A case for guide certification from the Sierra

The skills behind the thrills, guide training

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.

104 Responses to A case for guide certification from the Sierra

  1. Davey McCoy - Reply

    May 17, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    I feel that this is a great article, and it is about time that this type of knowledge is relayed to potential customers.. Thanks for posting..

  2. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 18, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Cheers Davey. I agree it is time and thanks for your comment in support!

  3. Spencer - Reply

    May 24, 2014 at 10:07 am

    While I done disagree… The AMGA doesn’t make it very easy for guides to become certified (I’m not talking about skills required). The courses are rather expensive for a profession that doesn’t pay that well and there are not many opportunities each year to take the courses. I’m hoping that in the future when these certs are mandatory, the AMGA reconsiders this structure.

  4. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 24, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Spencer, I wholeheartedly agree. The training and certification program is disproportionately expensive when you consider the current value of certification.

    As long as guide services are allowed by our society to continue to hire untrained and uncertified guides, the value of certification does not match the investment required. The AMGA and the other rock climbing guide certifying agencies should reconsider that their mission to train and certify guides is only as viable as the profession of guiding. These organizations should work tirelessly on behalf of certified guides and those in training to increase the real economic value of certification for guides. Value can be added by: achieving certification/accreditation-based only guiding access to public lands, providing business advantages for certified guides over uncertified guides (such as: decreased liability/disability/life/worker’s comp/rescue insurance costs, increased guiding equipment expense discounts or subsidy, marketing cost-sharing or subsidy, discounts for certified guides for lifts, helicopters, huts, hotels, airfare, etc. for traveling guides, discounts on cell phone, satellite phone, radios and other guide communication devices, discounts on medical and rescue related supplies, etc.), and the list could go on. There needs to be more than just a moral or educational imperative to spend the money required to achieve certification.

    On the flip side, the AMGA now offers around 21 scholarships available to applicants as financial aid for their programs. These have been helpful to many aspiring guides over recent years. Voting members of the AMGA should consider using BOD elections to help control the direction of the organization and demand that it shifts their focus, at least slightly, away from training and certifying guides and toward supporting certification as a requisite and valuable professional standard.

  5. Danny Uhlmann - Reply

    May 24, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Howie: Thanks for writing this. To Spencer and the unnamed person who agreed with Spencer. I’m an IFMGA mountain guide living in France by choice as an ex-pat and working full time, year round in Europe. I can’t make a good living in the US unless I own a guide service or work full-time for one of the major guide services who largely employ unqualified guides, which I don’t agree with. I’ve worked for American Alpine Institute, Alpine Skills International, Yosemite Mountaineering School, Sawtooth Mountain Guides, Acadia Mountain Guides, Mountain Madness, Alpine Ascents, Chockstone Guides, Ruby Mountain Heli skiing, Silverton Mountain ski area, and the US Antarctic Program. Some of those companies impose high standards on the guides they employ, meaning they require them to be trained. Others do not. You have to enquire specifically each time.

    Now I work for myself, First Light Mountain Guides, and occasionally take work as a contract guide here in Europe.

    Spencer and unnamed agreer: it appears that you have considered becoming certified or have some interest in guiding. Become AMGA certified in any discipline is difficult, but if you have the level of competency in all the necessary areas, it is not difficult, in the end you are simply performing your job under evaluation. The only people for whom it is exceedingly difficult are those who are not qualified and who should not be taking paying client’s lives in their hands. That is the entire point of certification. I can tell you (or any certified guide can tell you) that I am significantly better now than I was, or ever would have been, had I not pushed myself to go through the process of getting certified.

    If it were easy what would be the point, really? Would a client rather have a guide who was given an easy education or a demanding one? I think the answer is overwhelmingly simple.

    Secondly: on the subject of the cost/benefit analysis. I paid entirely for my AMGA trying on my own, without loans, and without debt. I received two scholarships along the way. The amount you will spend on the training and education is a mere pittance compared with a public university Bachelors degree. The certification isn’t for people doing it on a whim, it is for professionals who want to enter the field of mountain guiding and work in that field as a means to make a living. When you look at it that way its not a big deal to pay for. All good things are worth trying hard for.

    Also I live in Europe now and work almost exclusively with IFMGA mountain guides who are not American but who have been held to the IFMGA standard in their own countries. I have had my eyes opened from this experience. There is absolutely no question in my mind that AMGA training and certification should be required for any guide who wants to work on public land with paying customers. I think a lot of the demands you have made are in a sense valid, but really there is only one main thing that the AMGA needs to accomplish, and all other desires will be the result of that one thing; which is that the government require that guides are trained by the AMGA for the terrain they work on. Once that is true then the power of deciding who is and who isn’t a guide, and on what terrain they work will no longer be in the hands of guide service owners but in the hands of the guides themselves. Right now the keys the castle (of public land access) is held by whomever holds the permits.

    Owners like Howie and other guide services like his have taken it upon themselves to demand that guides be trained for the terrain they work in. They do that for a number of positive reasons, but in they end they aren’t required too. They do it because they themselves (the owners) are IFMGA guides and believe in the quality of the training, and also the need for it.

    Increasing the econominc value of being a guide (in other words wages and access to work opportunities) is a very complex equation but the very first step in that is to eliminate the possibility of non-qualified guides from being legally allowed to operate. Their presence in the industry is why I have to live in France to make a good wage and have abundant work. Eventually this will change.

    For your part Spencer if you aren’t willing to put the minimal amount of time and money into the training than I don’t think you’re committed enough. I guarantee you though, that if you do, you will immediately reap rewards of higher wages, increased employment opportunities, and you will simply become much, much better. There’s no other way about it.

    We live in the bubble of the United States which has one of the most antiquated guiding systems in the western civilized world. It is absolutely, undeniably clear, now that I have seen how many other more advanced countries operate their guiding industries, that the AMGA is simply the only way forward. And it is a good way forward.

  6. Steve Baldwin - Reply

    May 24, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Good article, I do want to take exception to one statement you made though, and that is that the Accreditation Program is meaningless, though I do agree that it can be misleading, especially to an under educated public.
    In 2000 Pete Keane and I bought the company we both worked for, Timberline Mountain Guides in Oregon. I had been guiding for the company for 4 years, Pete for over 10. We had a mostly good safety record but our skills were not up to the AMGA standard. When we took over the company Mike Alkaidas came out from the AMGA for an Accreditation review. It was super helpful. He had read our guides manual, our safety protocol and had a great many suggestions that improved how we did business. Accreditation offered an assurance that we had regular guide training, a good understanding of our terrain and rescue resources and that we were generally a professionally run outfit.
    At that time there was a lot of pressure to require Accredited outfits to have all their guides be certified for the terrain they guided and the truth is, I think, that the industry just wasn’t ready for it. We certainly weren’t, we would have been out of business right away. There wasn’t a singlcertified guide in the state at that time.
    So we all started down the certification path knowing that this was, hopefully, where the industry was going. I got my Rock Instructor Cert and took the Advanced Rock Guides course before a back injury ended my guiding and I left the company and moved back to Bishop. Now I grow vegetables and we recently put you and Karen on our waiting list. Pete went on to get fully certified and a number of his guides are fully certified and many more are working towards it.
    The AMGA certification programs are, in my experience, fantastic. They definitely changed my guiding in a huge way and I enjoyed learning from so many accomplished instructors, KC Baum excepted. And I hope that enough people are going through the program that Accreditation can now mean more than it did when we bought TMG. But it was a helpful program and I just don’t think the industry was ready for the higher standards that so many are now, thankfully, working towards and achieving. It takes time to implement higher standards, especially when you’re starting from no standards, without putting competent people and businesses out of business. They may be outliers but there are the Peter Crofts of the world out there doing competent work without certification.
    So in short I was glad that there was an accreditation program that helped our business, I’m glad that the standard was something we could achieve, and I’m glad that the standard is rising. I would love to see a day when guiding is the respected, and viable, profession that it is in Europe and no longer something you do in the summer until your mom makes you get a “real job.”

  7. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 24, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Hey sorry the nameless comments here are from me, Howie. Trying to figure out how to make that show up…

    Danny – So many great points, thanks for all of them and for sharing your perspective here. We agree that requiring training and certification for guiding would solve many of the issues in the guiding industry that this post is all about. This might sound biased (because it is) but I think guide services – as entities – aren’t as bad as you imply. They do business just as you do at First Light. I know this because from 2001 when I became the 17th American IFMGA guide, until 2006 when I became involved with SMG, I owned and ran a guide service very similar to yours. Guide services can be as big as they want to be, and they can hire whomever they want. For the record, there is nothing that guarantees that because you own a guide service that holds permits in a nice venue that you will make a decent living in guiding. I don’t think we need to distinguish “guide entrepreneurs” like you or I from a guide that chooses to be on a company’s payroll. Either way, we provide the same guiding services and we are part of the same industry.

    You were able to take advantage of scholarships, and you were on an IFMGA track. Thanks to some forward thinking AMGA guides in the ’90s, some real economic value was added to certification in all disciplines that allowed us to guide in fertile guiding business environments such as the Alps. Without that opportunity, many guides in your similar situation might have found the costs of certification to outweigh the benefits. Where I agree with Spencer is that unless your ultimate goal is to guide in IFMGA countries, there is relatively little benefit to AMGA certification at this time. As long as this equation persists, certification will remain optional. Yes, there is an increasing market value for certified guides as the public becomes better educated (the main goal of this thread), and yes, the training process is highly valuable for becoming a competent professional in a short period of time, but I have met so many guides who continue to enjoy successful guiding careers and have learned effective guiding skills over time through other methods. Some of these guides are actually outstanding in what they do. They, like myself, when I started working as an untrained and uncertified guide in 1995 began to learn to guide through trial and error at the clients’ expense. This is a dangerous time for such guides. If land managers, guide services, and insurance companies allow it to keep happening then it will. Guides will unfortunately continue to choose the uncertified option for becoming a guide and guide services will continue to employ them.

    At some point in my early career I realized I had to get some better training and mentorship and took it upon myself to do so, regardless of the uncertainty of the economics. So to your point, I agree that Spencer may simply not be committed enough to becoming a better professional guide. I myself had no plans to make a living in IFMGA countries specifically when I earned my certification, but I quickly discovered that my services in the Alps were in demand and that the compensation was significantly higher. Maybe we need more guides that simply want to learn and better themselves when people’s lives are on the line.

    On the Inyo National Forest, we have been told that a requirement for certification (or new accreditation) will have to be mandated on an agency-wide level, in that case the Department of Agriculture. That means going to Washington DC. The AMGA is actually doing this with a legal team, which is very admirable, but what else can be done on a more immediate level? What is the low-hanging fruit that can be picked on behalf of certified guides now to add value for certification and give certified individuals and accredited guide services (under the new standards) a business advantage over these companies and individuals that are still permitted to practice our trade without professional training or credentials?

  8. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 24, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Hi Steve! Thanks for the comments and your story.

    I didn’t say that Accreditation, the process, has been meaningless, just the tag and the “credential” itself. I believe that like with TMG, the process has done good things for the businesses that have participated in it. SMG has not, and most of the business standards accreditation has evaluated are already required by our land managers and insurance companies, and are therefore self-governed. It was around 2000 that I volunteered to help with an AMGA accreditation review, as a way to get involved with the AMGA. I was already ski and rock certified and I witnessed a company get re-accredited based on some paperwork and 2 days of field review on rock with real guests at Red Rock. They did a pretty good job on the day of top-roping at the second pullout, but the multi-pitch day on Frogland was a disaster. At one point high on the route a guide set up his belay device the wrong way and had already told his two guests they were “on-belay.” We watched as he struggled to figure out how to remedy the situation safely. Eventually, we had to climb over and fix it for him. There were numerous other deficiencies observed as well. To my surprise, the company was granted a renewal of their accreditation. This also somehow qualified their full spectrum of other guiding services that ranged from rock climbing to ice climbing to ski guiding to international expeditions. This experience enlightened me about the nature of AMGA Accreditation. I am confident that no guide with the low level of skill and experience we observed would have passed a certification exam, yet the guide service was still able to do business using the same AMGA branded logo that represented the certification standard – one that guides were actively working hard to learn and paying serious money (for an individual guide) to attain. Some even might think from the language that Accreditation holds higher esteem even than Certification. I felt that it lacked integrity for the organization to sell certification to guides like myself, and to the public, as the standard for mountain guiding while simultaneously endorsing guide services who hired primarily untrained and uncertified guides. At an annual AMGA meeting in Golden, CO (the same one where now AMGA president Marc Chauvin gave birth to the offshoot, short-lived, competing organization “USMGA” in response to slipping standards shown by accreditation and a massive 2nd wave of grandfathering) I walked in to the Accreditation Review Committee meeting and let them know that in my 26 year old, freshly certified guide estimation, that what they were doing within AMGA bordered on unethical and that I could no longer be a part of it. Everyone in the room was an owner of an accredited guide service and they all looked at me as if I was utterly insane. But I said it, and then I walked out.

    AMGA Accreditation was designed to keep the peace. Large guide services (who employed the majority of guides in the US) had threatened more than once to break off from the organization and members of these companies were on the board of directors in spite of obvious conflict of interest. It was decided to give these guide services a process that could be of value to THEM – not the guided public. They benefitted by having a useful internal business review, and most of all, by being able to market their association with the AMGA to the public without requiring the associated expenses of having any of their guides be trained or certified. I understand that at the time it would have been impossible for TMG and many others to hire certified guides – there weren’t enough of us. But, to have all guides of a guide service be at least trained and actively on track toward certification could have likely been achieved within a year or two, and perhaps the AMGA could have assisted with the costs for everyone. The truth is that this just wasn’t going to happen at that time politically, not so much logistically.

    Now the tides have changed. The AMGA has nearly 100 IFMGA guides. Most of the guides in the Eastern Sierra have at least taken some level AMGA training course in a discipline. Even the stalwart Exum Mountain Guides is getting their guides on the AMGA program, with some new certified guide owners running their show. The AMGA board is made up of younger, certified guides, some older IFMGA guides, and even legal, business, and outdoor industry professionals. The AMGA has finally made the monumental error correction that certified guides and the public have long awaited. So now I support it.

  9. Pete Keane - Reply

    May 25, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Howie- great post. Imagine the effect of this article if it were in the NY Times, Men’s Journal or Outside Magazine? I think most clients assume that all guides in the US are trained. The new AMGA Accreditation Standard really does mean something now. It also acknowledges that older, very experienced, uncertified guides can stay working in their terrain. But as of 2017, we are starting anew with younger guides being trained for their terrain.

    Steve- great to read your comments too! I’ve got to get down there to visit all of you guys!

  10. Danny Uhlmann - Reply

    May 25, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks for all the stimulating converstion Howie and Steve. I think most of us are saying similar things, perhaps in different ways. Personally I have very strong beliefs about what will be required to change the US guiding industry into something that is sustainable and useful for certified guides who would like to make a career out of it. I didn’t in the previous post, but should here, acknowledge that I fully understand the priviledged position I currently hold is built upon the shoulders of the people who came before me (and before them) in the US guiding industry. People who, as members of the various guide’s associations, and eventually the AMGA, went through enormous growing pains and took great risk and at the cost of friendships and professional relationships, to make necessary changes in the industry. Howie’s example of walking into the BOD meeting and expressing his discontent is a prime example of that. Or Marc Chauvin starting a competing organization.

    In addition (and I didn’t say this clearly before but…) I think there is major economic benefit from being a certified guide. I can easily get a job from any company in the US who needs a guide, and I have used my cerfitication to get jobs all over the US, in fact. So I disagree that the economic rewards are not good, because I think they are, but only marginally. And I still have to compete with hoardes of people whe are cheaper and unlicensed.

    Here is where the problem lies: If, for instance a guide service needs to hire guides to handle work, why would they hire me, who costs between 250-300 dollars a day, versus someone else who isn’t certified, who will accept a much lower wage, and probably not kill any clients? Well the answer is astoundly clear when it comes to LARGE guide services, American Alpine Institute, Alpine Ascents, Mountain Madness, RMI, IMG, ect, that their business models is based on the renewable resource of (generally) young, stoked, somewhat experienced climbers who they can give basic training to and turn into guides at a lower expense to their business. Why do I know this is true as a business model? American Alpine Institute, for whom I worked for 5 years, has produced more IFMGA guides than any other business in the US. Why are there (virtually) zero of those guides currently working in the US still for AAI? Its because AAI has no incentive to keep them around, and they all eventually move on to self-created greener pastures, or quit guiding.

    The answer to our problems is exceedingly simple (I don’t say that to be condescending). It is here:


    These are the revised AMGA Terrain Guidelines. They specify what terrain is appropriate for certain levels of training within the instructor and mountain guide program streams. When, and if, as an industry, we can get these guidelines required by law and/or mandated by industry standard, our problems will one-by-one begin to be solved.

    The AMGA Accreditation Program, I agree, is currently undermining the value of my individual certifications, and every individual who is certified. At the point when Accreditation = that guide services are required to (and do) follow these terrain guidelines, then Accreditation with have reached its full value.

    The AMGA has given accredited companies till 2017 to meet these guidelines. There are many logistical and technical hurdles that stand in the way of meeting that goal. Specifically the carrying capacity of the AMGA Mountain Guide and Instructor Programs. Another way of saying that is the programs might not be able to produce/train enough guides at necessary levels to fill all the needed positions with the currently accredited companies, or those wishing to become accredited.

    Accreditation began as a way to appease guide services who saw individually certified guides as competition to their well-established markets. Eventually certified guides gained more power and demanded that accreditation actually mean something. I agree with Steve that there is value, of course, in the business and logistical review in the accreditation process, but when you get right down to it, the only thing that matters is whether or a not a client is going out with a guide who is trained appropriately (and supervised) for the terrain they are working on. Period. And accreditation was not accomplishing, or demanding, that. Until accredited companies adhere strictly to the terrain guidelines they will continue to undermine the value of individual certification and therefore my market value in the US.

    The simplest way to put is this: we need the government to make it legally necessary for individuals to have a professional license to carry out their guiding profession. In the US this “license” is AMGA certification. When the “license” becomes necessary to guide then permit holders (guide services) will no longer have the ability to say who is and who isn’t capable of doing a certain job. They will have a set body of people to choose from, and at that point the power shifts to the individual workers (guides) rather than the owners.

    The positive side for guide services is that individuals will be required to hold their own personal liability insurance and a large portion of liability will shift away from the company itself to the individual guide. Which is how it should be. Like Voltaire said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Certified guides, whether being employed by another company or working on their own will be fully responsible for the outcome of the work they are doing with clients in the mountains.

    I think if we look at this from the perspective of economics it also is quite simple. The AMGA community is an organization of individual people, most of whom are working, have worked, or occasionally work, as guides. There are a small number who own guide services and profit off of the labor of others (I’m not saying thats a bad thing). Anyways the end result of a fully implemented and legally binding set of Terrain Guidelines is that the labor force (the guides) will have ultimate control over defining who makes up that labor force (supply side). At this point the decision by visionary guide services like Sierra Mountain Guides is entirely voluntary and is done so because they believe there are many benefits to following terrain guidelines.

    Why aren’t I (or other IFMGA guides) receiving emails or phone calls from Alpine Ascents, IMG, Madness, ect. asking us to guide their international expeditions to IFMGA countries like Nepal (everest), Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, ect? Its because they are staffing those trips at half the cost and 1/8 of the experience. In the end the terrain guidelines will protect work for people who are qualified for that work. There are numerous examples of this domestically too.

    In the meantime I have chosen, mainly out of laziness and lack of great business skill, to work in Europe, where I don’t have to compete with unlicensed guides. (actually there are unlicensed Russian, eastern European, and a few Americans here, but that is another story). I really, deeply hope that one day I can consider moving back to the US and that I will have the freedom to exercise my hard-earned IFMGA license as I want with my own clients, and that the market for certified guides will be strong under the legally established terrain guidelines. In the meantime I’m doing the best I can to aid the AMGA in its quest to give meaning and value to its certifications.

  11. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 25, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    What a fun conversation. I should have posted this long ago!

    Pete – Thanks. Yes I couldn’t be more pleased about the new Accreditation standards, unless it had happened sooner. Big changes take time though and I’m glad that it is finally becoming a reality in 2017. I know it’s not in the major media, but I bet many guides and guide services have stories like this from throughout the US. Maybe we should all be bringing these stories to light. Cheers.

    Danny – I think we are very much on the same page and I appreciate your well written insights here. My only observation and discrepancy is that your comments seem to conflate two separate issues that should perhaps be treated separately.

    The first one is the solution of making it law to guide in accordance with the new Terrain Guidelines. This is such a key concept that should be among highest priorities. I think it will likely happen. The problem is that it could take a while. Hopefully it won’t, but it really could. This is because of the glacial pace of movement of government agencies and how they are structured to require change at the federal level to trickle down to policy. You are living in Europe where mountain guiding is a relatively important and historic industry. In the US, it will be difficult for the the AMGA to even get a meeting with a legislator in Washington. Not to say we shouldn’t try (and the AMGA is!), just saying that our business is pretty low on the list of national priorities and certainly won’t have an effect on any election campaign. Because of this, I think the AMGA should continue these lower likelihood, longer timeline, high reward efforts AND at the same time engage aggressively in efforts that are higher likelihood, shorter range, and also make a significant difference in the value of certification. I suggest to the AMGA a diversified strategy for moving forward.

    The second issue is one of how a guide service or individual guide does, or should do, business in the US. Most of the premier guiding venues in the US are located in designated wilderness. Some may disagree with me on this point, but I think the probability of the mountain guiding industry moving the US legislature to amend the Wilderness Act anytime in the foreseeable future, is almost zero, even beyond the point when our grandchildren might consider a guiding career. So as not to rule out the possibility of that prediction being completely wrong, I suggest that advocates for the guiding industry make plans that work within this likely reality but where the course of action is adaptable for unexpected opportunities as they arise. This relates to your point in that, although it is a romantic notion that the US adopts open “license-based” access policy, I do not think it is a realistic one. This perspective comes from my experience working within the system and directly in partnership with a variety of land management agencies. I do think it is realistic that the government one day requires select permit holders to hire trained/certified guides as dictated by AMGA terrain guidelines. This means that qualified guides must still operate under permit and in partnership with land agencies via controlled channels. These channels will likely remain: priority use permit holders, special use/temporary use permit holders, and CUA’s. I am not saying that this is the best system for guides, their guests, or the industry. I am just saying that the government will likely consider these the best (and only) ways to manage commercial use in accordance with the Wilderness Act. We need to be talking about how professional guides and guide services can form mutually beneficial business relationships in a modernized way that must incorporate certification.

    Related to this – Although you may demand $250-$300 (and I think that is a totally reasonable asking wage for an IFMGA guide, by the way), guide services who hold permits have considerable overhead in order to bring your services to market. This is the side of the US business that I did not understand until I was forced to learn it. The market seems that it will only bear so much when it comes to the cost of guided trips and it is possible that people won’t pay enough to support your desired wage in the US, especially on low ratio trips. The AMGA could do things now that could help to keep guiding prices higher in order to support certified guide wages. Or guide services could be creative in their program design/execution and marketing to increase margins or target higher income customers. At this time, guide services can still hire low cost, under-qualified employees, which is the most efficient way for a company to go. As you point out, we at SMG reject that solution to the problem for many reasons. The point is, the reason many certified guides have more difficulty making a living in the US is not just related to the lack of open access. Prices and wages are too low, expenses are too high, and demand is too low. I do think an organization like the AMGA could make a difference in addressing these problems if it chose to do so.

    If the AMGA continues to train and certify guides without simultaneously working to improve the business environment for guiding in the US, we could see guiding wages drop in spite of the increase in guide expertise. When/if land managers start requiring the new accreditation standards for guiding, this will not necessarily increase the overall demand for your services. As the AMGA continues to train guides, there will be an increasing number of qualified guides for a limited number of guide jobs. IFMGA guides could end up still being passed over for aspiring guides who are just beginning their AMGA training process. How will it affect your current program when there are 200 American IFMGA guides living in Chamonix? The AMGA certified around 80 IFMGA guides in the last 13 years. The AMGA is going to have to figure out more effective and tangible ways to advocate for certified guides beyond just training and certifying them.
    ~ Howie

  12. Marc Chauvin - Reply

    May 25, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    After 30 years of work-change happens overnight.

  13. Karsten - Reply

    May 28, 2014 at 5:39 am

    Great post Howie! It is great to see the changes being made so quickly in our profession. It is also great to see some perspectives from years past that can help us know that we are moving in the right direction.

  14. Rick - Reply

    May 28, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    Very good discussion, But Howie’s last comments are correct. The AMGA will never have the political power to get laws passed in the United States to exclusivity adopt their version of any types standards, and I am afraid that the AMGA’s efforts to do so will have the opposite effect. If there ever was legislation that would require some type of min. training standard to guide on public lands I will guarantee you the AMGA will NOT be in charge of it but some OSHA inspector or some state employee that went to a climbing gym once will be deciding if you are qualified or you pass a test. I think it will have the opposite, effect there will be thousands of state qualified guides that have less experiences than the one’s that are being said are not qualified. Because all you will have to do is pass a test no harder than a state drivers test, and we kill 40,000 people a year that way.

  15. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 29, 2014 at 9:53 am

    Hi Rick,
    That is a very interesting point. Someone from the AMGA could comment better than I can, but second hand I understand that due to the rising levels of fatalities among workers (and clients) in the Alaskan Heli-ski industry, AK OSHA has become involved. It seems that they are not doing as you suggest to develop industry safety standards on their own. Rather, they have come to the AMGA, US Heliski, and perhaps others to ask them to develop an appropriate industry standard. There is apparently a public comment period that ends June 10th. I can’t seem to find the details on how to do that but it seems you can contact them through this page:

    Also, if you want a good source of info in general about what happened in Haines, AK this season, check this out:

    These are the kinds of scenarios that are going to lead to change in the industry. We’ll have to see how it plays out, but I don’t think it is very likely that standards will be imparted directly by OSHA that lead to greater risk to heliski guides or clients. I think it will be important for organizations such as the AMGA and AIARE, as well as US Heli to be well represented in the process to ensure that standards include proper training/certification, as well as best practices for operational risk management in the heli-ski industry. the Canadians are way ahead of the US on this and we should be looking to them for wisdom.

    It looks like the “cowboy” era of guiding is coming to an abrupt, and most welcome end.

    • Rick - Reply

      May 30, 2014 at 9:06 pm

      Un–fortunately I think this is the future of the guiding work “We learned that permit requirements and compliance to policies, procedures, and protocols in the Operating Plan had been broken,” and it is not about certification. But documented training and experience will be a major part. It is all about the paper work.

  16. Rick - Reply

    May 29, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    Boy $250.00 a day for a guide is really over paid. The boy scouts pay $250.00 a week and I work part time for a community collage and masters degree plus SPI cert, gets you $12.00/hr. The other problem with people raging on large companies is they have no clue of the real cost of doing business, most start up companies can have 50% over head and after five year if you really watch your spending can get that down to less than 25%.

    Another problem with these types of proposals is the AMGA guides are really just a very small part of all the guiding in the US. Even if the AMGA got a law passed that all guides have to have SPI to guide on public land they could never meet the 5000 student a year demands. The BSA trains 2000 students alone and then there are all the collages, YMCA, climbing clubs, outward bound, and thousands of church and other youth organizations.
    If the law includes mountains, the AMGA national instructors would have to quit their day job and do nothing but teach. Either people do not have a clue of the vastness of the USA there laws or they have blinders on to it.

    I hope and pray that this would never happen. The good thing all the other organizations will not let it happen, and US laws do not allow brand specifics. So the brand AMGA will not be in the law. There is always the words “or equivalent” that means weather you have an AMGA cert or from Rick’s school of climbing under the law they are the same. Is this really a good plan going from 2-3 certification organizations to hundreds of certification, I just hang a shingle up on my wall and say I meet national standards.

    With the new fantastic book by Bob and Jason they have already set the stage for just this scenario I do not need AMGA accreditation, all I need to say is I training to the AMGA SPI standards, and here is the book I follow. If there was a law requiring SPI trained guides that would even make my clam to meet AMGA/US law standards even stronger.

    Good plan lets drop the certified guide’s wages down to minimum wages with a flood of guides.

  17. Ryan - Reply

    May 29, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    Thanks for the post Howie, lots of good discussion here, and I am glad that it is continuing as I was unable to come down to the Round Table discussion.

    I think that certification and terrain based guidelines are the way that we need to be heading in. Delineating the key differences in apprentice/assistant/certified guides is important in keeping everyone held to the same standard across the board as the AMGA strives to make guiding and guide certification a requirement.

    One question I have though, and wanted to ask at the Round Table had I gotten down the hill in time, was whether the AMGA has plans to address the certification of non-technical, but still backcountry, guides and guiding. The Canadians for instance have a hiking certification level, which allows for another step beyond just the minimum WFR level.

    I ask this in particular because I think that looking at the statistics that you present, you give a skewed ratio of who in the Eastern Sierra is operating uncertified or out of terrain-based guidelines. Your company has a small staff but runs a large portion of high end technical trips thus has a huge need for qualified (certified) guides operating in their disciplines. Other services may have a larger offering of non-technical trips and a larger pool of guides who run those trips, giving the impression that a large percentage of the guides are out there winging it as cowboy guides.

    I understand the point you are trying to make but think the numbers you are using are based in the assumption that all guides in the Eastern Sierra are operating in technical terrain.

  18. Josh Cole - Reply

    May 29, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    I am in the AMGA track, and a supporter of consistency and quality in our industry, and appreciate the AMGA’s efforts toward these goals. I’d like to add a bit of context from many years managing a large outdoor education organization, particularly to address the “we should be more like Canada / Europe” issue. I am not advocating a pro-regulation or anti-regulation position, but simply seeking to join in on a robust conversation (hopefully in a useful way). Europe and the Commonwealth have much more restrained liability law and many fewer liability lawsuits. In part, this is due to the fact that with a national healthcare system, huge medical costs are covered by the state. In the absence of huge liability risk, these govenments have chosen to regulate industry. It’s not just guiding — Europe / Commonwealth has significantly more regulation in all industries, as well as an educational system designed to train people to achieve the required certifications in support of these regulations — at no cost to the student. The United States is generally very regulation-averse, and has relied upon the threat of liability litigation to keep industry “in line”. In the 1990s, the Outdoor Ed. industry in New Zealand was relatively new and there were few regulations. After several significant accidents, the government stepped in to place much stricter regulations on the industry. Given the reluctance of the US goverment to regulate industry on our public lands (see the Mining Act of 1872 as a prime example), it seems unlikely that the Federal Government will regulate guiding in the way that Europe does. I think it more likely that our insurance underwriters will begin to seek AMGA accredidation from our organizations as a way to manage their own risk exposure.

  19. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 29, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    Rick – I am not an economist so I don’t know how a fair wage gets determined by the market. I would guess it is a combo of the market prices for guiding, the demand for guides, and what pay guides will accept. We have remember that we have a diverse guiding industry in the US and that not all guides or circumstances demand the same pay grade. At SMG we scale the pay based on the level of training and certification a guide has and the type/length of the job relative to that. The SPI cert is a very low level qualification that requires relatively low cost and commitment to achieve. They have a very low level of training and assessment. IFMGA level cert’s are at the other end of the spectrum. These guides get compensated accordingly. I agree that an SPI working within their terrain restrictions probably wouldn’t earn $250/day in the current market.

    I don’t necessarily think the AMGA needs to be named as the national credentialing agency. They are clearly in the best position for it if that were to happen which I agree is not likely in the short term. Still, the ultimate number of guides will be self-limiting by the demand for guides. There could be a way to accommodate training and certifying guides quickly and with a grace period.

    We may be forced to make this happen quite soon if insurance companies start to require training and certification. This is a realistic possibility. All permittees operating on public lands currently must be covered with liability insurance. If this happens then we will have a major demand for certification which could drive the wages for certified guides up for a short period before they drop back down due to market forces. Love to hear an economist’s take on this though!

  20. Dave Miller - Reply

    May 29, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    As someone who went through the huge expense and time of gaining IFMGA cerification I agree with the bulk of the case for certification above. However, some of the stats listed are misleading and not constructive. My guide service, California Alpine Guides, has for the last couple years hired AMGA certified or trained guides for over 90% of my technical trips. I agree overall with the AMGA’s new accreditation program and plan to implement it fully by 2016. In fact, before I even learned of it’s details the other night at the roundtable, I was already making an AMGA trained and certified requirement for technical terrain within my company.

    However, and this is huge, we as guide services are in a transition phase towards that. I have one guide for example who guides routes for me that involve snow slopes up to 35 deg and mellow 3rd class rock. He has five years of previous big mountain and glacier experience on Mt Shasta. But he does not have any AMGA training. I told him last year he would have to get some AMGA training for this year. He was not able to enroll in a Rock Instructor course this spring because the AMGA had no space for him. What am I supposed to do? Lay him off for the season because the AMGA can’t run enough courses?

    It’s not easy running a guide service and scheduling guides, especially with last minute bookings, etc. It’s almost impossible to do it with all certified and trained guides in the discipline they are working in. There’s just not enough certified and trained guides out there yet. But I have managed to do it 90% of the time for the past year and next year it will be 100%. All guides who guide rock (including High Sierra rock) will have AMGA rock training, all guides who guide glaciers will have AMGA alpine or ski mountaineering training, all guides who guide on skis will have ski training either through the AMGA or similar outside organization. As it stands right now, 88% of my technical guides listed are certified or trained by an outside organization for the terrain on which they work. 100% are certified, trained, or awaiting AMGA training. (I have a number of backpacking guides who for obvious reasons are not seeking AMGA training)

    As hard as I (and my guides) am working towards this goal I don’t appreciate another guide service appearing to call ALL the other East Side guide services out for not hiring certified and trained guides. it just seems like a crass competitive move and not constructive.

    Yes, there are guide services out there that hire people “off the street” that perhaps shouldn’t be guiding the terrain hey are on. But it seems you are calling everyone else out and lumping them all together. And as far as I know, I am not the only other company that operates in the Eastern Sierra that does not hire people who should not be guiding on the terrain they are on. The blog post above seems to infer (Yet not directly state) that all companies based on the East Side except for SMG (and ASI in Truckee) are hiring inept people to run their trips. This is flat out not true and to infer that is simply sowing the seeds of discourse once again among guide services along the Eastern Sierra.

  21. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 30, 2014 at 9:34 am

    Hi Ryan,

    I’ll be the first to admit, in regards to the numbers, this is far from a scientific study. The statement I made that you call into question is:

    “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.”

    Read this carefully, because it relates to technical mountain guiding, not backpacking/hiking. I probably could have made that more clear with the way I wrote it, but it does say it explicitly. Secondly, we are talking about listed guides that I know do actively work for the company. It is easy to look these guides up to see if they are certified in a given discipline (and if they are then they are presumably trained as well). Where error may exist is in that I do not definitively know which disciplines all of the guides actually work in, but I was able to get a pretty complete picture of it. The other source of error, which I pointed out, is that some active guides may not be listed by guide services, usually because the guides are new or and/or less qualified. I suspect that this makes the numbers I used skewed in the conservative side.

    The method I used is to simply look at listed guides on respective websites and make the count. I did not count non-technical guiding. I used the 6 primary local guide services: Sierra Mountain Guides, Sierra Mountain Center, Alpine Skills International, Sierra Mountaineering International, Sierra Wilderness Seminars, and American Alpine Institute. Repeat the study for yourself and let us know your findings. Like I said, it is a pretty rough study, but it still sheds light on some of the realities of what is going on in the Eastern Sierra.

    To your other question, I did not hear that the AMGA is looking into a hiking certification at this time. Personally, I think they have their hands full and they should focus on the technical guiding standards before they try and tackle that one.

  22. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 30, 2014 at 10:26 am


    To respond to your comments and points:

    Your company, California Alpine Guides, was not included in this analysis. This is because CAG does not hold Priority Use permits on the Inyo National Forest, where most Eastern Sierra guiding occurs. I can see from your perspective that you may have thought CAG was included and taken offense to that. Hopefully you now understand otherwise.

    This post does not make the implications that you state. I did not say that all other guide services are hiring inept guides. It does appear from a cursory look at the facts that they are often currently not hiring trained and certified guides for all disciplines these guides work. This means that there is a relatively high probability that if chosen at random, the public will get a guide without certification that applies to the terrain where they are going. This is a sobering fact and one that can be easily addressed by simply adopting a more rigorous hiring standard, as done by SMG and ASI (among a few others in the country). We suggest that clients not choose their guides at random. They should go with companies that have openly committed to this standard. New AMGA Accreditation will be one useful way to separate the guide services in this regard.

    If these facts and the new Accreditation standards make our company look good and others look bad, then let the chips fall where they may. I acknowledge in the article that there is more than one way, outside of training and certification, to become an excellent guide, and that even one of our guides is untrained and uncertified for their discipline. I don’t expect that all companies will be willing or able to adopt the new standard overnight, but keep in mind that they do allow for “grandfathering” of guides working for accredited companies since 2008. I know that the AMGA is going to do everything possible to help companies meet the new standards by 2017.

    Guide services that continue to choose to hire guides without professional training/credentials in the terrain they work as part of their hiring practices should feel free to defend that practice against a wave of professionalism currently overtaking the industry, or understand that they will be called out and judged by those who hire guides and know the difference.

  23. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 30, 2014 at 10:41 am


    Interesting point. Yes, I agree that the European model is not realistic at this point for the US. I also agree that insurance companies might be the game changer for requiring Accreditation/Certification.

    Interestingly, was just talking to one of the AMGA board members and they had mentioned that in European companies there are significant liability controls on the guide. For example, in Italy, if a client is buried and killed in an avalanche, the guide is criminally prosecuted and often goes to jail. In the US, the information might not even be made public and it often ends in a non-disclosed settlement. Anyway, not sure if that helps add to your point but it seems that being unregulated has it’s good and bad sides for the industry, but I would think there is more positive effect for the public who hires guides.

    • Rick - Reply

      May 30, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      I have read about European prosecutions; scare the shit out of me. Lots of things happen in the woods, that you have no control of. Look at the 50 people sitting in their homes in the state of Washington and a land slide mows them down.

  24. Rick - Reply

    May 30, 2014 at 9:41 pm

    This is the most respectful discussion on the topic of AMGA guide certification I have ever had the privilege of participating in, most AMGA guides I have talked to just go ballistic if there is any difference of opinions or even talk about not being a good idea.
    Thank you

  25. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 30, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    Hey thanks Rick. Thanks for expressing your opinions in a respectful way too. This topic sometimes brings up the demons in guides for some reason, but glad this thread didn’t quite go there… yet.

  26. Dave - Reply

    May 31, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    Well I can appreciate this conversation and agree with many points addressed I also see some issues.
    You also mentioned YMS, indirectly. Something about being run by people who sell burgers (bad ones) and hanta virus to their guests. While DNC does provide the concession as required by their winning of the bid to provide such services, YMS is run by a former member of the AMGA’s board of directors as well as a cert. rock guide who has more experience in the terrain in which he manages than most anyone in the AMGA. While I’m quite aware of the guide service you have decided to use as an impetus to your rant, this is not place for it., whether I agree or not.
    Also I find it very reflective that once again the only people, including myself, that are hashing this out are guides and guide service owners.
    If the public cared maybe they would respond with their thoughts. They haven’t. The only people trying to make this into something that Europe or Canada may have is the ones who are trying to make copper out of a penny, not the clients. Which is sadly the case with this profession in the U.S.

  27. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 31, 2014 at 7:39 pm


    You are misquoting my comments about YMS and taking them out of context. Your point is taken though. A few comments made here and on a parallel Facebook post where we have been debating the issue are made by non-guides. Was just approached tonight by a schoolteacher in Bishop who commented that this thread was very interesting to her. Looks like one person’s rant is another’s food for thought. Of all places to speak my opinions I would think a post on my own blog would be among the most appropriate. I mean no harm to the good folks of YMS, many of whom are dear friends. I am just making a case for guide certification from this side of the range. Still waiting to hear a stronger argument to the contrary if you or anyone else has one.

  28. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 31, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    Also want to interrupt this discussion in light of some terrible news that one of our guide friends may be in trouble on Mt. Rainier. Please join Dave Miller and I in sending all of our best thoughts and energy up there for a good outcome.

  29. Dave - Reply

    May 31, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    Hope all is well.

  30. Dave - Reply

    May 31, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Howie, I agree with MOST of your points, heck ALMOST all of them. The problem I see is that, as guides, we are expected to have the utmost in professional demeanor, which is understandable however there are very few guide services who offer a professional rate of compensation. Rick up above says $200/ day is too much. Do you think that is to much? As a father, home owner and guide of 15 years, 9 with YMS, I couldn’t support my family with what most guide services are willing to pay a ‘professional’. How many of your guides get health insurance through your service? Sick pay? Vacation pay? Just wondering! What does an IFMGA guide, excluding yourself and Your partner, get paid? $150 if certified and working within their terrain? IFMGA cert.? $190/ day? Just wondering. I couldn’t work any job for less than $200/ day, and that still is’nt considered the pay of a ‘professional’, and fortunately I don’t.
    Untill the consumer can be convinced or made to understand the value they are getting with someone who knows their stuff the profession will continue to struggle from all sides of the service provider.
    And also I don’t agree that all certified guides are necessarily the cream of the crop. Can you honestly say they are? I’ve seen numerous guides on the track who only barely, if at all, meet the MINIMUM levels of personal experience that is supposedly required to enter into the basic level of AMGA training. I have seen lots of people itching to get into the program,’ if I could only get one more grade 4 on my resume

  31. Dave - Reply

    May 31, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to post there. Anyways, what I see is that the AMGA is turning into a puppy mill. They have goals of certifying ‘x’ number of guides per year, I think the vision of creating knowledgable, highly experienced, and highly trained guides is getting lost on trying to play a numbers game where personal experience and accomplishment is getting placed second to training. Both of which should be equal.

  32. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 31, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    Great points and I want to get back to them.

    It is with an extremely heavy heart that I have to share the tragic news that our guide Matt Hegeman was killed, along with another unidentified guide and 4 clients on Mount Rainier’s Liberty Ridge while guiding on the mountain for Alpine Ascents International. This information was reported by the Seattle Times here:


    We are all stunned, heartbroken, and just very sad.

  33. Kate - Reply

    June 2, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    A few respectful comments from a non-guide – i.e. a guiding client – from Canada.

    I find it almost appalling that someone would think $250 a day is too much for a guide. From my understanding, that’s about the starting rate for an assistant guide at the company I’ve done all my courses/private trips through in Canada. Certainly, I wish that courses/private guiding were more affordable, but I think every penny I’ve spent is well worth it in terms of well trained, qualified and personable guides.

    My understanding is that full ACMG certification here can take up to 10 years and $40,000. But from my experience, it turns out guides who are not only technically able, but are talented in teaching and people skills. Which are every bit as valuable from a client point of view. What good to me is a guide who has years of experience and great technical skills, but can’t teach them to me or makes me feel uncomfortable/nervous?

    As a client, I also feel it’s really important that a guide be able to make a decent living. Why would I expect that a highly trained guide be willing to accept a salary, when I wouldn’t do the same in my field? A guide should be able to afford to cover living/housing/medical/insurance expenses, support a family and, gasp, take a couple of vacations. When I go out into the mountains with a guide, there’s a fair bit of risk there. I would much rather take that risk with someone who’s not stressed out from working 200 days a year to make ends meet, and doesn’t have enough time to relax with friends and family.

    From a more practical standpoint, and perhaps because I live in an area with a lot of guides, guides and others in the mountaineering community are as much a part of the economy as any other profession. If guides aren’t making decent pay, then they aren’t spending money at local businesses, buying and renting accommodation and paying taxes. All of those keep our economy going, and thus, allow the government to pay my salary. I may complain about my salary on occasion, but I make more than most guides and there a lot more of us PhDs out there than ACMG guides.

    I do think guide certification, and certification that means something in terms of both technical, teaching and soft (people) skills is very important. Initially, as someone new to the mountains, I was fortunate enough to get good recommendations for a guiding company and luck out with a great guide who I have continued to learn from on courses and private sessions. Now, with some experience in guided and club trips/courses under my belt, plus the chance to have some long conversations with guides and people with years of experience, I know what to expect/not to expect/industry standard and what questions to ask when ‘vetting’ a guide or company. But I recognize that I’m probably in the minority in terms of clients, and there needs to be some way for new clients to be able to judge guiding skills and expertise, and not just from a bio on a website. At least here in Canada, unless someone is skirting the law, you know you are getting a certain standard from any trip run in a national (or provincial) park. Plus, all assistant and full guides are listed on the public ACMG site, so it’s easy to check on any claim of certification.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts from a client and relative newbie to to mountaineering…

  34. Rick - Reply

    June 2, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    US Rock and Alpine Guiding Standards.

    The only non legislative approach to setting US national standards is through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). This would solve the problem that insurance companies might have with guide trainings, and would not require congress or government agencies, because the ANSI is already recognized by them.

    I am pretty convinced that the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) and the Professional Ropes Course Association have for all practical purposes written the US standards for climbing walls. So a Rock and Alpine guiding standards dose not need to cover that aspect of wall climbing.

    The PRCA and ACCT took five years to put their plans together. I thing we could do in 1-2 years. Most of the generic terms are done.

    The most difficult task will be convincing all the groups to play together. Can AMGA accept PCGI and BSA training? Can PCIA return to the fold? Will NOLS and Outward Bound want to play? Who ever take this on will have to get all these groups to agree. Imposable no, but it will be difficult, if the approach dose not remove any band speciation’s. or it will never happen. Can the AMGA be the leader of this effort; I think they already are, but the real guiding world in the United Sates is a 100 times larger than what is considered professional guides, such as AMGA and others.

    A start towards this would be to add educational and experiences requirements to all the AMGA certifications, not just a one time evaluation. This could also be very financially beneficial to existing instructor pool course providers. For example the SPI could require re-cert to have say six days of training that is taken from SPI course providers. It could be any course they give any time of the year, all over the country, to replace a second SPE. With about 350 SPI students each year, for the next three years you could bring in about $250,000 or more in year for course providers, because you would have to take courses from course providers to keep your cert up.

    Just a thought.

  35. Dave - Reply

    June 4, 2014 at 7:32 am

    Nice Kate, it’s awesome to hear from a client who understands and respects the profession.

    Rick, I agree. Can the AMGA play nice with PCGI or will the superiority complex continue. I believe, with the new AMGA president we will hopefully see some change since he has obviously had his own issues with his organization in the past. I know there was some bitterness between the two orgs in the past but hopefully they can move beyond that, find some common ground, make the guiding industry stronger, continue to provide high levels of training and certifications and together produce a favorable view o the profession in the US. After all, despite the differences, the end goal is the same for both organizations.
    It seems most folks agree that raising the publics awareness of the value guides provide is key to moving the profession forward. As the AMGA holds this traveling round table discussion, annual meetings etc., it seems to me that what we need to do is bring that awareness to the public. How? Maybe start with a presentation at local climbing gyms, guides are all over the country, maybe spend one evening at a gym doing a presentation. Imagine if a cert. guide from either if the 2 major training orgs. Did that around the whole country, a ton of people may get enlightened to something they really have no idea about. Lots of climbing shops do presentations to, of joe blows rad ascent somewhere or whatever, A-16, and REI come to mind. A local guide could give a quick presentation before the big show. These are some quick ideas but some how I think that informing the consumer would be a great place to start. You can’t buy what you don’t know exists!

    Also I’d personally like to see the guide training organizations and guiding services do more than solely work on permit acquisition. Kate above had some great points regarding insurance, a living wage, time off to vacation (there is other cool places besides the mountains) relax, get psyched up to get out there and be the best guide
    you can. It’s easier when you feel respected and valued for what you are doing, which at the basic
    Level is providing a safe enjoyable experience, feeling confident that who your climbing with really does know what they’re doing.

  36. Rick Krause - Reply

    June 5, 2014 at 9:11 am

    I think the biggest problem is the narrow definition of what is a guide that is held by both organizations. Until they broaden their view you will never reach the public as you suggested.
    I have been thinking about the concept of recreational guide, because all of us take family and friends out climbing.

  37. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 5, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    Thanks everyone for keeping this discussion going. I am actually quite amazed at the brilliance of many comments and perspectives coming out of it. We have been grieving the loss of Matt and the 5 others on Mt. Rainier as many others of you are. Let us remember that we, as technical climbing and skiing guides of all levels and backgrounds of training, certification, experience, and ability, in all of the wonderful mountains and cliffs on Earth, are all brothers and sisters bound by the same passion and motivation to provide people with the safest and most enjoyable experiences possible. Those who hire our services give us the gift of their trust, and an opportunity to live this passion with them. I can’t express enough the amount of respect and admiration I have for all of you – guides and guests of guides alike, especially those of you who care enough to listen to and participate in this discussion.

    This will intend to respond to some of the questions and comments by Dave, Kate and Rick, from my perspective.

    Kate – Thank you for your keen insight. The US is not as far along as Canada and other IFMGA-member countries in the evolution of the profession. We have not yet supported a system whereby guiding services must by rule of law be professional (and by “professional” I do not just mean “paid”). Without industry norms for hiring based on training and credentials, there is no requirement for a level of expertise from a guide that demands a fair wage based on this expertise. In addition, as Dave points out, the public is under-educated about the benefits and value of an experience with a certified guide. This limits the demand for certified guides. Limited demand results in lower prices and lower wages. True that this reality is somewhat appalling, but we are now asking what can be done about it.

    You should also realize that in the US, a technical “guide” ranges from an indoor certified Climbing Wall guide or Single Pitch outdoor rock guide to an IFMGA-level ski and full mountain guide. There are many types and levels of guide in between. Just look at this image from the new AMGA Logo Use Policy that depicts logos to be used for 17 different categories of American technical guide:


    Should a boy scout leader leading a troop on a day of toproping at the local crag earn the same professional wage as an alpine guide on the Matterhorn? Doctors specialize too and not all of them receive the same levels of compensation for the medicine they practice.

    Dave – To your questions and comments, SMG pays our top rates to IFMGA guides which fall within industry norms. Personally, I think the wage is too low for the job that they do, but this is what we pay based on the fact that their expertise is generally used on low ratio (low to zero margin) programs. We break even on most 1:1 ratio programs, but we run them anyway because we think they are amazing. American guide services doing business in the Alps for example charge up to 50% more per day than what we are able to charge to be competitive here in the Sierra, and they have far lower overhead costs. Guides who are only trained enough for single pitch rock guiding in places like the Owens River Gorge or the Mammoth Lakes Area generally have far less formal training and investment in their education than an IFMGA guide. We think they should earn a lower wage. To summarize my opinion, at this time $200 is too low for a highly trained and certified guide and perhaps too much for a low level guide.

    I fully agree with your point that not all IFMGA guides are cream of the crop. I have seen IFMGA guides in the Alps do things that I thought were completely irresponsible and downright dangerous. I have worked within the AMGA certification programs for over a decade and have seen how its assessment systems are far from perfect for measuring a guide’s knowledge, judgment, and ability. I have also seen guides with no formal training whatsoever develop into wonderfully talented and competent guides. None of that makes me think differently about the value of certification for our industry.

    Regarding any AMGA/PCGI conflict, I admit that I don’t fully understand the tension there, but I do think that it would be pretty normal to see competitors in this context claim superiority over one another. It seems to me that the PCGI is just as culpable as the AMGA with regard to your criticism.

    I do love your ideas and suggestions. And I agree with you that the AMGA and PCGI both help to make the profession stronger with training and certifications, as I stated in the original article, but I think one national standard that we all support would be a far better way to go than multiple standards developed and promoted independently.

    …which leads to Rick – I really value your ideas here, particularly the one about ANSI. I wonder if such an agency already exists that can help to develop and promote standards? Could an outside agency give us all one unified standard with multiple ways to get there? We did this within the AMGA with avalanche education providers. We developed a written criteria for accepted Level 2 and 3 avalanche courses as prerequisites for entering AMGA programs. This is an example where the AMGA was able to use the power of the demand for their certification to affect the professional avalanche education industry.

    So it should be clarified that AMGA programs actually do look at experience, abilities, and outside training within their programs as part of their prerequisites. The problem that Dave mentions comes from either poor screening of prerequisites (a problem more of the past than the present) and in my opinion prerequisites that are not rigorous enough. In some IFMGA countries there are entrance examinations that ensure a minimum standard of movement skill and fitness, and in most there is a higher standard for personal resume. I think this is inevitably the way it will go in the US as well, but it won’t fully get there until certification is required, seen as having more intrinsic value, and that there are so many people wanting to be guides that the educational organizations can be more selective about who is accepted into their programs.


    The AMGA is getting close to a critical point for the organization. At the round table discussion I asked representatives what they plan to do for certified guides beyond just training and certifying them and pursuing certification/accreditation based access. Their response was that they want to do more but that they don’t have a lot of ideas or direction on the matter. I think at some point the AMGA will have to choose whether they want to be an educational organization or a professional trade organization. They appear to be trying to be both which is an enormous task. Because the primary revenue source comes from the educational side, their efforts are mostly focused there. This has left a void where there is a great need in the industry.

    A professional trade organization would be able to advocate for trained and certified guides in a beneficial way. It could provide oversight of guide training programs and third party administration for professional credentials. It could advocate for certified guides by increasing wages, decreasing the costs of doing business for guide employees and employers, as well as increase benefits for guides and those who hire them.

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      June 10, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      I wonder if such an agency already exists that can help to develop and promote standards?
      I have followed and participated a little in the ACCT ANSI standards process over the past three years, and the ANSI gives you guidelines on how to develop a national standards. It is real not that hard. But you have to have people that can lessen to others. RTK
      Could an outside agency give us all one unified standard with multiple ways to get there?
      Good standards are like the Law lots of generalities with not much detail. RTK
      I think at some point the AMGA will have to choose whether they want to be an educational organization or a professional trade organization.
      Very interesting comment. RTK
      I think as an organization the AMGA needs to get out of the educational business and more in to the standards setting business and let the professional trade side of things runs the educational side of things. Everyone makes more money and more people are trained. RTK

  38. Dave - Reply

    June 6, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Form a guides union. Something completely un-affiliated with any training organization yet comprised of respected and accomplished guides, of all disciplines from every corner of the country. No boulder-centric folks, instead have a representative from each major region where guiding is a viable occupation. That person could be voted on by all the major outfits of the region, and appointed to the advocacy group. They listen to the traing orgs, the guide services but most importantly they advocate for and support the individual guide within the larger system. Essentially leave the training to the training orgs, and the union can focus on creating a REAL voice for everyone, hopefully from a neutral platform with the end line goal of supporting the profession.

  39. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 6, 2014 at 9:31 am

    That’s what I’m talking about Dave, except I think it should be an organization branded and marketed strongly. Ideally it would be the AMGA, as an association of trade professionals. The AMGA name has built decades of brand recognition and credibility so I think that would be the easiest and most effective way to do it. Could you get behind something like that, or would the AMGA name be too much of a deal breaker for you? Then the AMGA’s current training and certification program could spin off as a school like ENSA (in France) or Thompson River U in Canada with a different name. PCGI and others could be competing schools that all use the same industry standards for training criteria. No need to excommunicate anyone though for being based in Boulder. Not sure why that would be an issue for you. This ought to be an inclusive endeavor that includes broad support for nationally and internationally accepted standards for guiding. As you say, a neutral 3rd party platform that supports the profession and advocates for American guides. The AMGA is going to have to split the training/cert from the advocacy eventually due to inherent conflict of interest there.

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      June 10, 2014 at 12:47 pm

      That is what the ANSI is all about One of the ANSI criteria is to have international compatibility, and the AMGA has that.

  40. Abe - Reply

    June 6, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    I am having a hard time understanding a few things. I often hear IFMGA guides refer to their level of certification on par w/ doctors, etc. A doctor can get their education from any number of schools across the country (and all over the world). The AMGA wants to be the sole entity for guiding in America yet is opposed to concessions? Also, I am seeing a lot of folks getting IFMGA status from places that do not have real mountain terrain, glaciers, anything longer than grade III routes, etc.? These folks go out and do a few trips in the west a year and are qualified to guide in that terrain? In Canada and Europe people live and work in that terrain year-round. Lastly, the US is a different beast on many levels and a rock guide can work year-round and be the best in the business and not be IFMGA!

  41. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 7, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Hi Abe,
    Yes, it is all way too confusing. First, I don’t think I would go so far as to say IFMGA guides are on a par with doctors, but there is some basis for comparison in that they study and must pass exams in order to practice in their profession. Just like pilots, doctors, engineers, plumbers, etc. I don’t think we can say “what the AMGA wants,” because it is an organization run by an ever-changing board of directors, elected by guides, with an often evolving mission statement. It turns out that the majority of the electorate are currently uncertified guides. That might help explain some of the mission creep and apparent lack of direction within the organization with respect to advocacy of certification. The current mission of the organization is: “to inspire and support a culture of American mountain craft.” As you can see, this statement stands for very little of significance and is broad enough to include pretty much anything and everything. Their previous mission was to be the premier source for training and credentials in the US (or something like that). I think we can infer that the AMGA would still like to be the main provider of training and credentials. It has never dared to state that it is opposed to concessions. In fact, at one time in recent history the mission included “to maintain the current system of permitting and land access for guides in the US.” They removed that with a change in directors and, in part, because of their responsibility as an IFMGA member organization to work toward changing the system to allow for foreign guide access. I don’t think any of this has to include breaking concessions. I do think that concessions will need to be opened somewhat, at some point, and on some level in order to fully support certification, but it is also remotely possible that everything could work through cooperating concessionaires.

    All IFMGA guides must demonstrate their skills and abilities in the disciplines of Rock, Alpine, and Ski (except in certain countries such as Bolivia and Nepal, which is controversial and may be changing). They may live in non-glaciated environments but travel to glaciated ones for work. That is considered normal and acceptable. Many IFMGA guides have needed to develop skills in weaker disciplines in order to get the full cert. Many IFMGA guides specialize in only 1 or 2 disciplines after becoming certified and their expertise in some aspects of mountain guiding lapse. The same could be said again for doctors. And the same can be said for Canadian and European guides. Just because a guide lives close to terrain, doesn’t mean they are out there working and playing in it, in all disciplines year round. I know guides who live in the desert southwest for example that guide actively in all disciplines worldwide and they remain very sharp all around.

    I also agree that a dedicated rock guide, for example, could be way more proficient than an IFMGA guide. That is why the AMGA treats a Rock Guide Certification equally to an IFMGA cert in regards to rock terrain. And your point is important that there is more to look at than certification. That is just the base level, the minimum technical standard. It is most often well beyond certification when guides develop mastery in their specialties and venues in which they work.

  42. Dave - Reply

    June 8, 2014 at 8:14 am

    Howie the AMGA name is no deal breaker for me, I value my training and time spent with others from the AMGA. I think that the organization needs to realize that they are not ‘god’ when it comes to US guiding regulations, permitting and certifications. As Abe said and you’ve said , there are quite competent and experienced guides who don’t have an ounce of AMGA training.
    But I’m over that argument and am interested in the idea of a third party oversight organization non affiliated with the other major organizations. So, yes, I would be interested.

  43. Abe - Reply

    June 8, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Actually Dave,

    I think the education is great and very important (whomever it’s from). I have just seen incredible guides in the Himalaya and all over the world that work the great “slogs” and shouldn’t be knocked because they don’t lead 5.10 trad or ski guide… I also think that many of the folks are mature adults and an assessment vs. the course is completely different. After a course it should be apparent what you can and cannot do… as a professional, you cannot guide things you are uncomfortable with! I see these talks/debates and it always seems like it’s the folks that have put the most investment in the courses/exams that are trying to justify it all (duh), but it just keeps making it seem like a big clique’! I have seen many highly trained guides blinding their judgement and ignoring local resources/”lesser certified” but more locally knowledgeable folks just because they are “above them”. As certification becomes more common, people are actually guiding independently sooner than when a lot of experience (extensive) and apprenticeships were required. Lastly, I see the folks you speak of that got fully certified and then stopped working in certain environments, got injured, pursued another path, had babies, etc. but are “all set to go” when they decide to take up their old hobby again!

  44. Abe - Reply

    June 8, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Also, every # of years you need to “re-cert”, pass the bar, etc… what about aging guides/folks that take off/take time off being in certain terrain? Only CWI and SPI folks that arguably actually spend the most amount of days in their terrain!?

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      June 10, 2014 at 1:03 pm

      Most all re-certification of professional degrees are based on continuing education, not taking an exam over and over. It is kind of funny the RI and above get to do that but not the CW or SPI.

  45. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 9, 2014 at 8:23 am

    Dave, you know the difference between god and a mountain guide right? (God doesn’t think he’s a mountain guide.) In all seriousness though, whether or not the AMGA takes the slice of humble pie you are offering them is pretty much irrelevant. The AMGA is still outperforming the competition in terms of training and certifying guides. AMGA standards may become the de facto standard at some point in the near future because they are the largest organization involved, they have been doing it the longest, they deal with more facets of mountain guiding, and they are accepted by the IFMGA. For better or worse, it may be that the PCGI and others will have to adapt to whatever results from the AMGA’s initiatives in Washington DC and elsewhere. I think one common standard across the board would be best, regardless of how it all goes down.

    Abe, I agree with your paradoxical point: that formal training/certification is not required to make a great guide, but that education is great and very important. It seems that it is hard to promote certified guides for their level of expertise without coming off negatively about uncertified guides and inferring that they are incompetent. This is of course not the case, as a generalization. I will say that I have not met a guide, beginner through veteran, that has not claimed enormous benefit from the training and assessment processes they participated in. Having been through it myself, I do not believe that these guides are biased in defense of their investments, as you suggest. I have seen 50+ year old veteran guides of many decades spend their money and time to continue their development. I don’t think it can be accurately characterized as a clique when all are so actively being invited to join. It is hard to argue that a trial and error, on-the-job training approach is more efficient or effective than a formal education process as a path to competency.

    You do point out some real holes. The process is far from perfect. It is the premise that I am in support of, not the details. To my knowledge, the valid issues you mention are all in the process of being addressed by the AMGA. 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. Requirements are incorporated in the new proposed terrain and supervision guidelines, which are designed to prevent guides from working independently without a minimum level of apprenticeship. This is a good step forward. For IFMGA membership there must be a continuing professional development requirement. In the AMGA there is one, but it is currently very lax and not actually being tracked. This is understandable considering that certification itself is not yet required to guide at all on public lands. Once this changes, the CPD requirements will undoubtedly be increased and regulated as it is in other IFMGA countries and other professions.

    I think more people have to get more involved in the discussions that are already taking place so we can keep the conversation moving forward. Thanks for being a part of it!

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      June 10, 2014 at 1:30 pm

      I think that is the hole the AMGA national is digging them self into. Wanting national certification with a small group of people trying to put on a limited amount of training at limited locations for 350 million people. If for some reason the United States said you have to have a certified guide to take a group climbing on all public lands. Two things would happen 90% of the climbing would stop, and it would be ten years just to get into an AMGA certification program.
      They cannot create more and more national training programs and expect to meet future demands. They need to let it go and turn all the training over to accredited training centers like Sierra Mountain Guides, and all the other established organizations and companies. Just think if certification was bases on number of days taking class and not just a one-time visit.
      I would like to take the RI class but it is not for six month or next fall. My money is going to other things. But if I could take the same class at my local guiding company, the money stayed home and I can do it on four three day weekends and not have to take off for my day job. I could also customize my RI training based on my past training and experiences.
      The bottom like it is all about control, and who has it.

  46. Abe - Reply

    June 9, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Howie, regardless of anyone’s views, your tact and approach to this conversation is remarkable! You are a true gentleman.

  47. Abe - Reply

    June 10, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Rick, the CWA is huge and solely focused on the climbing wall industry… doesn’t it seem to make sense that the AMGA work with them (or that they are better suited to deal with CWI)? Also, the PCIA and PCGI, while focusing on rock, cover a lot of the same curriculum. I mean SPI curriculum isn’t rocket science…why should the AMGA be the only folks able to certify folks (although independent folks can cover cwi/spi curriculum/grant certs.) and be recognized? In Canada the ACMG has accepted another ski guide training/assessment to be “on-par” for certain terrain and mechanized skiing.

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      June 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm

      With ACCT and PCGI setting legal standards for climbing walls in the Unites Sates. I do not think CWA even has a clue.
      This is one of my points if you do not pay attention of the other related industries you may get blind sided. I my onion both the CWA and the AMGA CW program already got sucked into this and they did not even know it.

  48. Abe - Reply

    June 11, 2014 at 5:44 am

    Of course, there is over 50 schools in the USA that you can take rocket science… (not just one monopoly/concession – AMGA)!

  49. Rick Krause - Reply

    June 11, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    This just came out today.


    This is why when people start talking about standards, and creating them it gets very messy. Un-fortunately you can replace the words ropes course with rock climbing; ACCT with AMGA and PRCA with PCGI and you pretty much have the same history.

    If the AMGA wants to continue down this road, how could it avoid this kettle of fish or should they drop that whole standards idea all together?

    Remember certification and standards are basically the same.

  50. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 12, 2014 at 10:30 am

    Thanks for all this info you guys. A lot of new ideas for me. Reading a bit about it, I am still in favor of having a standard in spite of any added complexity. I think the industry needs to realize that: a) there is already an international industry standard that has been in use and continually developed for several decades (IFMGA), and b) that the US has some unique challenges that should be addressed by developing complimentary standards for training, curriculum, and assessment.

    Rick, I think most of the mass guiding that you are referring to is low-level and certification could be easily achieved. Plus, there would probably be some kind of grace period before any regulation would go into effect. Small price to pay to ensure that guides out there are professionals within their terrain limitations, I think. The AMGA had a “contract” guide training program for intro IFMGA-track courses and SMG was a part of that. The organization put an end to it. Although it made for easier access to programs and more competition in pricing (and we had a lot of fun teaching them here in the Eastern Sierra), the AMGA was having a tough time with oversight and consistency. Ultimately, unless there is a good system in place for instructor training and oversight, it creates major potential problems later when people show up for continued training and assessment. The SPI and CWI (non-IFMGA-track) programs still operate this way, and because these are lower level cert’s that require CPD renewal it seems to work ok.

    The Wilderness Medicine model is an interesting one for comparison. In a relatively short time they have developed a national standard that has become a standard requirement in the industry, has raised the bar for professionals, and has figured out a way to accommodate competition in the marketplace. This is all in spite of the apparent confusion about the different acronyms for schools: WMI, WMO, WMA, SOLO, etc. It will be best if any new standards are in compliance with existing standards for similar industries, but ultimately if there needs to be a difference then perhaps it can stand as industry specific. We have seen this happen in wilderness medicine as well (for example – the administration of epinephrine by Wilderness First Responders in certain backcountry emergencies).

    Again, I agree that there is no need or benefit to a monopoly – other than that it is ensures a single standard and control over it. There needs to be a unified and nationally accepted educational and certification standard as it begins to become required by public land agencies and insurance companies. I do believe that this will happen sooner or later (probably sooner) and the industry should get it together to be proactive. The confusion about standards that has been created by the emergence of competing organizations is the only real issue I have about them. That is why I suggest a third party organization to create, administer, and support professional standards. The details of why choose one school over another should be market driven – quality, methodology, price, value, locations, terrain access, logistics, staff, reputation, etc. Once the bar is set, then let the competition begin, and everyone will benefit. I hope someone with more influence over things than me takes note of this discussion. Thanks again!

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      June 16, 2014 at 2:17 pm

      I agree the ropes course industry has shown us the way NOT to do it. I also agree we need to look to a third party someone that dose not have a financial stake in it. The NFPA puts out more standards to a larger diverse industry then any of the climbing organization. Maybe their model would work. I agree some thing is going to happen and some things are already happening. Because there has been accidents and death in the ropes course industry may states have pass legislation, and all there needs to be is a word change from “All ropes courses activities” to “All climbing activities” and that will be the law for rock climbing guides.

      Un less these three groups can get it together I am afraid a third party will write the climbing industry standards and no one is going to like it but it will be law. What Europe dose and thinks really dose not matter, it is going to be the law we pass that do.

      Four years ago when I looking in too professional guide training, and spent lots of time looking in to all three organization, there was only really one comment, what a shame all that talent and energy wasted on personalities.
      But Howie, the real guiding training problems are at what you call the lower end guiding. The Boy Scout, camps and youth organization, the non-so called professional groups. But none of the three organizations are reaching out to them.

      Because the attitude is “o” just come take the SPI course, we have it all figured out. That is not how you treat your great grand father. You have to build relationships and under standing’s. The biggest problem there is no money in it.

  51. Danny Uhlmann - Reply

    June 13, 2014 at 4:09 am

    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.

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      June 16, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      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.

  52. Abe - Reply

    June 13, 2014 at 6:24 am

    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.

  53. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 13, 2014 at 11:35 am

    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.

  54. Rick Krause - Reply

    June 16, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    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.

  55. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 16, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    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!

  56. rick.krause - Reply

    June 18, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    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.

  57. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 18, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    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.

    • rick.krause - Reply

      June 19, 2014 at 9:15 am

      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

  58. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 19, 2014 at 11:05 am

    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!

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      July 1, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      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

  59. Abe - Reply

    June 20, 2014 at 9:11 am


    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.

  60. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 20, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    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.

  61. Abe - Reply

    June 20, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    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.

  62. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 21, 2014 at 7:45 am

    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!

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      July 1, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      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.

  63. Abe - Reply

    June 21, 2014 at 10:19 am

    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?

  64. Abe - Reply

    June 21, 2014 at 10:20 am

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

  65. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 21, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    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.

  66. Abe - Reply

    June 21, 2014 at 6:43 pm


    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.

  67. Abe - Reply

    June 21, 2014 at 6:44 pm

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

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      July 1, 2014 at 2:08 pm

      I went climbing

  68. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 22, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    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!

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      July 1, 2014 at 2:24 pm

      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.

      • Howie Schwartz - Reply

        July 2, 2014 at 8:35 am

        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.

  69. Abe - Reply

    June 23, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    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).

  70. Abe - Reply

    June 23, 2014 at 5:21 pm

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

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      July 1, 2014 at 2:35 pm

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

  71. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 23, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    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…

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      July 1, 2014 at 2:50 pm

      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.

      • Howie Schwartz - Reply

        July 2, 2014 at 8:52 am

        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.

  72. Abe - Reply

    June 24, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    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!

  73. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 24, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    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.

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      July 1, 2014 at 2:58 pm

      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?

      • Howie Schwartz - Reply

        July 2, 2014 at 9:40 am

        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!

        • Rick krause - Reply

          July 7, 2014 at 8:51 am

          Thanks for your story

        • Rick krause - Reply

          July 7, 2014 at 9:24 am

          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.

          • Howie Schwartz -

            July 7, 2014 at 1:28 pm

            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.

  74. Abe - Reply

    June 25, 2014 at 5:01 am

    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!

  75. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 25, 2014 at 7:30 am

    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.

    • Rick Krause - Reply

      July 1, 2014 at 3:21 pm

      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.

      • Howie Schwartz - Reply

        July 2, 2014 at 10:24 am

        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.

  76. Abe - Reply

    June 25, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    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!

  77. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    June 25, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    Thank you sir!

  78. Rick krause - Reply

    July 10, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    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.

  79. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    July 11, 2014 at 8:49 pm

    Rick, I were theoretically king, I could maybe just guide for fun, instead of to earn a living.

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