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Unofficial guide the the AMGA Rock Program

Part 1: Rock: Movement and personal experience



German rock guide Jude Spancken following the Hollow Flake (5.9) on failed Freerider attempt

Overview: The AMGA's prerequisites and description for the Rock Guides Program does not provide specific "how-to" guidance in a qualitative way. A good and trusted mentor is a great place to get advice about how to judge one's readiness for the various stages of the program, as well as how to plan an effective progression with the separate but equal goals of passing the rock guides exam and also being a good guide.


My position is that in all disciplines of mountain guiding, personal experience, raw ability, and movement are the foundation of a guide's competence. Therefore to be a good rock guide, and to pass an exam, a candidate should consider a holistic view of their competence as a rock climber.


In other words, the ability to help a client realize their goals, a guide must first be able to realize their own. Mountain sense, and everything packed within it, are not acquired in a book or in a course, but through a certain amount of varied repetition in a discipline.


It is important to keep in mind why the IFMGA (and therefore the AMGA) has minimum standards; which is to ensure that guides are always operating within a zone of comfort. Eventually this tends to be self-regulating, but the understanding is that all guides should have certain minimum competencies.


Chandler Van Schaack questing up on Freestone (5.11c) in Yosemite


Anyone who has been guiding for a length of time will know first-hand that having a wide-enough buffer between what one attempts to guide, and what one's personal limits are, is important. Any number of unforeseen factors can interfere with a person's optimal performance (and I don't limit the term "performance" here just to physical, but also intellectual/mental tasks associated with guiding), such as sub-optimal and unpredicted conditions on route, being offroute, being in a compromised mental, physical, or emotional state, or any number of other surprises that do happen to guides when out working.


Having a few "grades in hand," as the British say, meaning, to be a few grades apart from one's top capability and what you are guiding, is a sure way to increase the likelihood of success and the margin of safety for yourself and your client.


Of the disciplines of mountain guiding (rock, ski, alpine) the rock is far and away the most strait-forward to measure objectively. You either climb a certain grade, or you don't.


In every conceivable discipline of human achievement, honest and accurate self-assessment is crucial to measured and progressive success, as well as a basic piece of info for forming the most effective plan. In rock climbing this means taking note of what one achieves in terms of routes climbed, how they were climbed (onsight, redpoint, flash, bail, ect., how many attempts) and then a clearer picture of oneself emerges.


The famous Alex Lowe quote, "the best climber is the one having the most fun," though a nice sentiment, is not necessarily helpful to developing a concrete plan. In effect, the best climber is the one who succeeds in the most number of hard routes in the fewest number of tries, and in the best style. By this measure Adam Ondra is the best overall rock climber with well over 100 5.14d's, fastest ascent of the world's hardest bigwall climb, world cup champion in bouldering and route climbing, and the first ascent of the hardest sport climb in the world.

IFMGA Mountain Guide and former pro climber Dougal Tavener on Rendez-vous avec platon, 5.13d, Kalymnos

But for use mere mortals, to be a certified rock guide means consistently and confidently onsighting up to 5.10d traditionally protected climbs in the context of multi-pitch rock guiding. So what follows is a basic prescription to help people in a concrete way determine if they have a sufficient level.


All the worlds best climbers use extensive amount of redpoint climbing (projects) to help achieve their maximum level. This in turn helps define minimum onsight. The two are inherently connected. The skills one learns while projecting hard routes are invaluable to the process of onsighting, which is usually what happens when guiding on a rock guide's exam and in real life.


I am not expert, and no coach either, but here is a list of achievements that I think would set up anyone for success in terms of personal movement skills, mountain sense, and comfort necessary to succeed in the often stressful situation of being examined and more importantly, while guiding.



The cliffnotes version is:


Personal climbing:

1) Redpointing to 12a sport and 11c trad minimum.

2) Consistently onsighting 5.11a trad and 5.llc sport climbs

3) Climb Half Dome Regular NW face in a day

4) Climb a grade VI route.

5) Focus on difficulty more than length

6) Climb on as many rock types and styles as possible

7) Climb with the best climbers you can

8) Train properly and specifically for rock climbing



1) Guide in as many different types of routes and rock types as possible

2) Focus on client care. This is the most important part of being a guide, and all other "systems" revolve around it

3) SPI and top-down site management as well as shorter terrain provide great learning environments for honing your technical "chops." If you currently work a lot in these disciplines you are probably developing a solid repertoire of the basics. Rock guiding is not rocket science.

4) Technical guiding skills can be acquired through rote practice. Buy the Mountain Guide Manual and learn a lot of the stuff in it. Then learn how to apply it correctly. Even still, you don't need to be good at everything in the book. But have a good handle on a few solutions for all of the common situations.

5) Seek mentorship. If this means hiring an experienced certified guide to hone your skills then do it. If you can shadow, do that too.


If you are trying to build yourself up to the standard of 5.10d onsighting the following route pyramid is a helpful tool to mark progress and completeness of preparation.


This generally fits for single pitch sport, trad, and bouldering. Every route pyramid should be specific to each discipline. By that I mean you create a route pyramid in each discipline separately. For example, one for sport climbing, one for traditional climbing, one for bouldering. Lets just say this one below is for single-pitch trad climbing, because that is most relevant to the AMGA rock guide's exam.




5.11c - 5.11c

5.11b - 5.11b - 5.11b - 5.11b

5.11a - 5.11a - 5.11a - 5.11a - 5.11a

5.10d - 5.10d - 5.10d - 5.10d - 5.10d - 5.10d - 5.10d - 5.10d


The top row is a grade that you have redpointed once. The bottom row is the grade that you can usually onsight. In order to be at the very minimum exam standard you should have in your recent experience (previous year) redpointed one tradional climb of 5.11d, or absolute minimum of 5.11c. This would give you a small margin of ability to consistently and comfortably onsight routes at the exam standard of 5.10d. To comfortably onsight 5.10+ you should probably have redpointed perhaps a 5.12a or more to increase the buffer.


Bringing up your top end will naturally bring up your bottom end. This is how it works. If you really sit down and make yourself a route pyramid from, lets say, your previous two years of climbing, if it doesn't look like this, or is lopsided in some way, you should pay attention to that. For some guides I imagine they don't do as much effort in redpointing/projecting on traditional gear. If one only goes out onsight climbing and either fails or succeeds, and never revisits/retries the pitch in light of failure, they are selling themselves short, and cutting off a well-known and well tested path to improvement.


Certainly, learning and practicing redpoint/project tactics on sport climbs is more convenient because of the availability of safe sport climbing, more reasonable to do a larger volume of. In other words, do as much sport climbing as possible, both pushing your onsight capabilities and your max redpoint.


Because the standard is to be able to guide grade V routes (for full rock guide, or grade III for rock instructor) you should strongly consider climbing at least 1 grade VI route, if you haven't already. You can put the route grades (I, II, III, IV, V, VI) in their own route pyramid. If you want to step it up further, consider climbing a grade VI in a day to ensure that you have a proven ability to be fast and effecient both as a climber and with technical skills.

German Rock guide Jude Spancken freeing Rainbow Wall Original Route (5.12a) in Red Rocks 


If I were to choose one rock climb in America which contains virtually every element of personal movement and technical skills needed to be a certified rock guide it would be the Regular NW Face of Half Dome in Yosemite. Its fair to say that a certified rock guide should be able to complete a one-day ascent of this route with a partner of similar ability, at the time of their exam. Not only that but it is one of the most historic and awesome climbs in America.


I began to make a liste des courses of routes that would be like guideposts for personal movement standards for guiding routes and personal minimum standard routes. In the end that is a big project and is somewhat subjective, so I put it aside. Its probably better to ask a mentor to have a look at your resume and also to search for these benchmark routes in the areas you have access to regularly.


The reality of what kind of routes you will encounter on a guides exam is entirely up to the examiner. Since Red Rock is really the only area where the AMGA currently holds exams, the routes that are commonly used are well known. On paper the 5.10d standard sounds great, but in reality onsighting 5.10d in all places on all styles is not that easy a feat if you add in offwidth and runout slab climbing to the mix.


My best advice, nonetheless, is to invest heavily in increasing your max ability as early on in your climbing/guiding career as possible. That is the piece of advice I most wish I had been given and listened to. The above route pyramids are simply a generalized set of tools that will help people get there, if they aren't there yet.


Lastly, there are tons of resources for improving at rock climbing. From personal coaches, to books, to online generalized coaching programs, the list is endless. Here is a list of books that I and many others have found valuable on the road to self-improvement:


-9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes, Dave McCleod

-The Rock Warriors Way, Arno Ilgner (because climbing is mostly mental, anyways)

-The Rock Climbers Training Manual, Anderson brothers

-Climbstrong.com, Steve Bechtel's website on which he sells training plans a books

-The Self-Coached Climber, Douglas Hunter

-Mastermind, Jerry Moffat's brand new book on the mental side of climbing


I wish everyone the best of luck out there on your journeys.








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