This September I took and passed the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Alpine Guide exam. I am now an AMGA Certified Alpine Guide. The Alpine Guide Certification is designed for people who guide glaciated and non-glaciated peaks, approaches and climbs, with no limitation with respect to season and elevation. It includes rock climbs, peak ascents, waterfall ice climbs, and expeditionary climbing. The exam is the culmination of multiple other AMGA programs.
To gain the title of Certified Alpine Guide one must complete the following:
My alpine exam took place in the North Cascades, WA. We spent time guiding in the Washington Pass zone and Eldorado Peak/ Inspiration Glacier zone. The goals of the 10-day Alpine Guide Exam (AGE) are to assess and certify alpine climbing guides at the AMGA and IFMGA international standards and to further the general education of students.
Format: Exam candidates are expected to carry out guiding assignments given by the examiners during the exam. Candidates serve as guides to the examiners and to the other participants on routes chosen for their complex guiding challenges.
Expectations: The exam is conducted on routes in alpine terrain and may include glaciated and non-glaciated peaks, approaches, and climbs, with no limitation. It includes rock climbs, peak ascents, and waterfall climbs. A strong emphasis is placed on expertise in short roping clients.
Assessment Areas: Screening of movement skills in rock, alpine, snow, ice, and mixed terrain; Crevasse Rescue Drill; Guided days assessment, which includes evaluation in the following nine areas: risk management, client care, technical systems, application, terrain assessment, movement skills, mountain sense, professionalism and instructional technique.
- Current AMGA member
- Completion of a CPR and WFR Course (minimum 80 hours) or higher certification
- Successful completion of a Level III Avalanche Course that is AMGA approved
- Successful completion of the Advanced Alpine Guide Course and Aspirant Exam
- Confidence leading 5.10a in rock shoes, at the time of the exam
- Confidence leading 5.7 in mountain boots, at the time of the exam
- Confidence leading WI 4, at the time of the exam
- Confidence with French Technique on firm 40 degree snow, at the time of the exam
- Familiar with LNT practices
- Since completing the AAGC/AE, you have led or shared lead on 5 different alpine routes grade IV or longer
- Since completing the AAGC/AE, you have led or shared lead on 10 different traditional style rock climbs rated 5.10a or harder
- Since completing the AAGC/AE, you have guided 10 days in diverse alpine terrain
My 2015 Alpine Guide Exam consisted of:
- Angela Hawse – IFMGA Guide and Exam Director, Telluride Helitrax, Peak Mountain Guides, co-owner Chicks with Picks
- Dylan Taylor – IFMGA Guide and examiner, owner of Taylor Alpine
- Forest McBrian – Examiner, IFMGA Guide, co-owner of Borealis Mountain Guides
- Erik Leidecker – Examiner, IFMGA Guide, CO-owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, Eddie Bauer/First Ascent Ski Guide Team
- Alan Orem – AMGA Certified Ski Guide and Certified Rock Guide, Exum Mountain Guides
- Erica Engle – AMGA Certified Ski Guide, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides
- Sebastian Grau – AMGA Certified Rock Guide, Mountain Trip
- Josh Kling – AMGA Certified Rock Guide, Kling Mountain Guides
- Paul Koubrek – AMGA Certified Rock Guide, Yosemite Mountaineering School
- Mike Lewis – AMGA Certified Rock Guide, Colorado Mountain School
- Brian Smith – AMGA Certified Rock Guide, Exum Mountain Guides
- Dan Zokaites – AMGA Certified Rock Guide, Peak Mountain Guides
Due to having such large objectives in front of us, our exam actually began the night prior to the start. This consisted of a pre-exam guides meeting at the Winthrop KOA.
Day 1: Direct East Buttress of South Early Winter Spire (Grade III, 5.11, 9 pitches). Paul started us out from the car and had the first half of the climb. We switched over for me to take the lead at pitch 6, the infamous bolt ladder and tricky mantle move. Unfortunately I did take a lead fall at the tricky mantle. Not ideal for my first lead pitch on my first day of the exam! That being said, this was the first fall I had ever taken on any of the AMGA rock or alpine programs I have ever done. While it’s less than ideal for a guide to fall, sometimes it does happen. It was a very soft catch, I finished the move and finished the route. Other than my slip on the mantle, I was very happy with the rest of my lead.
This was also the first day in my new Camp Air CR harness. This harness rocks! I typically am not a fan of light weight low padding harness. The Air CR was a game changer though. It is new for 2015 and is designed for light and fast alpine style climbing. Here are a few stats:
- Lightweight, robust harness with adjustable leg loops
- Edge-Load Construction on the waist and legs
- Auto-locking buckles on the waist and legs
- Elastic straps that connect the waist and legs with steel hooks
- Patented No-Twist belay loop Absolute coolest feature of any Camp harness and absolutely worth the money.
- 4 reinforced gear loops, chalk bag loop
- Hub racking biner compatible
- 350 g, 12.3 oz (Size M)
My favorite feature of pretty much every Camp harness is the patented No-Twist belay loop. This feature in essence locks a carabiner to the belay loop in the proper orientation to prevent cross loading. In addition, the no-twist belay look makes tying a munter on your harness exceptionally easy. The Air CR was as comfortable as I could have asked for on a 9 pitch route. However, it was still very low bulk. Having a low bulk and light weight “kit” of climbing gear is essential for being an alpine guide. Low bulk and light weight translates to better movement in the mountains. Better movement in the mountains often translates to safer movement. The Air CR fits perfectly inside my Camp Speed 2.0 helmet for the hike in and hike out.
Here I am wearing my Air CR harness and Speed 2.0 helmet on the descent of the East Face of Chablis Spire during a Wine Spire traverse.
Like the harness, this is a low bulk light weight, but durable helmet. Themes repeat and an alpine guide wants a fully rated helmet, that is comfortable for all day weight. The low bulk of the Speed 2.0 makes it much easier and less tiering to wear. It also fits under a hood much better than a bulkier suspension style helmet.
While a comfortable and reliable harness and helmet will not pass any AMGA exam for you, they sure can add to you being confident.
Day 2: North Ridge of Cutthroat Peak to the West Ridge Descent (Grade III 5.7) Today was another alpine rock objective. However, the grade was significantly easier than our previous days objective. Moving efficiently is the only way to complete these long objectives day after day. To move more efficiently on Cutthroat we chose to wear approach shoes for the entire climb. My shoe of choice was the La Sportive Ganda Guide. Having a shoe that you can climb mid-5th class rock in, while still being comfortable on the approach is awesome. This shoe does just that.
One hopes to absolutely crush every day of an AMGA exam. These exams are the time to shine and show the examiners how great you are. Unfortunately, day two was not that day for me. While I never overly exposed our group to excessive risk, it was not my best exam day. Fortunately for me, I still had plenty of time to error correct and show my examiners I knew what I was doing.
This was probably the coolest objective we had the entire exam. The assignment was to guide, climb and descend as many of the spires with a bivy somewhere along the route. Super cool! Different groups chose different options. Since we only had two days (one day in, climb that afternoon, camp, climb the next day and hike out) Paul and I choose to make our first objective to be the East Face of Chablis (grade II 5.6 R). We chose this as our first objective since we were also hiking in that day and wanted a Mazama Start. A Mazama Start was the term we coined for wanting to start the day with a coffee and breakfast sandwich at the famous Mazama Store.
Despite what the above picture shows, we were able to make it al the way from the Burgundy Col to the East Face of Chablis Spire (pictured) without ever touching snow! We made quick work of the route climbing it in our mountain boots. I choose the La Sportiva Trango Cube GTX. This boot was perfect for the job. It is slightly stiffer than the previous Trango and climbs rock incredibly well. It also fits my foot perfectly, which is the most important part of a boot!
Day 3: West Ridge of Pisano Pinnacle (grade III 5.9-, 8 pitches) link up to the North Ridge of Burgundy Spire (grade III 5.8 6 pitches)
Linking these climbs would make for an awesome 13 pitch 5.9. Unfortunately it was not in the cards for us that day. Oh well. We still ended up climbing the North Face of Burgundy. While the lower half of this route was not the highest queasily rock, to say the least, the upper pitches were super fun!
This was an other alpine rock approach shoe objective. AMGA Certified Rock Guide and Operations Director for the American Alpine Institue Jason Martin has a great write up on the route here. This time I began the day. We again chose to do a Mazama Start. The day just seems to be better when started with a good coffee and breakfast sandwich. I took us about 2/3 of the way up the route, with Paul taking over for the last 1/3 and descent.
Day 6: Rest day and transition to the west side of Washington Pass. Due to weather we had chosen to spend the entire first half of the exam on rock objectives on the east side of Washington Pass. This tends to be the drier side of the pass. By spending the entire first half of the exam on one side of the pass, we minimized driving time.
Day 7 – 9: Eldorado Peak and Inspiration Glacier zone.
Day 7: Hike in and crease rescue drills.
After hiking in and setting camp, the entire exam headed over to the inspiration glacier for our crease rescue drill.
Crevasse Rescue Time allowed: 45 minutes
Equipment allowed: 1 Single rope, 1 ice axe, 1 ice hammer (a picket may be substituted for either the axe or hammer), 1 pack, 3 ice screws, 1 harness, 1 helmet, 3 cordelettes, 5 locking carabiners, 4 non-locking carabiners, 3 slings (webbing or cord). Cords should be minimum diameter of 5.5mm Spectra or 6-7mm nylon.
The guide must be protected when within 2 meters of any crevasse edge. Candidates begin the exercise with the client tied in for glacier travel, standing on the glacier. The victim slides into the crevasse. The guide must arrest the fall with the victim in the crevasse suspended by the rope. The clock starts after the fall has been stopped. The exercise must be completed in the order indicated below.
1. The victim slides into the crevasse, the guide arrest the fall.
2. Build an anchor and transfer load to that anchor.
3. Rappel to victim. Safety back up required on guide.
4. Move victim into upright position with some form of chest harness.
5. Ascend out of crevasse.
6. Establish haul system. Minimum 5:1 mechanical advantage required.
7. Haul victim out of crevasse.
The exercise is complete when both client and guide are on the surface. Candidates may be required to demonstrate other systems in combination with other scenarios. While candidates will be demonstrating the application of technical skills in a controlled situation, decision making, judgment, error correction, and the safety of the guide and client are essential components of the exercise. Intervention on the part of the examiner, should reasonable margins of safety be compromised, is grounds for failing this portion of the exam.
Day 8: Like the other days, different groups had different objectives. The different objectives consisted of: East Ridge of Eldorado Peak with a glacier tour, North Early Morning Spire, Dorado Needle, and Klawatti Peak.
Day 9: While we had planned on spending day nine climbing, inclement weather and timing prohibited climbing. We spent the morning doing map and compass exercises, while the examiners looked over our tour plans.
Day 10: Final day exam debrief! No alarm sleeping in! Day ten consists of both a full exam debrief as well as individual debriefs. The exam debrief covers all aspects of the exam from “what’s next” to any and all near-misses or close-calls. We discussed both the strengths of the program as well as what the exam lacked. We then each had individual debriefs with our examiners. By 2:00 PM people where hitting the road and going their separate ways. Overall it was a great exam. It’s easy to say with hindsight, but any guide that ever goes through the American Mountain Guides Association Alpine Guide program will come out a better guide, no questions asked.
A few shameless promotions: First a HUGE thanks to the folks at Camp USA for styling me out with some awesome light and fast alpine gear. In the mountains and alpine environment, the equipment one chooses to climb and guide in is more than just comfort. It can make the difference between succeeding and failure. Camp gear definitely played a part in my comfort level during this exam.
An additional huge thanks to Smith Optics for styling me out with some amazing sunglasses. The Smith Dockside sunglasses with CromaPop lenses provided exceptional clarity while spending extremely long days in the mountains. Your eyes, like any other part of your body can tire with extreme use. Spending huge days in bright light and varying weather conditions can tire your eyes. I choose the ChromaPop Polarized Platinum lenses with 14% visible light transmission. This is one of the darker lenses Smith makes. Big days in bright light require a dark sense. However, unless on a glacier, I find that anything darker than about 14% VLT is too dark. My eyes end up tiring from straining to see. This is all magnified if you wear contacts (which I do). Having awesome sunglasses with a huge wrap and dark polarized lenses kept my eyes performing. It sounds silly, but your eyes matter. Just ask Johny Utah in Point Break “Yeah, vision is over rated…”