Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What it Takes to be a Ski Guide

I finally made it to Valdez, Alaska for the American Mountain Guides Association Ski Mountaineering Guides Course. For those of you who don't know, the AMGA trains and certifies guides in the Alpine, Rock and Ski disciplines, and when a candidate is certified in all three disciplines, they are considered an IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association) Mountain Guide. It takes most people in the U.S. 3 to 6 years to complete all of the trainings and certifications to become a full Mountain Guide, and right now there are fewer than 60 who have completed this process (in the U.S.). Last year I finished this task, sort of your PHD of mountain travel, and have now been asked to start to teach and train the next round of guides. This crop includes guides from Alaska, Washington, Wyoming, Colorado and Idaho (to name a few) and also includes fellow athlete Julia Niles, who is on her way to becoming one of the few fully certified female mountain guides.

This course is 10 days long, and I thought it might be interesting (and entertaining) to give everyone a picture of what it actually means to be a trained and certified guide. Most developed countries in the world REQUIRE guides to be certified in order to work. This seems to make sense to me, you wouldn't want to trust your life to a doctor that wasn't board certified, so why trust your life to a guide that isn't certified? The land of the free, aka the U.S., has developed a guiding culture that did not require or put an emphasis in this certification process, but that perspective is starting to shift. More and more clients, guiding services and land managers are starting to see the importance of guide certification and the standards of practice and safety it brings to the table.

So here you go: I will bring you into the world of guide training and certification, and you can see what it takes to be a ski guide!

First things first, being a mountain guide means having a TON of gear (luckily I get to work with!) I had to put away the bike and the cams, and load up the skis, ice axes, crampons, rescue sleds, shovels, etc..., for one more stint of skiing this year.

I met up with my fellow instructors, Howie Schwartz and Joe Vallone, for some planning and prep for where and when we were going to take the candidates. Pouring over maps, past itineraries, recent snow pack data, and weather reports, we came up with a plan for the course.

Day 1 was today (Tuesday) and it entailed testing the candidates on their technical rescue skills. In our minds it is essential to know that the people I will be out in the mountains with on a course like this have my back.

The First of 4 drills was the construction of a rescue toboggan, loading a patient into it, lowering the patient 300 feet down a 45 degree slope (through 2 anchor stations that they construct out of skis) and finally dragging the sled 300 feet across a slope. This all has to be done in 70 minutes.
The second drill was finding 3 buried avalanche beacons in a 300 by 300 foot area in 7 minutes or less. Usually 2 of these beacons are buried about 10 feet apart and are at least 3 feet deep in the snow, with the third beacon being at least 5 feet deep in the snow.

The third drill was the construction of an emergency shelter with a tarp, shovel, and 3 pairs of skis and poles in 30 minutes.
Finally, we had the candidates dig some snow profiles (snow pits) so that we know their assessments of the snowpack are up to snuff.

Sound like a lot so far? It only took us 10 hours to get all of this stuff done...and tomorrow we still need to assess the students at crevasse rescue! After that we will start to get to skiing the big lines and covering some ground in the amazing Chugach Mountains...

Stay tuned for the next 10 days as I keep you posted on the daily trials and tribulations of what it takes to be a ski guide!

You can catch up on my other posts at

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Utah in the Spring - does it get any better?

So I have a temporary leave of absence from my ski season...I finished up in British Columbia at Valhalla Mountain Touring with an unbelievable 2 weeks of late season powder skiing, and uber clients that wanted to ski 7 to 8 grand a day. I got home to Salt Lake City where the cold smoke continued to pile up, so with my wife Jasmin working hard to finish up her thesis for grad school, I phoned up some lungs with legs for a quick morning tour last Thursday up Mill Creek Canyon. Tom, Paul, Ashley and I met up early for a pseudo dawn patrol and broke trail in the boot top fluff for a few laps in West Porter Fork. 5 hours and 7,500' feet later, we were all smiles, all wondering if this was our last shot at the soft white stuff for a while.

I got home, ate some lunch and packed up the car to head down to Indian Creek for a few days of rock climbing in the sun. It was a little bit of burning upon re-entry into climbing, as I hadn't touched rock since Christmas, but in Indian Creek, technique trumps strength, so I faired pretty well, having lived down in the desert for a few years of my life. I broke in the arms, and the new evolv shoes, got a little sunburned and a lot pumped.

Pulling down on Slice and Dice at the Creek, photo by Rich Wheater

Overall, could I ask for a more perfect few days? Utah in the spring is a blast. One day I am skiing perfect pow, and the next climbing the best cracks in the world in a t-shirt. Life is good, but my spring will be short lived...

Next week, the ski season continues for me. As it would seem from everyone else who posts to this blog, it is time for the seasonal migration to the big mountain motherlode: Alaska. I am happy to report though, that my trip should bring it down to Earth for lots of you folks. No helicopters, film crews and big budgets. We're talking cheap hotels, cheaper rental cars, bag lunches, winter camping and fully human powered endeavors on the peaks of Thompson Pass in Valdez, Alaska. The first week I will be showing a couple of folks the goods, while the next two will be spent training the next round of aspiring ski mountaineering guides, as I teach a Ski Mountaineering Guides Course for the American Mountain Guides Association. Stay's a shot to tease you for the next post:

As always you can track my new and old adventures at