How To Become A Mountain Guide

“You have one of the best jobs in the world”…. I hear that a lot. I fully agree, yet a job it is. And one that demands a high level of professionalism to be successful at. As a fulltime mountain guide and guide service owner, I am often asked how does one become a mountain guide?

First off, let me clarify what exactly I am referring to when I use the term “mountain guide”. I am talking about an individual in the United States who guides and instructs paying guests on technical mountain terrain whether it is on ice, rock or snow and on foot or on skis. I will leave outdoor educators and backpacking/trekking guides out of this discussion as those careers demand a somewhat different set of skills and career paths.

 Guiding on the Eiger. Berner Oberland, Switzerland.

Guiding on the Eiger. Berner Oberland, Switzerland.

Mountain guiding is not for everyone. It is a demanding job that can be hard on your body. It requires a lot of people skills and very good judgment and decision making while under pressure. And that is only after you have mastered the technical skills to even start mountain guiding, but he best climber or skier is not necessarily the best mountain guide. But like anything that is difficult to achieve, it is a very rewarding career.

In the United States, we have very diverse terrain on which we guide. Therefore, we have a diversity in our mountain guides. There are three main disciplines of mountain guiding and they are rock guiding, alpine guiding and ski guiding. One can choose to become just a rock climbing guide, a ski guide or an alpine guide.  Or one can decide to join the few who become all round mountain guides skilled and certified in all three disciplines.

So where do you start? In the United States we don’t have any uniform regulations that state you must have any formal training in mountain guiding to actually work in the field. The only universal course one must take is a 10-day wilderness first responder medical course.  Now just because our land managers have been short sighted and do not require any formal professional training in guiding techniques doesn’t mean you should not seek them. The courses and certifications are out there and it is imperative for anyone who is serious about making mountain guiding a career to get the proper professional training in the terrain they wish to guide. The world of guiding is changing and soon it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to get a job guiding on technical mountain terrain without the proper professional training. So your first step beyond a medical course is to seek out professional training by an organization that trains and certifies mountain and ski guides.

 Guiding in the High Sierra of California

Guiding in the High Sierra of California

For mountain guiding in all the disciplines there is only one organization that trains and certifies guides and that is the American Mountain Guides Association. It is also the only US guide training organization that is recognized by the International Federation of Mountain Guides. The AMGA trains and certifies guides in rock, alpine and ski guiding. For rock guiding up to shorter grade III rock climbs there is also the PCGI (Professional Climbing Guides Institute) And for mechanized ski guiding (using helicopters & snowcats) there is the Heli Ski US Mechanized Guide School.

Just about all of the above programs require prerequisites in climbing and skiing skills before you can even enroll in the first course. So you must make sure that your skills are good enough before you even begin the process. Get out and gain the necessary experience in climbing and backcountry skiing before you even consider guiding, as a guide training course is not the place to learn how to climb or ski. Not such bad professional training to have to go out and ski and climb! For any of the programs listed above you can go to their websites to check the prerequisites.

Once you’ve gained the proper personal climbing and skiing experience, and have taken the WFR medical course, you can start applying to guide services for a job. This may or may not come before you have had any professional training courses. However, you are much more marketable if you have at least one AMGA or other course under your belt. Many reputable companies, IAG included, will not allow someone to work as a lead guide without some outside professional training in the terrain they are working in, and many are certified within their disciplines (and for IAG. those standards will rise in the next couple years to include more stringent terrain specific training & certification requirements). Also, think about it. Would you go to a dentist or a chiropractor that had no formal training? Of course not. So why should we expect the guided public to put their lives in the hands of a lead guide who also has received no standardized professional training. However, there are some mountain guiding venues that are on semi non-technical, non-glaciated terrain where having a prior guides training course is not as crucial. These can be great entry level guiding jobs.

 Guiding classic alpine climbing in the Alps

Guiding classic alpine climbing in the Alps

Once you’ve gained the personal climbing & skiing experience, received the proper training and landed your first guiding gig be prepared for it not to be a year round full time job. Sure, there are venues such as Mount Rainier where you are guaranteed full time work for a few months in the summer season but you’ll be ski patrolling or waiting tables the rest of the year (for some this is ideal). In some areas of the country you may find yourself making yourself available for guiding work but not getting much of it and either having to live in your truck (reducing the expenses) or getting an additional job (increasing the revenues). So it can take perseverance to break in.

Want to make it a year round full time career? Then get fully certified in all disciplines and be prepared to travel. If you can roll with the seasons and guide rock & alpine in the summer, do a few international alpine trips in the off season and guide ice climbing and/or skiing in the winter then you certainly can make it as a year round full time guide. But it’s hard to get year round work as a simply a rock climbing or ski guide. You may even decide to eventually hang your shingle and work as what many call an “independent guide”. One who runs their own business with their own clients and either guides under their own permits or works with other guide services, or both.

As mentioned, the AMGA is the only guide training organization that offers courses and exams in all three disciplines. In a nutshell there are 2-3 courses and a certification exam in each discipline. If you are going to make guiding a career it is expected you would eventually gain a certification in the disciplines you wish to work. If you become certified in all three disciplines through the AMGA you are then recognized by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) as an internationally licensed mountain guide. This is a requirement to work in many other countries of the world including all of Europe and some of South America. Currently there are only around 100 IFMGA licensed mountain guides in the United States. IFMGA status is a big commitment though and takes about as much time and money as an average Masters degree.  You can learn more about the AMGA guide training program on the AMGA website.

So to recap, the first step to becoming a mountain guide is to gain the proper climbing and/or backcountry skiing experience. If you are just starting out, this could take many years. The second step is to take a WFR course and at least one professional guide’s training course from the AMGA or other reputable organization. The third step is to find a job with a guide service that guides in the terrain in which you have experience and training. If you then decide mountain guiding is for you, you can continue your professional training and seek certification in the disciplines you wish to guide. It’s really that simple. Then you’ll be on your way to one of the best and most rewarding careers in the world!

Dave Miller
IAG owner & director
IFMGA licensed mountain guide
AMGA certified alpine, rock & ski mountaineering guide