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How to Choose a Climbing Guide


January 31, 2020
Categories: Safety, Travel Tips

According to the American Alpine Club’s State of Climbing Report 2019, there were nearly 8 million climbers in the U.S. in 2014 – a number only continuing to grow.

From bouldering to ice climbing, more and more climbing enthusiasts are packing up their climbing shoes and carabiners to scale what Mother Nature has to offer. In 2020, you’ll even see the sport join the Olympics.

Before you try a hands-free bat hang on the burliest crag, you may want to consider finding a guide to help you reach your summit aspirations.

Global Rescue spoke to Kel Rossiter, owner and lead guide at Adventure Spirit Rock+Ice+Alpine Experiences in Burlington, Vermont to find out what questions a climber, of any experience, should ask when choosing a guide or guide experience.

What’s the better option: a group tour or a custom climbing experience?

For Rossiter, it all comes down to one question: Are you looking to tackle a larger objective specifically tailored to your skillset, or are you okay going with a group of climbers with varying levels of training and commitment to preparation?

“When you climb a mountain, you move as a group, you do everything as a group,” Rossiter said. “If someone didn’t choose the correct group for themselves, the rest of the group risks getting derailed. You have to adjust the plan to meet that person and a simple six hour carry up to the next camp can easily become a grueling, frustrating, all-day affair. Too much of this affects the success of the whole team.”

If you have a specific goal and vision for your expedition, a customized program will allow you to pursue your objectives in your own style and at your own pace. This is particularly important in terms of acclimatization. Adjusting to a change in environment, such as altitude is a big consideration. Climbing guides should offer an acclimatization plan suited to your needs or, at a minimum, a plan for you to do it on your own in advance of the climb.

There is also a third option, which is to partner with someone who has the same skill set.

“If we have another interested climber that seems to share your style and spirit, we'll offer you the opportunity to climb together and share costs,” Rossiter said. “The ultimate decision is up to you based on your overall goals and priorities.”

Does it matter if I know who the guide is?

Many guide services book trips well in advance of knowing who will actually lead the trip.

“Larger companies may start promoting a July trip in January but are not sure who will lead that trip,” Rossiter said. “You should know from the get-go who your lead guide is and be able to ask them about training, certification and familiarity with given type of terrain. You should be able to speak to someone who is specifically knowledgeable with the trip you wish to go on — not an office person who has never swung an ice tool before. You want the opportunity to communicate, plan and even train with your guide in advance of the climb.”

You also want to make sure the guide on your trip has the right climbing credentials. Sometimes when a guide service begins to grow, the company owners — the ones who have the climbing experience and certifications — become more involved in business management than climbing tours.

What training should the guide have?

According to Rossiter, look for a guide with American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) certification, which is the highest level of credential attainable by a professional mountain guide.

These guides are recognized in more than 20 International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA) member countries. There are also certifications for each type of guide: alpine, rock and ski. There’s even avalanche training.

“Make sure you look at bios and certifications,” said Rossiter, who is an IFMGA+AMGA Certified Mountain Guide, one of 150 in the entire United States. Rossiter also has a doctorate in educational leadership. “Some have CPR training or wilderness first aid, but that’s it.”

What else should I look for in a guide?

If you’re climbing with a large group, you might not have as much instruction and interaction with your guide as you’d like. If you’re on a customized climb, trips may be staffed 2:1 or 1:1.

“It is also important to consider the personal bond and connection you have with your guide. A good personality match,” Rossiter said. “You want a good person to hang out with — but don’t make your decision solely on that.”

Rossiter offers this comparison: “It’s nice to have a personal connection with your airline pilot, but ultimately it comes down to their training, certifications and ability to land the plane safely.”

Should the guide ask me any questions?

“I like to get a feel of their progression of climbing skills, if it forms a smooth arc of what they’ve done and positions them for what they are looking to do,” Rossiter said. “I also ask about their goals and how they arrived at that goal. That way I can help them ensure their skills match their goals and their specific climbing objectives will meet their goals.”

He tells the story of two clients who wanted to climb Mount Rainier in the winter.

“I set them up with a guide of mine to do some training in the Northeast. My guide asked them, ‘That’s a big goal. Why winter?’ and they said, ‘We want to see snow.’ Well, Mount Rainier is a 14,000-foot high mountain with 26 glaciers and snow year-round. A summer climb is a far more realistic and obtainable first big mountain climbing goal.”

Rossiter doesn’t want to be a dream crusher but in order to get the climb his client wants, he does need to ask why the client has the particular goal in mind.

“Are you looking for something that is technically interesting — some technical challenges in a climb — or altitude endurance challenges?” he said. “To create the best customized program, I want to figure out what excites them about their climbing.”

What do I need to know about safety measures?

Every guide service has risk management plans and emergency communications gear. It is training customized to the specific place and style of climbing that will keep climbers out of a tight spot in the first place.

“Safety is the primary goal of the guide. We do all we can to mitigate hazards, but we can’t eliminate them,” said Rossiter, who has been a private guide for 10 years. “Everyone on this team — the guide, the other climbers and you — are responsible for your safety. We will all work together to maximize the safety of this trip.”


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