Choosing a mountaineering school

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of November 7-13, 1996
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Choosing a mountaineering school
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Choosing a mountaineering school
Question: My wife and I are looking at many different alpine climbing and mountaineering schools. We would like to know what you might suggest as a list of criteria for selecting one of these schools. My wife and I have been hiking and trekking for many years, but rock climbing for only around six months. We really enjoy the rock climbing, but would like to get back up in the higher elevations and try our hand at mountaineering. We have received a good number of brochures and pamphlets from myriad alpine schools, but we could use some help in selecting a school. We are interested in schools located mostly in the western United States and Canada. We would appreciate any advice you could give us.

Jason R. Gardner
Flagstaff, AZ
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: The sad truth is that there are guides in this country who have less climbing experience and technical know-how than some clients--which is why it's smart to be picky when choosing a mountaineering school. The best source for this is the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to raising the technical and professional standards of mountain guiding in this country.

The first thing to know is that AMGA has two rating levels to consider. Certified guides have the highest level of skill and expertise, and to achieve that rating they need to complete a six- to 10-day refresher course in avalanche safety, first aid, and high-altitude rescue training. To become an accredited guide service, schools must pass a shorter field-operations and business review, and must have permits, insurance, logistical operations, and field practices in order to achieve this rating.

This should help narrow the field considerably, but you'll still need to ask the prospective schools the right questions. First off, be sure to inquire about their insurance policy and how long they've been in operation. Obviously, the outfitter with the most years under its belt will know the ropes, so to speak, of guiding in a particular area and will have built up a broad-based client list that you should feel free to raid for recommendations and feedback.

You should also investigate the company's medical training and guide training requirements--what does it take to guide for them?--and verify their familiarity with the area they'll be teaching in, especially if it's outside their region. Finally, don't be afraid to ask some hard questions about their safety records; you'll want to know if they've had any accidents in the past and if so, why? If it turns out they've had several mishaps in recent years, be sure to press for details about each incident; you may be reluctant to ask for specifics, but in the end they're what will help you develop a comprehensive portrait of each guide school.

Finally, you may want to check in with the AMGA directly for a list of certified guides and accredited companies. To do so, call them at 303-271-0984 or send a SASE to them at 710 Tenth Street, Suite 101, Golden, CO 80401. As for specific recommendations, I'd suggest taking a closer look at the accredited American Alpine Institute. They offer a whole slew of week-long and weekend courses throughout the Pacific Northwest, the Canadian Rockies, Colorado, and the High Sierra, as well as climbs in the Swiss Alps, the Alaska Range, and South America. Call 360-671-1505 for details.

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