Should I get a guide certification to ski in the backcountry? - Ski Mag

A Doctorate in Mountain Guiding

IFMGA guide Jayson Simon-Jones gives light to the highest guiding standard and why it matters to all skiers.
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You are skiing the in the trees at your local mountain, hugging the ski resort boundary. The snow to your right—just beyond the rope, out of bounds, beautifully soft powder—looks so tempting. Yet, as the sign at the top of the run told you, that is unregulated terrain with possibilities of dangerous avalanche conditions and death. 

Your mind wanders at the bottom of the run: Is there a safe way to explore the backcountry? If you don't have time to spend a long weekend in an avalanche class, hiring a guide might be the right choice to get introduced to the mountains beyond the ski area boundaries. But not all guides are the same. 

Guide on rock

Rocks and snow, ups and downs, might as well get some help if you're gonna get your skis on.

All around the world, men and women spend days, months, and years training to guide, lead and instruct in the mountains at a professional level. These efforts are intensive as it's both a physical and mental battle to be the utmost prepared for the wild-natured peaks around the globe. 

The IFMGA

Somewhat of a niche profession, the guiding industry has a history and a significance that isn’t widely discussed in the U.S.A. Across the Atlantic, however, hiring a guide to explore the mountains is as common as hiring a mechanic to fix your car. Originating in 1965, an association dedicated to setting a standard of excellence in mountain guiding was formed in Austria, France, Switzerland, and Italy: the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA). Over the course many decades, this association grew to include more than 20 countries and sets the standard as the ultimate mountain guide certification. Much like pursuing a law or doctorate degree, the IFMGA certification takes many years and financial investment.

In European alpine countries, there is a rigorous and often competitive process to receive an IFMGA certification. After completing an application comparable to a trade school in the U.S.A., accepted applicants start training towards certifications in three divisions—ski, rock, and alpine—which takes around four to five years to complete. Following completion of courses and examinations, the guide will become an apprentice for a year, and then take the final exam to receive the prestigious IFMGA license. This license is a must in order to guide and gain permits in Europe. 

Joining in 1997, the U.S.A. is a relatively new member of the association, and it has an approach that is still rigorous but slightly different from the European system. In the U.S.A., a guide can simultaneously work and train for the IFMGA certification. It is also one of the few countries where you can get certified in just one of the divisions, says Jayson Simon-Jones, an IFMGA certified guide, previous owner of Crested Butte Mountain Guides, and now a part of the guide team at Colorado Mountain School.

The American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA), the American version of the IFMGA, offers certifications in each division. Once a guide completes all three, he or she can be deemed IFMGA certified. Today, there are more than 100 American IFMGA guides.

This more flexible approach has its pros and cons. The European system can be more streamlined and less expensive than a sometimes extended process in the U.S.A. On the other hand, many American guides find it helpful to be able to constantly apply what they are learning in their certification program in the field. Fifty years ago in the U.S., these guiding certifications and standards were not as prevalent and permits were distributed with no set regulations for the training of the guides. With the adoption of the IFMGA standards, the guiding industry is raising its own bar, setting higher expectations for themselves and for their industry.

The Road to Certification

Simon-Jones' own story of skiing the backcountry and eventually pursuing his IFMGA certification exemplifies this American approach. Simon-Jones began skiing and snowboarding at the age of two in New England. Eventually, he found his way out west—for a snowboarding competition—where he then discovered Colorado and the world of backcountry powder.

“It was this whole new world—no rules—and if I learned the skills to make good decisions and keep myself safe, I would have the ability to do whatever I want out there,” explains Simon-Jones. He later became an Outward Bound Instructor and started guiding. Years later, as the owner of Crested Butte Mountain Guides, Simon-Jones began to set expectations for his guides to go through official training, and, soon after, he set that same expectation for himself.

“If I expected my staff to go through training, I thought I should too. This motivated me through the whole [IFMGA] program. For me, it was making this a career, a profession and trade, rather than a hobby. I dedicated my life to this,” says Simon-Jones.

He began with the ski discipline—where he had the most experience and greatest desire to grow. “I wanted to be able to take clients to places not in my backyard. I wanted to be able to guide in unfamiliar, complex, and glaciated regions.” After seven years of guiding and training under the ski, rock, and alpine AMGA disciplines, Simon-Jones received his IFMGA certification in 2014.

This journey has taken him on some pretty epic adventures, such as a trip with a client to Iceland. They slept on a sea fishing boat and skied full days of powder. They would wake at 4:30 am, dock the boat, climb to the top of a peak, and ski down 3,500 ft of powder, all the while looking out to the sea. As Simon-Jones told this story you could almost hear his smile. Other stories seem so casual—he’ll grab a cup of coffee in the morning with a longtime client, and they’ll heli-drop into an Alaskan mountain range soon after.

But what does IFMGA mean for skiers?

If you want to get paid to ski glades of powder in a far away places, should you look into getting an IFMGA certification? “That,” Simon-Jones says, “Would be like going to med school to fix a cold.” Just like going to the doctor to find a cure for an illness, however, hiring a guide can solve the questions of safety to get power-hungry skiers beyond the ropes. If you do get a guide, you should know what you are investing in.

“The IFMGA is the pinnacle, the highest level of training you can get if you hire a guide”, says Simon-Jones. These guides have been exposed to and trained in many different regions—each with its own challenges and safety considerations. These guides can go into terrain they have never been exposed to and feel composed and prepared, utilizing the years of training and evaluation under their belt. Simon-Jones explained, “I go into a trip confident. I know what information is necessary to have for the trip—routes, conditions, avalanche danger, etc.” 

This isn’t to say that non-IFMGA/AMGA guiding companies are to be pushed aside. Often, these companies have a few IFMGA or AMGA guides that take on the training of the other staff. Additionally, these companies have an incredible knowledge of a specific region. After operating in one area for years, guides develop a knowledge of terrain extremely well, know where to find the best snow, and are aware of key safety considerations localized to that area.

IFMGA guides have the training for diverse conditions and challenges, while a more local guiding company has a concentrated knowledge of one region. Simon-Jones explains, “If you hire me (an IFMGA guide) and go to the sidecountry in Crested Butte, and then to side-country of Big Sky, and finally to the sidecountry of Whistler, you will get the same standards of care, safety, service, and knowledge. But if you hire a different guide in each place, you will probably get a different return value.”

What to look for in a guide, and what a guide might look for in you.

An IFMGA guide has so many tools under his or her belt that it can be overwhelming to understand exactly what to desire or expect from a guided experience. Beyond the technical skills, the professionalism, and the environmental awareness, Simon-Jones emphasized several other considerations and benefits that a guide provides.

The first is safety considerations. While preparing for all conditions and terrain, Simon-Jones also practices reading the level of skills and knowledge his clients have. This is a major part of what keeps everyone safe: ensuring that the objectives of the day match the skill sets of his client. Perhaps sometimes this can present a little bit of an awkward situation—sometimes we all think we are ski superstars, but the mountains always can serve up a plate of humble pie. Yet, Simon-Jones emphasizes, it really does take humility on both ends to have a stellar trip.

Another benefit of guides knowing your skill set is that it offers a teaching opportunity for client progression. Despite certain stigmas of hiring a guide—it’s for beginners or it’s not worth the money—many guides, including Simon-Jones, beg to differ. “The idea is that even the person that does double backflips inbounds has an opportunity to learn from a guide. Hiring is not a weakness. These guides have a lot to offer and to learn from. A good, humble licensed guide can increase your skill sets no matter where it lies,” Simon-Jones says. If you have your AIARE Avy 1 certification, for example, then you can start at a higher bar—maybe a four day trip. If you have some mountaineering experience, that will open up an even bigger window for objectives and for learning.

There are some things in life that may not be worth paying top dollar for, but others, like safety and instruction, are worth the price. “Think of it as an investment,” Simon-Jones says, “If the client is serious and willing to pay top-dollar, it is both an investment into the skill sets gained and the relationship built.”

This relationship factor is important and valuable to both the guide and the client. A big portion of being a guide is simply being able to communicate. This communication extends far beyond safety. Guides do want a relationship, as hitting it off with a client makes four days in the backcountry that much more enjoyable for everyone. This is the investment aspect: Your guide could become a friend and a continual source of knowledge, helping you grow in your own expertise.

Simon-Jones once had a first-time-in-the-backcountry client basically cartwheel down the mountain on their initial trip. “I nearly got frostbite digging him out,” Simon-Jones says with chuckle. Yet, ten years later, they skied the Haute Route together, a week long ski tour from Chamonix to Zermatt. Thinking to the first day of tumbling down a mountain, neither the client or Simon-Jones thought they would get that far. “It just goes to show the value in forming a relationship with a guide,” says Simon-Jones, “He’ll dig you out of the snow and yet teach you the knowledge you need to later grow and progress.” 

Read more: Zero Tolerance - The key to avoiding backcountry fatalities may lie in hiring a guide. But not everyone is on board with that idea... yet.

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