American Mountain Guides Association Advanced Alpine Guides Course/ Aspirant Exam

September was a busy month for the guides of KMG!  It started off with Josh heading to Washington State for his Advanced Alpine Guides Course and Aspirant Exam (AAGC/AE) with American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA).

The Advanced Alpine Guide Course is the 3rd step in the alpine guiding education and certification process. The AAGC is designed for skilled climbers who wish to further develop their skills and techniques used while instructing and guiding in a glaciated alpine setting. The course covers the tools used when guiding and instructing on routes up to and including Grade V in length. It also covers management of 3rd and 4th class terrain, technical descents, management and movement of multiple clients and small team rescue skills. Emphasis is on effectively managing risks and maximizing client rewards.

To participate in the course, one must have successfully completed the Rock Instructor Course and the Alpine Guide Course in order to be considered for enrollment into the Advanced Alpine Guide Course.

Course Area:

The course is held in major glaciated, alpine ranges including, but not limited to, the North Cascades, the Bugaboos, European Alps, Canadian Ice Fields and alpine ranges of Alaska.  Our course was held in the North Cascades of Washington State.

Course Length:

The Advanced Alpine Guide Course and Aspirant Exam is 12-days in length. The final 3-days of the course will be the aspirant exam.


The Aspirant Guide Program is designed to serve as an intermediate step in the process of becoming a certified guide. The Aspirant Exam occurs as an integral part of the AMGA advanced level courses and is specific to the discipline of the course. It is intended to help determine that a candidate’s guiding skills meet the minimum standards appropriate for guiding and serves as preparation for the final certification exam. The standard for the Aspirant Guide Exam is at a level appropriate for guiding clients professionally with only indirect supervision. Furthermore, the essential skills and abilities of the Aspirant Guide need to be comparable to those of a full guide. The Advanced Alpine Guide Course will be divided into two components:

  • Component One includes instruction and practical experience.
  • Component Two includes assessment and examination of the skills needed to achieve Aspirant status.

During the AAGC candidates will be expected to carry out guiding assignments given by the course instructors. The majority of course time is spent with students leading ascents and descents in complex alpine environments. Candidates will serve as guides to the instructors and other course participants. During the 3-day Alpine Aspirant Exam candidates will be assessed and examined on their ability to perform specific objectives on terrain and in conditions appropriate to the alpine discipline. The Advanced Alpine Guide Course is now pass/fail in nature.

Skills that are a prerequisite to enrollment of the course will be assessed during the first few days of the course. If candidate does not perform at the required level for course entry they will be dropped from the advanced course at that time and will be required to retake the entire course at a later date. Skills that are an integral part of the course curriculum will be examined at the exam certification level towards the end of the course, after the candidate has had opportunity to practice them. If a candidate demonstrates acceptable performance on any of the assessment drills early in the course they can be checked off as “Pass”.

The 2012 American Mountain Guides Advanced Alpine Guide Course and Aspirant Exam consisted of:

  • Instructors:
    • Marc Chauvin – Course Director, AMGA Alpine Discipline Coordinator, IFMGA Guide
    • Jeff Ward – AMGA Instructor, Co-Owner North Cascades Mountain Guides, IFMGA Guide
    • Silas Rossi – AMGA Instructor, Exum Mountain Guide, Owner of Alpine-Logic, IFMGA Guide
  • Candidates:
    • Higinio Gonzalez – AMGA Certified Rock Guide – Guide for American Alpine Institute
    • Matt Barela – Guide for Mountain Trip, Mountain Madness, San Juan Mountain Guides
    • Lee Lazarra – Guide for Alpine Ascents International, American Alpine Institute
    • Tico Allule – AMGA Certified Rock Guide – Guide for Northwest Mountain School, Timberline Mountain Guides
    • Jeff Witt –  AMGA Certified Rock Guide, Guide for Exum Mountain Guides
    • Mark Rippenger – AMGA Certified Rock Guide – Guide for Mountain Madness, Timberline Mountain Guides
    • Michael Arnold – Guide for ClimbingLife Guide
    • Dustin Dearborn – Military Mountain Warfare Instructor
    • Josh Kling – AMGA Certified Rock Guide – Owner/ Lead Guide for Kling Mountain Guides

Our course began at Mt. Errie to go through the objective portions of the Aspirant Exam.  This included:

  • 45 minute rock rescue drill
  • 2 minute knot pass
  • 5.10a lead in rock shoes
  • 5.8 top rope in boots
  • 4th class timed climb up and down.

45 Minute Rock Rescue Drill

The 45 minute drill is a contrived rescue scenario.  The premise is if a the guide can accomplish each step, he/she is prepared to handle virtually any technical rescue on virtually any vertical terrain.  There are a variety of different ways each of the steps can be accomplished.  As long as there are no system critical errors made, and the guide candidate can accomplish each task asked of them by the examiner any time under 45 minutes passes.

Candidates are only allowed the following equipment during the both the 45 Minute Drill and the Knot Pas

  • Harness
  • Helmet
  • 2 Cordelettes.  These can be 6-7 nylon minimum or 5.5 spectra
  • 5 locking carabineers
  • 6 non-locking carabineers
  • 4 slings (webbing or cord, including a “mini” prusik loop)
  • 1 tube style belay device, or a combination belay/auto locking device such as a Reverso, ATC Guide or GiGi2
  • 2 climbing ropes
  • The client is allowed to carry one additional locking carabineer and belay device.

We start the drill with the guide candidate being examined hanging from a prefixed anchor belaying the client directly  from their harness with a plate style device or munter hitch.  Backups are required whenever the client’s weight is suspended by a single friction hitch.  The fake client can stand and move but is not able to help in any other fashion (except when required to rappel).

The basic outline of the AMGA Rock Rescue Drill

Times on this drill vary.  The rumor mill says the current record is around 19 minutes.  It seems that average times are around 35 minutes.  Josh’s personal record is 23 minutes 56 seconds.

2 Minute Knot Pass

Candidates begin with the “client” being lowered using a Munter hitch or plate device directly off a fixed nonreleasable anchor.  A back-up is required on the brake-hand side of the device. The exercise ends after the knot has been passed and the client has been lowered an additional body length. At the conclusion of the exercise there should be no friction hitches on the rope below the knot passed. Backups are required whenever the client’s weight is suspended by a friction knot. During the Knot Pass some form of load transfer is required. It is not acceptable in this exercise to simply pass the knot through the Munter hitch, other devices, or to “pop” the rope out from a loaded friction hitch.

After some last minute late night hotel knot pass drills the night prior (post margaritas) Josh was able to complete the knot pass in 2:12.

5.7 lead in mountain boots or 5.8 top rope in mountain boots

This drill is designed to make sure that the candidates are able to move comfortably in technical terrain while wearing stiff mountain boots.  A good example of stiff mountain boots would be the La Sportiva Trango S.

4th Class belayed climbed down climb

This drill is a climb up and then down climb of a 4th class gully.  Similar in nature to the 5.7 lead in boots it is designed to make sure that candidates are comfortable moving around in 4th class terrain.  Candidates are required to face out while down climbing.

The day was long, but went well.  Josh passed each section.  Whewww…..Day 1 Done!

Day 2

Since the weather forecast for the next several days was for good (a rarity in the Pacific Northwest) the instructors decided to go BIG thinking that we’d get shut down latter in the course.  The entire course was headed into the famed Boston Basin. Once in the Basin, the groups would split each tackling different objectives. My group headed up to the Quien Sabe Glacier and the col between Sahale and Boston peak.  This terrain provided several transitions from glacier travel to short roping and then back to glacier travel.  After spending a full day of switching travel modes we finished the day at our camp on the Forbidden Glacier.

The AMGA Advanced Alpine Guides Course and Aspirant Exam Day 2-4 tour.

Day 3

Our third day did not involve much travel.  We were on the hunt for a crevasse rescue site. The crevasse rescue drill is part of the Alpine Guides Exam.  While our group practiced different methods for crevasse rescue, we got to watch one of the other groups rappel the north face of Forbidden Peak.  It was a little bit like hippie tv getting to watchi IFMGA Guide and AMGA Instructor Jeff Ward’s group negotiate their way down an extremely technical the face.  The night was spent doing tour plans for day four in our Black Diamond Firstlight village.

Guides being guides

AMGA Advanced Alpine Guides Course Crevasse Rescue

Day 4

All three groups woke early (our friends back home had already gone home from the bars, but it was close depending on the drinking establishment you frequent).  Our group traversed the Forbidden glacier to the north ridge of Torment Peak.  This involved some pre-dawn glacial shenanigans for getting onto the North Ridgeof Toment proper.  The North Ridge of Torment (grade 2-3, 4th class) is a few thousand  ft of 3rd and 4th class ridge scrambling. There are numerous options the entire way to top, including some super fun knife-edge spots!  After summiting, we began the descent down the south east face.  The descent involved just about everything an AMGA candidate could ask for; short roping, lowers, rappels, loose rock, a bergschrund, funky belays, and more.

We were navigating the face with 10 other people on it.  Loose rocks, they were a flyin’ including one that hit me square in the helmet.  When we were almost off the face, our group encountered some other climbers in need of help.  We ended up assisting in the rescue of an other climber that had fallen approximately 20-30 meters.  The U.S. Navy ended up flying in a Pave Hawk helicopter to fly the injured climber out.  However, prior to the helicopter picking up the injured climber we got to watch our government dump hundreds, if not thousands of gallons of fuel out of the helicopter and into the North Cascades National Park!  After the rescue it was late.  There is no “I” in AMGA though and others on the course had helped prep a camp spot for those that assisted in the rescue.


Day 5:

Day five involved hiking out from Boston Basin and prepping for the next objective.  Prior to prepping, some important trail head barely pops were consumed.

Day 6:

Day six through eight of the course were spent climbing alpine rock routes on Washington Pass.  Despite what the rumors say, AMGA instructors are not all vicious villains.  This was evident when they let us start the day at 11:00 AM.  Most of the candidates, my self included, started the day with a great breakfast in the budding metropolis of Winthrop, WA population 397.  The objective for the day was the Blue Buttress on Poster Peak.  This can certainly be described as an “AMGA route.” Larry Goldie and Blue Bradley made the first ascent in the summer of 2003. Goldie is part owner of the North Cascades Mountain Guides.

Lee and Josh on Forbidden Peak

On the first ascent, Goldie and Bradley found fun, moderate climbing with only a bit of looseness here and there. After their ascent, Goldie mentioned it to a few friends and found out that Steve House had soloed the route just a few days later, thinking he had made the first ascent. It turns out the pair had accidently scooped their It involves 800 feet of scrambling up to 5.7. with a “classic” scree descent.  All three groups climbed variations of the same route and did the same descent.  A good half day objective, and a perfect AMGA route.

Day 7:

More alpine rock followed on day seven. The South Buttress of Cutthroat Peak (grade 3, 5.7, 1,000 feet) would be our objective for the day.  It involves everything from forth class scrambling up to several sections up to 5.7/5.8 climbing.  The key to the summit is a fun off width crack.  We worked in a 1:1 ratio (one guide working with one climber) for the entire day.  This gave each of us more up front time practicing guiding as well as more time observing Marc Chauvin-IFMGA Guide/AMGA Alpine Discipline Coordinator/Course Director mock guiding.  It is rare that candidates get to see first hand how an IFMGA guide with decades of experience, and enthusiasm operates first hand.

IFMGA Guide of the Year Marc Chauvin lookin' sharp!

Day 8:

In preparation for the final three days of the course, the Aspirant Exam, day eight was an other “shorter” day.  Our group got the South Arête of North Early Winter Spire (Grade 2, 5.5).  It was an other 1:1 day.  The route is not really on an arete.  It is more a very steep ridge, and for most of the route the crest itself is not followed. The first pitch is the hardest (5.5) with most of the rest of the route third and fourth class with the occasional fifth class move.

Day 9:

Aspirant Exam continues!  Due to the weather and conditions, the verdict was to head to Mt. Shuksan.  Mount Shuksan is a glaciated massif in the North Cascades National Park. It rises in Whatcom County, Washington immediately to the east of Mount Baker, and 11.6 miles (18.7 km) south of the Canadian border. The mountain’s name Shuksan is derived from the Lummi word [šéqsən], said to mean “high peak”. The highest point on the mountain is a three sided peak known as Summit Pyramid.  All three groups climbed the Fisher Chimney route to access our camps bellow Whinnies Slide.

Firstlight City on Shuksan

Day 10:

Our course was filled with local Cascade guides.  This meant that “normal” routes were out of the picture.  The two routes our AMGA Examiners chose were the North Face and Northwest Rib.  The North Face is a steep snow climb consisting of snow up to a few thousand feet of snow and possibly ice depending on conditions.  My group got sent over to the Northwest Rib, consisting of a few thousand feet of 4th class and low fifth class climbing.  An other day of 1:1 guiding lay ahead of us.

One of the cruxes of the day was just getting to the route.  The glacier was extremely broken up.  All three groups had to employee some serious creativity to just get to the start of the climb.  It was great to see different candidates each work through the problems each in their own ways. After some belayed down climbing, lowers, traverses, and snow anchors, we reached the base of our route. There are two entrances to get on the NW Rib of Shuksan, a lower start and a higher one.  Our group decided that due to the extended time it took to even reach the route, the higher start was more appropriate.  After approximately six hours we topped out the rib and were back on the glacier.  Our goal was a summit, after all the summit is the summit and that’s why they call it a summit!  However, more big cracks on the Upper Curtis Glacier on Shuksan’s north side kept us from reaching the true summit.  Some of our group did summit the Pico De Tico, a great consolation prize though.  More glacier travel and some basic glacial shenanigans got us back to camp with time to spare.  Cheehoo!  Only one day left.

Guide Problem solving

An alpine start for the Northwest Rib of Shuksan

Day 11:

We had to summit something, so our final day of the 2012 American Mountain Guides Association Advanced Alpine Guides Course Aspirant Exam consisted of the standard Hell’s Highway to the Sulphide glacier and South East Buttress of the summit pyramid.  In true AMGA style, doing a route in it’s traditional manor is, well, not traditional…..The normal way to tackle Shuksan’s SouthEast Buttress is to go up the buttress, and down the gully to the climbers left via a series of rappels.  Well, that would be just to easy.  As the Colorado guide, I had the privilege of up guiding the route at a 2:1 ratio (two clients being guided by a single guide). Once we topped out Tico, a local guide with intimate knowledge of the North Cascades and Mt. Shuksan took over the lead.  To make things more challenging Tico had to down guide the up route. Watching his seasoned brain work though scenarios was impressive.  Once back at camp, I took over the lead to down guide the Fisher Chimney.  IFMGA Guide/ AMGA Instructor Pool Member/ Owner of Alpine Logic Silas Rossi did a great job of making sure that the exam scenario was also educational.  A quick transition once we reached the trail and a not-run-but-fast-hike out got us to the trail head sans headlamp.  We loaded the cars and headed to the small town of Glacier and to Graham’s Restaurant for a late night but much needed dinner and beer (or few)

Day 12:

Debrief day took place at Starbucks, Haggen’s, and finally REI.  After doing a group debrief of the entire course, we each had our individual debriefs before all going our separate ways.  We do not find out our final scores at the individual debriefs.  It takes the instructors several weeks to put together in depth evaluations for eight participants.  After waiting three plus weeks, the results were in.   I passed!

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