- Melissa Arnot
- Alex Barber
- Bridget Belliveau
- Jake Beren
- Zeb Blais
- Katrina Bloemsma
- Katie Bono
- Adam Butterfield
- Anne Gilbert Chase
- Lance Colley
- Sean Collon
- Leon Davis
- Elias de Andres Martos
- Pepper Dee
- Paul Edgren
- Mark Falender
- Leah Fisher
- Lindsay Fixmer
- Eric Frank
- Steve Gately
- Josh Gautreau
- JM Gorum
- Casey Grom
- Billy Haas
- Dave Hahn
- Walter Hailes
- Mike Haugen
- Bryan Hendrick
- Andy Hildebrand
- Joe Horiskey
- Nick Hunt
- Tyler Jones
- JJ Justman
- Levi Kepsel
- Andrew Kiefer
- Mike King
- Adam Knoff
- Caleb Ladue
- Ben Liken
- Zach Lovell
- Josh Maggard
- Paul Maier
- Linden Mallory
- Lindsay Mann
- Andres Marin
- Jeff Martin
- Stoney Molina
- Robert Montague
- Chase Nelson
- Billy Nugent
- Brent Okita
- Tyler Reid
- Kel Rossiter
- Geoff Schellens
- Shaun Sears
- Mike Soucy
- Garrett Stevens
- Jason Thompson
- Mark Tucker
- Mike Uchal
- Pete Van Deventer
- Alex Van Steen
- Ed Viesturs
- Christina von Mertens
- Mike Walter
- Seth Waterfall
- Solveig Waterfall
- Peter Whittaker
- Win Whittaker
- Bryson Williams
- Dan Windham
- Robby Young
Posts for Guide Grant
I remember when I first stepped into the mountains. I was 11 years old and I had never seen a mountain before, let alone thought of climbing one. My father, older brother, and I traveled to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to climb Mt. Washington (6,288’). I remember finally standing on top of the boulder pile that comprises the summit and feeling the accomplishment. “I did it, I’m on top!” It was windy—a wet cold cloud had moved in during the final hour of tedious boulder hoping to the top—and even at that age I remember quickly coming to the realization that I needed to turn around and walk back down! Mt. Washington is unique in that it has a paved road to the summit along with the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway train. My brother insisted that we descend via the train. Luckily for me, my father obliged and shortly after the train started it’s descent it began pouring. Although I was cozy in a train cabin watching the rain patter off the windows, I didn’t soon forget my realization: the summit is only halfway.
You hear this quite often in the climbing world. The ability to efficiently descend is a crucial skill in regards to staying safe in the vertical world. Just as with standing on top of Mt. Rainier, Denali, or Mt. Everest, getting down off of a rock climb requires the same amount of focus and effort as climbing it, and in a lot of ways requires much more.
Days 5 and 6 of our Rock Guide Course were focused on becoming proficient in our technical descent systems. I was paired up with RMI guide Pete Van Deventer and former RMI guide and current AMGA instructor Jeff Ward, and we traveled over to the Bunny Face Wall of Smith Rocks. On the easy and moderate multi-pitch sport climbs this area had to offer we discussed and practiced rappelling and lowering our climbers: the pro’s and con’s of each, when and why to use one over the other and a myriad of ways to be more efficient and provide the best experience possible for our climbers. Over the course of the next few days, we climbed a number of different routes and really got the opportunity to apply these techniques in mock guiding scenarios.
When you practice these skills for the first time—or any skill for that matter—it’s usually done so in the “best-case scenario.” You start out easy so you can concentrate on the learning. In rock climbing the “best-case scenario” is pretty straightforward and easy to mitigate. Over the next several days of climbing, we learned that the best scenario rarely occurs. As guides, we need to always be prepared for the difficult scenario, and we had the benefit of climbing into some terrain that posed plenty of guiding challenges. This allowed for lots of hands on learning and problem solving. As guides, it’s important that we keep our skills sharp and this course was a great reminder that that process truly never ends. 16 years ago I learned that getting to the top is only half way and 16 years later I’m still being reminded of that fact!
Steve Gately grew up in Boston, MA, and found his love for the mountains in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In 2012, Steve combined his passion for teaching, climbing, and the mountains when he started guiding for RMI. Steve now guides year round for RMI, from Argentina to Alaska. Steve will be guiding not one, not two, but three trips to Aconcagua this winter!
Day three of the AMGA Rock Guide Course started a little less comfortably than we had hoped. Our course’s venue was located in the heart of central Oregon and early November often offers a mixed bag of weather. For the four of us who were camping near the park, this meant we awoke to find ourselves shivering and scraping a light layer of frost off of the inside of our tents.
As mountain guides, we often deal with inclement weather, but even our familiarity with discomfort didn’t stop all the grumbling that morning as we made coffee. Luckily for us, our instructor team was equally apprehensive about climbing in freezing temperatures and had called a quick audible. The day’s goals shifted to learning rescue techniques and skills in the ‘comfort’ of a covered cooking space.
After just finishing my first year with RMI, I was excited to see how our in-house rescue training would compare to the official AMGA equivalent. As the morning progressed, the instructor team grew equally excited as it became clear that much of the rescue curriculum was review, albeit, made a bit more difficult by the vertical orientation and the small working zones that the rock environment demands. Despite the cold temps and biting wind, we were able to fly through hauling techniques and knot passes. That morning’s training concretely highlighted for me how well RMI trains their guides. Because of our familiarity with many of the techniques, we were able to open the book and learn a couple new tricks and subtleties that may have otherwise been lost on a less experienced crew.
Once we had mastered new slack management tricks and practiced the variety of haul systems, we changed venues and tried to warm ourselves up with some rope ascending. Ascending is one of those skills that any basic crevasse rescue course will teach you, yet even our most experienced guides were able to walk away with a new trick or two. This again speaks to the level of experience and expertise that our instructors brought to the course.
The day’s training finished with a variety of skills that we will be tested on in our next course. A large part of the AMGA course curriculum is a series of examinations that aspiring guides go through to prove their proficiency. For many, these examinations can be stressful and difficult. However, this course has shown me that as long as I continue to work with the incredible fellow guides and instructors that make up the AMGA and RMI, this will be a process I am excited to continue on.
With my first year at RMI finished and my first AMGA course completed, I am more enthused than ever at the prospect of continuing my education. Without a doubt, my most profound take away from this course has been how much of a pleasure it is to work with professional mountain guides. In all my time in the mountains, I’ve never found a group who equals the enthusiasm and commitment to perfecting their craft that RMI guides have.
Finally, I want to echo Seth’s thanks to RMI for investing in their guides and allowing these courses to happen. I’m already looking forward to my next AMGA course and my next season with RMI!
Caleb Ladue just finished his first season guiding with RMI. He grew up in Vermont, where he learned to love the mountains for all that they offered, and that passion has taken him throughout the US and to the Peruvian Andes. He’ll be hanging his hat in Jackson Hole this winter, and will return to Mt. Rainier in the Spring, excited to share his passion with many more climbers!
In late October, RMI guides Pete Van Deventer, Caleb Ladue, Billy Haas, Steve Gately and myself took part in a Rock Guide Course conducted by the American Mountain Guides Association. The course was contracted and sponsored by the RMI Expeditions/First Ascent Guide Grant, and the instructors included former RMI Guide Jeff Ward, RMI and Colorado Mountain School Guide Mike Soucy and CMS Guide Mark Hammond.
As a guide staff, we felt very fortunate that both RMI and the AMGA instructors were able to plan the course during a timeframe that allowed us to work a full summer schedule on Rainier and still have a few weeks to prepare and train in the rock realm after a long season of alpine climbing in the Cascades. After completing my Ski Exam and becoming a Certified Ski Mountaineering Guide in April of this last year, I am personally very grateful to RMI for sponsoring the course, which allowed me to complete a second financially committing segment of my
continuing education and progression toward full IFMGA certification.
The 10-day course took place at Smith Rock State Park near Bend, OR. Over the years I have spent a fair bit of time climbing at Smith and I knew the venue would provide some unique challenges from both a climbing and guiding perspective. While Smith is known for it’s high quality sport climbing, on this course we would be dialing our focus more towards traditional climbing. Lucky for us, many of the ‘trad’ routes at Smith are notorious for having less than stellar rock quality, adding another complex element to the guiding objective.
The course kicked off on the last week of October. The weather looked to be good for the first couple of days, so we postponed the ground-work until a later date, and got right into the climbing. For me, the learning process brought me right back to my apprenticeship days at RMI, when I had to change the filter on my perspective. I quickly learned to transition my thinking from that of an advanced recreational climber to approaching a climbing objective from the viewpoint of a guide. It’s a subtle change, but it makes a huge difference in your mindset, risk management, and the decision making process.
The instructor team did a great job of leading by example. They started right off with a very professional and competent course opening discussion and several demonstrations on belaying and anchoring techniques, as well as various ways to increase both guide and client security. As outdoor professionals, we don’t sit still well or for very long, and so were very thankful when we even got to climb a few pitches at the end of the first day!
The fair weather held on into our second day, but as the forecast looked to be deteriorating later in the week, the instructors opted to keep us in the field climbing in the event that we got shut down by rain and wind over the following days. This strategy worked quite well, as we were able to practice more of the techniques and rope trickery we learned the previous day while spending time off the ground in the vertical orientation.
By nature, guides tend to be kinesthetic learners, and as a group we all commented on the fact that we were able to process and retain the information with higher success if we could get our hands on the rope.
After the first few days, the course continued to ramped up both physically and mentally. For me it just got better as it went on, and the final day was by far the best, culminating in a lead of the aesthetic final pitch of Zebra Zion.
I can’t say enough about the both the quality and caliber of the AMGA instructors, and I’d like to especially thank my co-workers for a great time and creating an environment that was positive and fun, all while staying engaged and eager to learn every day.
Finally, a big thank you RMI, for investing in your guides and organizing this opportunity to allow us to further our professional education!
Seth Waterfall has been guiding trips for RMI for over a decade, and leads trips to destinations the world round. He lives in Enumclaw, WA, were he spends his spare time skiing, road biking, and climbing throughout the Cascades.
As a professional mountain guide, not only does my job involve spending most of my days in the mountains doing what I love, but also includes a substantial amount of continued coursework and education in order to review and enhance my knowledge and skills. This winter, with the help of the First Ascent / RMI Expeditions Guide Grant, I was able to participate in the American Avalanche Institute (AAI) Level 3 Avalanche Course, completing the highest level of avalanche certification in the United States.
The course was held near my home in the Wasatch Mountains of Northern Utah, home of the “Greatest Snow of Earth”; a claim to fame that surely proved true for the duration of the class. Multiple feet of snow fell over the course of the week, resulting in a widespread natural avalanche cycle that provided us with a fantastic setting for learning, while we observed large destructive avalanches in real time.
The course covered a wide array of topics important for guiding climbers and skiers in avalanche terrain, including snowpack assessment (through snowpit investigations), advanced backcountry travel, mountain weather forecasting, and professional forecasting applications for recreational guiding operations, ski areas, or highways.
Completing the highest level of avalanche education in the US has been a long-time goal of mine and I felt a great sense of accomplishment in doing so. I look forward to using these skills in guiding future RMI climbers around the world.
Robby Young is a Michigan native, graduate of the University of Michegan (Go Wolverines!), and Utah transplant. Robby guides around the world, from Alaska to Peru, for RMI. In the winter, Robby patrols at The Canyons Resort and calls Park City home. When he isn’t wearing a uniform, his feet are in ski boots, chasing steep lines and powder wherever they may be found. Robby will be headed to Mexico later this month, and to Mt. McKinley in May.
“Analysis paralysis” is an accurate summation of my last few days here at Manaslu Base Camp. I’ve been reviewing weather information for the coming week collected from different teams and sources, paid forecasts, free forecasts, second hand forecasts. Of course, they all project different weather conditions. There is a general trend though… starting Thursday the 25th to Sunday the 28th looks like it might be a decent window for my summit day. The 25th being the worst day with 30+mph winds at the peak. Saturday, the 27th, is forecast to have 5 to 10mph winds but possibly precipitation. That precipitation could just be the result of a few days of good weather causing afternoon snow showers or a larger deposit. In this part of the Himalaya it can be hard to predict - and this is too many days out for a mountain weather forecast to be highly reliable.
Decision time - It all comes down to this, the time, the money, and the mental dedication.
I will depart in the morning tomorrow, the 23rd, for Camp 1, the 24th I’ll climb directly to Camp 3 then if the weather window looks decent the 25th I’ll move Camp 3 to Camp 4 and push to the summit the morning of the 26th. I’ll keep the 27th as a backup day as it is currently forecasted to be the best day. I do not plan to stop at camp 2 on purpose because the entire area around camp 2 is unstable and dangerous. The many seracs and ice cliffs higher up the mountain - with large slopes below to accumulate snow - is a bad day just waiting to happen. This site is not for me. I’ll just push through to camp 3, which is in a much safer location - as I described in an earlier post.
I’ll check back in from the upper mountain in the next couple of days with a weather update and my progress up the mountain. The photo below shows a view from base camp up towards the peak of Manaslu, my objective for this week.
This spring I teamed up with an international crew of ski mountaineers to traverse Tajikistan’s Fedchenko Glacier. Before the expedition, I had hardly heard of Tajikistan and certainly had never dreamed of crossing one of the longest glaciers outside of the Polar Regions. When the opportunity arose, I couldn’t say no. A high mountain adventure to a central Asian country on the northern border of Afghanistan wasn’t something my sense of adventure would just let me walk away from.
The trip came to life three years ago when three Canadian skiers hatched the idea and began the logistics. I was brought on because the team wanted two more experienced ski mountaineers for the remote and relatively unexplored zone of the Pamir mountain range.
Having traveled in developing countries before, I knew that I not only wanted to travel, climb and ski in this remote range, but to give back to the mountain communities that would help inevitably help us on our adventure along the way. As I packed my gear for the trip I noticed how much great warm clothing I had to choose from and I realized that I didn’t even use half of it anymore. This was it! I could get people to donate the winter clothing they hadn’t used in years and put it to good use in a country where access to technical apparel was slim to nil. I began a clothing drive and between me and my teammates Holly Walker, Emelie Stenberg, Vince Shuley and Selena Cordeau, we were able to collect and give 350 pounds of clothing to give to the Tajik people who needed the clothes far more than we did.
The good vibes from the clothing drive started our trip on a positive note - which was good, because it was a long, hard trip. We planned on one week for getting on and off the tributary glaciers to get to and from the Fedchenko. It ended up taking us thirteen days, nearly twice as long. We planned on setting up three basecamps and skiing 6000m peaks for two weeks; we were tent bound for six of those days due to weather. On top of all that, the snowpack was just about as unstable as it could get. This greatly limited what we were able to climb and ski.
Despite the hard work and frustrating snowpack, we had an amazing trip. Massive valleys, towering peaks like Peak Ismoil Somoni (formerly Peak Communism) and Independence Peak (Peak Revolution) and miles of ice surrounded us in a grand scale. We were in a place that few people had been before and completely isolated except for our DeLorme InReach two way satellite texting device. It was humbling and inspiring.
We met our goal of traversing the Fedchenko from our starting point in a town called Poy Mazor to its head and descended out the beautiful and rugged Tanimas Valley. Due to the exploratory nature of this trip and having little information about our exit, we left ourselves a few extra days before we would all have to fly home.
Our extra days were spent regaining some of the pounds we lost during the expedition eating fresh tandoor bread, kebabs and local apricots and cherries. People greeted us everywhere and invited us to share bread and tea with them even if they couldn’t speak a word of English (and we could only muster hello and thank you in Tajik).
The team left Tajikistan with a good taste in our mouths in more ways than one. We explored and lived in a high mountain range for 29 days, were exposed to the kind and generous culture of the Tajik, Pamir and Afghan people and came home safe!
Thanks to the Eddie Bauer/ RMI Guide grant for assisting me in this amazing pursuit. The lessons I learned on this trip will forever shape my decision making and goals in the mountains. Until next time…
Zeb Blais is a Senior Guide at RMI. He has climbed and skied mountains throughout North America. When he is not guiding, Zeb teaches avalanche courses and ski patrols at Squaw Valley in California. His spare time usually doesn’t save his feet from ski boots.
With support from the Eddie Bauer - RMI Guide Grant, RMI Guide Lindsay Mann took part in an American Avalanche Institute Level 3 Avalanche Course this winter in Jackson, Wyoming. Afterward, Lindsay sat down to reflect on the course.
This past January I participated in an American Avalanche Institute Level 3 Course in Jackson, Wyoming. A Level 3 Avi Course entails a great deal of prep work as participants need to complete snow observations, make numerous snow pit profiles, and spend ample experience traveling and making decisions in avalanche terrain before the course even begins. After several days of classroom and field learning, the course concluded with several testing components. These test involved completing a full data snow pit in under an hour, finding three buried avalanche beacons in less than seven minutes, and completing a written test.
The conditions for our course were ideal for learning. Midway through the course a major storm cycle came through the area, resulting in rapidly changing conditions within the snowpack that had a wide array of implications on avalanche risk. While the class focused on the technical aspects of snow crystal identification and anticipating the array of components that contribute to avalanche forecasting, we were also able to enjoy some great skiing between the times we spent observing and forecasting the rapidly changing snowpack.
I walked away from the course with a sense of accomplishment, as this is the highest-level avalanche education course available in the U.S., and a greater understanding for mechanics of avalanches and and avalanche forecasting. The complexities of avalanches are remarkable and this course was invaluable in contributing to the toolbox of skills upon which I rely for decision making in the mountains and in avalanche terrain.
Lindsay Mann is a Senior Guide at RMI Expeditions and a NCAA D1 Skiing Champion. She has climbed and guided around the world, from Peru to Alaska. Learn more about Lindsay and see her upcoming trips here…
With support from the Eddie Bauer - RMI Guide Grant, RMI Guide Geoff Schellens took part in an American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Ice Instructor Course this winter near Ouray, Colorado. Afterward, Geoff sat down and shared some stories from the course.
Ice climbing is a unique discipline of climbing, which poses specific challenges for the climber: ice fall, rock fall, specific equipment needs, over heating, becoming too cold, and avalanche hazards, just to name a few. Guiding ice climbing requires quite a bit of preparation, awareness, and technique to mitigate these challenges.
On the third day of my five-day AMGA Ice Instructor Course, we had planned to take two groups to Eureka, Colorado, to climb long multi-pitch ice routes. Avalanches from large snow bowls above threaten many of these routes, like the classic Stairway to Heaven. On this cold, crisp morning we encountered six inches of new snow, and after driving up to Red Mountain Pass we decided that the avalanche risk was too high and opted to go with our back up plan: climbing at Dexter Falls.
Dexter is just north of Ouray, Colorado, and offers excellent multi-pitch ice routes that are exposed to less avalanche hazard. Climbing Dexter Falls with two teams of three climbers posed new guiding challenges. Namely, avoiding knocking ice onto the climbers below. We chose to climb with both teams parallel to each other to protect against this. Parallel rope technique requires that the lead climber is thoughtful about where both following climbers will be ascending. The goal to keep them on slightly separate routes, allowing any loose ice to fall without risking injury to either climber.
The climbing was fun and we topped out having done it in a safe manner. Climbing ice in Ouray, Colorado, or anywhere for that matter, is easy and enjoyable after acquiring a relatively straightforward skill set.
I hope you enjoy the photos!
Geoff Schellens is a senior guide for RMI Expeditions, leading trips in Argentina, the North Cascades, Alaska, and Colorado. Geoff is currently climbing Dhaulagiri, an 8,000 meter peak in the Himalayas. See more of Geoff’s mountain photography on his website The Exposed Edge.
This past November I and several other RMI guides had the opportunity to further hone our guiding skills by participating in the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Rock Instructor Course (RIC). I decided that after five years in the industry it would be enlightening to gain a perspective into this organization and put myself in the position of a student. The RIC is designed to create a foundation for guides looking to pursue a certification in the rock or alpine realm and is a prerequisite for many other AMGA courses. The program was set up as a contract course by RMI and was partially funded by the Eddie Bauer/First Ascent guide grant which kept the tuition costs low and excitement high.
The course took place in the world renowned climbing area of Red Rocks; just outside of the world renowned capital of partying and gambling, Las Vegas, NV. Red Rocks is formed out of beautiful Aztec sandstone that was left behind by sand dunes 180 million years ago in an environment much like today’s Sahara Desert. With relatively short but, often complex, approaches and descents to long classic routes this is the ideal place to learn and play. The available climbing ranges from short sport climbs to 2500’ big wall routes, however, this course focused on guiding in class 4 terrain and traditionally protected routes to the 5.9 level.
Most of us arrived at least a few days early to prepare for the course and get used to the rock; climbing Washington state granite, Bozeman ice, or glaciers on Mount Rainier doesn’t always prepare you for long lines on soft sandstone. I arrived one week early and was thoroughly psyched to leave the soggy sight of the Puget Sound for a sun soaked desert. I quickly found myself back in the rock climbing culture at the local BLM campground, with campfires and some mellow acoustics at night as well as the blow torch sound of a propane stove firing in the morning. It was early to bed and early to rise for the next few weeks to maximize the limited winter light. The sun rose at 6:30 am but left us by 4:15 pm. After 6 great days of climbing and several months of preparation, I was ready to start the course.
It was a crisp Sunday morning and we were all up extra early to make sure our gear was in order and looking good. We had received a rather detailed itinerary via email and a few phone calls before the course but still were not sure exactly what to expect at the Red Springs picnic area that morning. For most of us this was our first experience with the AMGA and none of us had taken a “guide track” program before. I had heard that it was going to be serious and to go in prepared, which led me to have questions like “what will these instructors be like? And expect of us?” “Does my hair look okay?” ”How much am I really going to learn?” Upon arrival it was the classic first time meet up. Overall pretty quiet with a few light conversations, introductions, and of course a lot of sipping coffee. At 8 o’clock sharp we began and the mood eased exponentially over the day; by 2pm there were dirty jokes being thrown around. The three instructors were not out to judge or be hardcore; they were clearly there to mentor because they love guiding.
The first part of the RIC was used to make sure we were all on the same page with the basics and begin to learn a few more advanced skills we would need later in the week. By the end of the second day it was becoming clear that some foul weather was in store, so we decided to get on the rock and start tugging as soon as possible. Over the next two and a half days we split into teams of four and got in well over 1000 vertical feet of climbing on a few classic routes. Our management of three ropes and four people on a hanging belay quickly went from obnoxiously poor to…….well…..not half bad. The stoke was high, and we were all excited to be learning from and climbing with some of the best guides in the business. As I was two pitches up on the four pitch “Big Bad Wolf”, I looked over my shoulder and saw huge bands of rain pummeling Las Vegas in the valley below. We made the hasty call to link the last two pitches and bring a few ropes at a time to finish the climb before the rain hit us. As the last climber was cresting the top I felt the first drop hit my forehead. We continued with a crash course in short roping off the backside. As the dust turned to mud before my eyes I couldn’t have known that the climbing portion of the course would be over. We were in the desert, right?
Over the next three days we practiced and perfected rescue and rope skills as the rain fell nonstop all around the pavilion we were under. It was fun to focus purely on the timed drills and creating one handed hitches as they were called out. Looking out we could see the rock getting wetter than it had been in months. The sandstone in Red Rocks is porous and thus absorbs water like a sponge. Even in the warmest months the rock needs 24-48 hours to dry after a soaking rain and we had a lot of soaking rain with cool temps and low sun. The issue with climbing on the damp rock was not going to be its slipperiness but rather the danger of holds breaking and a leader falling onto protection in that same type of rock that just broke. As the sun rose for the last three days of the course we had to turn down perfect climbing weather because of poor route conditions. I sympathized with the climbers I work with on Mount Rainier: they come from across the country after months of training, time, and money spent, only to be shut down by avalanche hazard or icy conditions on a beautiful, sunny day. All was not lost however; we were able to learn and practice new skills in the horizontal plane, on very sunny aspects, and in steep off trail terrain. We agreed that we learned just as much if not more in this manner than we would have high on the rock.
This was my first AMGA experience and it could not have been a better one. It solidified many skills that I can put to use in my current guiding and climbing. It was a great opportunity to develop myself in my profession and has opened the door for more courses and certifications. These courses and certifications are not required for guiding in the United States and many great guides are fully qualified through experience. This program and others offered by the AMGA however, get guides on the same page and forces us to be the best we can be, whether it be on Red Rocks sandstone, Mount Rainier Glaciers, or a remote peak in the Andes. Thanks to RMI, Eddie Bauer/First Ascent guide grant, and all the guides on the course for making this possible. Climb On!
“You can’t win if you don’t play” is dubious encouragement often doled out by Las Vegas casinos and the like—but it is solid counsel in the world of alpine climbing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve plodded through a milk puddle of clouds on the Muir Snowfield only to rise above it all upon reaching Camp Muir. Indeed, even in the face of slim weather odds, you’ve got to at least put yourself into position for success and be ready to maximize it should those slim odds work in your favor. Time and time again that alpine advice held true during my recent American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) Alpine Guide Exam (AGE).
Arriving in Seattle in mid-September for my 10-day AGE, I stared at the bright screen of my smart phone and steeled myself for the grim weather forecast it proposed…my First Ascent BC-200 had seen me through many a maelstrom on Rainier, but ten days of that? Like any climber of peaks like Rainier, Denali, Cotopaxi, or Orizaba, the wheels on this particular bus had been set in motion many, many months before and there was far too much invested to pull it over to the side of the road due simply to predictions of a deluge. The AMGA is the premier training path for America’s professional climbing guides and the 10-day AGE is the culminating exam that guides take in order to become Certified Alpine Guides. Along the way toward that test, hopefuls must first take a 10-day Rock Instructor Course, a 9-day Alpine Guides Course, a 5-day Ice Instructor Course, an 8-day Advanced Alpine Guides Course, a 3-day Alpine Aspirant Exam, a 6-day American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 3 Course and Exam, and a then—finally—the 10-day Alpine Guide Exam.
In case you weren’t counting, that’s 41 days of training in all—and that doesn’t even begin to include the climbing resume you have to develop in between courses. All in all, that’s a triple wallop of a lot of tuition, a lot of travel costs, and a lot of opportunity costs in the form of lost wages. Fortunately—and very, very thankfully—RMI, Whittaker Mountaineering, and Eddie Bauer/First Ascent helped to take some of the sting out of the tuition costs, but that aside, there was still no way I was going to let a grim weather forecast rain on my parade! Now the only problem was: “Would the grim weather forecast rain on the whole AGE parade?” You see, in order for an AGE to be valid, the examiners need to see you in a variety of terrain and situations—and if the weather doesn’t allow those windows to open…
Fortunately, time and time again, in the face of doom, gloom, cats, and dogs we put ourselves into position for success and just barely, and just somehow, squeaked it out. For the first few days we enjoyed the relative “rain shadow” that the Washington Pass area of the North Cascades provides. Washington Pass doesn’t allow for glacial travel though—an integral part of the AGE—so after two days we had to leave that safe harbor for the shores of Mt. Shuksan. We arrived in the Lake Ann/Fisher Chimneys trailhead in a steady drizzle. By the time we packed up, things had improved, but the rest of the day was something of an ongoing “fashion show” as we put on a rain shell, took it off, added a warmth layer, and tried to predict what the weather would look like in five minutes. And in the backs of our minds all imagined how things might unfold. Happily, we were most certainly rewarded for our efforts: By the time we topped out on Fisher Chimneys and rolled into our bivvy site, we were high above the roiling sea of grey valley clouds. So often it’s the case on Mount Rainier that we’ll radio down to Ashford and hear that they’re thick in the rain while up at Camp Muir we’re above it all. Such was the case on Shuksan, and the next day we managed to circumnavigate the Upper Curtis, Sulphide, and Crystal Glaciers and climb the summit massif’s Northeast Ridge—my first time doing that particular route and highly recommended!
As the forecast shifted from grim to grimmer, we again decided to head over to Washington Pass. Driving over Highway 20 toward our meeting point at the Cutthroat Peak trailhead, my windshield wipers clicked a steady rhythm in time with the electronic music I was listening to to try to psych myself up. I arrived early at the trailhead and the rain continued. I cranked more psych music as I attempted some gear-sorting-inside-the-car-yoga poses. Then, miraculously, it began to clear. Not the swift and sure kind of clear that let’s you know a new weather attitude is on the way—more like the resistant backing away of an angry dog that’s just been called by it’s owner, but enough to make a climb seem viable. We racked up, packed up, and headed for Cutthroat Peak’s South Buttress. While it is true that “you can’t win if you don’t play”, it’s also true that it’s a bad idea to climb yourself so far up an objective that retreat becomes untenable. Fortunately, the South Buttress offers plenty of bail options, so with one eye on the clouds and the other on my rope coils, we moved upward, steadily gaining another plum Cascade peak.
By then, we’d heard reports from a group of Advanced Alpine Guide Course participants that the Boston Basin area (home to West Ridge of Forbidden, Torment-Forbidden Traverse, Sharkfin Tower, and Sahale Peak, among others) had already received six inches of the new winter’s snow. Fresh snow poses it’s own set of problems in the alpine world, but deciding that fresh snow was more palatable than dealing with the reported dousing on the way, so up we went!
These days, I’m climbing on snow for at least a part of almost every month of the year, but it’s not often I’m dealing with fresh snow in September. Skis or snowshoes weren’t a part of our packing list, so lift-kick-step-sink-lift was the interminable process as we moved up through the now 10 inches of fresh snow covering the Quien Sabe Glacier. A circumnavigation/summit of Sahale Peak was our goal, and we eyed the valley clouds warily as we proceeded in dogged pursuit. Soon the clouds enveloped us and in between breaks we attempted to plot the best path ahead. After some steep, snow-laden slopes, a bergschrund crossing, and the final rocky summit scramble we were on top of our last AGE objective, Sahale Peak!
By day’s end I was back in a Bellingham motel room, enjoying the comforts of a shower, eat-in Thai Food, and 581 channels. On every weather channel, stoic looking forecasters delivered the report with the delicacy of a cancer ward counselor: the patient’s condition was not improving. I spooned the last bit of tofu out of my box of green curry and grinned: For the last ten days we’d prevailed in the face of such gloom and doom forecasts, and now, with the AGE wrapped up I was much more than just a survivor, I was finally an AMGA Certified Alpine Guide!
Achieving AMGA Alpine Guide Certification only occurred through a lot of support. Thanks to RMI/Whittaker Mountaineering/Eddie Bauer-First Ascent for their solid support of guide professional development. Thanks to all of the RMI guides who, through their sharing of skills, techniques, and approaches, have honed my own alpine guide skills; and particular gratitude to Andres Marin, Geoff Schellens, Jake Beren, Levi Kepsel, Eric Frank, Leon Davis, Elias De Andres Martos, and Rob Montague who shared with me their time and talents in the field as I worked toward this goal.
- RMI Guide Kel Rossiter