- Associated Press - Thursday, November 10, 2011

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — Succeeding in the business of guiding clients up sheer cliffs or into untamed backcountry is a balancing act that demands the entrepreneurial spirit of a dot-com startup, the patience of a first-grade teacher and the physical gifts of a professional athlete — all without the benefit of a seven-figure salary.

Many of the top guides in the United States worked on some of those skills during the annual conference of the American Mountain Guides Association at New York’s Shawangunks climbing area last month.

They spent much of their week at the “Gunks” in clinics on subjects that included thermal physiology in extreme environments, crevasse rescue, avalanches, human factors in decision-making, GPS navigation, rope work, permit sharing, international trip planning and dealing with insurance underwriters.

The AMGA certifies guides in the U.S. with the goal of building their credentials, whether it’s for a day of rock climbing at the local crag, a multiday excursion up peaks in the Tetons or Rockies, or a weeks-long expedition to Alaska, the Andes or Himalayas.

The association also is focused on elevating the profession so it is as respected in the U.S. — and economically feasible — as it is in Europe.

In this photo taken Oct. 28, 2011 and released by Ascent Services Worldwide LLC, climbers Silas Rossi, left, and Angela Hawse, in Halloween costumes, dangle beneath an overhang in the Guide's Olympics during the American Mountain Guides Association's annual conference at the Shawangunk climbing area in New Paltz, N.Y. (AP Photo/Ascent Services Worldwide LLC, Joe Lentini)
In this photo taken Oct. 28, 2011 and released by Ascent Services ... more >

“If you are a guide in Italy or in France, you get special treatment at the huts and discounts on the chairlifts,” said Betsy Winter, the AMGA’s executive director.

The Colorado-based organization is the U.S. representative to the 21-member International Federation of Mountain Guides Association, which sets international standards.

Since 1997, the AMGA has certified 78 guides in the U.S. to top international standards, while another 647 are certified in a single discipline, either rock climbing, Alpine climbing or ski mountaineering, Ms. Winter said. Another 1,600 AMGA-certified climbing instructors have achieved entry-level certification that has prerequisites of one year’s experience and the ascent of at least 15 climbs.

The AMGA’s full set of courses costs about $30,000. It takes 93 training days, including exams, and requires four years of experience in a discipline and at least 90 climbs or ski descents of advanced difficulty.

“We have high standards,” Ms. Winter said. “And we really believe in establishing a profession in this country.”

While climbing puts a premium on physical abilities, such as balance, upper-body strength and endurance, being a guide also requires an understanding of physics and an aptitude for problem-solving.

Jesse Williams, a guide from Keene Valley, N.Y., started as an apprentice to experienced Adirondack guides and now needs to complete just one more of 12 courses to have all three full AMGA certifications plus its sequence on avalanche forecasting. He likened the rigorous training to graduate school, with exams, demonstrations of technical skills and critiques identifying areas for improvement.

To have the complete package, however, guides also must possess the people skills needed to relate to their clients, ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience.

Mr. Williams said guides in mountain communities across the country tend to be assertive and self-directed.

“I always joke about mountain towns; same person, different face,” he said.

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