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Mountain Guiding; Mountain Safety
An Experienced Professional

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This article appeared in the October (2001?) issue of Rock and Ice magazine.

Guiding in the U.S.

Is America Land of the Free or Home of the Bureaucrats?

by Jorg Wilz

In search of new adventure, I legally immigrated to the US four years ago from my home in Germany. Colorado seemed a good place to start because my wife was certified as a teacher there and we had good friends living along the Front Range. More importantly, the Rocky Mountains seemed the perfect place to practice my profession as a certified mountain and ski guide.

Though mountain guiding in Europe is regulated on a national or state level and certification programs are commonly long and quite selective, once graduated guides enjoy full reciprocity for their trade from country to country. Thus, I was completely unprepared for the conversation I had when I arrived in the US and phoned a nearby national park to inquire about guiding there. In a friendly but resolute voice, the chief ranger told me that this would be impossible. The park licensed only a single concessionaire to provide guiding services. "That's how we feel we serve the public best," the ranger said. Period!

My little American dream was shattered. Had I really just moved to the "Land of the Free" only to find that I couldn't work in my chosen profession? It doesn't take a macro-economist to see that a mountain guiding monopoly isn't really in the best interest of the public. The policy was based, in part, on the Park Service's mission to protect the parks' natural resources. But how can a registered, and thus accountable, guide and client have a higher impact than any other unrestricted climbing party? Besides, my private clients want to be guided by me, not by someone designated by the government.

Discouraged but not defeated, I began scouting other locales. I found some nice possibilities for backcountry ski touring along Colorado's Continental Divide and scheduled a meeting with a National Forest Service ranger. I proposed a multi-day backcountry ski traverse with accommodation in existing private lodges in the valleys. Surprised by my naïveté, the ranger explained that my envisioned Colorado Haute Route would cross four different Ranger Districts and that I would need to seek formal approval from every one of them. I briefly considered mentioning that I used to cross three national borders in a single day while guiding clients in Europe, but I managed to hold my tongue.

During that conversation, I found out that no one was currently offering backcountry ski instruction in that district. So I decided to be a bit less ambitious and file an application (comprising 80 pages of operating, business and risk management plans) for day tours. The National Forest administration took one year to sign and date a one-page form letter denying my request. When the letter arrived, I felt like one of Kafka's pitiful protagonists flailing blindly at the base of a monumental wall of bureaucracy.

In my search for allies, I turned to the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). In November 1997, after a lengthy approval process, the AMGA was accepted into the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA or UIAGM). This means that the AMGA guide certification program has been recognized to meet international standards. Ironically, any American mountain guide who passes the complete AMGA certification program may now legally guide in Europe, Peru, Canada and New Zealand, but is still prohibited from taking clients into the nearby national forest without a difficult-to-come-by commercial-use permit.

In spite of this boost for the AMGA certification program, there is still substantial opposition within the association to campaigning for broader access to public lands for independent certified guides. Over four-fifths of the 640 members of the AMGA are currently not certified and tend to see the program as a threat. Many of these guides have been doing excellent work for decades and see little point in opening themselves to the scrutiny of an AMGA examiner when the market has been recognizing them for decades. Beyond that, some of the large guide services now hold valuable and exclusive concessions for renowned national parks, and they could care less about changing the status quo. In short, it's a tough environment for an independent guide, and much will have to change if guiding is ever to emerge from its current image as a one-time summer job to become a true profession.

I haven't given up hope of being a guide in Colorado, but the outlook is pretty grim. I eventually managed to obtain a permit for guiding backcountry skiing in one Ranger District. It was lucky, too, because shortly thereafter the National Forest Service placed a general moratorium on all new commercial-use permits in national forests in the region. And since I can't support myself from work in just that one district, like other fellow certified American guides, I've resorted to being a modern- day migrant worker - guiding during the summer in Europe and during the winter in Canada's heli-skiing industry. Sure, it's not too bad. But it's certainly not what I had in mind when I decided to call this country my home four years ago.

Jorg Wilz lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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