If you've skied out-of-bounds at such European extreme epicenters as Chamonix, France, or Verbier, Switzerland, the letters IFMGA should mean something to you. If not, get to know them. The IFMGA just may determine how much-and how safely-you enjoy the untracked bowls and tricky couloirs outside the ropes at resorts across North America.
IFMGA stands for "International Federation of Mountain Guides Association." It's the European standard, the most highly regarded guiding certification in the world-and you have to risk your life, repeatedly, to obtain it. For starters, it takes three to five years of in-the-field training before you're even considered for IFMGA exams. Furthermore, IFMGA certification requires mastery of rock climbing, alpine skiing, and ski mountaineering. In a series of six 10-day sessions, aspiring guides must lead IFMGA examiners through whiteouts, belay them into technical couloirs, and otherwise get them safely and efficiently up and down cliff-ridden and avalanche-prone slopes. "This isn't the type of stuff you see in ski movies," says Miles Smart, an American living in La Grave who, at age 24, is the youngest IFMGA guide from this country. "It's more dangerous." It's also required: If you don't have IFMGA approval in Europe, you don't get to call yourself a guide.
Meanwhile, in North America, the skill level and accreditation of guides vary wildly. The American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) give certification in the individual disciplines of rock climbing, alpine skiing, and ski mountaineering (ACMG calls it "ski guiding"). These certifications qualify guides for sport-specific outings (a rock-climbing trip to Joshua Tree, a ski tour at Teton Pass, etc.), but they don't apply across the board. In fact, in the U.S., you don't need any certification to call yourself a guide. "No law says you have to be certified," says Karl Klassen, executive director of the ACMG. "Anyone who wants to hang up a shingle can do it."
Because of the lax attitude toward standards over here, U.S. guides with the requisite skill sets are enrolling for IFMGA exams at a record pace. In 2002, Americans signed on at only 25 percent capacity-and last year that number spiked to 100 percent. At Aspen Highlands, IFMGA guide Dick Jackson's Aspen Expeditions takes skiers and snowboarders out the gates to taste everything from rolling powder fields to tricky descents. IFMGA guide Martin Volken started leading clients into Alpental, Washington's sprawling backcountry this winter. And, in the ultimate turn of events, you can now ski OB at Jackson Hole with IFMGA guide Doug Coombs and relish the irony that he was once banned from the resort for ducking ropes.
So, will a true European guiding culture become the norm in the U.S. and Canada? In all likelihood, and in due time, yes. Even North American bigwigs admit that IFMGA certification lends extra street cred to North American guides. "When you're putting your life in your guide's hands," says AMGA executive director Michael Alkaitis, "you want to know that your guide has a certain skill set, not just a plaque that says, 'I'm a good guide.'"