A life of skiing leads Erin Smart to the Ski Mountaineering Exam

Erin Smart received the Chad Vander Ham Memorial Fund

The Ski Mountaineering Exam was the culmination of the last several years of my AMGA ski guide training, and the last 25 years of my life growing up as a skier. My education as a skier and a mountain guide has been varied and engaging, and it continues everyday.  The AMGA ski guide program was an excellent resource throughout my early career as a mountain guide. The experienced instructors and examiners helped me learn and grow as a mountain guide in ways that I otherwise would not have experienced. I owe a lot to the education I received from the AMGA on my way to becoming a certified ski mountaineering guide, and I will be forever grateful to have received the Chad Vander Ham Memorial Scholarship.

While receiving any scholarship is a true honor and financially helpful, it meant so much to me that I received this scholarship.  Chad was right there at the beginning of my ski mountaineering education, sharing a room with me my first season in La Grave. While I had been skiing my whole life, that first season in La Grave when I was 17 dramatically changed the way I viewed skiing and the mountains and how they were going to shape my life. Chad was so welcoming and encouraging to me that first season, despite my naïveté, always telling me to get after it, while also helping me to improve my skills along the way. Chad was a great friend, my roommate, a teacher of the finer things in life—sharing his love for fine wines, teaching me to make the best soup ever—forever-coined “Chad soup,” and of course, he was a guide to me. Chad inspired me to push myself and taught me how to never say, “I can’t” in the mountains and in life. I think Chad would be proud to see how far I have come since that first winter, and I owe so much of where I am today to his influence.

I look forward to the years ahead of me in mountain guiding, and my development in the pursuit of the full AMGA certification. While all the courses have a set itinerary, each student going through the process has, in a sense, his own individual program. This is one of the unique and most fundamental parts of the process in my opinion. The instructor pool is made up of highly experienced guides, coming from many different backgrounds and locations, which provides for a diverse and well-rounded education. Though each course runs through the curriculum, each one will inevitably be different due to the inherent nature of being the mountains with its different conditions and with the mix of different instructors and students. While this can be a challenge at times on certain courses, it is, in my opinion, one of the great strengths of the AMGA program.

Due to the dynamic nature of ski mountaineering, it can be difficult for instructors and examiners to assess a candidate, and I appreciated all the support I received from the AMGA team along the way in this challenging discipline. The Ski Guide Course was my first AMGA course back in 2010 with Margaret Wheeler as the course director in the Cascades. I remember being blown away at the quality of the course that she had set up. She worked so hard to make sure our days were packed, and we even had several guest speakers, including a pilot, to help round out our education. That first course opened my eyes to many things, but in particular, how much I still had to learn.

Since then, I have dedicated the majority of my time to improving my guiding skills, from taking more AMGA courses and exams, to hiring a PSIA ski instructor to perfect my movement skills, to improving my movement on rock, to simply getting as many guiding days under my belt as I can.

I am so happy to have gone through my first exam, but I think the language says it all in that in order to pass an exam, one must meet the minimum standards of that discipline. There is still so much to learn in the realm of the ski mountaineering guide world, and I look forward to continuing my education for many years to come.

Thank you to the AMGA and the Chad Vander Ham Memorial Fund.

Want to learn more about Erin Smart. Check out this Q&A on The Mountain Blog.