A few weeks ago, I was riding an Amtrak between New York and Boston with my wife, our 6-month old son and my wife’s uncle, a professor emeritus of economics. Between diaper changes (no small feat in the bathroom of a moving train) and packed in tightly between the business commuters, we discussed the benefits and costs of industry certification. My wife’s uncle staked out a position that regulation in the form of certification is almost never beneficial (this is a topic for another blog; see my favorite economics blog, Planet Money, tackle the topic here), but we all agreed that we’d rather have our physicians and commercial pilots come with appropriate certifications.
So, where does guiding fit in? I’d argue that our work is more similar to that of a pilot or a physician than that of a hair braider (go read the planet money blog…) Guiding involves significant risk and requires a highly specialized skill set, and industry standards and practices evolve over time making it critical that guides continue their education. But, just like other certified professions, certification is a helpful marker but not the only one that you should take into account when choosing a guide. Skiing 100+ days a year, I have a sneaking suspicion that some day I might be looking for a great orthopedic surgeon. I certainly won’t rely solely upon that physician’s board certification and medical license – I will seek out someone that has done A LOT of similar procedures and someone that has worked extensively with skiers or athletes.
I have a friend who is a Swiss guide living in Zermatt. He explained to me that until very recently, if your father, grandfather and great grandfather weren’t guides, that you wouldn’t likely be one either – the craft has been handed down from generation to generation much like a family business. In Europe, you must be certified before you begin guiding whereas in the United States, most guides pursuing training with the American Mountain Guides Association have prior guiding experience. In Europe, guiding is thought of as skilled labor, and the training is more or less free for those that qualify while the wages are in alignment with other skilled trades. The topic of European economic socialism is definitely one for another blog to tackle, but the certification process in the United States is significantly different. The skills, techniques and standards may be similar, but American guides spend a remarkable amount of money to pursue a certification that they don’t necessarily need to work as a guide within the United States.
Before stopping off on the east coast to visit family, ride trains and debate the economics of regulation, I was in Chamonix and the Val D’Aosta training for and taking an AMGA ski guides exam. I’ll readily admit that the exam was a hugely stressful experience – long nights tour planning and early mornings trying to decipher French avalanche forecasts mangled by Google translate (many thanks to the Swiss for producing a high quality forecast in English!), but the exam was a critical part of my growth as a ski guide. Like many guides, I often guide alone and that means that I rarely am able to receive outside expert feedback. I believe that the single greatest risk assessment and management tool that a guide has is an accurate self-assessment. The AMGA training and examination process has allowed me to hone my self-assessment by getting direct and useful feedback in the moment. I think of my AMGA discipline certification as a confirmation that my guiding practices are aligned with the industry standard.
Each night of the exam, we were given an objective for the following day and in small groups, we meticulously planned our routes, discussed management options and scoured the internet for photos of our routes. Each day, we went out and guided. The key to managing my own stress was to recognize that while there was an examiner assessing everything I did, I was just ski guiding – something I felt confident doing; something I loved doing. We were able to ski and climb in some spectacular locations – if you haven’t had the opportunity to climb or ski in the Alps, it should definitely find its way onto your bucket list. The Europeans know how to ski tour in style -- the huts, pastries and genepi (the local alpine liquor) make for an experience totally unlike skiing in North America!
Ultimately, I am as proud of becoming an AMGA certified ski guide as I am of almost anything I’ve done. When you seek out a guide, I ask that you recognize the benefit of their certification and training. While there are clearly outstanding guides in the US without an AMGA certification, guides that are actively pursuing AMGA training and certification are showing a real commitment to improving their trade by seeking training and, most importantly, assessment and feedback from their peers and industry. Finding a guide is a bit like finding a good doctor: you want them to be certified, but also experienced and with a style, personality and risk tolerance that matches your personality and your goals as a climber or skier.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the many people that have helped me along the way to achieving my ski guiding certification: the many friends that hung at the end of a rope playing “victim” while I practiced various rescue drills; the mentors I’ve had as a guide, particularly Larry Goldie and Jeff Ward; the trainers and examiners that I’ve had at the AMGA and all of the other participants I’ve worked with in AMGA trainings and exams. Of course, the biggest thanks goes to my wife, Dani, who spent a lot of sleepless nights with our new baby while I was away “playing” in the Alps.