Pinned: Mark Smiley on Becoming Fully Certified

Mark Smiley becomes an American Mountain Guide

Congratulations Mark Smiley! He took eight years to become an American Mountain Guide/IFMGA Guide, starting spring of 2006 and finishing spring 2014. We asked Smiley a few questions about his journey.

AMGA: What was the process like for you?
Mark Smiley: It was long and frustrating at times. It feels really good to be finished with the process. Now I can focus 100% on the climbing and guiding that I am interested in. While going through the process I had to constantly ask myself, “Is this worth it?” With the better climber I am today, due to the training and prep for courses and exams, I’d say, “Yes, it was worth it.” I had to shovel a lot of snow off roof tops in Crested Butte, and now its time to get the return on my investment.

Mark Smiley Photograph

Photo of Mt. Alberta, Canada, by Mark Smiley.

AMGA: How do you feel now? And what are your goals?
MS: I have been guiding for 13 years in different capacities, now that I am fully certified I want to ramp up the quality of work I do. My goal is to take a select number of highly motivated and competent climbers into the mountains to achieve their goals. Some of those goals they come to the table with, and other goals I will help them create, given their current abilities and skills. I hate it when guides take people on bigger objectives than they are ready for, and burn them out. I have been guilty of this in the past. I see my role as a mountain guide is to be a coach, motivator, risk manager, rope gun, and photographer. If I can do all these things to a level such that the folks I climb with want to come back again and again, and make a livable wage, then I’m achieving my goals.

AMGA: What is your advice to aspiring American Mountain Guides?
MS: Mentor up. Find someone you admire, and be their shadow. Live under your means; debt of any kind is the nail in the coffin. Get out and have fun as much as possible. Get a job that is higher paying during the long off seasons. I fell into house painting, roof shoveling, and carpentry. You’ve got to pay for that gear and courses somehow; and unless you have a Daddy Warbucks you are going to have to work hard to pull it off.

Guiding as a service is largely a commodity, where potential clients shop largely on price. I urge individual guides to try and rise above that. Make your clients want to climb with YOU. A mountain is just a mountain. Make the experience with your clients such that they only want to return and climb again if it’s with you. The more clients that call you, “my mountain guide” the better. You are selling adventure. Your clients are using their vacation time with you, so make it count. The guides that simply desire to show up to work at a big guide service, execute an objective they’ve done 1000 times, then go home a drink a couple beers tend to burn out really quickly. Don’t be that person. Set big goals, then execute with as much help as you can find.

AMGA: Is there anything I’m not asking that you feel is important to share?
MS: I feel like I keep trying new and different things to “make it work” as a guide. I don’t think I have found the answer yet, but I am forever trying new things until something does work. I might think about finances maybe more than is healthy. I operate under the premise “money’s not everything, unless you’re broke.” Many people, myself included, are eager to get paid doing what they love. Collectively we must keep working to raise those average daily wages so that guiding isn’t just something people do until they decide they want to have a kid, or a house, or a car with less than 150,000 miles. It’s going to take some out of the box thinking, but I think its doable.

Check out Mark’s website for more information on his photography and guiding life.