Ski mountaineering in the Aiguilles Rouges

Ski Mountaineering in Chamonix and the AMGA Ski Guides Exam

Winter of 2014/15 was a good one.  Yep, for those of you that haven’t been paying attention to your calendar, winter ended weeks ago.  A good part of winter for me was spent in the San Juan mountains of Colorado, based out of Ouray where I was working for San Juan Mountain Guides.  And as a new guide this year for SJMG, I was brought on to fill in the blanks for the Ice Guiding season in the Ouray Ice Park and on San Juan back country ice routes like Stairway to Heaven and the Ames Ice Hose.  It was a great season for ice climbing; generally speaking we had great weather and all of the classic routes were in with fat ice.  That I was enrolled in the Ski Guides Exam with the American Mountain Guides Association, however, meant that every day I was ice guiding was a day that I wasn’t skiing and preparing for this upcoming event, which within the guiding industry, is a big deal.  Eight days of examination in backcountry ski guiding and ski mountaineering at an International standard.  Mentally I put those thoughts on the backburner, and purposefully planned to take the months of March and April off to make sure I was ready for the big exam.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the guiding world, or what it means to become a Certified Mountain Guide by the AMGA, I will try to sum it up here.  To achieve this credential an aspiring guide must take between two and three guiding courses of 8-12 days each, and do that in three separate disciplines; Rock Climbing, Alpine Climbing and Ski Mountaineering.  That is followed by a final examination in each one of the disciplines, with each exam lasting from 6-10 days, all in the field.  Be it the sandstone faces of Red Rocks, the snowy glaciers of the North Cascades or the steep couloirs of Chamonix, France, you learn and get examined in real life locations and scenarios, with your colleagues and examiners acting as your clients.  When you are done, your investment totals seven courses and three examinations, each at about $2500 a pop, and some 1,000 hours of peer training and scrutiny.  If you pass all three final exams, you are certified as a Mountain Guide by the AMGA, and a little silver and blue pin gets stuck to your jacket at the AMGA Annual Dinner.

Earning that little silver and blue pin comes with a significant international benefit.   You become recognized around the world as a legitimate Mountain Guide by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, which then opens up access to guiding internationally.  This last benefit is the goal I seek.  While I have been guiding in the mountains since 2002, in places like Canada, Europe and New Zealand, that is not enough credential to be recognized as a true professional in the industry.  The fact that you can guide in the mountains of the US, without going through formal education and examination, has most Europeans shaking their heads, wondering about the cowboys of the wild west.  After all, in many cultures being a Mountain Guide is a serious profession, not unlike working as a doctor, lawyer, school teacher or EMT.

When March finally rolled around, it was time to drop the ice tools, pick up my skis, and head home to Jackson, Wyoming where the Tetons lay blanketed with snow.  On Day one, I got right into ski touring to get the legs acclimated and the mind in tune with the backcountry snow pack; a couple laps on a slightly more obscure classic called Olive Oil.  Powder, Tetons, and friends equals heaven, and it was nice to be back.  After just a few tours, it was time to head north to Canada.  I had yet to ski in either the Selkirks or the Canadian Rockies, and all winter, I had been looking forward to going up there to train on glaciated terrain.

Skiing and Canada go together like hot chocolate and Grandma’s house.  The “Great White North” with a plethora of mountain ranges that all get quite a bit of snow, has an access program that encourages skiing in the backcountry as well as the use of mechanized transport, be it by helicopter or snowcat.   The result is that Canada has a whole pile of destinations that shouldn’t be missed if you are an avid backcountry skier or powder hound.  Names that come to mind include Pemberton, Revelstoke, Banff National Park, and of course, Rogers Pass.  My motivation to visit these locations came from a desire not just to see what everyone was talking about, but to ski new terrain and travel on glaciers before the exam, which will certainly challenge any applicant to be sharp while on-sight guiding big terrain in a serious environment.

At the outset of the trip, I rendezvoused with friend and colleague Jed Porter, whom I worked with in the Sierra.  Jed and his wife were moving to Jackson, and were interested in skiing in Canada, so we agreed to ski together for the better part of a week up north.  The long fifteen-hour drive to Golden, British Columbia ensued, and the next day we were skiing at Rogers Pass.  Rather then reinventing an already brilliantly crafted wheel, I invite you to read a couple of Jed’s blogs about some of the skiing we did together:

We also learned a few things about the friendly and comedic Canadians from this infomercial:

Halfway through the trip, I lucked into the opportunity to volunteer as a practicum guide at a colleague’s backcountry ski hut, which was icing on the cake.  I spent five days at the beautiful Ruby Creek Lodge of Valhalla Mountain Touring shadowing Evan Stevens and Jasmin Caton as a practicum (apprentice) guide.  The Valhalla’s were the place to be, with lots of fresh powder while everywhere else seemed to be drying out.   I valued this chance to shadow two professional guides, learn the behind-the-scenes operations of hut/lodge management, and brush-up on ski guiding skills before heading into the exam.  I highly recommend to anyone interested in Canadian ski touring to check them out:

It was time to head back to Jackson to get in a few more tours and pack for two months in Europe.  Admittedly, a ski descent of the Grand Teton has been near the top of my list for a few years now, but as I haven’t been in Jackson much during the spring when conditions really come together, I’m sorry to say I haven’t yet accomplished that goal.  It is a tricky recipe of having the right partner(s) and conditions, which requires good knowledge of local conditions in the alpine, and the timing to bring it all together with a good partner.  I had one week to try to pull it together, but conditions didn’t cooperate.   Instead I skied a great line in the Banana Couloir, and spent a couple days tuning up my downhill ski movement skills with my dear friend, Jim Wilson, who is also an awesome ski instructor based in Jackson Hole.

Chamonix, France came quickly.  An incredible sendoff in Jackson with close friends included drinks and classic American chow at one of the local bars in town.  It was heartwarming to be able to connect with these friends and get their encouragement as I headed off to take the last exam in this long process that I started in 2006.  Of course, I wouldn’t have gotten this far without the support that my ex-wife, Tracy Faber.  It was with her support that I first got involved with the AMGA, and managed to come so far with the training and certifications.   I wouldn’t be where I am now without her support and encouragement of pursuing this profession.  Of course there are many people who have come into my life and played a significant part in my development as both a person and a mountain guide, in the past and also presently.  You know who you are, and I appreciate your support very much!

On the flight to Geneva, I started to take notes and fill out my Guide’s notebook with local information, resources and ideas.  There are so many pieces to the puzzle of being a good guide in the mountains, and preparation is a big part of it.  Coming to the region beforehand to get to know the terrain and conditions is another important one, and having a few weeks in Chamonix ahead of the exam made a lot of sense in that regard.  I also enjoy these long flights for a moment to reflect on life and work.  It may sound strange with the ground moving 600 mph underfoot, but I feel like time slows a bit and I can think about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and appreciate the calmness of the moment.  I’ve been flying since I was two years old (think Pan-Am and 747 Jumbo-Jets), and perhaps that has something to do with it.  I also always wanted to be a pilot, and in many ways guiding in the mountains is like piloting at a commercial level – peoples lives are in your hands, and the responsibility to deliver and safe and enjoyable journey is your primary task.

These last couple weeks of skiing around Chamonix have been a blast.  There have been several classic tours and steep ski-mountaineering lines, great powder runs and plenty of days filled with smiles, laughs and joking around with great people.  (Again, you know who you are, and I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to get out in the hills with you!)  From my little shoebox apartment over-looking the Aiguille du Midi telepherique, each day starts with a simple breakfast and a cup of coffee as I browse through the weather and avalanche reports online, then prepare my pack for the day.  Harnesses and ropes are a mandatory part of the kit here, perhaps even more important then the shovel and probe, as skiing on glaciers is a regular deal, and the crevasse zones are often larger then a city park.  Then the day rushes ahead with a tram ride to a high point from which the tour begins.  Traversing a glacier, skinning to a high point, rappelling into a couloir or down onto a glacier, then skiing into the bliss of soft snow, steep turns, and amazing views is the norm.  A day ski touring in Europe isn’t complete without an après ski beer and a few more stories shared.  Eat some food, dry out your gear and repeat.  It’s not a bad life…  With little luck and a solid performance during the exam, there is an IFMGA license in my future, and I can pursue this lifestyle even more whole-heartedly.

When packing for this trip, selecting the appropriate clothing and equipment was a big consideration, especially given the baggage restrictions of international flights. My equipment selection wouldn’t be complete without the support of Adidas Outdoor clothing and footwear, Opticus Sunglasses and Osprey Packs.  For this trip, my Adidas Terrex Ndosphere insulated jacket and Terrex Advanced Gore-tex jacket have been key for staying warm and dry, be it walking down from the Midi top station in a cold breeze, battling the elements during the tour or hanging out in one of the mountain huts in the evening.  The Ndosphere Jacket’s warmth, offset by its’ lightweight and compact design make it a no-brainer for almost any trip into the mountains.  Dylan Taylor’s review of the jacket for the AMGA can be found here:

A day hasn’t passed that I haven’t worn my Opticus Altice Chullo shades.  They are solid performers in the field, and plenty stylish for the après ski scene.  I’ve owned tons of sunglasses over the years, and the Opticus line is without a doubt, my all time favorite.  These sunglasses are both better made and cheaper then the competition.  A huge bonus is that Opticus is also the go-to company in the US for prescription sports and outdoor sunglasses – they will custom make the shades to your prescription and stand by the product.  Check out the Altice Chullo at:

Last but not least, is the pack I’ve worn all winter long.  I have dubbed the Osprey Mutant 38L “the one pack to rule them all.”  I’m always skeptical of kit when I first get my hands on it, especially backpacks, and I’m no pushover when it comes to appreciating gear.  So when I first received the Mutant 38, it sat around for a little while as I continued to fall back on my old workhorse pack, which is both larger and heavier.  When I finally took the Mustant 38 out for a day, I couldn’t help but appreciate both it’s light weight and packability, in addition to the way it carries (actually the most important feature in my book).  I just love the way you can choose to pack it full, or go light and remove the brain (top storage lid), yet still secure the pack with the side compression straps and a built in flap that pulls over the top and buckles down.  The axe carrying system employed is simple and unobtrusive, yet quick and secure.  The pack carries skis in several different configurations, and the florescent yellow/green color has seriously grown on me.  When I had to decide what pack to bring with me for a two month long trip to Europe that would include ski mountaineering, alpine climbing and overnight ski tours in the Alps, some sport cragging in France and Italy, and a two week motorcycle tour, it was another no-brainer.  The Mutant 38 was on my back for the flight to Geneva, carrying a rope, change of clothes, my laptop and toiletry kit.  As I said, “One pack to rule them all”:

Check out a solid review here:

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to working with Adidas, Opticus and Osprey more in the future.  Definitely check them out online either through their websites or via Facebook and Instagram.  In addition, feel free to follow my adventures through social media at and (@jwittguide)

It is always a pleasure to share my experiences through this blog with new friends met along the way, as well as loved ones at home.  Without friends, these adventures would never happen!

Cheers, Jeff Witt
Chamonix, France, April 2015

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