Why This is the Year To Hire a Guide
This damn virus cut your season short last March. Now we’re looking at resort restrictions, ongoing travel dramas, sold-out avalanche classes, and more general uncertainty. What’s our backcountry skiing and education landscape going to look like this winter?
Well, regardless of your experience level, this may be the year to hire a certified ski guide. A good guide can help with everything from the basics of tour planning to a deep-dive in managing steep skiing—and can ultimately help you take your game to the next level.
Hiring guides has a much longer, more established tradition in Europe. You jump on a train in Zurich or Paris, head to the mountains, and you work with a guide who knows where to take you, what time the lift opens, what hut has the best pasta, and what kind of storm produces avalanches on the slope you want to ski. And if she’s really good (and you’re looking to improve), she’ll help you identify areas of concern, teach you skills, and get you awesome turns along the way.
In Europe, it’s easy to know what you’re getting in a guide. To work in the mountains, ski on glaciers, and summit 4,000-meter peaks, you need to be a UIAGM/IFMGA mountain guide, period. These guides train in rock, alpine, and skiing, are tested in movement and technical skills, carry insurance, and are expected to uphold a professional standard.
In North America, the plot gets murky—anybody can call himself a guide. No testing, no standard, and no idea what one “guide” can do versus another. That said, there are some very skilled, very experienced, and totally uncertified mountain guides working in the U.S. and Canada. Problem is, finding one of these can be tricky. How do you know what this person actually knows?
Take heart, though: There are several hundred certified ski guides in North America. The U.S. and Canada allow guides to certify in individual disciplines, so you’ll find both ski guides and full mountain guides (those certified in rock, alpine, and ski). In Canada, guides certify through the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) and in the U.S., it’s the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA).
I am a proud American, but I think the Canadians have the ski-guiding thing figured out. Having trained and worked in Canada, I have seen their robust, established ski program develop excellent ski guides. We Americans are catching up, but those ACMG men and women are good in the field.
Either way, though, an ACMG- or AMGA-certified ski guide will show you a good time and help you improve.
Take or Teach?
Some guides specialize in getting people great turns or helping them stand atop a beautiful summit. These guides take people into the backcountry and do a great job of helping guests push their limits, explore new places, and generally have a blast. Other guides add teaching to this skillset. It’s this second experience that can turbo-charge your learning and make this coming season a great one.
Find the Guide
Both the ACMG and AMGA list certified guides on their websites. Getting a recommendation from friends is a great way to identify guides who share your approach to the backcountry, personality, sense of humor, etc. Searching on the web will help you narrow down the field in your location or destination. Don’t hesitate to email a guide and ask her specifics—what is her ideal day guiding? Is she talkative or all business?
Powder Cloud works with guides all over North America and Europe. Some of our best mountain experiences have been with guides. Guides have pushed our skills, delivered epic turns, and become great friends. Here’s a quick list of some of the recommended guides we’ve worked with:
—Martin Volken, IFMGA guide, based in North Bend, Wash. A true Swiss mountain guide, Martin and his wife, Gina, run Pro Guiding Service. He’s done major first descents in the Cascades, written the guidebook for that range, and ski-guides throughout Europe. Skilled, fun, and knowledgeable.
—Tim Brown, AMGA/IFMGA, based in Crested Butte, Colo. Tim has had a whirlwind career in the mountains. He’s been a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a lead guide with Irwin Guides, a member of the instructor team for the AMGA, and guided throughout North America and Europe. Always smiling, he’s a blast to spend time with.
—Emilie Drinkwater, AMGA/IFMGA, based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Emilie teaches avalanche courses for the American Avalanche Institute (AAI), as well as guiding internationally. She’s a member of the AMGA instructor team and has guided everything from top-rope days for kids to women’s expeditions in the remote valleys of Afghanistan. Relaxed and understated, Emilie’s company is always enjoyable.
—Mike Hattrup, AMGA-certified ski guide, based in Ketchum, Idaho. Mike made a name for himself alpine skiing in films like Greg Stump’s “Blizzard of Ahhhhs.” After his successful career as a professional skier, Mike graduated from the AMGA ski program with flying colors, and now splits time between guiding and running the backcountry division for Fischer North America.
Brenton Reagan, AMGA/IFMGA, is a lead guide with EXUM Mountain Guides in Jackson, Wyo., and the director of marketing. He works in the Tetons during the winter and Alaska in the sping. He also helps run the show at Arc’Teryx’s Backcountry Academy.
—Joe Stock, AMGA/IFMGA, based in Anchorage, Alaska. Joe delivers some of the best avalanche courses in North America, while also writing and guiding the rest of the year. He’s gregarious, fun, and thoughtful, always refining his craft and having fun along the way. He holds a master’s in watershed science (emphasis on snow hydrology), is a published author, and a co-founder of The Alaska Guide Collective. He teaches avalanche courses and guides all over the world.
—Marc Chauvin, AMGA/IFMGA, based in North Conway, N.H. Marc was the third American to become a full mountain guide within the AMGA. He delivers insightful, challenging avalanche courses in the White Mountains, where he also ski-guides. Co-author of “The Mountain Guide Manual,” Marc was a driving force in establishing the guide-training program in the AMGA.
—Colin Zacharias, ACMG/IFMGA guide, based in Tofino, B.C. He has worked all over North America, as well as stints in South America, Europe, and Antarctica. He has four decades of experience in almost every aspect of the skiing industry, from a snow-safety director at the Olympics to a lead guide at Canadian Mountain Holidays.
—Julia Niles AMGA/IFMGA, based in Squamish, B.C. Hang out with Julia and you won’t get half the story—she’s low-key, but a killer in the mountains. She did the first female descent of Grand Teton (yes, on skis!), has opened new lines in the Rockies and Coast Range of B.C., all while pursuing a master’s in psychology and raising two kids.
—Mike Bromberg, IFMGA/ACMG, founder of Revelstoke Backcountry Guides in Revelstoke, B.C. Mike is an internationally certified mountain guide with diverse global guiding experience. Mike created RBG to give skiers an alternative to carbon-intensive ski vacations.
—David Lussier, IFMGA/ACMG, at Summit Mountain Guides, Nelson B.C. David is the owner and lead guide who has successfully guided clients on the highest peaks of Western Canada and Europe. His broad guiding background includes work for the Canadian Cat & Heli-ski industry, numerous backcountry ski lodges, and ski mountaineering programs in remote mountain ranges.
—Canada West Mountain School, North Vancouver, B.C. Provides custom avalanche course and training through a large team of certified ACMG ski guides and AST instructors. Canada West has a plethora of IFMGA/ACMG certified guides and AST instructors to choose from. They have an exceptional reputation in the Coast Range and one of our top recommendations for the region.
—Miles Smart, AMGA/IFMGA, based in Chamonix, France. Miles grew up as a wunderkind of climbing and skiing in the Pacific Northwest. He is the youngest person to complete his IFMGA training in the U.S. He now lives in Chamonix, with his wife, Liz (also an IFMGA guide), where he runs steep camps and guides throughout the year. Quiet and unassuming, Miles charges in the mountains, having skied big lines like the Gervasutti Couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul and hunting out pow stashes throughout the Alps. He has a wealth of experience, despite being just into his 40s.
—Joe Vallone, AMGA/IFMGA, based in La Grave, France. Drummer, kite-surfer, kook, and fun hog, Joe is also one of the most experienced American ski guides working today. He traveled to LaGrave in the early days, becoming one of Doug Coombs’s proteges. He completed his IFMGA in the U.S., but has made La Grave home for 20-plus years. He’s opened new descents on La Meije, his home mountain, as well as skiing all over the world.
—Jörg Wilz, IFMGA/ACMG, at On Top Mountaineering, Canmore, Alb. Jörg is an internationally certified mountain and ski guide and holds CAA (Canadian Avalanche Association) Level 3 certification and a blasting license for avalanche control in B.C. The UIAA Expedition Commission appointed him twice to lead their International Mountaineering Camps—1993 in Pakistan and 1997 in China. Jörg bases himself for most of the year in Canmore. He can also be found quite often in the Alps, Colorado, or in Revelstoke BC, where he is putting in first tracks as a helicopter-ski guide for Canadian Mountain Holidays. He speaks German, English, French and Italian.
—Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, Canmore, Alb. Yamnuska has a large team of certified ACMG ski guides and AST instructors. Barry Blanchard is Yamnuska’s associate director, a Canadian mountain guide and accomplished alpinist. He leads a team of certified ACMG guides who are passionately committed to providing exceptional mountain experiences and providing the highest level of avalanche education.
Rob Coppolillo writes and guides from his home base of Chamonix, France. He grew up in the sketchy snowpack of the Colorado Rockies, studied environmental conservation at CU Boulder, and is the author of three books, including “The Ski Guide Manual.” He and his wife, Rebecca, have twin boys, Dominic and Luca, who are 10.