The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE); A Historical Perspective
By Tom Murphy
AIARE Executive Director
In speaking with Betsy Novak earlier this summer, I started to recount some of the early history of AIARE and its close ties to the AMGA. I was asked if I could put this down in writing so that the membership could get a better idea of the long-term relationship between AIARE and AMGA.
The history of our two organizations is one that needs to be documented, as best we can, before these accounts slip further into obscurity. I’ve been told the mind of a mountain guide can be prone to hyperbole particularly when any topic is prefaced with, “well, back in the day…” so doing the best I could with my own recollection and correspondence with the early players, I’ve constructed a mini-documentary for your entertainment.
I was working with Jean Pavillard at Adventures to the Edge in Crested Butte, CO acting as an instructor and course coordinator for the avalanche program in 1992. I had showed up in Crested Butte after 15 years in Alaska where I had built and ran the Hatcher Pass Lodge, north of Anchorage in the Southern Talkeetna Mountains. I had worked in avalanche control, ran a weather station for the Alaska Avalanche Forecast Center, and had assisted Fredston and Fesler in their avalanche courses; mainly hauling gear for them in exchange for being able to sit in.
As a faux guide (then and now), it was an education working with Jean, who is Swiss, an IFMGA guide and who was willing to drag me along on various trips. It was great because I knew I would never have to break trail. He began offering Level 1 avalanche courses in Crested Butte and I was eager to help. It was during this time (early 1990’s) that Jean became involved with the AMGA as an instructor and examiner. He would go onto become the technical director for the AMGA. Around this same time the AMGA was working on becoming accepted into the IFMGA.
AMGA spring Ski Guides Bridge Course and Exam 1992; Enter Karl Klassen, Colin Zacharias, ACMG guides, and Jean Pavillard, IFMGA guide from Switzerland living in the U.S., all assigned by the IFMGA to observe the course Bela Vadasz was coordinating. What was becoming evident at this course by the instructors, observers, and candidates was uneven avalanche knowledge among the course participants and no common language. While there were a variety of excellent avalanche course providers in the U.S. at the time, there was little continuity between the providers. Few, if any, U.S. providers were using international standards for observing and recording weather and avalanches. Consequently, candidates came with more of an intuitive understanding of avalanche phenomena and risk management. While intuition is a good thing, a competent professional must be able to explain in depth what supports their intuitive decisions. Most could not. It was clear a standard needed to be created.
It was also becoming obvious that the educational model then widely used in the U.S.- that model being primarily developed by ski patrol, a smattering of “snow scientists”, Forest Service Forecasters, and Search and Rescue teams - was not translating well for the guiding community. The courses used an educational model that outlined a “rules based” as opposed to an evaluative approach. In addition, each avalanche course had an individual approach which reflected the experience of the instructors. Examples include a “from the top of the mountain down” approach from patrol, snow profile centric approach from the “snow scientists”, and a rescue centric approach from those with a SAR background. While each had its merits and was appropriate for newcomers to the backcountry, it did little to address the needs of the advanced backcountry user and the professional guide.
Bela Vadasz; “As guides we found ourselves consistently breaking these rules. I’d come home at night feeling bad that I had seemingly broken every rule that I had been taught. I knew something was wrong.”
Jean and Bela were working on refining the ski guide and ski mountaineering guide certificates of the AMGA to better reflect the standards that needed to be established in order to qualify for IFMGA acceptance. At this same time, 1995/96, Jean had invited Karl and Colin to Crested Butte to help him in developing his “Guides Training Center”. I was running Jean’s avalanche program and it was at this point an interesting confluence of European, Canadian, and American approaches to avalanche education began to emerge; think the Munter 3x3, CAA Professional Level Courses, and The Avalanche Triangle. A hybrid was soon to materialize.
The next few years saw Karl Klassen (author of the Technical Handbook for Professional Mountain Guides Alpine, Rock, and Ski Guiding Techniques) coming down to the states helping Jean with his guides training center and working with Pavillard to offer the first Level 3 that I had heard of. It was at this Level 3 that the uneven knowledge base and lack of common language reared its head again. Pavillard, Klassen, and myself set about to construct a solid Level 1 through Level 3 approach that could be utilized at Adventures to the Edge and shared with others who were interested and ready to get involved.
At that time the American Avalanche Association (AAA) did not have a published set of guidelines. The various approaches to avalanche education (mentioned above) were put on the table. Jean invited a group of existing instructors and guides to Crested Butte to assist us in the construction of a unified stream of avalanche education. The focus was on introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses that utilized a common standardized approach using internationally accepted language and procedures that built upon each other.
The first Instructor Training Courses (ITC) were presided over by Karl Klassen. Representatives from guide services, outdoor education programs, and ski patrols from across the U.S. took part in scripting the first drafts of the AIARE curriculum. There would be too much name dropping to mention the participants who took part in those formative sessions, but suffice to say that the tradition continues today, with an incredible cross section of young and old professionals gathering each year at our ITC’s in an effort to refine curriculum and teaching techniques as new knowledge and research comes forward.
With so many guides involved with the initial development of AIARE, it was no surprise that it found its way into the AMGA. AIARE has benefited immensely from that undeclared partnership and we like to think the AMGA has benefited as well. Many of our instructor trainers are also AMGA members and examiners. Their involvement in both organizations brings a perspective that is unique and has helped construct a new model and the next generation in avalanche education.
The AIARE Level 2 and 3 programs have evolved into courses that respond directly to the needs of the guiding community. Our motivation to create a Level 3 certification program was driven by requests from guides and patrollers. It reflected a need to complement the AMGA education stream by providing an avalanche certification that ensures a standard has been met and elevates the credibility of the program. The courses take into consideration the rigors involved with AMGA courses and are intended to assist guides and guide candidates be successful in their endeavor.
Both AIARE and the AMGA have displayed a Darwinian approach to their existence. Understanding AIARE’s roots confirms a strong connection to the AMGA that continues today.