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The Guiding Life

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Come down to Crested Butte sometime, and I’ll show you,” the gentleman said.

Exum Mountain guide Zahan Billimoria shows the way in Wyoming’s Teton Range. It’s Exum custom to have clients lead the final steps to the summit of the Grand Teton. Photo by Andy Bardon.

Swiss-French, slightly built, mellow, self-assured, and my neighbor on a flight home to Colorado, he wrote his name into my journal in Euro-cursive, with a phone number, too: Jean Pavillard.

He’d just spent a half hour describing ridge traverses in the Bernese Oberland, bottomless powder lines in the Rockies, and his little village in the Swiss Alps. He said he was a professional mountain guide. I’d heard of such a thing, but no one had ever described the job in detail. This guy had just permanently warped my 23-year-old brain on the idea of helping others ski and climb, and making a decent living at it. The year was 1993, I’d just graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and I had to make a living… right?

I fell into writing around this time, for many of the same reasons guiding appealed: flexibility, the ability to travel for “work,” and avoiding the cubicle. Making a living in the hills, though, promised even more. I grew up skiing and climbing in Colorado, so I preferred that landscape more than the desert, more than the ocean. Plus, to be able to move confidently and competently through the mountains—on glaciers, up frozen waterfalls, across endless rock ridges, down snowy couloirs—seemed the obvious result if I were to pursue life and work in the vertical. Meanwhile, giving others a lifetime experience in that realm… Well, that seemed like an exceptional craft.

Over these ensuing years I’ve never crossed paths with Pavillard again, but he’s remained a big influence, albeit indirectly. Little did I know that back in 1993, Pavillard, along with many other guides, was busy creating the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), the organization through which I’m currently pursuing certification in the three disciplines of guiding—rock, ski, and alpine.

The AMGA came together after a few false starts in the 1970s and early ’80s. By 1993, the efforts of dozens of climbers and guides—Yvon Chouinard, Doug Robinson, Peter Lev, Jim Donini, John Fischer, Allen Pietrasanta, Allan Jolley, Bela Vadasz, to name just a few—allowed the AMGA to apply for membership into the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA), an umbrella organization that oversees guiding worldwide. From that point on, AMGA guides traveled to other countries to study various curricula, standards, and exam procedures in an effort to create the American program. During the same period, representatives from the IFMGA visited the States and audited courses and offered feedback, all to bring the U.S. scene up to the elite standards of Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, France, Italy, Austria, and the other member states.

By 1997, the U.S. was in, the same year as Sweden. Now it was possible to study in the States and still receive full international certification in mountain guiding, just like men and women from Chamonix, Zermatt, and Grindelwald had done for a century or more.

This is not to say I’ve been working on my cert, or “pin” (because of the pin many IFMGA guides wear on their jackets), for 20 years. After meeting Pavillard, I burned up almost a decade racing bikes. By the time I’d grown tired of leg shaving and “manorexia,” I was 30. I partied for a year, and then one afternoon I pedaled out of Burning Man’s Black Rock City and thought, What’s next?

The sun shines on the Matterhorn in early morning while two alpine climbers ascend the Arbengrat route on Ober Gabelhorn above Zermatt, Switzerland. Photo by Patitucciphoto.

While on a bike ride later that fall, I off-handedly mentioned the idea of guiding to a buddy, who said, “I know a Swiss guy looking for apprentices. I could introduce you.” Six months later, I’d managed to con Markus Beck, an IFMGA guide and founder of Alpine World Ascents, in Boulder, into letting me apprentice. It was a far cry from Monsieur Pavillard, but it was a start.

I didn’t flail too badly. I managed to stay out of the way at first, and then slowly I shadowed a few ski days and a couple routes in Eldorado Canyon outside of Boulder. I helped out a bit and didn’t offend the clients. By 2006, Beck told me to either buck up and do an AMGA course, or go do something else. I took the bait.

In January 2007, I took an AMGA “Ski Guides Course” in Aspen, taught by Amos Whiting and Vadasz, one of the pioneers of the ski program. Vadasz was one of the first Americans to receive his pin and was a ball-breaker on the details. He’s a godfather of the AMGA, and I’m thankful I had the opportunity to have him critique me. He’s no longer teaching courses, so it was fun to study under him. I passed.

To get further in the ski program, and to enter the alpine program, I had to begin working toward an AIARE 3, or the professional-level course offered by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. Let’s just say I dug more than a few snow pits during those winters. On the medical side, I needed a Wilderness First Responder (WFR). Check. Onward.

Unlike Europe, where courses are often subsidized through regions like the Aosta Valley in Italy, AMGA courses are expensive—upwards of $2,000 a pop. Add to that missed work and travel expenses, and you’re looking at more than a $25,000 investment for that little silver pin. I was living cheap (read: before marriage and kids) at the time, so it felt doable. I put my head down and kept moving.

The U.S. scene differs from Europe in another important way. Here, a guide can pursue certification in only one discipline. Because our terrain is so spread out, a guide in Joshua Tree, if he’s only working in Southern California, doesn’t need alpine and ski experience. In western Europe, you can take the first tram, do a mixed route, make turns back to town, and then clip bolts in the afternoon sun. It’s a different scene.

Back to 2007. I began ticking the courses, and since then I’ve completed all of them in ski, alpine, and rock. Between courses I had to amass dozens of days of climbing and skiing on a variety of routes and terrain, and plenty of guiding, too. It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially if you live on the Front Range. We lack true grade IV/V terrain in rock and alpine and no glaciers (a prerequisite for the advanced alpine and ski courses). Building the résumé makes a nice excuse to travel, though. The Incredible Hulk in the Sierra. Red Rock, Nevada. Mont Blanc in France. (Yes, my wife is a saint.)

American Mountain Guide (IFMGA) Chris Simmons leads his clients through near-whiteout conditions on 8,868-foot Eldorado Peak, North Cascades, Washington. Photo by Karsten Delap.

Guiding work, too, isn’t so easy to come by, for a couple of reasons. Colorado has plenty of independent, fairly competent skiers and climbers. Most of these folks don’t consider hiring a guide as a means to improve or for tackling greater objectives. Guiding, as a “product,” just hasn’t been successfully and strategically marketed to outdoor consumers. Europeans don’t think twice about hiring a guide, but here, there’s a block.

Permit issues are another obstacle to growing the profession. In Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, only the Colorado Mountain School (CMS) has the concession to offer “technical guiding” (anything with a rope). Unless you work for my buddies at CMS, forget taking clients to Lumpy Ridge or up the Petit Grepon. (This could be changing in 2014. Stay tuned.) I hate to make Europe sound like Shangri-La, but over there, once you’re rocking the pin, you’re good to go, anywhere, all the time (with a bit of red tape, but you get le drift).

I worked through the courses and eventually took the initial exams in each of the disciplines. These three-day tests are called “aspirant” exams, after the French term for an aspiring student. In February 2014, my finals begin with eight days on skis in British Columbia’s Rogers Pass, six days at Red Rock in April, and 10 days in Washington’s Cascades for the alpine section in September.

It seems to be that for now within the U.S., one doesn’t need an AMGA certification—or any certification—to call oneself a mountain guide. While that’s slowly changing as land managers and insurance companies expect some level of professional training for guides, at the moment your neighborhood barber requires more documents to work than a mountain guide.

Compare, too, the prices for services in the outdoor industry. It can cost more than $700 for a one-day private ski lesson in Aspen (the instructor might get $300 of that), while we’re charging $375 per day (my take is $225) for a trip up the Yellow Spur (5.10) in Eldorado. Heated gondola and snowball fights, or loose rock and thunderstorms on the East Slabs descent? You do the math. We’re changing the industry’s and the public’s perception of guiding—slowly.

So let’s talk standards. When the IFMGA observed courses and exams in the U.S., they were confirming that our curriculum was up to speed. That’s what you get with a certified guide—the peace of mind that he knows the discipline inside and out. Guides are expected to know how to coach and to teach effectively, in a variety of different styles. We’re graded on soft skills, too—did we make the most comfortable belay possible? Did we transition somewhere appropriate—in the sun, out of the wind, away from icefall? Did we spend our day efficiently—five-minute changeovers at belays?

Over the years, I’ve had good instructors and mentors, from Beck to several of Pavillard’s protégés—Tim Brown, Brian Lazar, and Vince Anderson. Luckily for me, all of them have been through some, if not all, of the AMGA curriculum and exam process. (Lazar wised up, got a master’s degree in snow science, and runs AIARE now.) This has saved me a tremendous amount of stress and has given me a good sense of what’s expected on my final exams.

On the rock and alpine aspirant exams, candidates must pass (among others) the “45-minute rock-rescue drill.” It goes like this: The examiner starts the clock while you’re belaying a follower off your waist, from a good stance above. The follower falls and hangs on the rope. From this point the follower can’t help. You must tie off the belay, escape, and then get to “baseline,” meaning you’ve transferred the belay line to the anchor and it’s affixed with a releasable system. Then you’re free to go for help, rappel, whatever. At this point in the test, you either rappel to the victim (to theoretically provide first aid or at least snag the flask out of his pack) and re-ascend to your original ledge, or raise the victim up to where you are using a 3:1, 5:1, or 6:1 haul system.

AMGA-certified rock guide Ron Funderburke belays his clients on North Carolina’s Looking Glass Rock. Photo by Karsten Delap.

Let’s assume you rappelled first. Once back at the ledge, you’ll either haul or lower, but you’ll have to do both at some point. Once those steps are complete, you prepare a counterbalance rappel, rap to the victim, pick him off, and continue rappelling to the next anchor. Transfer both of you (he can’t help!) onto the anchor, pull your ropes, rig another rappel (or perhaps a lower; again, he can’t help) and get both of you to the ground—in 45 minutes or less.

It’s quite a mouthful, eh? Well, hire a certified rock or alpine guide, and he’ll know how to get this done, as well as pass a knot when lowering a climber (imagine you’ve tied two ropes together to lower a person a full 120 meters), and have crevasse-rescue skills, including digging an emergency shelter and building a sled to lower a victim down a steep slope.

When I started my courses in winter 2007, I skied and climbed at a respectable level. Along the way, though, instructors like Doug Nidever and Tom Hargis told me I had to up my game on rock. Piolet d’Or winner Anderson said to me in Alaska, “You ski fine, but I want to see you more comfortable on the steeps.” This was after skiing the Cherry Couloir on Python Peak, in wind-hammered conditions. Let’s just say I wasn’t relaxed on the 45-degree drop-in, looking at jagged rocks below. Heads up! I swallowed my pride, bugged an instructor buddy for some ski lessons, and rededicated myself to climbing.

Having kids along the way doesn’t make it easier. My wife and I had identical-twin boys, Luca and Dominic, in summer 2010, and I knew I had to get more serious with my strength and fitness. Short on time, I needed something efficient and hard.

I’d bumped into Micah Dash the year before. He stood feebly and shook my hand, and then had to use his arms to lower himself back into his chair. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked, assuming he’d banged himself up climbing. “No, man, it’s this chick.” She wasn’t a girlfriend; Connie Sciolino runs Boulder’s Alpine Training Center (ATC), which caters to climbers and skiers, and she’d put a hurtin’ on tough Micah Dash. Sold.

My first sessions at the ATC included pain, flailing, a sweat-soaked muffin top, and jiggling back fat. I hadn’t yet started my advanced courses, and I knew they’d be far harder than the entry-level stuff. I persevered, marrying the ATC workouts with long practice sessions in the mountains and as many guiding days as I could get through Alpine World Ascents. My game has improved; the “movement” exams have become easier for me. And did I mention my wife is a frickin’ saint?

The movement standards (your climbing and skiing skills) are attainable for many (5.10+ trad, WI4, 5.6 in mountain boots), but consider that you’re generally guiding two clients, meaning you’re trailing two ropes (another eight pounds on your harness). You probably have a backpack on, too, so add another five to 10 pounds to your back. Managing hazards, hauling more gear, constantly considering your clients’ comfort and safety—these and all the other “soft skills” of guiding make onsighting that much harder.

IFMGA-certified guide Chris Simmons with two clients nearing the summit of Austera Peak in Washington’s Cascades. Photo by Karsten Delap.

When I first started in the program, the idea of traveling back and forth to Europe sounded reasonable. My dad’s from Italy, and if I wanted to guide there, I’d need my pin. Well, after a couple kids, a house, and a wife with a job, the Euro timeshare isn’t looking so reasonable anymore. I was also writing a lot back then and even sold a book, so the guiding thing was as much a honeymoon gig as anything. Having worked through the courses, though, and seen what it takes to pass the final exams, I’ve changed my perspective a bit.

Guiding isn’t a hobby or a lifestyle, and as my colleague Tico Allulee, a certified alpine and rock guide, says, “I’m not finding myself after college or some shit.” Mountain guiding is a job. A high-stakes job, as the guide faces considerable risks. It’s one thing to be a shitty lawyer or teacher; being sub-standard won’t get you killed. Half-ass it in the hills or at the sport crag, and eventually the actuarial table catches up with you. Being a certified guide means upholding the standards, as an obligation to your clients and as a survival strategy for yourself.

Even if one could “sneak by” to get his pin, I’m not sure he’d want to. Skiing in avalanche terrain, guiding in Eldo, short-roping loose gulleys—if you don’t stay sharp, you’ll eventually find yourself as the guest of honor at The Big Sleep. Or maybe you’ll survive and end up on YouTube. But you get it. Oh, and the punch line to all this? Once you get your pin, you haven’t hit the finish line. It’s really just the beginning of perfecting the craft and trade of mountain guiding. A ticket to the big dance.

Managing stress, that’s the name of the game in 2014. Final exams, nerves, relaxing, getting it done. The guys and girls who hiked the exams say managing stress is The Way, so I am a disciple. Devoted, prepared, practiced, and humble. The Way.

To date, 83 men and eight women have gotten their IFMGA pin, with the majority working in the United States. Rob Coppolillo hopes to crack the top 100. He also repeats the words of a wise man: “Tips aren’t beer money; they’re mortgage money. Always remember to tip your guide, friends!”