There’s a PhD Equivalent for Mountain Guides, and It’s Insanely Difficult

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On the day of her American Mountain Guide Association ski exam, Julia Niles decided to boot pack up the mountain. Her instructor, a certified mountain buff who’s been respected in the industry for more than 25 years, told her that she should skin up. She saw that he was right, but wanted to assert her own choice. So she boot packed. When she reached the summit and threw down her skis to make the descent, one popped off and slid down the mountain. The whole way down. She failed the ski exam simply because of her choice not to skin up.

It’s trial-by-fire exams like these that the AMGA believes make good guides great. The severity reinforces that the wrong decision in the field can have a high cost. And when you are in the mountains with clients, it can cost much more than a lost ski.

“That failure was so defeating, but it was the best thing that happened to me during the certification,” Niles says. “It taught me so much about facing the pressure of making choices in the mountains and making them for the right reasons: because you’re confident in yourself, your education, and your experience.”

Niles is now the fifth American woman to attain the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) certification through the AMGA. It is the most prestigious accreditation for mountain guides, and was established when the AMGA was inducted into the IFMGA in 1997. Now it’s the only internationally recognized credential that allows guides to work in any country worldwide. And there’s a reason why it’s so respected: It takes, on average, five to seven years to attain. “It’s the doctorate of the mountain guide world,” says Jane Anderson, AMGA Guide Program Manager. “It’s as far as you can take it, and if you get there, you are in the elite of your craft and profession.”

Just like a higher education degree, the IFMGA certification requires hopeful guides to be accomplished in the field before they start the program. First, all guides must be Level II Avalanche certified, and most have already been working as professional guides for five or more years. Once accepted into the program, hopefuls must pass entry courses, advanced courses, and exams in three disciplines: alpine, rock, and ski guiding. Rock climbing is the pre-requisite for both Alpine and Ski courses, so all candidates start with mastering the cliffs. But simply to be accepted into the entry-level Rock Program, a guide must have experience climbing for at least five years, led 10 traditional climbs graded 5.10a or harder, led or shared-lead on 50 multi-pitch climbs, 10 of which are Grade III or longer. To put it lightly, you have to be a damn good climber to even be considered.

“A track this difficult takes a lot of passion for guiding,” Anderson says. “It takes a lot of patience and perseverance. It takes dedication to getting out and being an active guide, as well as being active with your own personal experience and skills. This level requires commitment to training mentally and physically.”

Alan Rousseau is one of the most recent IFMGA grads at AMGA. He began guiding at age 19, as an intern at Utah Mountain Adventures. He attained his first AMGA rock-climbing certification by age 20, and quickly realized that he wanted to get on the IFGMA track as soon as possible. “A lot of guides I looked up to had the certification," he says. Rousseau enrolled into the IFMGA program in 2008. Eight years later, and now he has a pin (awarded upon graduation) that only 109 other Americans have. “It definitely means a lot to have the certification,” says Rousseau. “During the process you need to take time to reflect on what you are doing and learning to get the most out of it.”

The goal is to graduate with the experience necessary to face any situation Mother Nature could throw at you in the wild. By the time a guide has completed seven courses and are ready to take the final three exams, they have:

  • Guided 10 days in diverse alpine terrain since completing the Advanced Alpine Guide Course.
  • Climbed ice routes rated 4+ or harder.
  • Guided 20 days on multi-pitch routes, seven of which are Grade III or longer, and three of which are Grade IV or longer.
  • Guided 10 days in ski mountaineering terrain.
  • Completed 10 personal ski descents with at least five on glaciated terrain.
  • Skied at least five personal descents that are on 45-degree slopes or steeper. 

“The mountains are scary. They’ve taken the lives of a lot of my friends," Niles says. "Many times, people don’t understand why they did or didn’t get into trouble out there. But I have the framework of knowing why things are safe or not. I have the tools to adapt to any environment, any pursuit, and any mountain. And those are the most amazing things to earn.”

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