You guys: I did it.
I took a 10-day rock guide course in Seneca Rocks, West Virginia in October.
I took the first step toward IFMGA certification.
I made a commitment to my career as a guide and I loved every second of it. And I couldn’t have done it without the support of my friends and family.
When I applied to but did not receive the North Face scholarship for $2,000 toward the cost of the $2,850 course, I was bummed. I learned that I was on a waitlist with 40 other women that were similarly eager to pursue a career in guiding. The only reason why I thought the course was even a remote possibility for me was because of this scholarship. So when I learned that I didn’t get it, I turned to my network and asked for help using a GoFundMe fundraiser. I did not expect to get the full scholarship from my network, but it (mostly) happened. This is an appreciation post and a huge thank you to everyone that supported me.
The education that I received is that much sweeter and more significant to me since I was, as I’m going to call it, community sponsored. Thanks to the support of my friends and family, I’ve got the ball rolling and intend to work hard to see this project through to the end. And no, there will not be anymore GoFundMe campaigns. I got the help I needed and now I’m quite literally ready to rock.
If you pitched in, you’d probably like to know: what happened? What did you learn?
The AMGA RGC: A Primer
The American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) is the governing body of mountain guides. It’s a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that exists to educate and standardize mountain practices in the U.S.
Within the AMGA, there are three main disciplines: ski, rock and alpine. To become a certified guide in any singular discipline, you must complete an entry level course, an advanced level course and pass a final exam. Once certified in all three disciplines, you are not only a certified badass, but certified to work internationally and in any type of mountainous terrain per the IFMGA, or International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations.
The Rock Guide Course, or RGC, is the entry level course to pursuing any level of certification through the AMGA. For example, if I were exclusively a rock climber, I might consider becoming a Certified Rock Guide by beginning with my Rock Guide Course, then completing my Advanced Rock Guide Course, and finally taking my Rock Guide Exam.
I like climbing mountains, skiing and rock climbing. So I will do all of that plus the Alpine Guide coursework and the Ski Guide coursework. Since the Rock Guide Course teaches so many fundamental guide skills, it is the entry level course to all AMGA programming. To put it into perspective for you, I’ve completed the first 10-day to-do of 13 to-do’s that cumulatively will take 86 days of rigorous study, practice and examination. #76daystogo
Oh, and I forgot to mention that each of the courses has it’s own pre-requisites. The Rock Guide Course required that I had lead to shared lead on 50 different multipitch climbs, that I’d lead 10 different 5.10a climbs in a variety of places and that I’d completed at least 10 grade III climbs prior to showing up.
I also learned that it’s pretty common for folks to fail examinations or have to do make-up coursework in some of the more advanced programming. So it might take more than 86 days. And when I say might, I mean probably will. A lot of people that I look up to in the guiding community have had to re-do some or a few of their courses.
It’s also worth noting that you can’t fail any exam more than 3 times. If you fail more than 3 times, you cannot obtain that certification. If you cannot obtain a certification, you cannot obtain IFMGA certification. Long story short: going IFMGA is a big deal. It’s not something that ‘just anybody’ can do.
Seneca Rocks Rock Guide Course
When I learned that I didn’t make the cut with the Women’s RGC, I asked the AMGA Program Manager Jesse to plug me in wherever he could since I knew I couldn’t wait another year to apply for another scholarship to get started on my coursework. He said he had a spot open for me in Seneca. Even though I had never heard of Seneca, I told him to plug me in there. He did.
I laid down the $500 deposit and bought a plane ticket to Washington D.C. Dulles International Airport, since Google told me that airport was going to get me the closest. I had no fixed plans about how I was going to get from the airport to Seneca Rocks, 3 hours away… Until Jack sent out a mass email to coordinate exactly that. Thank god for Jack.
When I bought my plane ticket, I budgeted a few extra days to orient myself to the climbing style. If you find yourself taking a rock guide course in Seneca, I would STRONGLY encourage you to do this. I’ve climbed in Index and Yosemite and several other places, but I’ve never experienced a sandbag quite like the Seneca sandbag. I wrote a Haiku about it during my course:
Come to Seneca
Try to climb a 5.7
Leave the crag in tears
Going into the course, I was very concerned about a pressure to perform. It’s not everyday that you climb rocks and receive feedback from the most qualified professionals in your field. I made a point of climbing a crap-ton (approximately: a lot) prior to showing up so that the climbing part would be the least of my concerns. While it felt good to climb confidently, I think it’s absolutely worth noting that I never felt pressure to perform from my instructor team. It was a safe, nurturing environment where I felt inspired to learn and grow. (Thank you so much Angela Hawse, Christian Santelices and Joshua Jarrin for setting such a welcoming tone.) I think we all thrived for it.
All of that said, the climbing in Seneca is not straightforward. As such, it provides endless guide challenges and made for a fantastic classroom. While many of the climbs are stellar, the climbing style comes with a bit of a learning curve and the rock is prone to breaking in ways that the granite at my home crags never would. That, and it’s just downright hard. After my experience, I absolutely recommend taking an RGC in Seneca.
What I Learned
I learned a host of new technical skills to provide safer experiences to clients wishing to climb in rocky, vertical and multipitch terrain. I learned how to short rope to make approaches and descents from climbs safer. I learned how to tie a Munter hitch in multiple orientations (props to Stephen for breaking it down in such a way that my brain could comprehend it.) I learned how to efficiently transition from one part of my day to the next (up to down, pitch to pitch, client to client, etc.) And finally, I got a very handy primer on the AMGA rock rescue drill which I will be tested on in the Advanced Rock Guide Course.
I learned a lot from the other people that came out to take the course. I met one of the most qualified climbing guides in Ohio (shoutout to Jordan!) I learned how to tie a clove hitch with just one hand (thanks a lot, Will!) I learned that my new friend Jake has the voice of a raspy coal mining angel. I got to watch each person’s unique approach to guiding and learn from all of it. I also watched my buddy Jack fearlessly take on a scary looking, local-recommended “5.7” roof and totally crush it. (I got to top rope and it was excellent! Haha.)
One of the most important things I learned on my course was that I belonged there. It’s a funny thing to put into words, but I have always struggled with a bit of impostor syndrome in guiding. I was terrified of being the most bumbly, slow-to-learn, weakest climber to show up. I thought that the course was going to feel more like a test than a learning opportunity. Since I’d missed out on the women’s course, I was especially scared of the prospect of being the token female that couldn’t keep up. Fortunately Claire was there with me, so we were 2:6, ladies to dudes. And even better, the current president of the AMGA, Angela Hawse, was one of our instructors.
Instead of all of that, I had this incredible feeling of confidence and self-assurance. For the better part of that 10-day course, I was smiling ear to ear and absorbing each precious moment. I felt like I was working with my people, doing my thing and loving it. I think we all were. All of that was able to happen for two reasons: my self-assessment coming into the course was totally off and my instructor team did an excellent job of setting an all-are-welcome tone. Sorry for being repetitive about it, but I can’t get over how wrong I was to be so fearful and how great it was to be so wrong!
As a natural progression from that awesome experience and feeling, I feel absolute certainty about going forward and pursuing further credentials through the AMGA. Up next for me is an Alpine Guide Course in Washington and then an Advanced Rock Guide Course in Red Rocks. I hope to complete my AMGA coursework in the next 5 years. Wish me luck!
If you’d like to support me on this mission, you can directly “sponsor me” through Venmo (@malclimbs) and Paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org.)