Why a Professional Guide?

Outdoor Wilderness Leadership School is committed to helping you choose the guide or guide service that is right for you. We strongly believe in the value of guide education and offer the following information to help you make an informed choice.

You may be surprised to learn that historically, the training of mountain guides in the
United States has been loosely organized and inconsistently regulated. While some guide services conduct in-house training, few guides have had any formal, consistent, or comprehensive training.

As a result, anyone can hang up a sign and claim to be a competent guide or climbing school!

Although risk can never be eliminated, proper training can help minimize it. Climbing skills alone are not enough. Guiding experience and training, as well as evaluation of guiding-specific skills, are essential to maximize competency and to reduce risks. Most people expect formal training of a doctor or lawyer. Shouldn't you ask the same from your guide?

There are many very high quality climbing schools and independent guides in the United States. However, like any other service industry, there are differences in quality, substance, and even style that can make a particular school or guide a good match for one person and a bad match for another. There are also many companies and individuals that provide substandard services and are potentially less safe. Guides are not required to be certified or even educated to teach rock climbing or to call themselves a guide. Granted, most people who guide in the U.S. are good climbers, but to properly protect someone in a new environment often requires techniques different than those used by recreational climbers. Government permits; licenses and the presence of insurance are not valid assessment tools either, as these are usually available to anyone who applies. Only a few climbing areas, such as Joshua Tree National Park, require any training or evaluation in order to guide.

The first place to turn for advice is the American Mountain Guides Association, an organization that represents the mountain guides and climbing instructors in the United States. One of the goals of the AMGA is to raise the technical and professional standards of mountain guiding in the United States to a worldwide level. A long-term goal of the AMGA is for certification to become the standard for U.S. guiding. For the consumer, the AMGA can be a tool to help choose the right guide or climbing school. Ask specifically if a school is accredited and if the guides have taken any AMGA terrain-specific training, or has certified guides on its staff. The presence of trained or certified guides helps to insure that current industry guidelines are being followed.

AMGA credentials are important to look for when hiring a mountain guide or climbing school. But which credentials should you look for? The AMGA logo is used frequently and represents many different programs. The most important of these are certification, education, accreditation and membership.


Granted to individual guides, AMGA certification is given to those who have demonstrated a broad range of experience and expertise in a specialized terrain discipline such as rock, alpine or ski-mountaineering. A fully certified international guide has been certified in all three disciplines. Certification examines client care, climbing ability, judgment and decision-making, technical skills, rescue proficiency, and environmental concerns. The education and certification program is a process spanning several years and currently represents the highest degree of training available in the United States. Each certified guide has met an internationally recognized standard of expertise and professionalism and actively participates in continuing education throughout the year.


Of utmost importance to you are the qualifications of the individual guide who will lead you or your group. After all they are the one tied to the other end of your rope.

The AMGA offers guide training and certification in rock climbing, alpine climbing, and ski mountaineering. Specific courses and exams teach aspirant guides essential skills in different terrain. The rock climbing and alpine programs are outlined here.

The Top Rope Instructor Course prepares climbers to safely teach top rope climbing and to manage group-climbing sites. The Rock Instructor Course introduces aspirant guides to multi-pitch guiding skills on rock routes up to grade III in length and with relatively simple approaches and descents such as we find in West Virginia, New England or in Joshua Tree National Park. The Rock Instructor Exam then evaluates these skills. The Advanced Guide Course and subsequent Rock Guide Exam further prepares and evaluates guides on difficult terrain above Grade III such as Red Rocks in Nevada or the Wind Rivers in Wyoming or Yosemite. Courses and exams are usually taken years apart.

Alpine certification requires three courses and a ten-day exam for guides who work in snow, ice, or glaciated terrain. The alpine program begins with a Basic Rock and Snow Course and a Glacier and Ice Course covering skills essential to the terrain. The Advanced Alpine Guide Course focuses on greater efficiency and better risk management skills. The Alpine Exam is a comprehensive exam covering all aspects of alpine travel: glacier, rock and snow terrain.

As a minimum, look for individual guides who have completed professional training courses for the terrain that he or she is taking you on, attends in-house training programs supervised by a certified guide, and who meet wilderness medical requirements.


The accreditation program is intended to upgrade safety of climbing schools by bringing in review teams of certified guides to take a general look at staffing, in house training, permits, and insurance. For many climbing schools, the only reason to seek accreditation is for the marketing advantage. However, climbing with an accredited school does not guarantee you are climbing with a competent guide. As the AMGA states, accreditation is a general review not an in-depth evaluation of the company's guides or their skills. Be sure to also inquire as to what specific aspects of the program have been reviewed. For example, a full-service school may have only had its rock program reviewed. Accreditation is renewed every three to five years.


Any individual or program may become a member of the association. Membership is not an indication of guiding ability, educational and safety skills or proficiency. All you have to do is pay a membership fee.

OWLS would like to thank Jon Tierney, director of Acadia Mountain Guides, for his information on Choosing a Mountain Guide


The American Canoe Association (ACA) is a nationwide, not for profit organization that is in service to the broader paddling public by providing education on matters related to paddling, supporting stewardship of the paddling environment, and enabling programs and events to support paddlesport recreation. Founded in 1880, this marks the third century that the ACA has actively promoted paddlesports across the U.S., providing programs and services to its members and the American public. The ACA is uniquely qualified to help individuals and organizations understand how paddlesport can contribute to the quality of life through enabling safe and positive paddling experiences. It is the objective of the ACA to be the recognized, primary resource to individuals, organizations, agencies and regulators for information and guidance on all aspects of paddling.

The ACA believes:

It is our role to make paddling education and instruction accessible to the public.
Our members are a great resource for carrying our mission forward. It is important for the ACA to provide member clubs and affiliated organizations with guidance, leadership, and information on how to further the educational, stewardship and paddlesport recreation tenets of the ACA at the local, regional and national level.
It is our role to improve access to paddling for current paddlers and provide avenues for casual paddlers to become paddlesport enthusiasts.
It is our role to expand paddlesport into the underserved and high need segments of the market.
It is our role to influence issues and public policy that effect paddlers and the paddling experience.
It is our role to create strategic alliances with the other organizations that represent the outdoor experience in order to expand awareness and knowledge of paddling concerns. It is important to manage the organization and its assets in a responsible manner in order to fulfill the mission and vision

The ACA strives to communicate the benefits of canoeing, kayaking and rafting as lifetime recreation and keeps participants informed about paddlesport opportunities and activities, thus helping to "grow" the sport. Focus of the organization’s work is on three strategic tenets: Education, Stewardship, and Recreation. These are presented below as documented in the ACA’s 2005-2008 Strategic Plan.

1. Paddlesport Education. ACA has long been a leader in the area of paddlesport education. Today, with the expanding number of individuals entering the sport at varied skill levels, the ACA’s educational programs must become broader and more efficient. The ACA will work towards each of the following:

Advance the recognition of safety and the skills needed for a safe experience.

Promote "gateway" paddling education to reach the broader public as well as mastery level programs for the paddlesport enthusiast

Lead the education of the paddlesport community by going beyond lesson plans to package paddling education programs for specific groups and individuals.

2. Stewardship. The ACA is a recognized leader of conservation and stewardship efforts on behalf of paddlers. The ACA will continue its focus on maintaining and enhancing both the natural and regulatory environments for paddlers at the national level. In addition, the ACA needs to target more resources to help paddlers at the community level exert influence over pertinent local issues. The ACA will work towards stewardship in the following ways:

Activate a network of support and leadership for grassroots advocacy for stewardship of the nation’s waterways.

Work towards greater access to waterways for paddlers
Support the development and promotion of watertrails.

Become an information base and network for the establishment of waterway cleanup efforts.

Provide a pathway for paddler participation at the national, state and regional levels for safety, access, and stewardship.

Conduct research, gain feedback, provide analysis and suggest policy on issues that affect paddlers.

3. Paddlesport Recreation. Since its inception in 1880, the ACA has been actively involved in paddling recreation, events and competition. As the popularity of the sport grows through canoeing, kayaking and rafting, paddlesport recreation will play a key role in attracting new paddlers as well as keeping the sport dynamic for paddlers at varied skill levels. The ACA will promote paddlesport recreation in the following ways:

Establish itself as the organization serving all segments of the paddling public

Promote the activity of paddling including the activity itself, its value and healthy benefits

Oversee, host and provide insurance for paddlefests, events and competitions

Support the development and implementation of new events, festivals, and activities to promote and advance paddlesport recreation

Advocate for federal and state funding in support of paddlesport opportunities

Broadcast paddling locations as well as paddling groups in local areas.