Words: Brian Campbell
Photos: Jayson Simons-Jones, Nick Pope
Jans St. Regis ski technician, Brian Campbell, recently completed an American Mountain Guides Association Ski Guides Course, here’s what he has to say about it…
I first discovered the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) when I was in college. I was researching guiding services and when I looked up mountain guide certifications I discovered the AMGA and the international certification process. That is when I started working towards taking my first AMGA course, the Ski Guides Course that I just finished. Even though I was an English major and loved books, I knew that I was most passionate about adventure in the mountains.
You simply cannot beat a powder day. And it’s best when you can share it with someone else. Standing at the bottom of one of the best runs of your life and looking up at a family member or a close friend experiencing the same thing is truly amazing.
The resort is a great place to get in a lot of vertical on a powder day but it can also be stressful because everyone is competing to get as much great snow as possible. If you are okay with trading some downhill time for some exercise and a much more tranquil day of adventure, then the backcountry is the place I would recommend skiing on a powder day.
The backcountry component adds more elements of great-feeling exercise, and it gives me an opportunity to engage my mind in complex problem solving scenarios that can arise when dealing with risk management and group decision making. You get fresh tracks on every single run, and the few people you do see smile and say hello instead of treating you as an adversary in their quest for pow.
This winter, I am a ski technician in the Jans shop at the St. Regis hotel, but in the summer I work for an Oregon based company, Timberline Mountain Guides, that does guiding for alpine climbing, skiing, and rock climbing all over the Pacific Northwest. From my work I have learned a lot and developed a great deal as a climber, skier, guide, and person. I am working up to ski guiding and I hope to be doing that soon.
The backcountry ski guide course I just took is just the first course of many I plan on taking in order to become a fully certified mountain guide. It took place over twelve days in the Wasatch Mountain Range. We had classroom sessions at the University of Utah and skied in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon primarily. At the end we all went on a three day yurt trip outside of Ogden. I met a lot of cool people, had fun skiing, overcame new challenges, learned as much as I could, and hopefully came out a better ski guide than I went in. The 12 days went by really fast.
The most valuable part of the course was getting the opportunity to have your guiding techniques observed and critiqued by the extremely experienced and knowledgeable guides who instructed the course. I think I came out of the course thinking I have more room for development than I thought I did when I went in, but that is how education usually works for me. Just like Socrates said, the more you learn, the less you know.
It made me realize that I need more practice and experience in order to get to where I want to be as a ski guide, but it was also encouraging to keep up with other people who are aspiring to do the same things I am. It seems like an oxymoron but it was simultaneously humbling and confidence-boosting.
My newly acquired skills and experience are great additions to the pool of knowledge that will help make each of my trips into the backcountry more enjoyable experiences and that will help me develop my skills as a professional mountain guide. Having completed an AMGA Ski Guides’ Course lends credibility that will allow me to have more responsibility and guiding work at Timberline Mountain Guides, but I am not yet a certified ski guide. The Ski Guides’ Course is the first (and easiest) step out of three in order to become an AMGA certified Ski Mountaineering Guide. I still have a long way to go before I am done but this course was a great start.
Most of the people who take these courses are either guides or aspiring guides, but some people take them simply to advance their personal skills or so they can more confidently take their less experienced friends into the backcountry. I think everyone who is or wants to be a ski guide should take this course for sure, but backcountry recreationists who choose not to hire a guide should consider taking it as well. Here in the Wasatch there are a lot of people who are in the backcountry doing things that are unnecessarily dangerous, inefficient, or foolish and they don’t even know that they could be having more fun and be safer if they learned some guide skills.
A lot of people seem to think that hiring a mountain guide is less honorable or something than just going out in the backcountry and winging it. Everyone knows the benefits of having a ski instructor teach them how to ski or a teacher help them learn to read; a guide plays the same role for people learning how to travel and enjoy the backcountry. Guides are expert teachers who want to show their clients the best way to stay safe and to have fun in the backcountry. No matter how experienced someone is, hiring a guide for a few days can teach them skills that will make their backcountry experiences much easier, safer, and more fun. I look forward to taking people out and showing them how fun and rewarding skiing can be when I am a backcountry ski guide.