Making the best of 10 feet of snow during the Ski Guide Course

Photo by Victor Mesny

Photo by Victor Mesny


By Mammut Scholarship Recipient, Max Tepfer

Simply put, mountains, and the sports that allow me to travel in them, are my passion. For the past five years, I’ve been building my life in such a way that allows me to pursue those passions to the fullest extent that I can. Perfecting this lifestyle is an ongoing, ever-evolving process and guiding fits with it hand-in-glove. There are only a handful of viable ways to climb and ski full time, and learning the craft of mountain guiding is far and beyond one of the best.

As an aspiring guide working in the United States, AMGA programs are a critical step in the process of becoming a competent mountain guide. Currently, I devote a significant amount of time and energy towards these programs. While this has limited (though not ended) the amount of time I get to play in the mountains, I believe that in the long run it will be worth it. The prospect of eventual full certification and the doors that it will open in the guiding world will ultimately allow me to live the life of my dreams.

Most recently, my energy went to the 2014 Ski Guide Course in the Cascades. Snoqualmie Pass is an incredible venue for this program. Stacked with steep, rugged terrain within easy striking distance of I-90, my psych was high going into day one. When we started the Washington Cascades were at 50 percent of their average snowpack for that time of year–bony, but workable, especially with snow forecasted on the horizon. It then proceeded to snow ten feet in seven days. Just existing became a daunting task. The mini mart at the Snoqualmie gas station became our grocery store, and we had to borrow the neighbor’s excavator to plow the driveway of the vacation rental we were staying in during the course.

Cave Ridge Tech. DayWe all showed up hoping and expecting to maximize our time practicing the application of newly learned ski guiding techniques in real terrain. Frustrations rapidly mounted as we quickly ran out of new venues that made sense to utilize in the seemingly endless high hazard we were experiencing. Skills had been presented, but practicing application with supervision, the core of these programs, was falling by the wayside. By debrief day, many of us felt slighted by the fates that had, in our eyes, robbed us of the educational experience we’d sought and left us with something that was less than we’d hoped for.

Looking back now, the primary lesson is obvious: What better empathy for our guests than to get a little bit stuffed by the weather and conditions? As guides, we’d like to think that we are super humans who can somehow make the most of any situation the mountains throw at us and provide our guests with a memorable and enriching mountain experience regardless of conditions. This is a simple and obvious fallacy. We can always keep things safe in the mountains and can provide as much education as possible within that constraint, but we can’t always deliver the experience our guests had in mind when they booked us months before. While we do our best to provide our guests with everything we reasonably can, and to frame that experience in a positive light, sometimes they have a specific goal or outcome in mind that simply can’t be realized and walk away feeling just a little slighted by the weather gods at the end of the day.

In the end, our instructors did a commendable job keeping learning happening and tailoring the curriculum later in the program to our needs as a student group. Despite historical amounts of new snow, we still managed to work through the vast majority of the SGC curriculum. Doing what any good guide would, they maximized the teaching opportunities the available terrain offered and timed the progression of the course to take advantages of the few brief lulls we had. In hindsight, the fact that I didn’t get all the application practice I was expecting at the front end of the course has been dwarfed by the fact that I still learned a ton and had a great time doing it. The week and a half we spent tooling around Snoqualmie Pass still taught me volumes about the craft of ski guiding. There will always be more to learn and identifying that reality and bringing it with me forward as a guide is what these programs are all about.

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