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Professional Help, Part 2


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the early ’90s, the AMGA began a concerted effort to join the international federation of guiding associations (UIAGM). Pavillard was living in the States, doing his own thing, when he was asked, along with two Canadian guides, to evaluate the AMGA as part of the application process. Widely respected, Pavillard had been the youngest person ever certified in Switzerland. Later, the AMGA asked him to become its technical director. Eventually, in 1997, the AMGA was accepted into the UIAGM.

Not everyone is happy, though. As one potent line of argument against the AMGA goes, guides just don’t need to be certified. America has some of the best mountaineers and skiers on the planet. Why should they bother with certification? “I know Jean teaches an excellent course,” says Dean Cummings. But Valdez guiding outfits are populated with world-class mountaineers, and they face world-class dangers. “I’m not bringing some guy into the range just because he has AMGA certification,” says Cummings.

More explosively, the AMGA threatens the country’s most established outfitters: It wants to break the virtual monopolies those companies hold over the crown jewels of the American landscape.

Currently, to guide in a place like Teton National Park, you need to get a concession from the National Park Service. Just as though you wanted to open a gas station or sell hot dogs. If you don’t guide for a concessionaire, you don’t guide. For instance, Pavillard frequently climbs with clients in the Andes. But he can’t ski Washington State’s Mount Rainier with them. He can guide you to Pakistan if you ask, but not on a day tour through Yellowstone. Some guides liken the system to communism, where state-anointed businesses are immune to competition.

The AMGA wants things to change, ideally so that any fully certified guide-American or not-could guide on any public land. That’s the way it works in the other UIAGM countries.

The guiding companies object. “If every certified guide were allowed to work in the parks, they’d become overrun,” says Al Read, president and part owner of Exum Guides in Jackson, Wyoming. Besides, he says, the AMGA is made up of wannabes. “The AMGA has to begin representing the people who are doing the guiding. Now, they’re representing the people who want to do the guiding.”

But Jean and others say the permit system lowers standards. “It’s a big drawback because it tends to keep people in one place and it makes them complacent,” Jean says. “If you climb the same place over and over again, you can become pretty lazy.”

Coombs makes a similar point. “I don’t like a guide who only guides one spot,” he says. “It happens in Europe, too. There are guides who are on the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc every day. You can get really complacent-it’s not safe.”

In fact, Coombs says he’s leery of people who guide too much, anywhere. “You’ve got to keep that spark. I need to go and rip it up on my own. If you’re just Johnny guide all the time, you turn into an old fart.”

Avalanches are what keep beginners out of the backcountry, or should. One day, Pavillard and I pause at the foot of a little fan-shaped hill. “Intuition is really experience,” Jean says. “You see an avalanche. There’s something in the reflection of the light on the snow, in the color of the sky, the scent in the wind. And 10 years later, you recognize the same conditions and say, ‘This is bad.'”

Jean points out the hill. “I was skiing here,” he says. “We got to the top of the face and I said, ‘We can’t ski this.’ So I skied down the ridge to where we’re standing. Then the whole face slid in a series of avalanches, one after another across the face.”

Just over Pearl Pass, we seem to leave the rounded Rocky Mountains behind. We’re in an amphitheater crowned by wicked-looking jagged spires, like a scene from the Dolomites. The trip is worth it just to see this hidden world. And Pavillard has some other trips in mind. In Colorado’s Collegiate Range he’s foound a 3,000-foot couloir, 45 degrees the whole way. In six years of guiding there, Jean’s never seen another skier. That trip must rock.

I’d go with Jean. And I’d go with a good uncertified guide like Doug Coombs or Dean Cummings. They’ve got great reputations. But if I didn’t know a guide at all, had never heard of him, AMGA certification would mean a lot. It would mean he’d gotten past Jean Pavillard, for one thing. And that alone is pretty impressive.


Jean Pavillard

Doug Coombs
Valdez Heli-Ski Guides

Dean Cummings

Click here to return to Part 1 of Professional Help.