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.
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.
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.
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.