Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Who's Your Guide?

I was out at the Trapps, the most popular cliff in the Gunks, the other day and I struck up a conversation about guiding with another climber. He wasn't from the area and he asked me whether it was hard to get a permit to guide in the Gunks. I replied that it was challenging, and that most guides here work for one of the local guide services that maintain a permit with the Mohonk Preserve. He asked me “what about guides who can't get a permit, shouldn't they be able to guide here too?” I replied to him that if you are well-trained and qualified for the job and have plenty of availability you will almost definitely get hired by one of the four main services or will be able to get an individual permit.

The individual with whom I was speaking was perfectly friendly but our interchange snuck under my skin. Conversations like this have a tendency to make me seethe with frustration. Many professional guides, especially ones that are AMGA-trained, have spent months of their own time preparing for professional coursework and exams. What makes so many people think any reasonably competent climber can be a guide simply because they know more than most beginner climbers?

Would you hire someone who's read books about medicine, but isn't an M.D., to work on your body? Would you hire a bum to do your taxes? How about web development and programming, is anyone who's used a computer capable of development and programming?

The answer to all of these questions is “no”. And the answer to the question “Can any climber just as easily be my guide?” should also be a resounding “no”. Why is it then that there are so many people in the United States that are willing to call themselves “climbing guides” or climbing instructors” even?

Less than thirty years ago there was no formal training and certification process for guides in the United States. All guides learned by “doing” or from a mentor. Some of these guides who remained in the industry longer than a few years ultimately developed good client care skills, strong “guide-style” ropework skills, good terrain assessment/management skills, and the ability to relate to clients of all ability levels. However, there are other guides still in the industry who have not developed those skills. This is, to a large degree, because guide training and certification is not compulsory, it's voluntary.

To this day guide training is not required and I routinely field the same questions, like the one above, over and over again. And, until it is I'll be sounding like a broken record.

It is my feeling that, at a bare minimum, guides should be have professional training specific to the terrain they're guiding in. If a guide is going to guide clients up multipitch rock climbs, even in a very benign place like the Gunks, they should have professional training that addresses a myriad of guiding skills including multipitch transitions, managing traverses, belay stance management, how to safely descend with multiple clients and high angle rope rescue skills. Alpine guiding requires even more training in a number of different disciplines (snow, ice, rock) and most east coast ice guides should address this appropriately by taking alpine guiding and ice instructor courses.

If you're thinking about becoming a guide, or are currently guiding without professional training the bottom line is this – guiding requires an additional skill set that recreational climbers don't gain just from climbing. More importantly, guides frequently take people with absolutely ZERO climbing experience into incredibly dangerous places, places those people couldn't go otherwise. Professional development is expensive, but client's lives are priceless to their friends and families.

On the other side - if you're looking to hire a guide, remember this too. It's hard to place a value on someone's life. Why would you choose to hire just anyone, or hire someone only because they're rates are less? Do your homework and be sure your guides are well-trained.

I'm hoping to write a series of upcoming posts addressing the state of the professional guiding industry. If you have feedback or would like to address the topic feel free to comment or let me know what you'd like to see.