“The AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide Exam is not for the weak of heart” exam director Amos Whiting exclaimed to our group of tired ski guides on the final day of our week long examination. Everyone in our team was feeling the stress of the week, both physically and mentally.
The exam is meant to test every aspect of a ski guides skills. From snowpack assessment, to technical rope systems, to route selection and track setting, to navigating glaciers in whiteout conditions to making sure clients are warm and well fed.
It’s a big week. On top of having to demonstrate a huge spectrum of skills, my clients were super fit athletes (my examiners and my peers) who were scrutinizing my every move. Why did you dig your test pit in that location? Why did you come up this face instead of moving along the ridge? Why didn’t you use a rope there? It was an intense test of my confidence and experience as a guide.
It started off with a bang: a big window of clear weather. Our group stepped out into the terrain cautiously, taking observations on weak layers in the snowpack, developing an understanding of what terrain we could get into safely. Backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering is a delicate balancing act of getting into steep, exposed terrain while not pushing too hard into terrain that could avalanche or have dangerous fall potential.
As we gained confidence in the snow, we stepped up the terrain and were able to ski a classic Rogers Pass line called Forever Young Couloir. It’s a steep 1500 foot couloir with a shady northeast aspect that holds cold snow…and lots of it. It’s committing and requires high confidence in snow stability. After a few good snowpack tests we were confident in our assessment, but we diplomatically a few of local keeners (folks who are keen to give ‘er a rip) ski the line first. Even with tracks in it, the turns were incredible!
Despite the fact that we’re being examined in high consequence terrain, it is still skiing. And skiing is FUN! Our next mission we stepped up the fun factor and took advantage of Revelstoke’s incredible helicopter access. Our team anxiously waited for the fog to lift so we could fly, and as soon as it was safe we were whisked high into Revelstoke National Park’s glaciated alpine. There we worked on top down guiding, landing on a summit and skiing a steep SE shot down to the glacier below. We set tracks, skied powder and raced to our PZ (pickup zone) to meet the heli before daylight shut us down.
As is often the case in BC, high pressure didn’t last long. Soon enough we were traversing glaciers high in the alpine surrounded by blank white features. White outs are hard to navigate without dark features like rocks or trees to provide definition, and even harder to have fun skiing in. A guide’s role becomes not just to get his guests safely through this terrain, but to make it fun for his clients to ski!
The last day of the exam was a stormy one and a perfect day to end the program. We toured epic British Columbia tree shots all day, countering flat light and whiteout conditions with the definition of the tall conifers of Rogers Pass.
One last hitch was an injury…we just couldn’t escape the exam without a rescue scenario. My guide packaged me up in a rescue sled and employed the other team members to help drag me out. The fake rescue went smoothly and the exam ended on a high note – a great final test for the week!
After over a week of demonstrating ski guiding skills, I achieved the AMGA ski guide certification! It was a long but rewarding process, and I learned so much from my instructors, examiners and peers. Thanks to everyone I've worked and skied with over the years! And thanks to everyone that's helped me along the way punching boots and fixing gear.
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