So You Want To Be A Mountain Guide
Outdoor Research ambassador Mark Allen has been climbing since 1991, and guiding since 2001, in 11 countries and on all seven continents. He is IFMGA and AMGA certified, was nominated for a Piolet d’Or in 2014 for the first ascent of the Northeast Buttress of Alaska’s Mt. Laurens with fellow OR ambassador Graham Zimmerman. In his almost decade and a half of guiding, he’s seen and learned a lot. We asked him a few questions about his career, and his perspective on it.
1. How did you get started as a guide?
If you asked my family, my guiding career started I was a young adult. I fell into climbing as a teenager at a summer camp in Leavenworth, Washington, in 1989. I was exposed to the natural and physical wonders of the independent sport. I would learn I was proximal to some of the best climbing in the state and intrigued by the equipment and the culture. It was also at this adventure camp for youth that I would take on my first peak climb in the North Cascades—Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker—in the summer of 1991. My experiences on these climbs would have a profound effect on me. I would stare at the mountains of the Central Cascades from the Everett High soccer field during practice. In the winter my parents chucked me on the Clancy’s ski bus to Stevens Pass and went skiing nearly every chance possible. My senior year I skipped school 10 times to go to Stevens Pass. Ironically, I received a perfect attendance award during one of our semester assemblies. This received quite a reception from the students in the know.
Focusing on mountaineering and climbing as a young man was not easy. My parents were from the Midwest and had different interests and didn’t completely share the culture of climbing. I was ever insistent and took the steps that made them comfortable by joining the Everett Mountaineers Climbing Club. This was a great way for a young person to get outside with a good support group on the cheap. The Freedom of the Hills and the Fred Beckey’s Cascades Alpine Guides were bedside reading, earmarked with Mark Houston and Alan Kearney American Alpine Institute expedition course brochures.
I was becoming a product of the Cascades and navigating my way through the culture with not many peers. Jim Nelson and Selected Climbs of the Cascades would next take the shelf as my new muse. I was often coercing my neighbors into the mountains into joining my next scheme (and trailhead to sleep at) under the next peak. I pursued a Geology degree at Western Washington University and focused my field work in the North Cascades. School, Washington rock and alpine climbing, as well as skiing at Mount Baker Ski area, was my life. I was really stoked about where I was from and where I thought was going.
My first summer job out of college was as a first-year guide at the American Alpine Institute. I was now leading trips on Baker and Shuksan. I had nearly come full-circle. This was not exactly what my parents had in mind for my new BS in Geology—but my clients were stoked!
2. What's the most challenging thing about making a living as a guide?
In many cases, full-time guides have to be in the field overnight or on expeditions to make a livable wage annually. I work around 200-250 days a year in the field, about half of that is overnight or abroad. Early in my career, my life was unorganized prior to tools like good cell reception, satellite phones, and online banking. I also didn’t have rock solid partner like my female super-star-ski-mountaineer, Sheldon Kerr, for life support. Learning the sustainable methods of a more transient life and how to maintain a thriving relationship with a partner is key. It can be hard having the offices of your insurance company or your dentist understand your life patterns when the rest of the world works on a 9-to-5, five-days-a-week time frame with full access to communication. A young guide could easily lose their car insurance, default on a bill, or miss important family events when working a ton, abroad, or in another region of the country. We just have to get more creative about how to make it happen in order to follow our passions as much as we do in a given year. Families get used to it, but never like it wholeheartedly. Guides have to master these logistics, or relationships and your infrastructure start to break down.
3. Tell us your favorite client story of all time.
When I was working as a guide in Antarctica our team was returning to Mt. Vinson base camp. Now with the summit in the bag, one of my clients had mentally wrapped up the trip and was headed back to the barn. The issue was the barn was in Serbia. He had it in his brain that his glacier-bush flight, then Russian transport jet to Patagoina, then his connecting flight to Santiago, and then flights to Eastern Europe were going to run like a Swiss train and put him back with his family for new years in 72 hours. He had big ants in his pants to get to base camp. Just how big the ants were was about to be discovered. The rest of the group was not as motivated as he observed. He requested if he could get started after his break. I told him he could if he walked slow and stopped at the edge of the camp so I could secure him into the glacier travel rope and walk with us down the glacier. In less than 15 minutes he was out of site trucking down the glacier, solo. I quickly radioed the guides a few hours ahead. In approximately 20 minutes I got a transmission from IFMGA guide Chris Simmons. “Oh yeah, I see him…and he is moving really fast!”
Chris continues in disbelief and reports our Serbian national has mounted his expedition sled like an Olympic skeleton-sled and was making record time head first down the Branscomb Glacier. He beat all the returning groups to base camp by hours. As it would turn out, he was the national Yugoslavian skeleton champion when he was 19. I’m certain this was the first time this had ever been attempted and he was one of few people that could pull it off. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. So, folks don’t try that at home. It’s not for the faint of heart or very safe to skeleton a kiddy sled in crevassed glaciated terrain on any mountain. He was a local hero to a few of the clients, and at the top of the shit list with the guides.
4. You guide on rock and ice, climbing and skiing. How does your year approximately break down in guiding?
Yes, I’m licensed to guide all of actives you list and passionate about them all. I’m based in the Northwest with seasonal programs in Alaska; Canada; Lofoten, Norway; Western Europe; and Asia. In the summer I focus on alpine and rock guiding in the North Cascades and the Swiss and French Alps. The fall is usually a migration to better weather for rock climbing in Moab and Red Rocks. Winter for the last five years has been backcountry ski and ice guiding in Ouray and Silverton of Southwest Colorado. This winter Sheldon and I are going to migrate back to the Northwest and locally operate in the Cascades offering ski and avalanche programs as well as ice climbing in Eastern Washington and Western Canada. This will have us in the Northwest most of the year now. In the spring we work with a super dialed ski touring program in Norway the Lofoten Ski Lodge and guide Hut-to-Hut traverses through the Western Alps.
There is always a peak season somewhere. We take can take advantage of that and offer our clients a domestic and international portfolio of trips. I’m really pumped about focusing more energy in the Northwest since I have a natural connection here and know the terrain well. There is so much to be offered in the Northwest. I feel pretty lucky to have access here. I have formed a new guiding outfitting company call the Mountain Bureau LLC. We are months old and don’t even have a website. However, we are currently providing many of our clients with trips in our local, domestic, and international network of certified guides. A main focus is client experience. We achieve this by working with only certified guides and provide these guides a positive progressive work environment to thrive in our network. We even brand the Mountain Bureau LLC as Fair Trade. This will ultimately provide the client with the best service possible and create a very powerful network of competent guides at the top of their field.
5. Lots of people might look at your job and say, "That guy's got it made—he gets to go climbing and skiing all the time." But it's not all fun. What's the reality like?
It’s a wonderful job much of the time and we love our work. But the level of preparation and how much we give of ourselves to ensure our guests have a good time day-after-day can wear a guide down. It’s important to schedule personal time to be away from it all and get some personal time in the mountains. Also doing unrelated activities like surfing or working on the house is key.
Having a new climber belay you on a lead is an occupational hazard. Guides look at all of these issues as hazards that will be variably present day to day. Sometimes it is the cold or it is heavy snow. Maybe a hard pitch, or all three. We are always coming back to a few mantras.
1. Is the reward worth the risk, or can the risk be safely managed and mitigated?
2. How does the risk vs. likelihood stack up, and what is the consequence if “it” does happen?
3. How certain are you “it” is not going to happen?
4. What are my options? Having a pre-planned alternative often makes it easier to accept and keeps us from committing to risky exposures.
It’s a cerebral and calculated balancing act that has taken years to develop. Moreso, this is much of what the AMGA teaches and evaluates guides in the certifications processes. With experience, guides get better at choosing objectives appropriate for the client and the conditions. Yey the mountains care very little about our day or your agenda. Most of why folks like climbing with guides is that we have been exposed to many of these risks before and can recognize them and avoid them. That’s why you knowing your guide’s “acceptance of risk” is an important part of the relationship in forming your trust in them. Many of my clients like it when I back off something. I’ve gotten past feeling silly when I do and their families thank us for it.
6. What do you think is the most common misconception about the profession of guiding?
It is not a coincidence many US IFMGA guides travel to work in Europe. Currently the industry is imbalanced and not all American guides are working under the same standards or equal access to public lands. Let me try to paint the a brief landscape of how diverse this industry is.Today and in the past, clients would have a difficult time looking at websites and knowing what they are getting. Some outfitters have used language to suggest the staff is at a higher standard or even certified by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA);—the only national standard and certifying association for the trade in the U.S. I even stretched this as a young guide without understanding the implications when trying to market my experience and partial training. The American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) has gone through a recent re-branding process to closely guard the brand management of the guiding credential. The AMGA manages the certification process of guides and accreditation of member outfitters.
My collogue Danny Ulmann, also an International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) guide, spends a lot of his time working in Europe, Alaska, and the Cascades, and has a few great posts on his blog touching on just this point. He recently wrote [LINK: http://firstlightmountainguides.com/blog/2014/7/29/amga-members-how-to-brand-yourself.html ], “The most common mistake is for people to call themselves "Mountain Guides" who are not IFMGA. The U.S. is the only country where that happens. As soon as you pass the 49th parallel into Canada if you call yourself a Mountain Guide people will assume that you are IFMGA, because that is what it means there, as well as the other 20+ IFMGA countries, where the same standard of naming oneself applies. The same thing can be said for calling oneself simply a rock, ski, or alpine guide without actually being certified.”
This point is heavily argued and controversial among guides since, in the U.S., where this credential is not required to accept similar work. The U.S. Guides, who are working but not certified, can have an undetermined amount of training. A Wilderness-firstaid card and a signed W4 is what most land managers necessitate of the operator to require of their guide. This is touched on in recent post by IFMGA guide John Race’s blog "There is no required training for preventing an accident. In other words, we have done nothing to reduce the possibility you will get a head injury, but once you do, we know what to do with head injuries.
But there are always two sides to story and there is much more to this multi-faceted topic. There are many good non-credentialed guides in the U.S. where their experience surpasses any level of their training. I personally work with and exceptionally solid lead-guide staff at International Mountain Guides on Mount Rainier .These talented guides can be very apt and in some venues, potentially more capable than a visiting certified guide. Some are even on the road to being credentialed. Again, this is an effect of the US permit system. Again Race states "Most of the [permitted guiding services] are very qualified to operate in these areas” he states this is because “company(s) build up the institutional knowledge that comes from repeatedly guiding the same routes"
However, the certified guides as a whole are operating at a much higher minimum standard and taking very little time to adapt to a new environment. The AMGA guides are trying to encourage the other camp of capable guides to professionalize themselves. This way all guides can work together, have a minimum standard, and improve the quality of industry as a whole to have a more solid voice. This entire concept of having a standard that would also leverage a more sustainable living for professional guides. This presently is under fire by some in how it could effect their business model. Today the climate is changing quickly and lines are being drawn in the sand. My hope is that all interest groups can move foreword to aline the politics. This way we can work with the land managers so that we can improve the lives of everyone involved; guides and their families, rangers, land managers, guide services, and especially the public we take into the mountains.
7. Can you explain the difference between a guide (U.S.) and a Mountain Guide (Europe), and why you decided to get IFMGA certification?
Well first, we are just better looking. One cool fact is that the American Mountain Guides have the highest percentage of IFMGA-certified women in the world. There are 1500 licensed guides in Switzerland and 1 percent of them are women. In the states we are close to 10 percent.
In Western Europe, all guides in the IFMGA countries are required to have competed the first two-thirds of the training and evaluation processes prior to working as a professional. The guiding and mountain culture in Western Europe is farther in its professional evolution by about 40 years. The EU guides went through a similar industrial revolution in 1950, which failed to take, and then again in 1969 when the IFMGA was successfully formed. The second difference is all licensed guides in many IFMGA countries have access. This license allows certified guides to gain public access to the terrain and to legally practice their trade. The U.S. has the similar license of anyone in the working-at-height sector via the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT) but not for mountain, rock, ice, or ski guiding.
Our access as guides differs in the U.S. and is provided by the guide services who hold the federal permit awarded by the commercial operator in compliance with land managers. This is why clients associate guides with services and you will rarely see guides working independently, much like most of what happens in the EU. In the EU, mountain towns have non-profit, locally-run “mountain-bureaus” in the town centers where clients can procure a guide for climbing or skiing. These bureaus have a Rolodex of the licensed guides and set the day up for a fee. In the act of booking clients for the guides, the U.S. guide services are similar, however the difference is IFMGA European guides can move around the Alps and work with, or for whom, any person or group they can procure work with and there is no animosity held towards the guide.
One benefit of our US system of managed lands is that our managers have done a much better job for conservation of our lands and wildlife as a whole. This aspect I truly appreciate when I return home and into areas I visit most. However, the current U.S. system has affected our next generation of career guides as they are on the fringe of accessing public lands. We are trying be better resources to the public and the land managers. We are now working more closely with federal land managers, and all interest groups, on how to improve access for the public that would like to hire a guide.
So, why become a credentialed guide? Because it’s my trade and I would only expect someone pursuing any career to achieve the level of training to attain the license in that trade. I needed the process and I’m a much better professional for it in all aspects. Besides we get to wear the IFMGA pin. It’s not just a license it’s a culture and we are very proud to be a part of it. We will be even more proud when we all can wear it.
8. If a young man or woman told you they wanted to be a guide, what advice would you give them?
Learn how to climb and ski like a pro prior to entering this field. Professionalize yourself and learn about the perquisites for a guiding certification in your field of interest. This will support your chosen trade of guiding rather than undermining it. If you want to be a pro climber, then get a different job. Few guides can do both and pull it off. Most pros are accessing the mountains without guests they are responsible for. First, we are a group of people who wishes to bring the public into terrain and an have them experience what would not be possible without our guidance. Second, we are pro climbers and skiers. We have mastered moving our guests safely as possible through terrain with inherent hazards. We work in exceptional places on the planet and have fun while doing it in the best style. We want to help people use the mountains to bring joy to their lives and learn why it is we need to take care of this wonder place we call home, planet Earth.