So, maybe you spend a lot of time in the mountains, or you want to spend more. And wouldn’t it be great to get paid to do the thing you love? The easy answer is to ‘become a mountain guide’. Not so easy. The process is slow and expensive. You will climb the same ‘trade routes’ over and over and over and over for what seem like insulting wages.
Maybe you’ll do it for free your first season. One thing that is for certain is that no one starts guiding to get rich.
So, how much do mountain guides make? Depending on certifications and experience, guides can make anywhere from $120 for an overnight on the low end to $500+ for IFMGA certified guides, though those rates are not fixed. Most companies offer fixed raises based on coursework completed through the American Mountain Guides Association, as well as ancillary certifications, such as WFR (often a requirement of employment), OEC, WEMT and other medical-adjacent certifications.
Most people’s entrance into the profession comes after many years of recreation in the field. The three main disciplines in mountain guiding are rock climbing, alpine climbing and backcountry skiing. Most people interested in guiding recreate at a higher level than the work they will receive in the first few years working, but guiding is about more than being able to ski and climb hard.
It’s about having a toolbox for when things go badly and when they could go badly. It’s about caring for your clients and being legally responsible for their safety. Weighty concerns indeed.
What To Expect Your First Year As A Mountain Guide
There are hordes of high-level climbers and skiers who want to guide. The profession has caché. I am often told that #myworkisyourvacation. Most people, however, are not privy to the realities of guiding full-time.
Before you begin, prepare to be blown off by potential employers for not being good enough at the thing you love, as there are many young hopefuls out there. Remember, it’s not just about how hard you climb. However, if you are lucky enough to know someone in the industry, you may be able to shadow trips run by seasoned professionals. This gives a far better glimpse of the life of a guide.
Your first summer as an alpine guide (most alpine work in the lower 48 happens May-August), you will work as a tail guide under the supervision of a lead guide on the simplest routes the company you work for guides. The terrain you work will grow based on your previous experience and your performances early in the season, though that process may take multiple seasons.
Expect a very slow progression and work well beneath your skill set. It can be easy to feel like a baby-sitter, guiding ‘easy’ routes over and over, but this progression is critical. Guides need to be thriving at all times while they work. If you are gripped while working, you are much more likely to make a mistake or deliver an inferior experience. Eventually, if you stick with it, the more complex and varied work will come.
During your first season, you will likely be paid relatively close to minimum wage. This, combined with with 10-16 hour work days, will make your ‘day rate’ (the most common metric of wage) seem reasonable. Most first-year guides make between $120 and $150 a day for overnight trips, and less for day work. However, tipping is standard in the guiding world.
I find that 20-50% of my income as an alpine guide comes from tips. As you build relationships with clients, the tips (and other gratuities) improve dramatically. Often, clients on ‘introductory’ mountaineering routes don’t quite grasp that tips pay guides’ mortgages, but as you graduate to harder work with more sophisticated clients, that generally changes.
Mountain Guide Compensation Is Scattershot
Wages in the guiding world are scattershot. The most common metrics, as mentioned above, are per diem rates for day work and overnight work, with a premium for overnight work.
As noted, day rates for guiding work when considering tips are quite good. However, seasonal totals are often low. Particularly early in your career, it is hard to be assigned enough work days to make the wages really pay off.
“My first summer in the Cascades, (May through August), I worked 25 days at $145/day. The great benefit to this was an enormous amount of time off, but being at the bottom of the pecking order, newer guides are last in line for work when it’s scarce.”
One other element of pay to consider is that working, particularly as an alpine guide, five days a week, can be punishing physically. Working twenty days a month, particularly in your first season, is a recipe for burnout and injury. It is also important to note that because work schedules are not regular, most employers do not provide much, if anything, in the way of benefits, apart from dorm-style housing on site.
The Certification Process in America and its Cost
The landscape around certification and American guiding is in flux at the moment. In Europe and Canada, appropriate training sanctioned by the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA) is required for work in the mountains.
In America, some companies choose to work within their guides’ Scope of Practice (SOP), preventing guides from working in terrain they have not been properly trained and assessed to work in. Some companies do not choose to follow SOP, though there is good reason to believe that this will change dramatically over the next decade, with the AMGA working towards legal enforcement of SOP on public lands (where almost all guiding in America happens).
The AMGA has three main disciplines of guiding: rock, alpine and ski. In each of these there is a ‘guide course’ that high-level recreationalists can take, an ‘advanced guide course/aspirant exam’ that candidates need significant guiding experience to enter, and which they can fail, and ‘guide exams’, which candidates need extensive work and personal experience to pass.
After completing an exam in a discipline, a guide is then a certified guide in that discipline. Once all three exams are passed, a guide is referred to as an AMGA/IFMGA certified mountain guide. Each course, advanced course and exam costs between $3000 and $4000, so becoming a certified mountain guide costs around $40,000 plus travel costs.
If an advanced course or exam is failed, the tuition is not refunded. Most people complete the track, if they are going to, in around ten to fifteen years.
Once you have become a certified mountain guide, you are allowed to work in Canada and Europe, where there is the most lucrative work.
Places like Mont Blanc, France.
The process, which is very time-consuming, costly and intense, is not for everyone, and becoming certified is not required to be a ‘professional mountain guide’, but the greater the level of training and assessment that a guide has, the more terrain they can work and the better wage they command.
The Best Places to be a Mountain Guide
Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the mountain guiding in the lower 48 happens west of the Mississippi river. While many full-time guides make a living in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, most guides who work ‘professionally’ (as their primary career) do so in the Rockies, Cascades and Sierra. One of the easiest entrances into alpine guiding is working on the Cascade volcanoes, as there is a large volume of work, most of the routes are not supremely technical and the peaks can be more effectively team-guided (easier to train newer guides).
Washington, in that sense, is one of the best states to begin working summers in. The state also holds huge swathes of very sophisticated alpine terrain that attracts clients from all over the world. The density of venues is also attractive to guides, as the cost of driving between work is minimized.
The number of guiding days available in the state is very high. Colorado is another excellent place for newer alpine guides, as there are many non-technical objectives and a strong culture of mountain guides in the state, not to mention an excellent hut system! It should be noted that very few guides work in the same venue year-round, but rather have seasonal migration paths.
Where Guiding Can Take You
When most people think of mountain guides, they think of Denali, Aconcagua, Everest and the Alps, and guiding can take you there. While the costs of an Everest expedition are astronomical, the guides are not often paid princely fortunes for 40-50 continuous days of high-risk work. If it is your dream to guide the Seven Summits and travel the world to climb for work, IFMGA certification and full-time guiding are well worth it, but don’t imagine that the paycheck for getting someone to the top of the world will justify all of the hassle.
You have to love it!