Part 1: Why become a guide and finding a mentor
By Danny Uhlmann, American Mountain Guide/IFMGA
This is written with the idea in mind of what I wish people would have told me before I started and when I was going, in order to have success through the AMGA Mountain Guide’s program. This advice applies to any of the three independent program streams–rock, ski, alpine–or to all of them put together.
First and foremost a caveat emptor (buyer beware): this is my advice, based on my experience through the program, and upon reflection after having finished my IFMGA license in 2012. It is entirely probable that some, or all, of this advice was given to me at various points by instructors or friends, but that it fell on deaf ears.
Be confident this is the path you want to take. I can’t tell you why you should or shouldn’t do this. All I can say is what I know for certain. Its a challenging profession. It can turn your hairs gray and your head bald. It can ruin your knees, your back, your shoulders, and your body in general. Many of my colleagues (and myself) have had life-altering injuries while guiding, or worse, have died due to the objective hazards they chose to expose themselves to in order to achieve the goals of the clients. It is not necessarily, but can often be, dangerous work. You will be completely responsible for the lives of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, husbands, and wives. You have to accept full responsibility for the outcome of your work. No matter how good you ever become, you will make mistakes. In fact you will make mistakes often, because you are human.
Many times you will hear clients say they just had the best day of their lives, it was the hardest thing they’ve ever done, you have the best job in the world. You will make people’s dreams come true, and help them see parts of themselves and realize abilities they didn’t know they had.
You will get to take willing clients up towers of blazing red stone under the desert sun, through vast glaciers of waist deep powder under clear blue skies, walk knife-edge ridges at high altitude with nothing but a thin rope snaking between you, and into places you never dreamed of. You will become a craftsperson of the mountains and you will walk to a different beat; governed by wind, snow, sun, and moon.
If all of this agrees with you, read on.
I rarely had access to certified mentors who could offer supervision and give feedback and guidance. Many of us then, and still, work in vacuums where our only feedback is from self-reflection via the relative failure or success of the guided trips we get to work on.
There were some opportunities for mentorship and I would like to humbly thank those people for their time and guidance: Jim Ablao (Smith Rock), Dylan Taylor (all over the world), Jamie Pierce (Antarctica), Bela Vadasz (Sierra), Dave Bengston (Yosemite), Mike Powers (everywhere), Jon Tierney (New England), and Jon Spitzer (Ruby Mountains). These are all people who made a major difference in my life and its direction.
Now that I’m in a role to supervise aspirant guides and to be a part of their training structure, I see so clearly that mentorship combined with experience can teach an aspiring guide far more than any course or exam, or experience which happens in a vacuum. I only wish I could have had much more direct work and feedback from certified guides along the way. So I encourage everyone out there on the path to seek this out and soak it up. Don’t be shy.
Also: mentorship and learning doesn’t end when you pass an exam. Becoming certified simply means you have proven the ability to work independently in a given discipline. Mastery (if possible) takes much more time. I still have mentors; some of them don’t even know they are my role models, while I quietly observe them from the afar. Some I work with constantly to improve what I’m doing. As well; the newer generations bring new techniques, ideas, and approaches to guiding so as I am done with my exams forever, I’m excited to learn what I can from the newer crops of guides.
Also I must reiterate that there is no “AMGA way.” The AMGA is an organization of guides, some of whom work as instructors in the training program. Each of the instructors have different backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, and fall on different places on the spectrum of conservative to aggressive and will fall in different places on that spectrum in different situations. Certainly as a newer guide it behooves you to err on the side of conservative. In fact it probably behooves all of us to be conservative when it counts. The trick is knowing when that is. And only experience can teach that.
The program streams (and the educational model in general) are designed so that a student moves from acquisition of basic skills, to emulation of those skills based on the modelling of instructors and supervising guides, and finally synthesis into a polished, intuitive, and independent process. This last step is what an full exam is supposed to be.
Having a good mentor is one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself during this process. There is no easy way to find a mentor. It takes a leap of faith from both sides; someone whose advice and feedback you trust, and more importantly, that they trust in you.
Luckily the recent changes to accreditation mean that people working for accredited guide services will be required to work within terrain guidelines. I think this is the most valuable change the AMGA has made in a while, and I wish it happened before I started guiding. I would be a better guide now. Apprentice and assistant guides will now have better access to supervision and mentorship than ever before. I really think we are entering a new and more advanced segment of our history as a guiding industry in the United States. Many good things are to come.
In the next parts I’ll talk about specific advice for succeeding in the different program streams (rock, alpine, ski). Until then climb hard and ski fast.
Danny Uhlmann is an American Mountain Guide/IFMGA Guide living in Chamonix. He started the AMGA training program with the Top Rope Site Manager (now SPI) in 2004 and finished the Mountain Guide program in 2012. His website is: www.firstlightmountainguides.com