This is How It Works: The AMGA Rock Guide Exam

I took the Rock Guide Certification Exam from the American Mountain Guide Association this past October in Red Rocks, Las Vegas, Nevada.  I've got to tell you - this is the exam that made me sweat the most.  You guys know I'm not rock climbing sponsorship material.  What I do well is carry packs, breath thin air, climb long alpine routes, and make good turns in powder.  So I really was worried about climbing well enough for the exam, and a couple of hiccups along the way didn't bolster my confidence at all.  So a month out from the exam I was still asking myself if I was going to make it.

Taking the exam was made financially possible by the AMGA Montrail Scholarship, which paid for my tuition and allowed me to use that money for other needs - like to cover my September and October bills while I wasn't working.  The following are excerpts from my final scholarship report: 

9 September 2009, 30 Days to the Exam

Every season seems to have a different focus: one summer I climbed 10 alpine ice routes, another summer seamed to be repeat trips into the low-grade, high quality routes of the Palisades. This summer certainly let me focus on Rock Guiding, but I still haven't been climbing with the intensity I've wanted. So I'm taking the rest of the month off, dedicating myself to climbing as much – and as hard – as I can for the next 30+ days until the exam.

I'm really worried about my psyche. I've never felt like a hard rock climber, so now I'm doing some things to really change my attitude. My friend Joe shaved my head down to a mohawk, and I painted my finger nails silver. Seriously trying to turn on the “just go for it” attitude.

21 September 2009, 18 Days to the Exam

Feeling STRONG!! I spent the past two weeks climbing around Bishop and Yosemite, climbing some classics like Serenity-to-Sons of Yesterday (III 5.10d) and Crescent Arch (II 5.10-). To screw on my head I climbed the seriously runout Aqua Knobby (II 5.9 R) and the Dike Route (II 5.9 R), both on Pywiack Dome. Now I'm in Vegas getting ready to throw myself at Red Rocks.

Photo:  Karie was a great "client" on the Dike Route.

8 October 2009, 16 hours to the Exam

I don't think I can be any more ready than I am, though somehow I got myself convinced that the exam started in the 13th instead of the 9th. Still, I've climbed some seriously good routes, like Sour Mash (II/III 5.10a), Eagle Dance (IV 5.10c), Black Orpheus (IV 5.10a), Epinepherine (V 5.9), Triassic Sands (II 5.10c) and Wholesome Fullback (II 5.10a). I also on-sighted a bouldery direct start to Texas Tea (5.10d), as well as ticking off:

  • Pitch 1 of Y2K (5.10-)

  • Out of Control (5.10c)

  • Mai Tai (5.10d)

  • Rob Roy (5.10b)

  • Gin Ricky (5.10c)

  • The Fox (5.10d)

Photo:  Jonathan looking cool on Gin Ricky.  Photo Chris Werner.

 After mock-guiding Eagle Dance and Black Orpheus, I started to feel more confident about my climbing and more interested in learning the different approaches, descents, and guiding challenges. So I've gone out to the Brownstone Wall and climbed Black Dagger (III 5.7 R); and Community Pillar (III 5.9 var.) and Magic Triangle (III 5.9) in the South Fork of Pine Creek Canyon.

I'm confidently resigned that I've done all I can to get ready for this exam, and now all I can do is do.

9 October 2009, Exam Day One

Photo:  Caroline confidently heads up Pitch 1 of Adventure Punks II 5.10d.  Photo Chris Wright.

Today's focus was on Movement and Rescue Skills. The entire exam group (6 candidates, 3 examiners) went to the Black Corridor in the Calico Hills – a venue with its bolt-protected, 50-foot routes feels more like an indoor climbing gym than an outdoor crag. Dennis Sanders and I took Doug Nidever to the upper corridor, where about half the routes we climbed were repeats from my prep weeks. In the afternoon, we stayed in the Corridor while the rest of the exam left to climb on the Sweet Pain Wall. Dennis and I had taken our Rock Guide Courses before the introduction of the Aspirant Exams, and so we needed to perform and pass the Rock Rescue and Knot Passes Skill Tests. I did both with only a few fumbles that I was able to correct – though my “Slow=Smooth, Smooth=Fast” approach to Rock Rescue had me finishing with only 18 seconds before time was up!

10 October 2009, Exam Day Two

Photo:  Black Orpheus IV 5.10a.

Dennis, Doug and I stayed together for the second day to climb Chasing Shadows, a 5.10- variation to the classic Dark Shadows. In typical AMGA fashion, we were to climb the route past the initial four pitches to the top. I climbed Dark Shadows to the top back in 2005 with Mark Ryman, but we misread the route description, traverse too far to the right, and spent the rest of the day following a loose, sandy, flaring corner, wondering what we were doing there. Today we found a fantasticly solid and varnished corner system, and Dennis and I enjoyed every pitch we led Doug up today. I led most of the route, and my proudest moment was climbing the crux 4th pitch with confidence, to a fantastic-not-on-the-topo ledge. Dennis finished the climbing and led us down the walk-off / 2 rappel descent. The debriefing can be hard – I'm always trying to find what I did wrong, which I think leads me to being more critical than necessary. But Doug's closing comment rang sweetly in my ear, “Keep guiding like today, and you'll have a great exam.”

11 October 2009, Exam Day Three

Photo:  Joe heading up above the Elephant's Trunk on Epinepherine V 5.9.  This was a fantastic birthday present!

Mike Bromberg and I were tasked with leading Tom Hargis up Sour Mash and the first 4 pitches of Refried Brains. Surpisingly, Tom had Mike lead the approach and all 7 pitches of Sour Mash, while I was only tasked with Refried. After the first two pitches of Refried, I had to figure out a tricky traverse to start the third, and Tom voiced his concern that we were mving too slowly. So rather than build multiple anchors and move everyone over to the end of the traverse, I back cleaned as far as I dared and then belayed Tom and Mikefrom the start of the traverse, making sure I could keep them in view as the stepped across the starting ledge. Tom pulled the plug at the top of the pitch, saying that he didn't want to walk out in the dark – something that Mike and I had counted on to climb 11 pitches with a 7am start in the campground. Tom's debriefing was that my pitches were a bit slow, and I needed to be careful on traverses, but he still said, “Thanks for a good day, Chris.”

12 October 2009, Exam Day Four

Forest McBrian and I climbed today with Art Mooney on a link up of Myster Z (II 5.7) and One-Armed Bandit (II 5.7). I led the first half, and we were surprised to discover a party just minutes ahead of us getting ready to take off. What could I do for a Plan B? The photo that I photocopied of Myster Z included another route nearby, Geronimo (II 5.8), but I hadn't included a route description. But I had to make a decision, and trusting that I could follow the photo and my climbing, we went for it.

In hind sight, I made so many mistakes. First was not double-checking Forests' rack for the day – he hadn't packed any cordelletes and only one double-length sling, and my anchors turned into exercises in manufacturing. Then I was so concerned with finishing the climb before noon – so that Forest wasn't screwed for his section of guiding in the afternoon – I stretched the rope as much as I could, so every anchor was far away and out of sight. I did such a good job of this that I didn't have to chat with my “clients”, or coach them, or really think about anything more than finishing the route. Finally, during the descent Art finally lost his patience with my comfort at standing near the edge of the second rappel, despite my braced stance while I restacked the ropes. We traded words and I put my head down in red-faced frustration, clipped into the rappel anchor, and finished the rappels as fast as I safely could. We touched down at 12:04pm according to my watch, and Forest took over.

I have done a great job leading this route, but a poor job guiding it.

Photo:  Finishing Black Orpheus at dusk.

At the debriefing tonight, Art vented his frustration. I should have broken the pitches up to keep him and Forest in sight, so that I could provide some solid coaching and direction. I could have saved time by turning the last pitch into an immediate lower instead of pre-rigging the rappel. I needed to be more conservative in my security measures when quick and easy oportunities – like clipping into a bolted anchor – are available, irregardless of how comfortable I am on a ledge. I needed to be more prepared, and he questioned the wisdom in setting off on a route with only a photograph while guiding. His biting comment that I'll never forget was, “Its exam days like today that piss me off.”

13 October 2009, Exam Day Five

Photo:  Breaking out the big guns for the big gun show.  Chris gets ready to take on the last pitch of Adventure Punks.  Chris Wright collection.

Forest and I were assigned together again to lead Doug up a route no one had heard of, the Purblind Pillar on the Angel Food Wall. We both had less than stellar days with Art yesterday, so we both had something to prove. This time I brought the rack, and we carefully figure out a Plan B (Tunnel Vision). Forest led the start of the route, handing the lead to me for the final 3 pitches. I wanted to make sure that I showed Doug that I learned from yesterday's errors, so I broke it into 5 pitches, extended the anchors twice and ignored a bolted anchor for a gear anchor to keep the team in view, and actually enjoyed the day. The climb was a fantastic corner system up the far side of the Angel Food Wall. In debriefing, Doug said he was little surprised by my strategies, and thought that I could have run the pitches to their full lengths but understood why I hadn't.

The Final Debriefing

That evening, we had the final debriefing as a group. I remember very little of the specifics, mostly because I was freezing cold. All of us candidates,in turn, took the time to say thanks to the examiners. And the examiners, in turn, took the time to tell us how much they think the guide candidates have risen in professionalism and hope we had all learned something from the exam. Tonight I was adding up my days: 3 great days, 1 good day, 1 poor day. How does that compute? Eric Larson walked away from the debriefing saying, “We passed – they did everything but tell us!” Forest and I, on the other hand, were optimistic but reserved. We'll see.

Photo:  Getting ready to loose it on Out of Countrol 5.10c.

27 October 2009, 13 Days After the Exam

As I wrote here on 20 October, examiners have up to two weeks after the exam to complete their paperwork and post results on the AMGA membership pages.
I've been checking my AMGA membership page every day since the exam, and today I'm on my way to the AMGA Annual Meeting in Moab, Utah. I'm half-convinced that the exam results were sent to the AMGA Office, but they are too busy getting ready for the exam to enter them. That frustrated acusation was completely shot down by a phone call at 8pm tonight from my partner/fiance, Patsy.

“Have you found out?” Something in her voice raised the radar.
“Not this morning. Are you on the computer?”
“Yep.” She sounded way too smug.
“On my AMGA account.”
“Looking at the results.”
You want to share it with me?”
“You passed, meathead. How could you doubt it?”

Post-script: Turns out Eric was right – Tom had tried to hint to us that we had passed, thought he got the message across, and was taking his time to finish his portion of the paperwork. There were several beers bought for that!

My Conclusion

Taking the month off prior to the exam and sharing a house rental in Vegas with the other candidates was the smartest thing I could have done to prepare for this exam.

The first people I have to thank for their support and assistance are Patsy and our new dog Charlie. I really checked out this summer, focusing on my climbing and leaving these two to fend for themselves. Patsy took it in stride, though I have some serious payback before I'm out of the red.

Photo:  Now these are friends.  A belay sandwiche with Winnie and Karie.

Thanks to everyone who helped me climb this summer: The whole SMC crew – SP, Todd, Connie, Eric, Braden, Andrew, and Alli; the Zoo crew – Paul, Jed, Annie, Joe and the rest of the house; Meredith, Maren, Winnie and Karie for being “professional clients”; and all the other candidates who spent a month with me this fall getting ready for the exam – Seth Hobby, Caroline George, Liz Smart, Jonathan Spitzer, Chris Wright, Mike Bromberg, Mark Allen, Chris Werner, Joe Stock, Josh Beckner, Alexis Finley, Dennis Sanders, Eric Larson, and Forest McBrian. Everything I did to prepare for this exam the month prior, the summer, and the past years has been because of these people – I did none of this by myself.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.