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How Safe Is Your Adventure Trip?

Fall Line
posted: 03/14/2002

Extreme skiing king Doug Coombs is sweating. His "client" hangs on a rope 20 feet into a glacial crevasse, and Coombs must either extract him within the next few minutes or risk failing this test. Coombs may be in the hot seat, but if this were a real-world rescue, his client could end up in the morgue.

Right now, however, whether Coombs passes what is increasingly recognized as the gold standard of American guide training¿certification by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), a member of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA)¿depends upon how effective his rescue skills are. And he knows it.

Few skiers would question Coombs' pedigree. A repeat winner of the Extreme Skiing Championships and a veteran guide, he founded a Valdez heliskiing company in 1994. But for the past week, Coombs and seven others, most of whom already work professionally as guides, have been put through the ski-guide's wringer here in the glaciated backcountry of the North Cascades, some 40 miles east of Washington's Mt. Baker Ski Area. Day after day, they've toted 40-pound packs through all weather and snow conditions. They've been tested on the visible side of guiding: skiing ability. Mainly they've been grilled on the invisible guts of the craft: snow-safety assessment, avalanche rescue, route selection, weather knowledge, glacier-travel, navigation ability, first-aid, ropework, client and terrain management.

Coombs has excelled in most components of the exam, but his ropework (lowering clients off steep slopes and, now, extracting clients from ice cracks) isn't polished. Most of his clients will never see him use these skills, but in this profession, a lot (maybe your life) hangs on a guide's ropework.

And these days a lot more lives are on the line. Participation in backcountry ski camps at Jackson Hole, Wyo., has ballooned 50 percent each of the past three years, new backcountry huts are springing up each winter in the U.S. and Canada, and the number of Alaskan heliskier days has doubled in five years. The fact that eight professional guides are trying to join the AMGA's international brotherhood is a sign of changing times.

Previously, American guides printed business cards with cryptic descriptions of their qualifications ("20 years of mountain experience" or "1998 Extreme Skiing Champion") and, by God, they were guides.

To overcome uncertainty about a guide's abilities, many operations now run their own training. However, AMGA certification appears to be the future. Mike Hattrup is a former pro skier, ex-ski-movie star and current ski guide. He is one of only about 15 American-born skiers who have passed the AMGA's international standards to become certified. "I've seen guiding in the Lower 48 and Alaska that's not as polished or safe as it could be," he says. "Most American guides are not operating at the same standard as European guides."

Many Americans attending adventure trips believe that great skiers automatically make great guides. That's not the case. "A number of my friends stopped skiing Alaska because they were getting dragged down slopes where they didn't belong. When you have a beer at day's end, it should be a celebration of great skiing, not a celebration of making it back alive," Hattrup says.

All of which plays into Hattrup's assertions that safety training, judgment, client management and mountain knowledge are more integral to good guiding than actual skiing ability. "Certification is important in giving everyone a way of knowing whether these hidden skills have been thoroughly tested," he asserts.

Coombs confesses that some cowboy guiding has occurred in Alaska. "But look at the numbers," he says. "Since 1995, we've had about 5,000 skiers a season skiing Valdez and only one death at an Extreme contest and one death from a cornice break. That's not a bad ratio." Alaska has tightened up its act in recent years. "The better Alaskan operations are hiring proffessional snow-safety experts, and some are selecting full-time mountain guides over ski celebrities and steep-skiing wannabes," he says.

Art Mooney, who guides for H2O in Alaska, is such a guide. He won't rip 50-degree slopes at 60 mph and he doesn't huck 70-foot cliffs, but he's spent a lifetime in the mountains, and when it comes to those hidden guiding skills, he's arguably the most competent of this year's crop of AMGA aspirants.

Working toward certification has been expensive for Mooney. Besides taking this ski-mountaineering exam, Mooney must attend several week-long climbing and alpine-training courses before taking week-long exams in each discipline. He must also pass a series of high-level avalanche and first-aid courses. All told, training and exams will cost him some $25,000, plus months of lost wages. But he likens this to the cost of graduate degrees other jobs require. Mooney anticipates getting a return from his $25,000 investment. "Next to the guy who isn't credentialed, I hope my certification gives me a business advantage."

Martin Volken, a Swiss-trained guide who owns ProGuiding Service in Seattle, Wash., is one of two examiners. He likens this training to the schooling we expect of healthcare professionals. "You wouldn't think of letting doctors work on you without knowing they were properly certified, so why would you follow someone down an avalanche slope or across a broken glacier without knowing he was rigorously trained to keep you safe?"

Which is why Volken has been pushing these guys hard for a week. They've navigated glaciers by storm, climbed ridges by rope, rappelled over crevasses, pitched camp in 50-mile-per-hour winds. "Anyone can stroll around in the mountains in perfect conditions, but real guiding begins at that point where the average recreationalist shuts down," Volken says.

In the end, the AMGA failure rate is high. Whether it's the climbing, alpine or mountaineering exams, about 50 percent of enrollees fail. This ski-mountaineering group hits that average. Among the eight pros, only three (one being Mooney) fully pass. Three unconditionally fail and will need to repeat all aspects of the exam. And two (Coombs being one) conditionally pass, meaning they must return to demonstrate mastery of one weak area. In Coombs' case, his rope skills need honing, and he will be expected to prove that, among other things, he can extract a client rather than an ice cube from a crevasse. (After more training, Coombs was reevaluated later in the year and passed.)

Ultimately, the skiing public must accept that regardless of whom they follow, they are never entirely safe in the backcountry. Part of the backcountry experience is not just the untrammeled snow, but the unpasteurized setting and the knowledge that the surroundings can lead to an adventurer's undoing. So the great irony of the backcountry is this: Skiers want to live on the edge; want the primordial surge of adrenaline; want to roll the dice, and yet, they're really not ready to roll snake eyes. A properly trained guide, however, greatly improves the odds. To learn more about the certification process and professional guides, check www.amga.com.

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