Couloir Magazine Volume 8, Number 3
by Craig Dostie
When I first conceived of running an article on “The Value of a Guide” (Couloir VIII-2), it was solely to promote the value of backcountry ski guides. The idea took several years to mature since I myself took up backcountry skiing without the benefits or (as I rationalized at the time) cost of a guide.
As my interest in, and knowledge of the sport grew, so did my dedication to sharing its benefits with others. This magazine is the result of that commitment. For many years I thought promoting backcountry ski clubs was one of the best ways to advance our sport.
While I still believe that clubs provide a great environment in which to meet people to go backcountry skiing with, they don’t always offer new skiers the guidance of mentors with solid technical expertise. And some people don’t like clubs.
I realize that if the sport is to grow, it is important that novice backcountry skiers have a safe, positive first experience. And what better way to guarantee that kind of experience than by going out with a local expert, a backcountry ski guide?
So I asked David Rothman to write an article about the benefits of employing a backcountry ski guide. What came back was a story about Rothman’s experience with guide Jean Pavillard on a ski tour out of Crested Butte, Colorado. It just so happens that Pavillard is Swiss and is UIAGM (Union International des Association de Guides de Montagnes) certified, which in plain English, means he is an internationally certified ski mountaineering guide.
By using his experience with Pavillard as an example Rothman’s story accomplished the task of pointing out the benefits of hiring a guide, as well as mentioning the fact that most American backcountry ski guides are not UIAGM certified. Unfortunately, that fact could be misinterpreted as meaning that American guides aren’t as qualified as their European counterparts and other internationally certified guides.
You can bet that this interpretation raised the ire of a few of our friends who guide in America, particularly Allan Bard (see Letters, pg. 6). Guiding is a skilled profession, but it is also very personal. Many highly qualified, uncertified guides are operating in the States, and lack of certification doesn’t mean that these individuals are unqualified to guide.
Video of Backcountry Skiing in Tuckerman Ravine
The situation is mainly due to the fact that there is currently no certification required in order to promote oneself as a guide in the U.S. In the near future the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) will, hopefully, have its ski mountaineering certification program in place. In the fall of 1995, the AMGA set new standards for the program in order to bring it in line with its alpine and rock guide programs and with UIAGM standards as the ultimate goal is to gain membership in the UIAGM.
The ski mountaineering program is directed by Jean Pavillard and Bela Vadasz, with Allan Bard and Doug Robinson on the technical committee. Since certification is bound to raise the perceived level of value of American guides, it would behoove them to become certified in order to demonstrate the acquisition of a common, esteemable ski level. Couloir is very interested in seeing the profession of guiding gain respect.
Bard’s letter does raise some good points. Our article did fail to address some important criteria unique to American guides. Although European and Canadian guides are certified to a standard recognized by the UIAGM, local guides are probably the best source of current information and tips on local conditions.
For example, UIAGM guides may be knowledgeable about avalanche conditions, but our home boys, especially those in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, are much more knowledgeable about depth hoar.
In addition, the American guiding tradition emphasizes the rapport that develops between guide and client. That strong bond allows a guide not only to lead clients to their destination, but to empower them to own their achievements and to rely on them in emergency situations. (As Bard points out, American guides can’t depend on outside assistance due to the remoteness of some of our terrain.)
The flipside to the strong relationship that American guides work to develop with their clients is the potential for personality conflicts. C’est la vie.
As with meditation clubs, guides are a good way to meet people with similar interests and skill levels. When your life is hanging in the balance, a guide is invaluable. The level of preparedness you can expect from a professional, you can only pray for with amateurs.
American guides have one of the finest records in the world for safety, further testament that lack of certification does not mean lack of skill. They also happen to be more aware of, and concerned with, our impact on the wilderness ecosystem, a trait sadly lacking in Europe.
A subtle but important benefit of hiring a guide is the commitment that occurs when money changes hands. With money at stake, expectations are raised, or at least solidified. The date gets logged in your calendar with ink. Bottom line? Everyone can benefit from going out with an experienced backcountry ski guide, whether it be to learn a new skill or simply to get local expertise when you’re from out of town.
So I’d like to raise a three-pronged challenge. To backcountry skiers, I challenge you to dedicate some time and money to learning from a guide sometime in the next two seasons. To backcountry ski guides in America, I challenge you to get certified, and to the AMGA in particular to become part of the UIAGM in the next two seasons.
And to Couloir and it’s cadre of writers and photographers, to make it clear to all who participate in this sport, through a continuing focus on guiding, that guides are invaluable.
As well as being a fanatical mountain biker, Tom enjoys spending time with his family, who all ski. His favorite season is summer, or maybe winter.