If you’ve wondered how you can get paid to do something you love, such as rock climbing, guiding has probably crossed your mind.
To become a certified rock climbing guide, start by checking with the company you want to work for and see what certifications they will require you to have (AMGA, PCIA or PCGI). In addition to a rock climbing certification, you will also be required to have a First Aide/CPR certification. Finally, make sure guiding is a good fit for you. Get a job in a related field like an indoor climbing gym. You could also hire a guide yourself to get the full experience from a client standpoint.
Becoming a guide will not only provide you with a job, but with connections into the climbing community. For many, guiding can be unstable as the income depends on how many trips you take.
For instance, one week you could take 6 climbing trips, the next week you might take only 2. Any job that relies on tourism has its risks and rewards though.
Guiding is not all about the climbing. A large piece of guiding that can be forgotten is how much you are in control of other people’s lives. You are liable for your clients’ safety 100% of the time you are with them.
In some cases, you could be responsible for their food and water. You have to keep in mind that while you might be confident in your abilities to provide for yourself outdoors, many clients you will see are still learning and will be looking to you for instruction.
I am guilty of taking advantage of this fact while guiding. We had a large group of kids hiking out of a canyon in the desert, and they wouldn’t stay on the trail (bad LNT and snakes were in the area) no matter how much we said to. I told them the plants along the trail were all poison ivy – this was absolutely not true, but it worked, and I later explained it wasn’t poison ivy.
It is important to know yourself and how patient you are before going into these situations. A brilliant guide once told me there is a fine line between guiding and prostitution. As much as it is getting people outside, it is a full-service job.
As a guide, you take on similar responsibilities as a park ranger.
Since your income relies on access to parks, outdoor advocacy becomes your second job. Colorado Springs, for example, has the Pikes Peak Climber’s Alliance. This entity is made of prominent members of the climbing community in Colorado Springs, i.e. guide companies, outdoor gear store owners who donate to parks, etc. that act as a liaison between climbers/climbing tourism and the Office of Parks and Recreation.
Going through a Leave No Trace (LNT) course is a great way to learn about the environmental impacts that outdoor recreation can make if you haven’t been too exposed to these principles yet. I love this course, because it empowers you with the background knowledge necessary to answer questions and to explain to people why you should/shouldn’t do certain things.
Location – Where Are The Climbing Jobs?
Do your research! If you are serious about becoming a guide, you will have to look at the place you currently live. As with purchasing a house, location is one of the most important factors when it comes to guiding. Is there destination-climbing near you? Is there a lot of established climbing in the area? If nothing like this is that close to you, how far will you have to drive on a regular basis?
Would you be willing to relocate? Where is the closest guide service to you? Another thing to consider is tourism rates; there might be plenty of climbing around you, but nothing else that attracts tourism. Chances are, if you are looking into becoming a guide, you have a place in mind where you’d like to be.
Find Guiding Companies With Great Reputations
If there are a couple guide companies near you, look at their reviews online. Since guiding does rely on customer satisfaction, reviews are a great place to learn if the company is doing a good job or not. Look at the frequency of reviews to get an idea of how much business you’d be seeing.
If the most recent review is from last year, and the next review is from the year before that; then that company probably doesn’t see a lot of traffic.
Talk With Guide Companies Before Certification
Talking with guide services before diving into certifications is a good way to start a relationship with a company you’d want to work for. If they want you for the job, they will help steer you in the right direction.
Develop Your Wilderness Skills and Leadership
NOLS is a great resource to use if you want to develop your skills and leadership in the wilderness. They have over 100 “expedition” and medical courses, each with a different purpose, activity, and location. Going on one or two trips through NOLS would be a great way to learn more about climbing outdoors if you are still new to the sport.
It is never a bad idea to learn as much as you can in a controlled environment. NOLS will also provide scholarships for those who qualify.
Hire A Guide Yourself
Hire a guide! If you really want to get an idea of what you’d be doing on a daily basis, take a climbing trip with a guide. Even better, go on a trip with a company you’re looking at working for. As with any new job, you always ask the staff how they like doing what they’re doing. Talking to guides can help answer the question: “Is it worth it?”
Get Your Foot In The Door
If you are not sure about fully committing to guiding just yet, get a job doing something else in the outdoor industry. Working at a climbing gym is a fun way to start working around rock climbing. There are a lot of jobs in retail, but you would definitely gain more of the experience you’re looking for working for a gym, a gear shop specific to climbing/mountaineering, or as an office/sales position for a guide company.
Many guide companies could be hiring office help, or backup belayers for larger trips. You could also get a job doing some other type of guiding that doesn’t require expensive mountain guide certifications. Raft or mountain bike guiding is excellent for this. By guiding these sports, you would develop your skills and confidence as a leader and a guide.
The certifications – Most guide companies require you to have some sort of certification because their insurance requires it. There are quite a few options when you first begin look at courses for guiding. To know what specific certification you need for a certain guide service, get in touch with a guide service you’re interested in working for before purchasing a course that sounds good to you.
NOLS – Wilderness First Aide Certification
The one certification that you will need before you can go through any of these courses is a CPR/First Aid certification. I also suggest getting a Wilderness First Aid certification through NOLS. Some community colleges offer this course at different rates and timelines; these alternative courses are useful if you are working and can’t take a week off or going to school already.
Wilderness First Responder Course
If you are pursuing guiding in the backcountry, the Wilderness First Responder course is a great tool to prepare you for any incidents that can happen. Again, it could be helpful to get in touch with a guide service before purchasing these courses on your own; depending on the company, they might offer to pay for some or all of these first aid type courses.
IFMGA – International Federation of Mountain Guides Association
To begin looking at the different mountain guide certifications, do your research (again)! There is an International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) that guides in over 20 countries. This international guide association has become the standard for guiding. It is the most recognized guide certification in the world. However, it is a feat in itself to get this certification.
If your goal in life is to guide internationally, you will want to set yourself up to one day qualify for the IFMGA certification process. Some guide certification companies are not recognized by the IFMGA.
AMGA – American Mountain Guides Association
As far as American companies go, the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the Professional Climbing Guides institute (PCGI) are the most well-known. However, the PCGI is a lot smaller than the AMGA and not recognized internationally by the IFMGA. The AMGA has become the “gold standard” when it comes to guiding in the US.
Both entities can be pricy, but the PCGI is the only training and certification organization in the US that offers scholarship and internship opportunities based on income to help provide these certifications to those who are passionate and motivated to become a certified guide.
If you are not interested in guiding internationally, or don’t have the money/time to take AMGA certification courses, you can look into smaller organizations that operate the same way.
PCGI – Professional Climbing Guides Institute
The PCGI has become popular because of its cost-effectiveness. Going with smaller entities would be good for those looking for work with a local guide service that will still credit smaller organizations, but every guide service is different. The downside of going through a smaller organization is it will be harder to move locations and work for different companies down the road.
The Most Important Part:
Have Fun! Guiding is more of an experience than a profession. You are empowered to make it whatever you want it to be.
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Daniell is a certified outdoor climbing guide with professional experience climbing throughout Colorado’s Western Slope region. She is based out of Fort Collins, CO and enjoys trail running, desert climbing and overnight canoe trips.
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