Interviews

Among Mountain Guides, This Woman Is a Rarity

Becoming an AMGA/IFMGA guide is no small feat. When Margaret Wheeler achieved that milestone, she became only the second U.S. woman to do so.

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This is the third installment of SKI’s profile series celebrating influential women in skiing. From trailblazers to educators to industry-leaders, the women profiled here have left an indelible mark on our sport.

Margaret Wheeler’s mother was horrified when her daughter left her small New Hampshire town and headed to Chamonix, France, after watching too many ski flicks. In hindsight it makes sense: Wheeler’s single mom raised her two sons and daughter at Vermont’s legendary Mad River Glen, letting them loose on the slopes every weekend, where Wheeler would ride the single chairlift, ski down singing, and develop a wicked independence streak that would serve her well throughout her career as one of the most well-respected mountain guides in the country.

To become a fully-certified AMGA/IFMGA guide is no small feat, and when Wheeler achieved that milestone, she became only the second woman in the U.S. to do so. The first was Kathy Cosley, 10 years prior. Currently, there are 170 fully certified AMGA/IFMGA guides and only 15 of them are women.

On that topic: One of big mountain skiing’s most prolific guides sets her sights on who’s next

Fully certified guides must complete rigorous multi-day courses and exams in three disciplines: Ski, Rock, and Alpine through the AMGA, or American Mountain Guides Association. Only when guides pass their exams for each of the three disciplines do they get recognized globally, with the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association certification.

“It’s often referred to as the Ph.D. of mountain guiding,” says Jake Gaventa, AMGA partnership manager. “To complete that track, it takes at least 5-7 years of guide training, including 86 days of formal training and exam work, with 13 courses, each one requiring an intensive resume just to get in.”

After learning how to ski steep and technical descents in Chamonix, Wheeler tried her hand at becoming a professional skier, but encountered a Bro Brah scene she felt was toxic. She adapted better to the guiding world, a male culture she found more welcoming. “I was like the only girl at the party and people are psyched to see you, but then you realize that it’s not cool, where’s everyone else?” she says.

Though gender diversity is improving in the guiding profession (two women achieved full certification this year), it continues to be male dominated. Wheeler is instrumental in advocating for more females in the higher levels of certification and supports “frentorships,” mentoring relationships she says are especially powerful for women. Through support from The North Face, the AMGA now offers a women-only rock climbing course.

“This is the only course that I teach to other professionals where I’m not the only woman or one of two,” says Wheeler, who currently teaches exams and guide courses, and serves on the AMGA technical committee, the group that drives changes to professional guiding standards.

Wheeler also teaches avalanche forecasting and operational risk management, which fuses her guiding experience with her risk management mindset. She currently lives in Ketchum, Idaho, with her husband, fully certified guide Matt Farmer, and their two daughters, ages 4 and 6. Here in her own words, Margaret Wheeler charts her deep connection with the outdoors.

Margaret Wheeler AMGA Guide
Margaret Wheeler was only the second woman in the U.S. to become a fully certified IFMGA/AMGA mountain guide. (Photo: Courtesy of Margaret Wheeler)

I came into college at Dartmouth as a skier, but ski racing wasn’t on my radar.

So I joined the mountaineering club. I learned about rock climbing and connected with a community of folks who were intelligent and very motivated to go roaming about outside and share powerful experiences together. I combined what I was learning in that community with skiing a ton around New England with my brother, Ben.

I was determined to be a ski bum because I watched so many Greg Stump ski movies.

With my 20-year-old logic, I went to Chamonix. When I got there, I saw a woman skiing down a huge bowl. I could tell she was from North America because of her ski clothes. I raced down to get on the lift with her and it was Hilaree Nelson O’Neill. We ended up rooming together that year.

We went on some life-changing ski missions together.

The social status in Chamonix was dictated by your ski ability, but it was Hilaree’s sixth season, and she knew everyone and had done a lot of steep skiing. My first time on the Cosmic Couloir, a classic ski descent, was a complete whiteout. You basically girth hitch a cable, rappel down, put your skis on, and ski it. Coming from New Hampshire, it was mind blowing—like nothing I had done before, but we were figuring it out together. We weren’t trying to impress each other; we were so psyched to do things together because we made each other better.

The next season in France, an avalanche took out 11 people in their beds.

A tunnel fire killed 36 people, and you’d get arrested if you were caught skiing off-piste because of the avalanche hazard. That was the universe telling me to get a life.

I started graduate school back in the U.S.

But then Hil introduced me to the Swiss guide Martin Volken, who introduced me to guiding. I took my first guide training at Donner Pass. It snowed 2 meters, I couldn’t even break trail without a shovel, and I thought ‘this is the best!’ You’re in the outdoors, you’re moving, but it’s analytical so you have to use your brain a lot, and you’re with people. What could be better?

If I had a nickel for every time someone said I was a good skier for a girl…

It took a while to understand how insulting that was because at first it sounds like a compliment. Embedded in that is that women are inherently inferior. The ski industry is still infused with misogynistic values and “ski like a girl” is a way to take back that toxic narrative.

The cool thing with women in athletics is that growth is happening, you see it in everything from salaries to funding to participation. The uncool thing is that men’s athletics are still held as the baseline. What I’d like to see is that it’s not gendered how well you ski. You ski like someone who has amazing and fluid movement, unrelated to whether you’re male or female.

The worst moment in my guiding career now affects how I approach risk management.

When I was a freshly trained guide, it was snowing 3 inches per hour in Washington, and we broke trail up thigh-high deep snow, passing a narrow spot up the valley. As we came back through that area, there was a probe line for a female snowshoer, who followed our tracks. She got swept in and buried.

Our error was that we threaded the needle too tightly with no safety margin.

I use the case study now when I’m teaching, because people don’t change behavior based on information, they change it based on powerful experiences. If your margin gets too skinny, terrible things can happen. You can go from being a newly-trained mountain guide and pleased with yourself, to ‘that was a big mistake.’ We teach guides to deliver client enjoyment and manage the risk and hazard in the process.