Why the European Guide Certification is Still the Benchmark

You may have heard that the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) and the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) held their first joint meeting and did so in Boulder, Colorado in November.  The AMGA is a member of the IFMGA, which is also known as the UIAGM in French and IVBV in German, but the concept and demands of the IFMGA certification is a high standard and is also alluring to North American alpinists.

IFMGA was established in 1965 by guides from Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria.  At the time that was the “international” community of mountain guides; they worked to provide each other open access to the Alps over their own borders.  Today, European states are considerably more open to each other, and “international” may seem like a stretch.  Today, IFMGA guides are truly international, including a rare, exceptional few dozen in North America, including Canadian alpinist Barry Blanchard.

IFMGA guides must demonstrate proficiency in three key disciplines of mountain travel: Rock, Alpine and Ski.  The European inclusion of skiing for standards and expectations of their best mountain guides has always interested me, as a climber that grew up in the Northeast United States.  The culture in my part of the country allowed me to separate climbing skills from skiing (so I only learned to ski recently).  However, in Europe skiing and climbing, when it came to the guiding culture, high-level skiing skills were expected of the best hired hands in the business.

From all reports, the joint meeting was like any other business convention, which entails board meetings, committee proposals and discussions and some exhibits.  According to the American Alpine Institute Climbing Blog, the most contentious issue was that while AMGA guides have broad access in the Alps, the European guides do not receive the same open access in the United States.  This is interesting because, as I said, several Americans have sought out the IFMGA certification.

The certification if being a IFMGA Mountain Guide is badge of honor, and perhaps because of its European roots, has a mystique among North Americans.  The handful of American guides that have it often use it in their advertising for business (and rightfully so).  It is admittedly more difficult than AMGA standards.  IFMGA guide applicants must have several years of climbing experience, be sponsored by a IFMGA guide, and pass a rigorous multi-day exam in the backcountry while under the scrutiny of the certifiers.  The certification gives the guide membership in the IFMGA and makes them an IFMGA licensed guide able to climb throughout Europe.

Regardless of the differences, the IFMGA designation may be more valuable to guides in North America and elsewhere than even in Europe.  The Europeans set the bar high and all else respected that and have met the standard only in rare occasions.

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4 thoughts on “Why the European Guide Certification is Still the Benchmark

  1. Hi Andrew,

    Nice entry, I really appreciate your commentary.

    One thing that was very clear to me about the IFMGA delegates visiting Boulder from abroad, was how supportive they were of American guides and the overall sustainability of the profession on American soil. Certainly the issue of foreign reciprocity is an important one, but the IFMGA/UIAGM organization’s first priority is for us to grow the profession and improve access and the overall viability of guiding as a profession for guides in the United States. In short; they want us to figure it out for us, not for them. Certainly the biggest hurdle for the American UIAGM guide is access to some of our most attractive mountain venues.

  2. Excellent points, Mike, and thank you for sharing your insight.

    I agree. Growing the service, improving access and the overall viability of guiding as an occupation in the US is of significant importance. I also note that it seems the IFMGA/UIAGM has had a mature approach in offering help, such as setting goals without specifically stating what America’s guides ought to do to reach it. I think we can appreciate that.

  3. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for another interesting post. I attended several of the AMGA/IFMGA events in Boulder and was impressed by the spirit of camaraderie between guides from the 13 represented countries.

    The access issue was certainly central to many discussions, although I didn’t hear anything presented in the way of solutions for how foreign guides could legally work in the US. Gaining access to Public Lands seems to be sort of a “cart before the horse” strategy, as foreign guides are mostly prohibited from plying their trade here in the same way “undocumented workers” (buzzword!) are not permitted to work in the US.

    At one work session between the AMGA/IFMGA, the National Park Service, and the Denali Concession guide services, it was illustrated very clearly that the concession system on Denali works very well at achieving the NPS mission of providing access while protecting the Park resources.

    It also identified the difference between “wants and needs,” when it comes to access. Of course, as guides, we all “want” unrestricted access to our Public Lands, but do we necessarily “need” it? The metaphor of a doctor who is a certified General Practitioner wanting to perform some specialized procedure because of the potential financial incentives it comes to mind.

    It was also illustrated that the current constructs of accessing Public Lands do provide for access for qualified guides who can legally work. It isn’t a perfect system, for sure, but it seems to me like there are many ways to develop access within the current system that could be explored before we try to re-create how our Public Lands are managed.

    I agree with you and Mike that improving the viability and sustainability of the guiding profession should be at the forefront of the AMGA mission, or at least parallel with providing their high levels of education. An indicator that we’ve got a ways to go is that it seems that most US guides who achieve their IFMGA credentials (which, as you indicate, is a through a somewhat different process than in many of the European countries, and involves less required time working as a guide) choose to use that status as a gateway to working in Europe. Guides make a lot more money in Europe, primarily because the profession has a much longer historical recognition as a specialized trade, and the public accepts that this trade should be compensated at a higher rate than in the US.

    I’m hopeful for the day when mountain guiding in the US holds a similar status, and that guides can earn a living in the profession that they have studied and apprenticed. There are numerous routes to achieving that goal, and I suspect that it is attainable in the not-to-distant future, especially if guides can come together in a spirit of inclusive collaboration.

    Thanks again for your work here.

    Todd Rutledge
    Mountain Trip

  4. Todd, thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    I hope that US guides will hold a similar status too. And that is because of your very point about “wants” and “needs.” We may want open access but we do not necessarily need it.

    But that want for open access is representative of the sport. For any mountaineer, guide or otherwise, to freely explore any range he or she has the courage to tackle should be allowed to do so. That’s part of the ideal of wilderness in some ways — no boundaries, just us in nature. Yet we live in a world of boundaries and at the same time that is why we have found such enjoyment in climbing. (This is also why I am so curious about nationalism in mountaineering, I guess.)

    Thanks again for commenting and keep checking in, Todd!

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