall danger. Reports verified that the route was extremely out of condition, but they climbed it anyway, and it sounded like they had some close calls. This was considered by the company as alpine guide training for the new guide. I don’t doubt that there were lessons learned, but I have to wonder what they were, and how they will affect future decision making.

How do people choose a guide service in this country? How do you know that your guide will be competent? Is it good enough that your guide be friendly, thoughtful, and spend more time in the mountains or on the cliffs than you do? Do you consider what you are actually getting for what you are about to spend? Now that you know your guide might be untrained, imagine if there were a way to ensure that they would at least have a minimum level of professional competency.

Land management agencies in the Sierra (and nearly every mountain range and climbing venue in the US) do not require mountain guides to have any guide training or certification whatsoever. They do require emergency wilderness medical certification which must be recertified every 2-3 years, but shouldn’t it be important to also require skills and judgment that can prevent accidents in the first place? If an accident does occur, proven competency in technical rescue skills may arguably be more important than competency in wound management, splinting a fracture, or CPR.

Land management agencies in the Sierra do not require mountain guides to have any guide training or certification whatsoever.

Of the 6 primary technical mountain guide services operating in the Eastern Sierra, only around 23% of listed guides are trained and certified in all of the aspects of mountain guiding that they work. Of those guides, 93% are employed by two guide services – SMG and Alpine Skills International – both of which have adopted similar hiring standards. These estimates are generous, since guide services are less likely to list their less qualified and newer guides. The number of Sierra guides even trained at all relevant to the terrain they guide is shockingly low. At SMG currently, 60% of our technical guides are certified in all of the disciplines in which they work, and all (except for one – full disclosure*) of our technical guides are at least actively on track toward certification in those disciplines. Our accident record and customer feedback do seem to reflect this.

Of the 6 primary technical mountain guide services operating in the Eastern Sierra, only around 23% of listed guides are trained and certified in all of the aspects of mountain guiding that they work.

Rescue skills assessment during an AMGA Ski Guide Exam

Rescue skills assessment during an AMGA Ski Guide Exam

It is staggering to think, even now, that so many Sierra guides are untrained and unqualified when you consider the amount of technical skill, expertise, knowledge, and judgment required to make consistently good decisions in the mountains while rock climbing, alpine climbing, and backcountry skiing. As an instructor and examiner for the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) since 2000, I have seen how guides of various ages, backgrounds, and experience must push themselves to learn the skill sets and be able to demonstrate the ability to lead safe and enjoyable mountain experiences. To give you a sense, the process of becoming fully certified to the level of internationally recognized mountain guide (UIAGM / IFMGA) takes aspiring guides a minimum of around 4 years and over 90 days of formal training to achieve. In the Alpine countries of Europe, Canada, New Zealand and other international guiding venues, guides are not legally allowed to operate commercially without first acquiring a professional license via documented training and formal assessment. These places consider such training and certification a matter of public safety, and as such are regulated by federal government.

The US government has other priorities. Here, the customer must be responsible for their own due diligence. Can you assume that if a guide service is, and has been, allowed by government to operate, then they must be among the best and most competent? It’s kind of like trusting that old ¼” bolt protecting that 30 foot runout slab. It’ll hold… if you just believe. If you want to be able to rationally trust that you have a competent guide, you will have to dig deeper, pull back the curtain, shop around. Many of our smartest customers do just that. In many places there is still very little to no competition. For example, the only rock climbing guide service allowed in Yosemite National Park is run by the same corporate concessionaire that brings you the food and lodging in the Park – and let’s be honest, they aren’t going to be the highlight of your next Yosemite vacation (unless you are into cafeterias and hanta virus).

Guide training and certification should be administered by a third party. It is best if the curriculum and assessment methodology are in line with widely accepted professional standards. There are a few different training and certification organizations out there, all of which are valid and do a great service to the profession by attempting to raise the bar of competency. The AMGA program is the only one that has been evaluated and accepted by the IFMGA, representing the international mountain guiding community, and is also the only one that addresses standards for guiding in all 3 traditional disciplines of Rock Climbing, Alpine Climbing, and Ski Mountaineering.

One point of clarification though: beware of AMGA Accreditation. This has been a meaningless, if misleading, tag in the past, but at an AMGA round table meeting in Bishop last week, it was reiterated that starting in 2017 the Accreditation program will change to require all lead guides to be certified or actively on track toward certification in the guiding disciplines in which they guide. At SMG we have upheld this standard since 2006. We have been ethically opposed to AMGA Accreditation, and have spoken out strongly against it, but we now look forward to becoming AMGA Accredited as the standards change.

AMGA Ski Guide Training in the Ritter Range

AMGA Ski Guide Training in the Ritter Range

I hope that this article will better inform those of you who may be looking around for a guide service or guide to take them to incredible places in the Sierra and beyond. I also hope that this will serve as an open letter to those local guide services who still willingly sell the services of unqualified and untrained guides. Those who hire guides are slowly learning and that way of doing business in this industry is surely coming to an end.  ~ Howie


* The one SMG rock guide without any AMGA training or certification is Peter Croft. Peter has been eligible for AMGA grandfathering in the past and has respectfully declined that opportunity. He has guided on rock for more than 2 decades and is considered by many to be one of the few true masters of the art of rock climbing. He learned to guide, as many have, before certification and fortunately he was able to gain the expertise in the trade through apprenticeship, experimentation, and being open to new ideas. He has been vetted within our company for sound overall guiding practices and expert rock guiding skills and we have considered him a justifiable exception to our company’s rule. He is an exceptional individual, and he has stated that he is still considering the idea of pursuing AMGA certification as part of his continuing professional development.


  1. Hello, I am a veteran mountaineer born in California and moved to Denali Park Alaska when I was 19. I’m 51 now.
    I have been here guiding and climbing every since. In my experience over the years I have watched very closely the evolution of climbing. I began my early apprenticeship in the Sierra at 12 yrs old. I’m so far still alive and have not had any fatalities so far.
    I am not AMGA certified. I know all I see know is them giving those to very inexperienced youn people. I’m the guy that’s watching inexperienced guides in their 20s trying to teach crevasse rescue or negotiate a dangerous icefall. It’s hard to watch. I support extensive training through experience first. Your writing on this subject is quite redundant and exposes an element of pretentiousness .
    I would shorten that. You can hit the point without so many words that your a solid outfitter.
    It’s a tough gig good luck

    1. Author

      Hi DW. Thanks for your perspective. I have talked to a lot of people about this article at this point. Most of the people that read pretentiousness in it come from guides that are not certified and guide service owners that do not hire trained/certified guides. If I wanted to say that we are a solid outfitter then I would say just that (and we are), but that is not the point of this writing. The point is clear in the title: “A Case for Guide Certification from the Sierra.” This perspective is based on our experience guiding in the Sierra, and other guiding venues may share similar attributes to make this argument applicable there as well. I have guided in Alaska a bit too and I don’t make the same case for AMGA guide certification in that part of the world. I do think that some form of 3rd party vetting of Alaskan guides would be a good thing for people who hire guides to consider. Your point is well taken. It is possible to become an AMGA certified alpine guide with relatively little experience or guide training on glaciers. This is largely because of the focus of IFMGA training. There is unfortunately a disconnect between IFMGA mountain guide training and what it takes to effectively guide in some of the major mountain ranges of our hemishphere. On the other hand, AMGA guide training applies quite well to what we do in the Sierra. Experience is important but it is not everything when it comes to guide development and just as you have seen certified noob guides flounder, I have seen experienced, self-taught veterans blunder. Training through experience, without adequate mentorship or training can result in the formation of bad habits and questionable practices. Experience is critically important as well of course, but it takes more than 30 years to get 30 years worth of “extensive training through experience.” There may not be any short cuts, but there is a faster way to get there. We have found AMGA training and certification to be a useful part of our hiring processes, but not all we use to determine who we might come to value in our organization. Mentorship helps, and we subsidize such opportunities for our upcoming guides. Certified guides and uncertified guides are both unknown quantities for the customer, but at least you can say that a certified guide has proven to meet a minimum standard. The biggest problem with not upholding a common professional standard is that it undermines the professionalism of the industry. This article was written partly in an attempt to convince some of our local colleagues of this, and I hope it gave them some food for thought. As for yourself, I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to continue cowboy guiding Alaska style over what is being offered by the AMGA. Maybe one day things will change.

  2. Just found this. Your from the east coast, thus from my perspective being a multi-generational aspenite, you are poorly trained by virtue of being from the east. The east is beginner terrain per say, while the west is more advanced, that’s why all you eastern transplants unfortunatly move out west. But your mind is convinced you know so much about the mountains now that you have all your certs. I know quite a few IFMGA guides, and they are lacking in one thing mostly, provenance. The experience you get from living your whole life in the mountains, from your first steps, your first ski at age two.

    1. Author

      Hi Jamie, thanks for reading and posting. The point of this article was to make a case for guide certification in the Sierra. Respectfully, and to your point that provenance, or being born and raised in the mountains, is the most important training for a mountain guide is pretty hard to reconcile.

      First of all, most of the very best American climbers, ski mountaineers, and alpinists in history were not born and raised in mountain towns. The East Coast is the origin for many of the elite among us as well. The most talented skiers I know grew up skiing in the east, and the east has historically produced the top world class skiing athletes. There are many outstanding veteran mountain guides, universally accepted as among the most accomplished and proficient in their profession, that hail from the east and were not born or raised in a proper mountain town.

      Much like in the highlands of Scotland, the mountains are small but have teeth in the East Coast and the region has long been recognized as a prime training ground for top alpinists due to its extreme winter weather. If a mountaineer has not experienced winter climbing in Lake Willoughby, in the Adirondacks or the White Mountains, or on Mt. Katahdin then that person has little reference for comparison. In my experience, having lived in both parts of the country, your idea that terrain in the west is “more advanced” than that of the east is off base. One reason I moved west to Colorado after college is that I wanted to live in mountains with big views and more accommodating weather. I later moved to the Sierra Nevada in part because the mountains are bigger, better, and even more pleasing to me in this regard.

      Living in a mountain town and raising a child here gives some insight into the effects of starting early. I started skiing on my own when I was 4 in the Adirondacks, but my son started at age 2 in the Sierra. Though his abilities may ultimately surpass my own, I do not see much difference in what he is doing over what I did as an eastern child, other than that he is doing it a bit more often. I know so many mountaineers, climbers, and skiers who grew up in the mountains and I know many who were transplanted later in life. There is no observable correlation whatsoever between being born into mountains and mountain skill or sensibility. It can certainly be a head start for many, but it is not required for competency. I would argue that the number of years living in a location, regardless of at what stage of life, is less important than the quality and diversity of experiences and the ability to learn from them.

      There are only a precious few multi-generational, local mountain guides in the US, but one of them is Neil Satterfield, one of the owners of this guide service, Sierra Mountain Guides. He is an outstanding guide, but does not attribute his ability to his provenance or lineage. He worked hard and trained hard to gain his IFMGA credential, just like everyone does, and he continues to develop professionally in the years since.

      Where I might agree with you is: that certification does not equal mastery. It is a baseline of competency. That means that even an IFMGA guide has a lot left to learn and practice. This article points out that certification gives the public who may hire guides the ability to know that their guide has at least a minimum of guiding proficiency. This article is saying that for a more complex range like the Sierra Nevada, hiring a certified guide is strongly recommended over a guide that is not certified for this reason, among several others.

      Lastly, I have to say your suggestion that being born and raised in Aspen, Colorado gives you a perspective on terrain is pretty comical. I lived and worked in Crested Butte on the other side of the Elk Mountains for several years and have spent some time climbing and skiing in the Roaring Fork Valley and Aspen vicinity as well. Beautiful as the area may be from that vantage, on a relative mountain range scale the terrain there is about as “beginner” as it gets: on the edge of the desert, dominated by sunny and stable weather, hot springs/resorts/creature comforts aplenty, minimal relief/prominence, no glaciation whatsoever, little high quality technical alpine rock climbing, limited steep skiing potential, and few remote and wild places. Not that any of that is a bad thing at all. It’s just that, as one who hires guides, growing up in a town such as Aspen is worth virtually nothing compared to professional training and certification on a resume.

  3. Howie, so to get this off the theoretical. You are now king of the United States. What ever law you want is the law of the land the minute you write it down. What laws would you enact to get the type of professional guiding that you think there should be in your kingdom.

  4. But, these programs have been very successful and many folks are getting a lot of work!? And, the AMGA name has become more well-known. Oh, and a lot of folks are providing better/safer services to their clients.
    SPI = “SINGLE PITCH INSTRUCTOR”. I fail to see the word “GUIDE” in there or why “SINGLE PITCH” is misleading?
    Maybe 2 levels of Gym Instructor then? I wouldn’t call it “meaningless” either. It adds legitimacy to large part of the climbing industry and where most folks now begin climbing.
    Anyways, I think we are just going to go back and forth and keep banging our head’s on the wall. Thanks for the discussion and hopefully more folks chime in!

  5. Author

    Yes, the numbers clearly describe the credential being offered. Yes, I am criticizing these numbers chosen to represent the minimum standard. If someone is barely employable at this standard then it indicates that the standard is too low to be useful.

    We should question why these standards are this low. I think we need to openly acknowledge the truth that this standard equates to more guides-in-training and more dollars coming in to the certifying organization. Unfortunately, the value of other certifications has been compromised.

    Yes, you are correct that an issue is the public and clarification. I seem to generally be opposed to making things more complicated for the public to understand and navigate. Big difference between a Rock Guide and an SPI, but the people have to put in too much effort to figure that out. The AMGA needs to distinguish what a professional is. My definition is different from yours, and probably the AMGA as a whole. That is fine, but I would like to see a more open debate about it – one of the primary reasons for this post.

    I am not sure if that is true about beginner classes at gyms since there are so many climbing clubs and teams of all ages that train in gyms. Regardless, if that is true then these instructors do not need a meaningless credential to do a their job.

    1. Or the AMGA is just giving the consumer what they want, a low-grade certification, for people that can only climb 5.6-7.

      I think you are correct “Unfortunately, the value of other certifications has been compromised.” on this point. That is why ambulances have EMT’s and not doctors. When you really look at it a IFMGA guide is really over kill for taking a scout troop climbing or what I have seen is mom, dad and a six year old out for a have day climbing, at a walk off TR. But that is where the money is. I bet your business would not survive with out low-level clients. The AMGA is the same.

      And I would like to thank you for this very good and safe forum. But we do not need more debates we need solutions. The debates have just sprouted two more organizations.

      But Howie the problem with your definition of professional is only 1% of the climbing community and will never survive at all. The real bottom line is not as much money the AMGA is bringing in, but the organization would die on the vine with out the CW and SPI programs.

      1. Author

        To your first point, see reply above re: the professionals are not the consumers.

        But you bring up a really good point. I am definitely more focused on identifying the problems here than on coming up with real solutions. I think there are very few people and guides that understand the problems we have been discussing, so it seems appropriate for now. I hope that people smarter than I am can help us all come up with workable solutions.

        Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where the problems could be objectively identified and options for solutions could be proposed and assessed? At the AMGA board meetings these kind of discussions come after the Treasurer’s report. There is a persistent economic conflict of interest within the AMGA that has been driving decisions that affect the entire industry. I realize that we have to temper idealism with practicality, and that solutions need to have a balance. But if you build it, perhaps they will come. We have already seen it happen in many other countries. It would be good to see a long-range plan that strives for the ideal and can take viable steps forward in those directions. First I guess we need some consensus on what the ideal should be. I think I have established my opinions, but I realize there may be quite a wide array of perspectives on this. I wonder, would it would be possible to broaden this discussion somehow to establish common vision for the guiding industry, not just for the AMGA as an organization?

        Regarding “low-level” guiding, I think it is ok to let the market decide what credentials they want at any level of guiding service. I just think it needs to be very simple for the public to understand the choices, with 100% transparency. As it is now, AMGA certification is confusing and it includes a very wide range of guide types/levels. I think if the public truly understood what they are getting, very few customers (boy scouts and church groups included) that would opt to spend their money to learn to climb from someone that maxes out their ability in the 5.6-8 range, and only have been qualified a such a minimal training program/prior experience. If this assertion is true, then the AMGA, under the auspices of “AMGA certification,” is in the tragic position of misleading the public in order to generate enough revenue to survive. Do these ends justify the means here? Economically viable or not, you can’t create a sound business model or a strong movement on such a shaky foundation. There must be another way.

  6. Howie, you seem to really be stuck on these numbers?! They are MINIMUM standards and there is so much more that goes into guiding. A person climbing the bare minimum in the SPI environment isn’t going to get a lot of work. An employer will only use them for beginner, intro groups, boy scouts, etc. The vast majority of folks taking a course or instruction at a gym are large beginner groups/organized groups and belay classes (probably well over 90% of programming at gyms)! It’s okay for someone to be certified to work in this model. I think your issue is really with the public and clarification of what training your guide/instructor has. The AMGA has created a couple realistic and useful courses/assessments that are making a difference. It’s up to you to make your product stand out!

  7. Author

    Abe, NOLS and OB are more than included, they have been invited and even solicited. You seem to be suggesting that unless the AMGA lowers the standard for them they are excluded, when in reality they choose to exclude themselves due to potential financial effects on their long-established business models. My wife worked for NOLS in the early 1990’s so I have some basis for comparison. She calculated her income at $42/day. Certified guides know how to do the math too.

    Professional does actually mean IFMGA, if you are working in IFMGA countries that require it by law. It should be the same here for the various certifications relative to the terrain they apply to. The SPI standard is 5.6 lead / 5.8 TR. What classic single pitch climbs are at or below 5.6 in the New or the Red?! At least 50% of the people I work with every year would probably love to rope gun for any of these so-called guides/instructors. Let’s stop misleading the public by calling these professional certifications for guiding in single pitch rock terrain. This is demanding terrain to climb, guide, and instruct on. If you want to take out a boy scout troop for a day of toproping, then get yourself some formal training from one of the training organizations out there and have at it within your own risk management parameters. If you want to present yourself to the public at large as a professional guide or instructor for single pitch rock terrain, then climb way harder than the vast majority of those who might hire you for your services.

    1. But Howie the United States is not one of them. There is no place that requires an IFMGA to guide at.

      I have always wanted to ask this question of an IFMGA guide. Looking back if you could never get a visa to exit the USA, would you still go through all the training and why?

      1. Author

        Great question Rick. I may be an exception, but my motivations for getting trained and certified had nothing to do with IFMGA opportunities. I had never been to the Alps in the late 1990’s and really had no idea about wanting to go there or that that there was even a strong market for my services. My story is that I was employed in the summer and winter guiding in places and scenarios where I was underqualified to be calling myself a professional guide. After a season of winging it and a close call or two, I felt a strong sense that I needed more formal education to better myself as a guide, and I actively sought it out. My first mentors were some of the first AMGA certified guides and I was employed by companies owned and run by AMGA & IFMGA certified guides who strongly encouraged (and even helped to finance) participation in formal AMGA training programs. The AMGA program was in disarray in these early years and the curriculum was rough. (This ultimately was what motivated me to get involved as an AMGA instructor and program developer). After my first AMGA alpine guide course I realized that I needed to seek out additional mentorship and instruction. I hand-selected 2 Swiss, 2 Canadian, and 3 American instructors and examiners, and hired them for personal guide training/mentorship, as I continued to guide year-round. I aced all of my guiding exams. I was asked to join the AMGA instructor team soon after my first exam. Unusual, but kind of shows how the program really needed some help.

        After finishing my last guide exam, I was invited to bring my own clients on a Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route by one of my Swiss guiding mentors, an offer that I am eternally grateful for. He introduced me to guiding in the Alps, and I have spent many seasons guiding there since. This was an unanticipated reward for me. So, in retrospect, would I have gone through it without the IFMGA carrot? I feel like the answer is yes. Maybe there was a subconscious motivator there, but I don’t think it was a big factor.

        But to answer your question for today’s guides: I think IFMGA guiding opportunities are the main driving motivator for going through the full IFMGA program. The program is now more rigorous and more expensive than it was when I went through it. I don’t think there are many guides willing to accept the costs for the primary benefit of personal and professional growth, as I was, and I don’t blame them. I am not sure what I would do if I were a guide in my mid to late 20’s now looking at the horizon. My entire argument in this thread is based on the opinion that the AMGA should continue to work, and do so more effectively, to increase the value of certification here in the US on behalf of everyone who invests such a large proportion of their future income in certification, with the faith and optimism that it will one day mean something in the US and have more tangible benefits. When the cost:benefit ratio comes into proper balance, we will have the best and the brightest on board in our industry and we will see an abrupt end to the more informal, and highly questionable, points of entry into the guiding profession. I remain a strong supporter of the AMGA, but as long as the organization continues to act in ways that I believe are counterproductive to professional guides and our guests, I will feel compelled to speak out against those actions and policies. Thanks for being a part of the conversation!

        1. I agree with you until the AMGA or someone else relay looks at the entire guiding industry not much will happen, and I think addressing the Boy Scouts, church group, schools, climbing cub guides, is a must. Your definition of guides might not include this group but they are there and they are the big elephant in the room.

          I think the market as decided on guiding levels clients and it is pretty LOW.
          Presently I am on the advisory board for a local community outdoor education program. I have done some job research looking at what are employee’s wanting for qualifications so we make sure the student after two years of school could meet their hiring qualification.

          This is a summary of an internet job search for rock climbing instructors.
          I get three things from this.

          1. They want 6 – 24 month of experience.
          2. They want people that can absolutely belay.
          3. They want people skills.

          Comment: Most of these jobs are from gyms, schools and camps. Technical qualification and expectations are very low. I think some of the low technical qualifications are due to the people writing the job applications that know nothing about climbing.

          Also I have taught for the Boy Scouts national camp school for ten years where we are taking people with NO experience and a week later they are running a climbing program.
          Side note: After spending the past three years hanging around AMGA/IFMGA professional, I no longer teach for BSA because I think they are doing everyone a disservice. (off my BSA box)

          My point is AMGA SPI 5.6-8 climbers are rock stars compared to the vast majority of people “Guides” that are taking peopled out climbing.

          1. Author

            I think we are making a good distinction here. These jobs may be plentiful, but do we really have to call everybody who gets paid to operate a belay device and tie a figure-8 a professional rock climbing “guide” or “instructor?” My suggestion is that we reserve those titles for those that go through the necessary training and certifications, and have the prerequisite experience. Many jobs out there may involve climbing and ropes, yet do not require the skills of a guide/instructor. There are other types of public offerings where those skills are in demand, or should be required in the interest of public safety. Those who operate top-rope sites may want to have staff with a minimum level of training. This would be highly recommended for any organizations risk management plan and should be required by land managers where applicable. The AMGA has a reputable program. Let’s just stop selling it as a professional credential and pretending that they are industry professionals at those low standards. Should these “guides” make up the voting majority of our professional trade association? Because they do.

            We have to go through a short Food Handler’s Course, pass a test, and get a certificate in order to be allowed to work as a guide in National Parks. I don’t consider myself an expert or a professional in the food service industry or in public health, but I am grateful for the standards I have learned for preparing and serving food in the backcountry. Though it is a hassle to deal with, I get why the Parks require it. There is no confusion between the basic course I have taken and someone with a master’s degree in this subject. The AMGA should figure out how to make a clearer distinction between SPI/CWI/RI/Certified AMGA Guide. The AMGA should use qualified guides to help make climbing safer for the masses. That means offering some form of training to institutional organizations to run their top-roping operations safely and within industry-standard protocols. Some such organizations could likely run operations to this standard with staff that includes no certified guides or instructors. Some might want to have a certified guide on staff or as a consultant. Some might require more. The details depend on the venue(s), the resources, and the goals being accomplished. The AMGA could help the clubs and scouts and church groups meet their own liability requirements without simply creating a dumbed down certification that means very little and negatively impacts other AMGA certified professionals. I get that the SPI is a good revenue stream for the AMGA, and they were probably hoping that nobody would notice, but it’s time to talk about what has been going on and admit that those individuals who have invested the most time, money, and hard work into the profession of guiding, those that most support the AMGA as an organization, those that are most competent in the workforce, are being underserved and alienated. They are outsourcing themselves to Chamonix.

  8. Well, I would bet OB and NOLS has more client days than the entire rest of the guiding industry…so it might make some sense to include them (except maybe RMI – they had the most in the world up until they lost the monopoly and that’s something climbing 5.10 doesn’t relate to)! So, if you want to influence the public, get your name out there and make it accessible. 5.9/10a is the RGC standard. You will be asked to lead 5.9 but must be climbing 5.10 at the time of the course/exam? It seems your peers thought this was reasonable? “Site Manager” seems like a step up from “Instructor” in terms of title btw. Again, professional doesn’t mean IFMGA. It can but it means appropriate experience and training for the work you do. SPI is appropriate for a NRG/RRG climbing instructor!

  9. Author

    For the RGC, 5.10a is tragically the compromise that I think could be attainable at this time (since it is where we were not so long ago). I don’t see why a certified SPI or CWI should have a lower standard than someone just entering the 1st course of the rock guide certification program. From the perspective of climbing ability, does it matter if you are 1 pitch off the ground or 3? In a gym, a 10a is generally easier and certainly safer than outside and I think the standard could therefore be much higher. Are SPI’s and CWI’s asking for a free pass here? I don’t think so. Perhaps this all comes from the AMGA trying to generate more revenue opportunity by expanding the guide training market.

    I took part in an AMGA annual meeting in Bend, OR several years ago when the proposal was made to lower the rock standards on the RIC (now called the RGC) to 5.9, from 10a. The entire initiative came from recent discussions with leaders of NOLS and Outward Bound who felt that the 10a standard was too high for their staff who teach climbing, but that if it were lower they would be interested in “discussing it further.” This being a promising, potential income opportunity for the AMGA, the board gave the Technical Committee the directive to look at lowering the prerequisite climbing standard (again, conflict of interest in play). It was proposed at the TC meeting to lower the standard to 5.9. I voiced my opposition to this, and a few backed me up, but ultimately the prevailing argument was, “on many climbs, 5.9 is even harder than 10a.” And so here we are.

    There is no question that the CWI and SPI programs are invaluable and well-presented. The question is whether they should be marketed as an AMGA certification. My opinion is that they should not. It seems unfortunate that the TRSM went away. This was a cleaner program for communicating with the public. “Site Manager” seems like a term that avoids confusion with the job of an “Instructor” or “Guide,” and it doesn’t really warrant its own professional credential. It acknowledges that there are people out there getting paid to take people climbing in institutional settings that are not guides or instructors or certified in anything – and that is OK. These people could use some decent education about industry-accepted best practices. If the AMGA wants to certify people to teach, and put the AMGA stamp on that product then they should consider the product they are putting on the market and the effect it has on the reputation of all other products offered by the brand. If the AMGA intends to remain an association of professionals, it should consider the effects of these types of decisions on the professionals who depend on the credibility of that brand. The AMGA is plagued with a public trust issue, because the organization still hasn’t shown that it has the courage to take a stand for what is best for the American guided public and American guides.

    Alright Abe, I tried to stop convincing you. Maybe this time…

    1. The question is whether they should be marketed as an AMGA certification. My opinion is that they should not.

      I find it interesting to hear guiding companies that are in the business of doing what the customer wants. Turn around and say to “consumers” like NOLS and Outward Bound , etc. we do not want to give you what you what. No this is what I (guiding company) think is what I want for you to have. This is really like going in to MacDonalds and asking for a BigMac and the person behind the counter says NO you can only have a chicken nugget.

      Because remember until the state or US government “Licensees” you it is just a pieces of paper.

      1. Author

        I’m trying to wrap my head around this analogy, but I am not getting it. I see NOLS and OB and their staff as businesses offering mountain guiding/instructional services, not as consumers. A professional credential should not be treated as a product marketed for consumption by professionals. It should be designed to increase public safety and consumer confidence. The AMGA has targeted a market of potential guides in search of a credential. While this may be proper capitalism, this is counterproductive for the industry that the AMGA is supposed to represent.

        At least for the PCGI and PCIA we can say that there is less conflict in that they are not also attempting to represent the guiding industry as a whole. They are simply trying to be a player in the guide certification market that the AMGA has created.

        There is a chicken/egg scenario here that we should recognize. We need to establish common standards internally first before they can become recognized by the government agencies. And they could be recognized by government agencies, in a meaningful and practical way, even before they are technically considered “licenses,” using the good distinction you have made.

  10. Maybe the AMGA needs to have the PCGI or PCIA take over the CWI/SPI/RI? Or, another entity?

    1. The problem the AMGA would give up ¾ of there membership.

  11. Oops, I was talking about the current standards for the RGC and thinking they were appropriate (9/10a)… I guess we are not in agreement! 5.9 trad outside and 5.9 in the gym are two completely different things. As stated previously, I also think there is still a huge part of the climbing industry that needs CWI and SPI (and the current RI). Camps, college programs, boy scouts, gyms, etc. need better training and assessment. We all have seen complete “shit-shows” with these groups and these trainings/assessments help address this. I understand your frustration with the time and energy put in to the programs but it doesn’t make this need any less important (and potentially saves more lives).

  12. Author

    I would guess they are all out guiding or climbing. Hey, what the hell are we doing here?!

    I think you are giving a bit too much credence to the public if you think “most everyone knows” what SPI/CWI’s are allowed to do under the AMGA umbrella. (An umbrella with holes in it doesn’t work so well.) My impression is that the public is quite ignorant about it all, and I think some of them would be at least underwhelmed if they really understood where the AMGA has set the bar for these certified instructors. We should remember that a professional climber/guide/instructor should have some in reserve, not be maxing out at 5.9. The average gym climber climbs indoors a lot harder than 5.9. Those who hire single pitch guides, and especially instructors, would expect the professional to be able to personally climb classic 5.9 climbs in single pitch venues like J-tree, the Gunks, Indian Creek, Boulder Canyon, and nearly every sport climbing area in the US, in perfect style. Alright (slapping myself), I’ll stop trying to convince you. : )

    But, you had me at “10a.” That would be a reasonable start, and methinks we have ourselves a deal. Thanks for helping to make the profession of guiding better for all. Wait, I forgot that we have pretty much no say in any of this. Well, I hope some of those in decision-making positions can use these comments to save some valuable time in some more important discussions of these issues. Cheers!

    1. I think you are both putting too much in to a one point grade difference. I can go to Cuba and lead climbing French 5s and 6s all day long, but I do not really lead 5.9 or 10s at Smith. But I can go to Leavenworth and lead 5.9 with some effort. Grade in different parts of the country are gust to subjective. I lead a 5.8 this last week in Leavenworth and I had high school kids say they could not see a 6, I could not see it also.
      Leave the grade stuff and concentrate on number of training days, you will make more money and people will get trained.

      1. Author

        I agree with your point there Rick. I think the grade is a good component though as it is the clearest way to communicate a minimum skill level. Experience and training are definitely much more important than climbing grades though as prerequisites for training and certification. You have to draw the line somewhere though if you are actually assessing people and awarding a pass or fail mark.

  13. By the way, where the hell are all the other folks that should be contributing to this discussion/banter!? 😉

  14. Nice!

    Yes, I think we are in agreement with a number of things and we do not agree on the movement standards for sure. I even agree with folks having more experience before being accepted to courses! But, I still believe a person that can confidently climb 5.9/10a anywhere can be a great guide/instructor and have a long career in this industry. I think land managers should accept these folks with open arms. As for the CWI/SPI, I think they have such terrain specific guidelines that most everyone knows they are only allowed to do certain things under the AMGA umbrella.

  15. Author

    Ha, how do you know a guide at a party? They’ll tell you. How do you know a freshly certified IFMGA guide in street clothing? They are still wearing their pin.

    I think I have established agreement with most of your points above at some point in this epic thread.

    Where we still seem to disagree is that I do think lower level rock guides should be required to climb harder, at least at time of assessment. They don’t have to climb grade IV, because that is not their terrain (that would be like saying they have to ski too). And the top AMGA standard is currently 5.10+ trad, But yes, I do think they should climb at least to this standard if they are certified to guide or instruct single pitch trad routes. And yes I do think land managers should require this certification. For indoor climbers they should be able to lead routes of appropriate grade in the gym. Not sure what that would be but maybe 5.11- to be an instructor with credibility?

    I am all for a start to the training process. And really I do support the SPI and CWI programs as a positive force for all involved. Let’s just stop giving people a pro credential out of it until it actually means something in line with the other credentials for the terrain type. Raise the climbing and experience/prerequisite standard and I think you would have something we could all supportive of.

    Also, to clarify, not trying to insult anyone and never said anything like a RI with a successful guiding business is not a professional. Let’s make a distinction between how things are and how they perhaps should be. Clearly big changes like the AMGA is striving for in land management requirements would require some level of grandfathering or other accommodations. I only have respect for the veteran guides and service owners that have made it as far as they have over the years. This is not an easy business to be in! I have also met more than a few veteran alpine guides in their 40’s and 50’s who took AMGA courses long into their careers, to continue their education and professional development. They didn’t have to do that, but they did, and I have tremendous respect.

  16. We will have to “agree to disagree” on the CAA & AIARE comparisons as well!

  17. Ha! No worries! Understandable.

    Hey, “What do most most mountain guides use for birth control…? Their personality!” 😉

    I think you mentioned some of my argument when you stated “emerging professionals”. Maybe they are just starting down the guide track? It’s a start and, at the very least, creating higher standards/safety on those levels at the expense of IFMGA egos? I assure you, with the personality’s out there, they revere the Mountain Guides and are taught to!

    Also, there are huge amounts of the industry (clubs, boy scouts, university programs, camps) that these certs. serve a purpose. You are not getting undercut, you would not get the work as most couldn’t afford you! It’s making a large part of the industry safer and needed. In fact, many would say the AMGA lost a large part of that pie when they got rid of the TRSM and required folks to lead.

    I understand where you are coming from regarding standards and you are uber qualified but, again, we are not Europe or Canada or ??? and there is a long history here as well. I believe in courses and certs. and standards. I do. But, should a landowner/manager require that a person be able to guide IV, 5.11 to be able to take folks climbing on their land? That just isn’t the bulk of the industry! To call someone that owns a successful company, and is an RI not a professional, is insulting. What if someone has met a reasonable safety standard and can put up ropes on climbs, manage clients/groups and have a high quality product? Is that not professional? A client should be able to choose who they go with?

    I can think of guides that have worked in the industry for many years. They have guided all over the world (many times over) and, as much as it make irk you, are the face of the American guiding industry. Are you going to tell someone that’s 40+ year’s old and guided the 7 Summits, Rainier 100+ times, done in-house trainings for years, avalanche courses, never had an incident, etc. that they need to do their RGC first and then do AGC, AAGC, etc. to continue to work?

  18. Author

    No question Abe that the current CAA Level 2 Avalanche Operations Course is more rigorous than what is offered in the US. The AIARE 3 though is far more than the CAA Level 1 and has more similarity in advanced operational topics to the CAA Level 2. I think the closest comparison you could make is that the AIARE 3 is a condensed version of the CAA L2 Modules 2 and 3 combined. Module 1 is more what AIARE would hope to offer as CPD in the future. Check the prereq’s for the CAA L2, you don’t need to submit 100 pits, you need 100 operational days of observational experience as a professional. For the AIARE 3 you need to submit 10 recent profiles and have only 20 days of observations. There is no mentorship requirement for the CAA program, just 2 letters of recommendation from a CAA pro member.

    You are right though, that the Canadian program has developed professional avalanche training to a higher level overall. When you have a meaningful industry credential that demands this level of training things move in this direction. When you don’t, it apparently moves in the opposite. That is exactly why I brought up ski guiding. The level of client is generally high and guides with deficient ski skills are not going to be hired in many places. Rock climbing clients have been getting much better at climbing in the last couple of decades. This is putting pressure on professional rock guides to raise the bar, and it ought to happen.

    I am not discounting or questioning the professional insights or valuable skills gained from the CWI/SPI/RI courses, and I know that these programs have been very well-designed by some talented guides. I am only questioning the usefulness of its existence as a credential when the standards for training and assessment are relatively low for what they are trying to accomplish for these emerging professionals and their potential clients/students.

    By creating professional certifications out of these programs (specifically the SPI and CWI), the AMGA has created its own profitable business model to train and certify more American guides in a short period than anyone ever thought possible. This has led to the emergence of competing certifying organizations, all vying for a piece of the action. We all know the potential market is way bigger than for IFMGA guides. These training courses and assessments do benefit the public, in ways the public may not fully comprehend, but in the past in the US, and in the Alps today, training the public to be competent leaders has been a good job for guides. For better or worse, the AMGA has cut into some income opportunity for our nation’s guides by marketing themselves and the “people’s certifications” to the detriment of higher level certified guides. The AMGA has implicitly endorsed these less skilled guides, undermining guides that have made guiding their careers, have invested the most into the AMGA, and most support certification as an industry standard. The AMGA has a conflict of interest as both an educational organization and a certifying body, and this is another example. The AMGA will continue to contradict itself when on one hand they want to support guides with certifications, but on the other hand, they want to keep standards low to make guide certifications accessible. Why won’t the AMGA raise the climbing standards on these programs, just enough to be in line with the other certified rock guides in the country? I think that would be a simple fix, just as fixing the Accreditation program was simple – although that problem took over 15 years to address.

    Sorry if I just opened another can of worms there. I think I have a lot of pent up opinions that I am now having a chance to express. All in good fun, have at it!

    1. I think that is the real problem is basing your overall abilities on grades (5.something) not on experience and training. I would like to see the AMGA certification based more on your experiences and more on training other than a three-day course.

      If the AMGA certification was a standard nation training + say 6 more days of any training from an IFMGA guide. This would bring more business to the IFMGA guides, and keep some of the pie for the AMGA. This is not that hard.

      As an instructor I never get to climb, and 5.6-7 is more than adequate, for any training I have ever done, because you pick the train to fit the course. But when I guide, I really think 5.10 should be the minimum, because you are leading things for other people.

  19. Thanks Howie,
    It’s interesting you bring up ski guiding as that’s probably the most common discipline that guides are with better skiers! There are many incredibly strong ski clients (downhill) and guides are often hired for the “other” skills – routefinding, avalanche assessment, trail-breaking, etc. As for the CAA vs. AIARE – Level III in the States is about a Level 1+ (+1/3?) in Canada and a Level II candidate needs about 100+ documented pits and have worked with a Level II to register as opposed to 10 documented pits and no documented mentoring?!
    Again, terrain specific guiding and certs. shouldn’t mean someone needs to go hire someone additionally Ski and Rock certified to climb Rainier. Look all those ski guides out there that lead that industry but do not guide on rock!
    These are minimum standards too and an SPI and RI can guide 5.14 if able to? The SPI is the only exam that actually deals with real clients and involves teaching/lesson plans (so does CWI). You are right, they are short courses and “gateway” certs. to the AMGA but I think you are underestimating the amount of “professionalism” students are gaining awareness of.

  20. Author

    Thanks Abe. I guess if we are going to define what a guide is, we should also define what an instructor is. In my mind, an instructor should be trained and assessed as such. Shouldn’t this include some degree of understanding of movement theory, educational strategies, effective lessons for different levels, teaching tools and techniques, etc? Such training and assessment is included a bit in AMGA guide training. This includes group video analysis of each individual’s movement skills. As guides we always do some level of training, coaching, and instruction. This was true for me in the Owens River Gorge 2 days ago. What we do should compliment the instruction that is done in other settings on crags and in gyms. If you are going to design a credential specifically for instructors, then that is great. But I think we should ask if a typical 5.8/9 max rock climber understands the movement enough to instruct it to most, if not all, levels. The AMGA is marketing these people to the public as professionally certified instructors, and (unlike PSIA ski instructors) they make no distinction for the level of climber they instruct.

    If we are just talking about giving people training to be able to take school groups and boy scouts out for a day here and there, then I’m sure the AMGA and others can provide beneficial training to leaders to help them increase safety and enjoyment. But they should not call it a “professional certification” like other AMGA certifications. Certification is only worth something if it is useful to the public. A test could be to put yourself in the shoes of different consumers out there and ask what they would consider meaningful or enticing in a standard. Imagine an honest AMGA marketing campaign – “Don’t hire just any indoor climbing instructor. Hire a certified CWI because they have taken a 2.5 day course and have demonstrated that they can climb 5.7-8 in the gym.” How is meaningful is this to the consumer?

    I am not prepared to argue what the rock climbing standard should be for rock guides, and I realize that 5.9 is a widely varying technical grade. I think though that in all disciplines, it would be best to think more like the public who hires guides and instructors and offer them a credential that is meaningful. I think this should be a key strategy for the AMGA. Fact is, a lot of single pitch customers of both instructors and guides climb incredibly hard these days, thanks to well-equipped climbing gyms in every metropolitan area. Shouldn’t an industry-promoted professional be responsive to this demand? I don’t think an instructor needs to be climbing hard to instruct well, but I think it is important to have had abilities quite a bit above the level of instruction they are delivering at some point in their lives. Otherwise, the instructor is pretty much faking it. We can agree to disagree on this point, but I think he standards for any nationally advocated certification should probably be higher than 5.7-8. The ski guiding industry (mechanized or backcountry) would not tolerate such a low level for a professional.

    Regarding the avalanche education standards, among IFMGA countries, the American and Canadian training and certification standards are considered the most rigorous and well developed. The American standard is based on the program developed by AIARE, but more recently also offered to the same standard by AAI. The AIARE 3 was developed by 2 different ACMG guides, CAA instructors, and long time avalanche professionals, in collaboration with a diverse and international professional avalanche community. According to one of those developers, the AIARE 2 + AIARE 3, along with the prerequisites for the AIARE 3 (which is the current pro certification stream) is on par with the CAA Level 2. Canadian and European guiding organizations consider the AMGA’s level of required pro avalanche training to meet or exceed their own national requirements.

  21. Howie,

    I am in agreement that training and certs. are important to meet a standard. I disagree with your assessment of the CWI, SPI, RI certs. as that is why they are “Instructors” and not “Guides”. Also, you were guiding that 60 year-old and not instructing. The bulk of the industry is classes and groups and the standard the AMGA has for the Instructor level courses seems realistic. 5.10-11 in Owens is also 5.9- in the Gunks, Seneca, etc.! I also want to address Danny’s comments/being undervalued and that being IFMGA is awesome but should you be required to hire a doctor certified in everything medicine to get stitches/minor surgery or is a specialist in their field (alpine skills certified and a lot of mileage/local knowledge) able to do just as good a job?! No need to be overqulaified (not bad either). I assume Danny (and yourself) has done his Level II Avy with the CAA when guiding in Canada and Europe, right? Not just AIARE Level III that doesn’t meet the same standards…hmmm.

  22. Author

    Love your comments, Rick. Thanks.

    From my perspective, the issue of distinction is not between guides and public, but rather commercial use and non-commercial use. This is an unfortunate result of the tragedy of capitalistic society we live in. As an example, mountain bikes are not allowed in wilderness. This is not necessarily because that are incompatible with the character of wilderness, but because they had to draw a line somewhere that would prevent other more incompatible uses, like chainsaws, machinery, and tools that can have major impacts. Would mountain bikes really be all that bad or contradictory to the Wilderness Act? These activities only really take place on trails, which contain the most concentrated impacts in wilderness anyway. Do horses, mules and llamas have any less impact? Maybe there could be some law preventing mountain biking off of trails. My point is, there is not much middle ground in the politics of land management. Everyone is afraid of the “slippery slope” (no guiding pun intended). Commercial services like mountain guiding get categorized with horse packing and operation of backcountry lodges, shuttle services, retail shops, food establishments, and even mining and logging ventures. It is interesting to observe how careful land managers have to be with granting more to some commercial uses over others. It all has to be justified legally. Otherwise, some big corporations with in-house lawyers will threaten to bankrupt the government by arguing their American right to put a McDonalds on the summit of Mount Whitney. Democracy tends to prevail apparently on these types of issues in the Alps, but here in the US we can’t underestimate the political power of large corporations over the will of the people. The development of Yosemite Valley is I think a case in point. The only defense we have is sweeping and large scale federal legislation like the Wilderness Act to prevent bad things from happening. But it is like treating cancer, you kill a lot of good things along with the bad.

    The other point on which we may differ is on how you define a guide. I agree that we all use skills and techniques of guiding when we lead others less experienced or skilled than us, but I believe the word “guide” should be reserved for those are paid professionally to practice the trade, with fees for services. We all can study and use the skills and tools of engineers, lawyers, doctors, carpenters, and other professionals in our daily lives but we don’t say we are these tradespeople. One cultural difference between the US an the Alps is that in the Alps, mountain guides are respected as professionals with competency and knowledge far beyond most of the recreational public. Here, guides are considered more average, with professional mountain/climbing athletes being the ones with much greater reverence in expertise. There is that saying, “those that cannot do, teach.” I can’t stand this saying and it really bugs me. I aspire every day to prove it wrong.

    Danny refers to this American attitude in his earlier post, and I agree that personal standards should be higher if certifying agencies want to create more respect for the credentials they are trying to promote. In the Alps many of the top climbing and skiing athletes are IFMGA guides themselves. The best example that makes this point is in the AMGA certified Climbing Wall Instructor prerequisite standards:

    – You are 18 years old (persons 16 to 17 may take the course and will receive a letter of completion of the course, if completed successfully).
    – You have at least one year documented personal climbing experience (a minimum of 20 outings climbing indoors and/or outdoors in the last 12 months).
    – You are able to climb 5.9 on top rope and lead 5.8 for Lead Certification.
    – You are able to climb 5.7 on artificial structures., on top rope for top Rope Certification.
    – You understand the proper use of personal climbing equipment, including shoes, harness, belay device, carabiners, rope, cordage, and slings.

    It is a counterproductive message to support the idea that this level of climber, after completing a 2.5 day course and assessment is “AMGA certified” as a guide or instructor in the (indoor) terrain they work. On any given day, in any gym, this level of climber could be the least capable climber in the building. For the SPI cert, the standard is being able to climb 5.8 on toprope. I have regularly seen 6-8 year olds demonstrate this standard. For the rock instructor certification which applies to up to grade III rock climbs, the standard is 5.9 sport and trad with a resume of 10 climbs of at least 5.10a. Again, if someone is an “instructor” or “guide” in this terrain I think it does not support a strong culture of respect for the credential at this level. It is regular that, at popular rock climbing venues, paying guests can climb harder than this standard. Just yesterday, I guided a 60 year old man from out of town on a great day in the Owens River Gorge on single pitch sport rock terrain. 5 out of 7 pitches were above 5.10a and 2 were up to 11a. This is really common for us, so although I think these training courses are highly invaluable to anyone in the position of leading rock climbers in this terrain, I think that these listed standards are far too low to be associated with a national industry standard, promoted to the public alongside the IFMGA-level credentials.

    The AMGA recently went through a lengthy and costly brand audit, which indicates that branding is an important strategy for them. They have recently identified through polling that there is a public trust issue when it comes to the AMGA brand. My suggestion is that the AMGA should look carefully at the contradiction in what they are communicating to the public. We should realize that while the CWI, SPI, and RI programs are lucrative, and have justifiable merit, they should be re-framed and/or re-structured to mitigate the negative effects they are having on the AMGA’s own mission.

    Wow, surprisingly this thread is becoming part of my daily ritual. Good stuff!

    1. Do you know if the public trust issue is of the word AMGA or just the general feeling anyone that is making money off public lands is evil?

      Your comments about Yosemite were interesting. I wrote the NPS asking why the same guiding company is the only one that can guide there. They said the over all service contracts for the park is with one vendor. Food, toilets, camps grounds, guiding, and that company can hire anyone they want. Very good old boy

  23. Author

    I don’t know if I agree Rick that I am stuck thinking the old way as much as trying to keep it real. The unguided public is certainly limited, as is the guided public, when it comes to using our public lands. This is because of American law and land management policy. These are deeply seated and I am trying to convey that the kind of paradigm shift that requires changing these fundamental restrictions is a bit of a pipe dream, in my opinion.

    To your point though, I fully agree that the guided and unguided public, should be both treated as the recreational public. I would take it a step further, as many of my colleagues do, by arguing that guiding has a net positive effect on wilderness character. I think this point both has real merit and could be used to influence interpretation of the law without having to change it. By this logic, the wilderness should be able to sustain a lot more guiding (possibly an unlimited amount?!) and more guiding permits and service days could be made available. The AMGA (as trade organization) should be actively pushing this angle I think, and I know it is at least on the table and out there in the discussion among board members. But you shouldn’t put the cart before the horse. The AMGA should also be concurrently working to have it recognized that trained and certified guides are best for ensuring the necessary positive influence on wilderness character. I believe that if any change is going to happen it should include requirements for certification.

    If the the AMGA is pissing in the wind, then they can stand there waiting for it to shift, or simply turn greater than or equal to 90 degrees.

    1. I do not really think there is an unguided public only paid guides and un paid guides.

      I believe 90% of the people in the woods are guides they just do not know it. Your dad was a guide when he took you hiking. You are a guide when you take your kids hiking, and you can go any place you want. But if you do the exact same thing but you are paid, now you are limited on were and what you can do. Guiding permits and service days.

      The problem is the government can only separate what they call the public from guides, bases on do I pay you. But in reality being a guide has nothing to do with pay. Certification has nothing to do with pay. I have been a mountain guide for forty five years but I have never been paid. I never realized this until a few years ago when I wanted to get some training for my self and started to look at your world as a paid guide. “AMGA, PCIA, PCGI”

      The battle or task is we needed, convincing the “public” they all are guides and they should be trained. (certified) Once this happens then they will demand the government change their view of a guide vs public, and then people will be looking to organizations like the AMGA and the IFMGA certification will have meaning.

      Great discussion

  24. The French guide is correct about our county, just look what happened a few months ago they put a gun in your face and said stay out of public lands, because the employees we are not getting paid.

    As Danny was alluding to the US needs a paradigm change.

    Howie you are still thinking the old way. Public land can only have guides or the public climbers. The paradigm change that is needed is “all of it is the public” I am the public if I guide my self or I am the public if I hire you to guide me. There still would be the same the max user limits, that there is . None of that would change, just the them vs us mentality. No I am the public and I can hire a guide if I want, or do not want to.

    As long as the government sees this as a guide vs public issue there is no need or will never be a need for IFMGA certifications in the US. The AMGA is pissing in the wind.

  25. Author

    Rick – Interestingly, the US Forest Service tends to agree with you about hiring porters. To their credit, the intent of the process is good in that it factors in the “needs” of the public into their management plans. Here, they have determined that stand alone portering (pack carrying) services, apart from an outfitter/guide’s services is not an authorized commercial use. So in that example it sounds like you and others of the public are well represented. Wouldn’t you agree that public safety is more affected by the competency of a guide than of a porter? If so, the criteria for who you are allowed to hire should be more discriminating for a guide than for a porter, right?

    You say, “If I could hire anyone I want then it would open up the independent guides that Danny wants.”
    But would it? If you could hire anyone you want you would still have issues of carrying capacity, particularly in the heavily regulated wilderness areas where guides are most in demand. The reality is if you could hire anyone you wanted, there would be more would-be guides, and chances are they would still have access issues and it would be illegal for them to guide you in many cases. As you can see the root of a lot of these struggles is the limited amount recreational use that is allowed in many popular places. This is governed by big American legal forces like the Wilderness Act and NEPA processes.

    A French guide once told me, “you live in the land of the free, but you cannot even go freely to your own mountains.” Touché!

  26. As long as the government limit professional guiding to only a few people. The cultural you and Danny are talking about will never happen. As a US citizen I should be able to hire any one I want to carry my pack. But you would say how do I know if he is qualified? Simple two options, the market will decide, I like you and you do a good job or there is certification (AMGA, PCIA,PCGI). This would be like when I want someone to fix your door in the house, I call around and hire someone they are licensed and bonded.
    If I could hire anyone I want then it would open up the independent guides that Danny wants. The government policies are limiting the guiding world not lac of certifications. The government excuse is we are protecting the public, I AM THE PUBLIC, and I can find my own person to carry my back, thank you very much.

  27. Author

    Wow, lots to comment on there, Danny. And Abe I think you really hit on the key points that create the tension in these issues. Thanks, guys.

    In the years following my certification in 2001, I have been at times passionate, opinionated, and vocal about how I could envision change in the US scene. This led to some accusations of elitism which I thought were unfair since I was only trying to better the industry on the whole. Let’s realize in this discussion that there may be a greater good than our own and try to put our personal interests on the back burner for a moment. I do think it is important to listen to how your communication may sound, even if unintentionally, to people with different perspectives.

    Danny – When I first guided in the Alps, and in the years that have followed, it was enlightening to see the guiding environment over there. It is indescribable and any American guide that has not experienced it just cannot comprehend it. We need to realize that what they (you, now) have over there is born from deeply rooted mountain culture that is prevalent in these societies and nations. Other IFMGA countries have only been able to emulate it, with varying degrees of success. The US approach is a bit backwards. We have IFMGA status and access in other countries, but now we have to take on the daunting task of creating a mainstream culture to support it in this country. This is probably the impetus behind the creation of the current AMGA mission statement (“to inspire and support a culture of American mountain craft”). What the AMGA needs is a unified vision that can mobilize the industry toward a common goal.

    There are barely 100 IFMGA guides in the US, far less than other AMGA guides, even if you exclude SPI. CWI, and RI. I just don’t think that the AMGA will achieve the cultural shift you are looking for with this kind of ratio. If you poll the AMGA board members, I doubt many would support the idea that an IFMGA guide should get more of a vote than a single discipline certified guide. Since you brought up the issue though, we should all question how the AMGA can have by far a majority of the voting membership be uncertified (yet professional) guides. Yes, the majority of the board is currently made up of certified guides, but this does not resolve the fundamental problem with the AMGA’s structure that limits progress as I see it.

    To your other points:

    Independent guides vs. guide services
    It will be difficult to achieve a unified vision with such a position on what you call “guide services.” I have said this before to you in this thread – you too are a guide service owner. You are no more “independent” than I am, except that I believe you own 100% of your company while I am only a minority stockholder. Our companies are direct business competitors, marketing services in the Alps. A difference is that SMG holds permits to guide in some locations in the US as well where you cannot compete, except when you work for ASI for example. Instead of “Independent” guides, we should call them “non-US permit holding” guides, or maybe “have-not” guides. Though SMG holds permits in a few places in the Sierra, we too are have-nots everywhere else. So I hope you can see better that we are all in this together somewhat and your statement that we do not stand to gain from opening access is false. On the other hand, I think opening access to all certified guides may be a can of worms none of us want to open. Imagine the traveling circus show of certified guides having to compete for permits to make a living on an annual basis via first come-first serve or lottery systems. Should we eliminate locally-based guide companies by making then unable to get enough access in order to make a viable business in one place? Is it really for the benefit of the public to have guides doing business from their laptops and trailers? I am not sure that this will result in a step forward for the industry and I don’t think you will find a unified vision there among guides.

    Lower level cert’s and undercutting
    I think your position on this may be biased by what you see happening over in the Alps. In many alpine countries, the “bergfuhrer” is the “mountain master” and the government regulates that these professionals are the ones for the jobs. Again, the overall culture supports this much better over there than it does here. It just does not make for a strong argument that a guide that works solely on Mount Shasta every summer should have to hold an IFMGA-level alpine certification. A main reason we take the stand we do for guiding in the Sierra is that nearly all the same standards apply here as they do in places like the Alps, and we feel that it takes a high degree of expertise to guide here in all mountain guiding disciplines, within our risk tolerances. I understand that IFMGA guides want, and in your perspective perhaps deserve, more work opportunities, but the practical argument is just pretty weak. Should locally based seasonal guides, many of whom do an excellent job, be allowed to get their version of minimum training and assessment for their terrain type to permit them to do the work? How many AMGA Alpine Guides on the list do you know that would spend the entire summer season guiding up and down Shasta for whatever pay that market allows? How much better or safer would these guides actually be in the big picture than one with a more basic (yet AMGA-deemed adequate) level of training. The AMGA should not support allowing guides to be undertrained, nor should they work to require that guides be overtrained just to make up for a lack of work opportunities for high-level guides. Instead, the AMGA should do more to make high-level guides more in demand in places where their skills are required. The terrain guidelines, combined with accreditation, are a reasonable way to define who can work where. If everyone is qualified for their terrain, then everyone is a professional and should be eligible for hire. If an IFMGA guide brings more to the company then let the job market dictate that they get hired over someone else.

    AMGA and risks to standards
    Yes, there is a potential conflict of interest in the AMGA already when it comes to them being the educators and the certifiers. Unfortunately, there will be increased pressure to lower standards to get more certified. This is why the organization is in such a dilemma, and it will only get worse over time. The AMGA needs to restructure into trade association and educational organization, it’s just a matter of when and how. You should also realize that standards have been compromised so many times for so many reasons over the years. I hope that you only saw fair and high assessment standards on all of your AMGA programs, but I have seen many otherwise, in a larger sample size of programs, against my protest and criticism. That said, I want to clarify that regardless of this fact, these were beneficial processes that created better guides in every case, and because of this I have had to reconcile what I have witnessed with the bigger picture and the greater good. I am more at peace with it all now. We are moving forward. When certification is a required credential, and there is less inherent conflict of interest, standards will become as rigid and enforceable as they try to make them.

    Andrew Yasso Q & A
    This post by the AMGA received a lot of criticism form certified guides and it was brought up at the board meeting in January that I observed for the day. There was a lot of concern expressed about this one, among others. This demonstrates a symptom of the dysfunction of the AMGA’s structure – having an uncertified membership and trying to represent all American guides regardless of whether they are certified. This comes back to the call out to the AMGA to have the courage to take the stand that I have in this original post. They should call on the public. the government, and the guide services, making a case to any and all who would hear them that guides should be trained and certified to work as professionals. They should represent, promote, and advocate for those professionals. My voice is tiny, but theirs is BIG. I hope they step it up, and with the new accreditation standards, I think they finally will.

  28. Thanks Danny,
    The ACMG does have CWI and SPI/TRSM curriculum and certs…as well as hiking. You are assuming that the end goal of all guides is to become fully certified? Many have no desire to guide skiing or alpine. You also sound like your coming from a perspective of wanting/needing to work Internationally? That just isn’t the case for a lot of guides as well. At one point you state the importance of the SPI/RI/CWI folks and programs and then propose them have a lesser voice even though they probably contribute more to the AMGA and the industry than the IFMGA folks? Remember, 2 of those certs. require re-certing regularly too. I understand your arguments regarding the Alpine discipline and protecting what YOU have done but we are not Europe or Canada and a lesser Alpine Course/Cert. TOTALLY makes sense for snow climbing/glacier peaks. There is NO reason these folks need to climb 5.10! Plus, I know people “dedicated” to climbing for 30+ years that can guide 5.8 and under very comfortably but cannot (and have no desire) to guide IV 5.10 ever. Lastly, you too will age and there will be a day were you will not be comfortable guiding at harder grades, huge days…but, because you did at one point, you are fine? Isn’t that somewhat like being “grandfathered”? “I once did this, so I am good to go”? You didn’t mean to sound Elitist, but you did.

  29. HI everyone. Lots of interesting conversation. I posted a while back. I’m an IFMGA Mountain Guide living as an ex-pat in France and working there full time. I just say that so you know where my perspective comes from.

    We all know the expression “don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” There is a funny culture within the AMGA members that certified guides, and especially IFMGA guides, are either elitist, or at least they don’t understand the needs of people at different (earlier) places in the training program. I hope that myth, or feeling, disappears and something better replaces it.

    In my case (as would likely be the same with any IFMGA guide) I’ve walked miles and miles, literally, in the shoes of TRSM, SPI, and every other rung of the ladder in the AMGA training scheme. Therefore I (or any IFMGA Single of Dual certified guide) has a much broader perspective on the issues that effect the organization, and its individuals, as a whole.

    The interests of the instructor track program (Climbing Wall, Rock, and Single-Pitch) are very very different from the interests and needs of the Mountain Guide track certifications (Rock, Ski, Alpine).

    From a practical perspective the inclusion of SPI, CWI, and Rock Instructors in the AMGA at an equal level as other certified guides is very problematic. The AMGA continually faces the problem of funding itself, and were it not for the hundreds and hundreds of folks involved in the CWI, SPI, and RI programs the AMGA might not be financially soluable.

    Another reason the AMGA has included those lower level certification in its organization is to be feeder programs for its Mountain Guide program. In my view that is not at all necessary. Those programs could easily exist outside of the AMGA on their own and those people wishing to pursue individual or Mountain Guide certification from the AMGA could do so when they meet the prerequisites.

    But in terms of consolidating market share and general power in the US it is nice to have many members and many voices. The problem is that my needs as an IFMGA guide, and the needs of other Rock, Alpine, or Ski guides are, honestly, entirely different from those of Instructor-level people.

    I think the AMGA should either do one of two things. 1) It should separate itself from the Instructor track programs (this is not practical or likely) or…
    2) It should restructure its BOD voting rights so that a person’s “share” or “interest” in the organization is proportionally reflected. For example each certification a person has is equal to 1 vote. An SPI who has put in 4 days of coursework (1/20 the time as IFMGA) should have 1/20th an influence in the AMGA. IFMGA 3 votes, Dual cert 2, Single 1, Assistant guide .5 votes, Apprentice guide .3 votes. This is just an idea, but it directly reflects the time (and money) a person has invested in their AMGA-based career.

    Rick and Abe: we live in (what is supposed to be) a free-market economy. The IFMGA is an international organization that has sanctioned our training program (Rock, Ski, Alpine). Anyone else is welcome to begin their own program but there is zero chance they can get it sanctioned by the IFMGA. Therefore the AMGA will continue to be the only source of IFMGA-level training and credentials (rock, ski, alpine). What is both likely and prudent would be to create an education wing of AMGA, associated with an already-established educational organization, such as a university (e.g. Thompson Rivers in Canada, or ENSA in France) and then a professional trade organization which handles the specific needs of the industry. The AMGA currently wears two hats, and the needs or both are not always complimentary.

    The SPI and CWI are not overseen or credentialed by the IFMGA, and furthermore those kinds or programs do not exist inside of other nation’s IFMGA programs. In a sense the CWI and SPI are riding the coattails of the IFMGA-credentialed (rock, ice and ski) programs.

    Monopoly exists when a specific person or enterprise is the only supplier of a particular commodity. There will probably never be a second organization which offers IFMGA-sanctioned guide’s licenses and training. This is a fact evidenced if you look at any of the other 20+ IFMGA countries. So people’s discomfort with monopoly should go away when you understand there is no other option for Rock, Ski, or Alpine guides.

    There is precedent in Canada and other countries for competing organizations ot offer certifications such as the CSGA (Canadian Ski Guide Association) and in Argentina where there are multiple guides assocations and training programs. In the end there is only 1 in each country that is associated with IFMGA. Italy is the only exception to this, but that is not a relevant example for the discussion at hand.

    Howie said: “There has been recent talk in the AMGA of making a less rigorous level alpine cert for glacier and expedition guides as well as for mechanized ski guides. I think these are good ideas.”

    I wholeheartedly disagree with this for basic economic reasons. While I agree that many primary objectives in the US (Denali, Baker, Rainier, Shasta) could be handled by a lower level alpine certification this would severly undercut Alpine Certified guides in our effort to gain control of defining who the workforce is. There is a list on the AMGA site of certified Alpine guides. They entire idea of accreditation is A) to create a better training and supervising structure for people in the instructor training programs B) to ensure client safety C) remove control of defining what the “guiding workforce” is from the companies to the guides themselves. Point C is the absolute essential point to all of these efforts is conditions in the US will ever improve enough that people can really make a living.

    In addition accreditation is a tool that will help the AMGA community leverage the US goverment for credential-based access versus business-based access. Here is a perfect example:


    Its a bit disturbing that the AMGA sanctioned this blog in first place. The point is that the guide in this blog is being sent to Ama Dablam. He is not alpine certified and therefore not qualified to guide a technical 6,000 meter peak in a foreign country. Ideally what would happen is American Alpine Institute would say, thanks Andrew for doing a good job with the client, but this job requires a certified alpine guide. Then they go down the list of certified Alpine guide they know and trust, and call one. But they would never do that, because a certified alpine guide costs more money. Nepal is an IFMGA country now, and though it doens’t (yet) have laws requiring IFMGA licence, if it did, this scenario would be impossible. Furthermore we as AMGA members, should respect the progress Nepal is trying to make and not send unqualified guides there.

    I don’t blame Andrew, I was in his shoes once. I went to Bolivia multiple times with American Alpine Institute before I was IFMGA or Alpine Certified. I learned a lot then, although I had no oversight and no mentorship.

    The dream of every certified guide should be that access is based on their individual license. That is the key to the kingdom. Now businesses hold the keys to the kindgom. Anyone who doesn’t support that idea, however far off or difficult to visualize, does not support the essential goals of independent guides.

    It is a mighty goal, I know. But the first step in realizing any mighty goal is simply to believe that it is possible. In the US I think most people would stand behind this goal if they understood the bigger economic and professional ramifications of that goal; versus the current system we operate in.

    Honestly the only people who serve to benefit from us NOT achieving that goal are owners of guide services. And that is not to say there are not amazing, qualified, owners of guide services, many of whom are my friends, and many of whom I have worked for or would happily work for. In the end of the day these changes will mean business owners have less control and have to pay their employees a higher percentage of their gross profit. Obviously a money-oriented business owner would see the advantage of opposing a change that would transfer power from their hands to the hands of someone else (the guide).

    There are many interconnected webs here. The QUALITY of the training program is absolutely paramount. Howie you have been an instructor and examiner so you know more than me from that side of things. Every point I am making relies on the fact the our training program is rigorous and is respected by our peers. Personally I think the minimum standards required for entry (which are dictated by the IFMGA) are very very basic. Unfortunately I think many people enter, and complete the programs, just at those minimum standards. Now that we have initiated the big push to have accrediation standards in force by 2017 there is enormous pressure on the training program to PRODUCE enough guides through the program to handle the needs of accredited businesses. It is logical to conclude that as the program tries to take in and push through more and more people its risks not maintaining a high standard. I have no comment on that because I don’t teach AMGA courses. I think we all have to put our trust in the program, in Dale Remsberg, the TD, and the discipline coordinators, and the instructors/examiners to maintain the standard despite pressure of increasing numbers. I have ultimate faith in them, personally.

    I think it is a particularly American (read: AMGA) problem to have an inferiority complex in terms of our standards and therefore the quality of guides we produce. I currently, live, work, and recreate with mountain guides who are largely not American: Austrian, Swedish, French, Italian, Spanish, Argentine, Swiss, Slovenian, ect. My observation is that each country has its own strengths and weaknesses in terms of the guides they produce and their personal skill sets, both while guiding and their personal exerience levels and movement skills. The AMGA generally produces guides that are reasonable in all the disciplines but not exemplary in any (as a generality, or course we have people like Steve House and others who could be considered world-class).

    There is or was, what I consider a cultural myth being perpetuated in the AMGA that having a high personal level in a specific discipline doesn’t make one a good guide. This myth was perpetuated because the French had lots of accidents despite the fact that they all easily climb 5.12. In this example, why the French have had more accidents per capita than other countries is a question with very complex and nuanced answer.

    I think we should adopt more of a supportive attitude about personal standards because they directly relate to a guide’s experience and therefore their ability to move clients safely in the mountains. The counterpart to this is we need to maintain a thoughtful eye on training these highly skilled people into safe guides; which is both an achievable and desireable task.

    Almost all of the issues we are dealing with are achievable. On the other hand it was not until I finished my IFMGA and became exposed to the global guiding community in Europe that these issues really gained clarity and I had the perspective to handle them more accurately. I think it is up to certified guides to educate those thinking of going through the AMGA programs, those in it now, and also to give the AMGA direction.

    1. Danny, words are very important like “individual license” I do not think you even know or understand what the word license means under US law. Let me point out what a licenses guide under US law would be like. If you were to be licensed as a guide you would have a written test, and may be a practical exam and you would have to work under a licensed guide for 3-4 years. Then you would get a license, but you could not afford to guide because you would have to pay may be up to $50,000 a year liability insurance, because you are not allowed to have people sign weaver any more. When you go to the doctor do you sign a liability weaver, no because he is labial for every think he says and dose.

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