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Living the Dream

American Alpine Institute Mountain Guides
Living the DreamBecoming a professional mountain guide

Story by Jason D. Martin

Imagine dropping into a perfect pillow of powder as you rip down a steep mountain chute … swinging your ice tool so it bites deeply into the clear blue of a frozen waterfall … stuffing your hands into a laser-straight crack between two shields of flawless granite as you make your way up a rock face.

Mt. Baker Mountain GuidesThese are the days that we dream about. Indeed, these are the days that we all live for.

Now imagine doing all that – and getting paid for it. Welcome to the world of the professional mountain guide.

Obviously it’s not all splitter cracks and champagne powder. Most guides don’t make much money. They spend a significant amount of time away from home and a lot of that time is spent trying to guide or instruct in the cold, the wind and the rain. But regardless of the hardships, there are many people out there who would like to get a taste of what it might be like to guide.

As the operations manager at the American Alpine Institute I field one or two calls a week from individuals who would like to work as guides. We receive between 100 and 200 guide applications every year; and we are generally only trying to fill two to six slots.

My friends at other guide services have confirmed that this is pretty normal. There aren’t many positions available, but there are a lot of people who would like to fill them. Everybody, it seems, wants to figure out a way to “live the dream.”

When I speak to individuals who aspire to guide, I tell them that getting into the industry is often the hardest part. Once you get in with a reputable guide service, you’re in. After a year or so of working in the field you’ll have the experience and the network to change employers easily.

Getting in. So how do you get in? There are three things that hiring managers at the larger Pacific Northwest guide services are looking for: technical ability, mountain education/certifications and diverse interests.

First and foremost, you have to show that you meet the prerequisites for working as a guide. Can you demonstrate that you put in enough time suffering in the mountains and building your climbing and skiing skills that you have something to offer? Nobody wants to hire someone who has never had an epic in the mountains. Those types of learning experiences should take place before you’re hired for a position.

A common perception is that guides are superhuman climbers and skiers; that they can get up – or down – anything. The reality is that guiding in the mountains requires a wide array of skills. Guides must be able to climb or ski moderate terrain effectively and with good style, but are seldom required to work “high-end” terrain.

Most professionals aren’t super-climbers, but have solid technical skills. Mountain guides can usually lead 5.10 on rock and WI 4 on ice (for non-climbers, that’s hard, but not too hard). Ski guides should be able to ski 50-degree terrain in variable conditions. An aspiring guide’s climbing and skiing resume should demonstrate that he or she has these skills by listing dozens of routes and mountain experiences that show mastery.

Certainly there are guides who focus on one medium and only work in that medium. If you aren’t really a climber, but want to be a ski guide, there are jobs out there. The same is true for the individual who wants to guide on rock, but doesn’t want to work on glaciers or snow. However, when you only focus on one medium, your skills generally have to be that much better, because you are commonly competing with others who also only focus on that one medium.

Get certified. Second, an aspiring guide has to have certain certifications to work, and others to be competitive. Every guide has to have, at minimum, a Wilderness First Responder first aid certification. Some guides hold an Outdoor Emergency Care cert (a ski patrol certification) or an EMT certification. Without one of these, you are unemployable in the professional guiding industry.

The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) is the organization that oversees guide training, certification and accreditation in the U.S. Guides don’t often start with guide certifications, but tend to obtain them early in their careers. And while AMGA courses and certifications aren’t required for guides just starting out, they are helpful. Those who have taken guide-training courses through the AMGA have a leg up on their competitors in the hiring process. The most prestigious guide services in the U.S. are AMGA-accredited. To be accredited, a guide service must show that members of its staff are either certified or are on track to become certified. This makes those who have taken AMGA courses extremely desirable.

There are a number of other items that a hiring manager might look at when trying to staff a guide position. Does an applicant have a Leave No Trace certification? It’s becoming popular for national parks and other land managers to require these. Does an applicant have any avalanche training? There are avalanches in the mountains, you know. Does an applicant have any search and rescue training? Guides are often first responders at accident sites. Does an applicant have any experience teaching? Much of a guide’s work revolves around teaching skills. And lastly, is the individual high profile? Sponsored athletes and guides who have made a name for themselves as climbers or skiers attract customers.

Diversify. Third, hiring managers are looking for intelligent applicants with diverse interests. People from all walks of life hire guides and many trips are more than a day or two long. Most people are incredibly interested in the skills that the guide has to teach, but when it’s time to sit down for dinner, they often want to talk about movies or music or politics or other outdoor adventures. At the end of the day, most are done talking about skiing and climbing. They usually want to talk about their other passions. It’s important to find guides who can do this, who can talk intelligently and enjoy the company of those who haven’t placed climbing and skiing at the center of their existence.

For some, an article like this may make guides look elite. Indeed, it can make an attempt to enter the profession seem intimidating or even impossible.

This perception is not true.

Anybody who really wants to can be a mountain guide. You may feel like you won’t be a competitive candidate right now, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t build your climbing and skiing resume to be competitive. Anybody who puts in the time and energy can make a career as a mountain guide. It just takes a little effort.

Believe me, the payoff is more than worth it. X

Jason D. Martin is an AMGA Certified Rock Guide and the operations director at the American Alpine Institute. In addition to working as a mountain guide, Martin is a freelance writer.