|How to Choose a Guide or Guide Service
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There are a number of things you should consider in choosing a guide or guide service. Click on a topic on the left to go to the discussion. Or you can read the whole thing from top to bottom.
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This is a central question to which you should try to get an answer before you sign up for a trip. Even if you don't know any of the guides in a particular guide service, most of these services publish, as part of their advertising, a list of their guides, stating such things as years of experience, guiding credentials and other potentially useful information. Ask the guide service who your guide will be, and to send you a list of guides if the service publishes one (most do).
When you contact a guide service about a trip, be sure to ask who is likely to be your guide. Because of scheduling constraints and sign-up uncertainties, they may have a tough time answering your question. The staff of most guide services include a range of experience and qualification levels among their guides. In order to avoid getting the least experienced or uncertified guides, for your own peace of mind, you should press for an answer to your question. Reading the published material describing staff may not tell you who is best. Read the section down below on Qualifications and Training for more information.
If you know you would like a specific guide, - perhaps you have heard good things about a particular guide or maybe you had a great previous trip with that guide - request him or her. Make every effort to convince whoever does the scheduling to guarantee your guide of choice.
If you have a favorite guide, but that guide is not available, ask for a recommendation for another name. Ask your favorite guide, or someone else you trust. Someone with whom you have developed a personal relationship is more likely to keep your interests at heart in making a recommendation. Be suspicious if they can't recommend you to someone else, ask why. In some cases there may be no one else whom the guide can honestly recommend. Most good guides have good relationships with their competitors. If they recommend you to a competitor, that speaks well of both the guide doing the recommending and of the competitor.
We strongly believe in the value of guide training and examination. Mountain guiding is a highly technical and potentially dangerous activity. There are many specific skills involved that are not normally part of the recreational climbers repertoire. In order to perfect these skills guides need to take training courses. And in order to be sure guides do, in fact posses them, they need to be examined. It's as simple as that.
While there are quite a few organizations that claim to train guides in these skills, the most reliably effective ones are those that have become members of the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations. These organizations have met the strict requirements for guide training and examination established by the IFMGA, and have proven their quality through an extensive review process conducted by the IFMGA.
First, a few definitions. The International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA) and the Union International des Associations de Guides de Montagne (UIAGM) are one and the same, the former merely being the English translation of the latter. As the name would suggest the IFMGA is a federation of member guide associations. There are 21 different member countries.
The 21 member countries of the IFMGA all have agreed to recognize the training and certification programs of the other member countries. In so doing they try to offer to one another reciprocal rights of access to guides. It is because of the IFMGA that guides certified by the member associations can ply their trade with a minimum of red tape in other member counties. All member associations have guide training programs which have been inspected and approved by the Technical Commission of the IFMGA. These training and assessment programs produce guides who are called IFMGA (or UIAGM) Mountain Guides. If you ever travel to IFMGA countries you might see the guides with the little pewter and blue IFMGA guides pins.
All guides who are IFMGA licensed Mountain Guides have qualified through one of the member associations above. The training and examination process takes years, often as many as four or five and costs tens of thousands of dollars. It takes real dedication and their effort speaks highly of their commitment to the development of their own skills, as well as the profession.
It may be surprising, but in the United States climbing and ski mountaineering guides don't need any type of official guide training or certification to guide. Most guide services require first aid training but only a very few (and they are not any of the big ones) require that all their guides to be certified by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) or other IFMGA member association.
In the US the AMGA is the only guides association whose guide training and certification programs are recognized internationally by the IFMGA. The AMGA offers a number of different types of certifications, but of most interest to potential clients are the certifications in the disciplines of Alpine, Rock and Ski guiding. Those guides who are certified at the highest level in all 3 disciplines are awarded the internationally recognized credential of UIAGM / IFMGA Mountain Guide.
As of October 2010 there are about 70 guides who have been IFMGA internationally certified by the AMGA - click for a complete listing of IFMGA Mountain Guides who are members of the AMGA.
Achieving IFMGA Mountain Guide certification is no easy task. It takes dedication, training and a strong commitment to the career of guiding. Guides must be trained and examined in several disciplines:
In the USA, and also in Canada and perhaps several other IMFGA member countries, guides can be certified in any of the three disciplines above. Only those with all three certification are qualified IFMGA Mountain Guides. Insist on a guide who, at a minimum, is certified in the discipline appropriate for the trip you're planning. You'll want an Alpine Certified guide for your ascent of Denali, not a rock guide, and you will want a Ski Mountaineering Guide for that glacier ski tour in Alaska, not one only certified as an Alpine Guide.
In the SNGM, the French association, things are a bit simpler – there are Mountain Guides and Aspirant Guides. Some guides also have training in Canyoning, but most work the alpine world, both in summer and winter. All SNGM Mountain Guides, and all Aspirant guides have been trained and examined in all disciplines (excluding canyoning, which is optional).
The AMGA has been certifying guides for about 15 years. Since it began, certification has remained controversial and not universally supported. Without going into the reasons for this I think it is important to say that there are some excellent guides who are not yet certified. If you can't hire a certified guide, the question you must answer is "how do I determine who these good non-certified guides are?" Recommendations from those you trust are really the best way.
Our advice is to hire a guide who you know to have received specific and formal training through an internationally recognized IFMGA-member mountain guides association. In the USA and Canada, where a guide can be certified in individual disciplines, be sure that they are trained and assessed in the basic discipline of your planned activity, either Rock, Alpine or Ski. If you can't possibly find such a guide (the IFMGA website has links to all its member association, who in turn generally have list of IFMGA licensed guides), then go with a good recommendation from a trustworthy source.
Accreditation verses Certification (an American oddity)
The American Mountain Guides Association offers two different credentials for guides and guide services. Guide services get Accredited, and individual guides get Certified.
Certification is considered to be the much more rigorous standard. For example, to become Alpine certified a guide must pass a 10-day field exam, conducted in a variety of terrain types, from alpine rock to glacier and ice routes. Pass rate for candidates is about 60 to 70%. In addition, guides normally take one or more guides training courses to prepare for the exam, which can be physically and mentally quite taxing. By the time the guide has completed all the various training courses and exams, the first aid requirement and the required avalanche training, he or she has had about 40 to 50 days worth of training and examination. And that's only for the Alpine guiding discipline. To include Rock and Ski certification adds another 25 to 30 days of training/exam for each discipline. As you can see its a huge investment of time and money.
Accreditation is a very different AMGA program that involves a review of a company's administrative aspects and a brief review of infield practices. Normally the review is conducted over 2 days, one day in the office and one day observing a course or climb in the field. In the words of the AMGA;
We feel that Accreditation is too low a standard for guides. While it will indicate that the necessary permits, insurance and operations manuals are in place, it says little about the quality of the guiding, or the qualification of the guiding staff. Accredited guide services are also permitted to display the AMGA logo but they must also use the word "Accredited".
In your search for a guide it is worth having a good understanding of these various credentials. Some guides will claim that guides training and examination is all a bunch of nonsense, but you should draw your own conclusions.
If I were shopping for a guide for a planned climbing or back-country skiing trip in the USA, I would first look for an IFMGA Mountain guide. If I could not find one then, if necessary, I'd find a certified guide who perhaps is not IMFGA certified but is at least AMGA certified in the terrain type for the trip I'm planning. Look for the logo (below) of the American Mountain Guides Association with the word CERTIFIED. In the US only AMGA certified guides, accredited schools and supporting (financially) members are legally permitted to use the logo, and they must display the necessary explanatory text, such as "Certified", "Accredited", or "Supporting".
If you are planning a trip to a UIAGM member country including all of the Alpine countries in Europe, Canada, New Zealand or Peru, you should seek out a UIAGM (IFMGA) Mountain Guide to be sure of the legality of their commercial operation there.
CLIMBER to GUIDE RATIO
With few exceptions you should go with the lowest client to guide ratio you can afford. A low ratio (a small number of clients per guide) offers several extremely important advantages.
First, is safety. In mountainous terrain a small team moves much faster, avoiding all the bad things you like to avoid, like afternoon thunderstorms, nightfall, exposure to objective hazards, icefall, rockfall, avalanches, hypothermia and others unpleasantness. Mountaineering and guiding history is littered with stories of large rope teams falling together. Whymper's tragic climb of the Matterhorn where 4 out of 7 climbers roped together fell to their deaths is a classic example. Whymper and the Taugwalders were spared only because the rope broke! Today, local guides (and us as well) will only take one client per guide up this peak.
On easy glaciated peaks or technically easy climbs, larger groups may be desirable. These groups offer greater social interaction and the increased party size can give strength to a rescue or other potential problem. But don't confuse party size with guide to client ratio. Even in a large group, try to go with a low ratio. Two guides with four climbers is a much stronger and flexible group then one guide with five climbers.
Unfortunately, many guides and guide services go for the extra dollars or the more competitive pricing that trips with high ratios can produce, sacrificing safety or the quality of the experience in the process. A large roped party, traveling on exposed terrain, is exposed to the clumsiness of its weakest member. A good guide with fewer people on his or her rope will have at their disposal more, and more effective, methods of protecting the party. Large parties sometimes use running belays (the entire rope is moving, with the leader occasionally placing anchors through which all team members successively clip) on moderate but exposed terrain. This is a common practice on long snow slopes. In our opinion, this practice is often a red flag indicating that the climber-to-guide ratio may too high for the objective. An entire falling rope team puts incredible stresses on the one or two anchors holding it to the mountainside. Often these anchors are snow pickets or other types of snow anchors which are dubious at best. Besides, who wants to be pulled off the mountain by the guy behind you, even if it is only a short fall?
Speed and a greater range of available techniques the guide can employ are what makes the small ratio safer than the large.
Small teams generally move faster than large teams. This means you spend less time waiting for others, stay warmer, and have more time to spare at the end of the day, relishing your accomplishments.
Small teams offer greater odds of successfully reaching the summit or completing a tour. A team is only as strong or as fast as its weakest member. The larger the size of the team the greater the odds of someone keeping you back. Stack the odds in your favor and insist on a low ratio.
Small teams also have more inherent flexibility to accommodate adjustments in team composition. Compare a group with 2 guides and 4 clients to another group with 2 guides and 6 clients. If one of the climbers is ill or simply doesn't have the strength, will or desire to continue, with the 2:1 ratio one guide can take the healthy client, in addition to his or her other clients, on his or her rope and continue to the summit while the other guide heads down with the single client. In the 1:3 ratio, however, the guide going on to the summit may be unable to accommodate the healthy clients from the other rope. In this situation one or perhaps two perfectly capable climbers will be unable to summit because the higher ratios lacked the flexibility to adjust. Smaller ratios generally offer greater rates of summit success.
In instructional settings, courses with a low client to guide ratio give each participant greater personal attention.
When shopping for a trip always inquire what the maximum client to guide ratio will be. In general, technical climbs should have a maximum ratio of 2:1, and climbs with a great degree of exposed 3rd and 4th class terrain, such as the Matterhorn or the Eiger should be done at a 1:1 ratio. Low angle glacier climbs can be done at higher ratios, but more than 4 or 5 people (including the guide) on one rope can be a frustrating experience for everyone. 1 or 2 climbers with 1 guide is a good number of a glacier climb.
Local experience is, and always will be, a valuable asset to a guide. This is true on both rock climbs, where micro-routefinding and a knowledge of what's around the corner can be useful, and on snow or ice climbs and ski tours, where changing conditions may dictate choice of route or peak.
A good guide can, however, do an excellent job even in an area to which he's never been before. He will do his homework, learning all he can about the route prior to going, consulting with other guides, and he will stack the odds in his favor by doing such things as choosing a low client to guide ratio, which gives him more security and flexibility.
If you are climbing or skiing with a guide who is "guiding blind" as it is often called, you'll want to be sure that guide was conscientious enough to prepare as best he could, and that he has a large "bag of tricks" to help him deal with situations as they may arise. Formal guides training courses are the best way to learn these techniques. If your guide has been well trained, he or she should have no problem.
Some clients prefer to go to locations to which their guide has never been. They like to watch the guide's thinking in action, and they know that the guide is also enjoying the discovery of a new (to them) route. If your guide is willing to share his decisions with you as the ascent or tour progresses, this can be very educational. Most good guides enjoy guiding blind, as it challenges them and keeps their thinking focused. Just as you might enjoy completing a climb in good style and time, a quality guide also enjoys a guiding job well done.
Even though local knowledge can be a real asset, more important are the quality, competence and conscientiousness of your guide.
Consider additional ancillary costs. Some guide services include just about everything you could imagine in their trip fees, others, precious little. It's hard to know what specific things to ask about. Generally a good sign, however, is if the guide service can give you definitive answers to any of your questions regarding what is covered. The more you ask around the better sense you'll get.
Yet another consideration is what equipment is supplied with the trip. Most guide services can rent you gear if you need it, but the price varies greatly from guide service to guide service. Other, more generous services, will lend you gear you might need, though these are rare indeed.
The quality of accommodation both in tents and hotels that a guide service offers can greatly affect the cost of the trip. The star system for comparing hotels is a good indicator of the type of lodging you'll be using. If the cost of lodging is included in the trip you might want to ask about these things. Porters or animal handlers, generally not too expensive to hire and feed, can also add up if there are many of them or they are with you for much of your trip.
Some guide services will "tier price" there offerings. The price goes up if signups are low, and comes down if it is a full trip. This practice creates a bit of a conundrum for clients, as they don't really know what the price will be until all the registrations have come in. From the guide service's point of view, however, it is sometimes the only way they can both offer the trip at a reasonable price, and also protect themselves from taking a big loss if signups are low. Try not to get too upset with the guide service if they present you with a difficult choice. Simply decide if the higher cost of a partially full trip is worth it to you and express this to the guide service. A good guide service will be able to give you information about current signup levels, or a history of signups on past trips. Last, try to find out if the higher cost of a low signup trip will also result in a higher guide to client ratio. It is does, then this alone might make it worth it.
The guides wages and expenses are usually the biggest single expense for a guide service. As a result, the guide-to-client ratio is a very big factor in determining trip costs. As we mentioned above, as a consumer, you should try to get a definitive answer to the question of ratios for a given trip. Also, important is the certification level of ALL the guides. If the trip cost is high, and the guide to client ratio is low, or some of the guides are not certified (making generally lower wages) then either the trip expenses must be quite high, or somebody is making a lot of money.
Most guides and guide services use good equipment. It is one area that is plainly apparent to the clientele and makes a big and early impression.
Technical climbing gear is built with a fair degree of extra strength and even old and well used equipment can be generally safe. Misuse is by far a greater hazard than failure due to age.
There are, however, a few things you might do well pay attention to.
Tents can be critically important on expeditionary climbs, especially those which experience a lot of wind, like Aconcagua or virtually any 8000 meter peak. Also heavy snow loads of the type often encountered on Denali can test your tents to their limit. Many expeditions have ended with the destruction of their tents in a storm.
A good guide or operator will supply you with high quality and generally newer tents. Tents are probably the biggest equipment expense for many expeditionary climbs. They are expensive, damaged easily and normally require frequent replacement. A company that turns over their pool of tents on a regular basis shows you that they are making an investment in your safety and the success of your climb.
Another item your guide should perhaps carry is some form of communication with the outside world. Normally this consists of a radio or cellular telephone. In most of North America, Europe and much of South America these items can be life saving.
On climbs at a very high altitude (7000 meters or more) at least large parties should have a hyperbaric chamber such as a Gamow bag available in base camp. These chambers are used to treat life threatening altitude illness. In some areas, like Ecuador and much of Peru, an evacuation to lower altitude via car is a reasonable substitute.
One final comment about equipment. Nobody likes to carry more weight than is necessary. On most climbs, extra weight is actually a hazard, excessively tiring climbers, even increasing the likelihood of falling. A good guide will be sure you do not carry more than is necessary and that your equipment selection is appropriate for the task. A good guide service is happy to hire local help, porters or beasts of burden, to aid in your ascent.
In most parts of the US, and, in fact, in most parts of the world, permission of some form or another is required to guide commercially. In nearly all federally managed lands in the US, guides must either obtain use permits for their company or become an employee or subcontractor for another company holding a permit. This can be major problem to visiting guides or guides who want to travel outside their home area. In some areas there are either bureaucratic obstacles to working as an employee or the permit holding guide service will not allow visiting guides to use their permits.
As you can imagine, with these challenges to guides there is a fair amount of illegal guiding done in the US. Even many of the larger guide services "bend the rules" and operate illegally. You can sometimes see this when they instruct in downhill ski areas (areas where they don't always have permission to operate) and occasionally when they stray into a land management unit in which they have no permission to operate.
There is also a great amount of illegal guiding conducted by American guides and guide services outside the US. Most IFMGA countries have regulations limiting the right to guide to either IFMGA Mountain Guides or to aspirant guides operating under their supervision. Any guide who has attained IFMGA Mountain Guide status can, in general, legally operate in IFMGA member countries. Also, "Aspirant" guides can often legally operate under the direct supervision of IFMGA guides so long as the Aspirant guide has the necessary qualifications.
Some American guides and guide services have chosen to ignore the IFMGA rules or to bend the definition of "operating under supervision". Ask to see their international "carnet" or identity card. It must display the IFMGA logo. These cards are updated annually, with a small dated sticker, and issued only to IFMGA Mountain Guides. See example.
You should be aware that in many cases, where your guide is not complying to the letter of the law, you and your guide may be detained or denied access to your desired climbing goal. Furthermore, the guide's or guides service's liability insurance may not cover him, and your options in the event of gross negligence on the part of the guide may be further limited. If you are not sure of whether or not you guide or guide service has the needed permission, ask. You can ask the guide or guide service, hopefully they will give you an honest answer or, you may ask the land manager for that particular area.
In most areas, guides are required to carry liability insurance. The insurance may protect the guide, and indirectly, the client as well, in the event of an accident in which the guide is found to be negligent. There is a general consensus among IFMGA member countries that this is a moral obligation if not a legal one. The guide's associations of the main Alpine members of the IFMGA, such as France, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria, purchase good insurance for their members (participation is obligatory) that covers their members round the world. But in the US, things are not so organized. Insurance is quite expensive there, and its quality is never really known until it is tested by an actual court case. If you are concerned that your guide have effective liability insurance, you should ask who the carrier is as well as the amount of the insurance. However, it is worth pointing out that we believe it is much more important that your guide be well trained and certified, than that he have insurance to cover his mistakes.
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