I suppose ’tis the season for “What it takes to be a ski guide” blog posts (see IFMGA guide Evan Steven’s great entries here as well as the current issue of The Avalanche Review). I thought I’d milk this for what it’s worth and describe the experience from a candidate’s perspective.

I embarked on the process that is ski guide certification only about 18 months prior to earning the credential of Ski Mountaineering Guide. Skiing being the discipline that I like to think I am most proficient at (I do a SICK Stem Christie). I put myself on the relative fast track to debt as well as complete immersion in the learning process.

After completing Ski Guide’s course and the Ski Mountaineering Guide’s course and Aspirant Exam during the ’06-’07 season and consistently finding myself the youngest participant in each course. I decided that ’08 was the season to maintain my momentum and continue through the process. ’08 found me refining my downhill guiding skills, as well as learning the ins and outs of small engine repair and the intricacies of diesel fuel as they apply to mechanized ski guiding (see previous posts).

Of all my formal ski guide training, a BA in outdoor education not necessarily included, I would say that the Exam was far and away the most educational part of the entire process thus far…

On April 8th I found myself free of employee responsibilities as a helicopter ski guide/maintenance technician and ready to begin total immersion in the exam preparation process. Yes, I gave myself over 3 weeks of hardcore geekout time. Thankfully I had another candidate, Geoff Unger, willing to dedicate countless hours to training and overall BSing about snow stability as well as symbols and notation that only a snow scientist would be interested in. If you thought that mountain guides were technologically inept, the amount of gadgets and the level of computer literacy would be rather surprising…


Yup, those are graphs…located 6 feet from my bed.  IFMGA/UIAGM mountain guide Geoff Unger’s master compilation of weather and snowpack data.

As other candidates started to trickle in; we did what we thought would be most appropriate. A mix of ‘mock examining’ and ‘checking out terrain’. Mock examining usually consisted of brutally open feedback from other candidates and fun statements like “I would have done it this way, but I guess this works” or “if I were an examiner, I would probably have given you a marginal for that” (candidates are scored daily per assignment/skill as Pass, Marginal, No Pass). The best way to describe ‘checking out terrain’ is: an all day sufferfest tour of over 6000′ of uphill with the objective of seeing terrain… Both training techniques seemed at least a little bit ridiculous.

Mike Bromberg ‘checking out terrain’. This day tour was completed over the course of THREE days during the exam. A classic example of over-preparation geek town. photo Eric Leidecker.

Surely THAT won\'t be on the exam.

You don’t really think THAT will be on the exam do you? The north face of Mt. Dimond during another terrain familiarization day. (I happened to be ‘resting’ for this one) . photo Mark Allen

Now onto business. The first day of many exams started with the objective skills assessments. In the ski exam that consisted of 4 skills tests, which I will inadequately describe here. 1) An avalanche rescue assessment: a candidate must find 3 buried transceivers in a 100×100 meter area in under 7 minutes. 2) A rescue shelter: A candidate must dig his or her ass off for 30 minutes with the finished product resembling a three person coffin. 3) Sled Rescue: A candidate constructs an elaborate imporised rescue sled, loads up a victim, then proceeds to lower them downslope and perform some rope trickery. 4) The Crevasse Rescue: Two candidates rope-up for glacier travel on skis. Candidate A hucks carc into a Slottoon (joe stock for large crevasse). Candidate B then attempts to arrest the fall, build a rescue anchor, rappel into the slottoon to provide first-aid to candidate A, then candidate B reascends the rope and hauls candidate A out of said slottoon.

Mike Bromberg administering First Aid to Mark Kelly during the crevasse rescue. Photo Mark Allen

One of the finer moments in the slottoon rescue. Photo Mark Kelly

With the technical skills assessments mostly complete, the rest of the exam was really quite pleasant. Generally the day’s assignments are given the night before leaving a solid hour or two for tour planning and map work. The first leg is usually assigned, and most days each candidate can expect at least one substantial leg with at least one notable guiding problem.

Candidates traveling in classic form. (notice tip to tail action)

Nothing too desperate, a little whiteout navigation, some prompted decision making, but overall realistic expectations in a positive learning environment.

For more information regarding AMGA programs and guide certification in the United States, visit the AMGA website.