An Insider’s Guide: What It Takes to Get Your Rock Guide Certification

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By Miranda Oakley

Las Vegas is the land of extremes. On one end you have The Strip where high rollers gamble away fortunes, fountains of water shoot through the air in a choreographed dance and sidewalks are filled with tourists drinking cocktails and taking selfies. On the other end you have me, perched on a ledge high on the Aeolian Wall of Mount Wilson, watching the silent sprawling metropolis as I belay my friend Ron.

I have been to Red Rocks numerous times but this spring I spent a month in the area preparing for my Advanced Rock Guide Exam with the AMGA. I started the process in 2013 at Joshua Tree with my first Rock Guide Course (RGC). I had little experience guiding and had no idea how much there was to learn about it. I had been climbing for over 10 years and was skeptical about what I could learn about taking beginners up moderate routes.

In the RGC we ran around Joshua Tree going over all the small details involved in guiding. I learned about what it takes to be a solid guide and how that differs from being just a strong rock climber. How to be responsible for someone else’s life and what that means in terms of managing risk. The RGC took my skills as a climber and turned me into a guide.

I started my job as a climbing guide in Yosemite the following summer. Having years of experience climbing and living in the park, I transitioned easily into my new job. I was thrilled to take people up the Manure Pile Buttress and Cathedral Peak. I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of the sport and the area. I learned a lot my first couple years guiding. Back then the hardest part of my job was accurately evaluating people in order to decide an appropriate objective in the beginning of the day. Some people were overly confident and I would inadvertently sandbag them. Others were modest about their abilities and would end up being slightly disappointed by the lack of challenge.

Photo: Mike O’Connor

In 2015 I decided to continue on to the Advanced Rock Guide Course and Aspirant Exam (ARGCAE). It was a hard decision to make because it meant committing to the exam as well. This meant an extra $5000 on top of the $2500 I had already spent, but I would get a raise with my current job. Many places require AMGA certifications so it would increase my chances of finding a job if I ever wanted to work outside of Yosemite.

The ARGCAE was a great review of the techniques I had learned in the RGC. The first day we went out we had to pass the rescue drill and the movement skills test. For movement skills we did The Fox, a 5.10 crack climb that widens from thin hands to a squeeze chimney. The routes during the course could be up to 5.10 in difficulty so this gave the instructors a good idea of where we were at. Then there was the rescue drill. For this we had to escape from a belay off the harness and no redirect, rappel down to the victim, ascend back up the rope using friction hitches, raise and lower the victim using mechanical advantages (3:1, 5:1 and 6:1), do a counter balance rappel to the next anchor down, transition to the next anchor, pull the rope and tandem rappel down to the ground. This must be done in less than 45 minutes. We also had to do a knot pass in under five.

Photo: Ron Phifer

The routes we did for this course were longer and had more involved approaches and descents than in the first RGC. We practiced parallel roping techniques (belaying two clients at once with an ATC Guide or Reverso) with an emphases on efficiency for longer days. It was great to solidify my skills as a guide and learn some new ones. The instructors gave me positive feedback which meant a lot coming from such experienced guides. In the end of the course we had the Aspirant Exam. This was supposed to give us an idea if we were ready for the ARGE. Although I only got to do a few pitches during the Aspirant Exam the instructors thought I did well and said that with some practice short roping I’d be ready for the exam.

I decided to take the exam the following spring giving myself another season of guiding to gain experience and the opportunity to come to Red Rocks early to prepare. Work in the spring is slow in Yosemite so I was able to get to Red Rocks a month before my exam. I had no partners lined up when I arrived so I made friends in the campground convincing them to climb some moderates that could be on the exam. Eventually I met up with friends and convinced them to help me practice short roping and rescue drills. Between rainy days and sport climbing stints I was able to get a few possible exam routes in. I climbed Birdland, Black Magic, Frigid Air Buttress, Inti Watana, Community Pillar, Ginger Cracks, Dark Shadows, Epinephrine and Levitation 29. My instructors in my ARGCAE told me that I needed practice short roping so I focused on that. Knowing the approaches and descents of the climbs made the short roping more manageable.

By the start of the exam I felt well prepared and ready for any guiding challenges thrown my way. I was a bit nervous about getting thrown into an exam setting. But I knew that guiding expert examiners would be way less stressful than my job in Yosemite where I often take far less experienced clients up bigger climbs.

The exam was scheduled to be 5 days long. Four days on multi-pitch climbs and one cragging day. The ratio of examinees to examiners was 2:1. One examinee would start the day as the guide for the other examinee and the examiner. Halfway through the day we switched. The first day out I did Black Orpheus, 1370’ 5.10-. I guided the first half of the day and my co-examinee guided the second. Both the approach and decent involved some short roping. The climb itself was clean and straight-forward with one short section of 5.10.

On the second day we went sport climbing. We were asked to demonstrate our instructional skills by teaching our clients how to safely lead sport pitches. We also had to demonstrate risk management by setting our clients up appropriately (stick clips, hanging the quick draws, educating the client). Halfway through the day it started to rain and, due to the fragile nature of the Red Rock stone when wet, we had to pack up early.

Photo: Art Mooney

We had been given route assignments for the following day but the rain continued throughout the night. We knew that the rock would not be dry enough to climb on by morning so the instructors made the call to climb in Calico Basin instead as it seemed to have rained less there. We linked together a couple of two pitch climbs each giving us a total of about 500 vertical feet of guiding with somewhat technical descents. Although it wasn’t our first choice, I thought the instructors did a great job of putting together a full day of guided climbing despite complications with weather.

The following day we went with our original route assignments in Red Rock Canyon. I climbed the Frigid Air Buttress in Icebox Canyon, 1000’ 5.9. I led the first half of the climb and the second half of the descent. Throughout the course the instructors would break character during teachable moments to give us some instruction. They chose just the right moments to go back into instructor mode if there was a lesson to be taught but not breaking role often enough to disrupt the role-playing dynamic.

By the end of the day the clouds were beginning to roll in and there was talk about possibly having to end the exam early. I lay awake in the Red Rock campground that night listening to the raindrops bounce off of my van and wondered what would happen. When I looked at the AMGA website earlier that day I saw nothing about contingency plans for weather.

We got a text sometime that night or the next morning saying that the following day of the exam was cancelled and to meet at Calico Basin to discuss what came next. Given the fragile nature of the sandstone when saturated we knew that even if it stopped raining that morning it would be a bad idea to climb for the next couple of days. The rock would still be saturated (and therefore easily breakable) for days. Since we had only two real days to demonstrate our skills as guides the instructors said that we would need one more day out to complete the exam. Even then, they said, we’d be getting off relatively easy. This would cost more money, time and stress. We had evaluations of our exam so far later that day.

During the evaluation the examiners gave me a lot of valuable advice including many techniques that I regularly use guiding and rock climbing. They told me that the exam being canceled early would be good for me because I would have more time to prepare and that I should wait until the fall to take the make-up day so that I could prepare more. After a month of preparation, this left me wondering if I should have taken the exam at all.

The instructors at the AMGA have the incredibly hard task of standardizing an industry that has many variables. Everything you do guiding can be done countless different ways. I found myself adapting my guiding habits to please the instructor from my last course only to find that the current instructor wanted to see something else. Attempting to guide the way I thought my instructors wanted was what ended up getting me into trouble. I know how to guide and I shouldn’t have let the exam setting affect my performance. Despite my instructors’ suggestions to wait to take the make-up day next fall I decided to do it two weeks later.

Photo: Mike O’Connor

After a work training with Yosemite Mountaineering School in preparation of my 4th season there and a short week of guiding, I found myself back in Red Rocks. It was much hotter and I was surprised to still see climbers in the campground. Since I had already gotten a few “marginals” on my exam there was a lot of pressure for me to perform perfectly on my last day. If I made any mistakes or got any marginals I would fail the exam. For my make-up day I guided Peyote Power and did the North Fork of Mescalito to descend. At the end of the day my instructor had mostly positive feedback with a few suggestions to make the day go smoother. I received no marginals and passed the exam.

I suggest thinking long and hard before committing to going through a rock guide certification process, especially if it is not necessary for work. It costs not only money but time preparing. I thought I would be ready for the Guide Exam this spring because of how I did on my ARGCAE, but it turned out that the standard for the exam was much higher. Even with extra time preparing I was not quite ready for the exam despite having received no marginal and little critical feedback in the ARGCAE.

When I arrived back in Yosemite I told my boss that I passed the exam, but just barely. I managed to pull it off after my instructors told me I might fail. He laughed and said they were just trying to make me sweat. They did.

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