You know the people at the ski town dive bar — well-tanned skin, carabiners hanging off their clothes, a microbrew in their hand — who look like they literally just got off the mountain? Nine times out of ten, that’s a guide. Mountain guiding is an amazing career that allows a select few to thoroughly embrace the outdoor lifestyle while helping others discover the wonders of hiking, rock climbing, and skiing. But it’s certainly not for everyone. Becoming a guide takes a high level of dedication, knowledge of wilderness areas, and physical fitness (and a wide array of certifications). For those who have dreams of getting paid to ski Whistler’s backcountry or lead an expedition to the summit of K2, we’ve put together this mountain guide career primer — because you have to earn your status as the local bar’s resident hardened guide.
The absolute best thing you can do to start on the journey to becoming a mountain guide is to master every aspect of the type of mountaineering you’d like to pursue. As an alpine, ski, or rock guide, you should be able to hike, ride/ski, and/or climb any kind of terrain, in every type of condition. Also, guides often work in a specific area, so it’s going to be crucial that you’re intimately familiar with the trails, pitches, and backcountry powder stashes — not to mention the weather and any potential hazards — of your region.
If you’re a beginner, consider taking a year or two to become more advanced, learning for yourself everything you can about mountaineering and the area in which you’d like to guide.
Guiding entails way more than just knowing your way around a mountain, though. Guides have to be excellent communicators, able to give clear direction and support when necessary. In the same vein, clients usually want a guide who is personable and can interact with guests in a calm and reassuring manner. You will also need to be proficient with widely varied gear and technology (snow anchors, ice picks, backcountry skins, GPS, etc.), while keeping current on the industry and best practices.
While there are numerous things guides have to attend to, guest safety is absolutely the most important aspect of the job. Proper training (along with continuing education courses) will cover all of the necessary safety knowledge you need; but you’ll have to be comfortable with taking responsibility for the health and well-being of your clients.
And remember, you’re also going to have to be okay with letting other people have the majority of the fun while you watch and cheer along.
Certifications and Training
To get hired as a guide, your skills have to be extremely sharp. The best way to help companies and clients assess your mountaineering abilities is by obtaining a certification from a recognized organization, such as the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) or the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA).
In many places, including Canada and many European countries, you must be certified in order to guide. While it’s not a requirement in the US, most guiding outfits will make obtaining some kind of certification a condition of employment — and all of your clients will want to know that you’re properly trained for the types of trips they’ll be taking. AMGA certifications are widely accepted; so start there if you’re looking to be an alpine, ski, or rock climbing guide.
With AMGA, you can get certified in one or two of the program’s streams, or complete the full 86-hour course and become certified in all three. The latter involves completing the intensive exercises and testing within each specific stream, in addition to CPR and avalanche training and a Wilderness First Responder Certification. If you do that, you’ll become an American Mountain Guide, which means you’ve achieved one of the highest levels of training in the US — and you’ll be able to work anywhere an IFMGA guide is certified (over 20 countries around the world).
Note that the testing is notoriously difficult, and certification can be pricey. Most of the courses cost around $4,000, and that doesn’t include travel or the ancillary certifications; so, in reality, you could end up paying over $50,000 to become an American Mountain Guide. Which brings us to…
Look, mountain guiding is not likely to be your path to riches (Glassdoor estimates that the average mountain guide salary is close to $35,000); you do this job because you love it. But you can certainly make some good money once you have a decent number of years under your belt.
Guides are generally paid an hourly wage or a daily rate for their time. According to an r/climbing subreddit thread, beginners can expect to earn $15-$20 per hour or $150-$250 per day. Luckily, users also note that guides who have more specialized skills and can lead more technical trips can earn over $500 per day. Plus, tipping is customary, so if everyone’s happy and in one piece, you can take home even more.
Starting Your Career
To get a feel for the type of guiding you’re looking to do, ask a local guide about the ins and outs of working in the area. They’ll be able to give you the best idea of the degree of difficulty, gear you’ll need, earning potential, etc. If you’re really lucky, they may even agree to let you shadow them.
While it may seem tempting to try and start your own guiding company right out of the gates, it can be a daunting prospect, especially in the US, where public land permits are hard to come by. The upfront costs are steep, and the workload can be incredibly burdensome. You’re likely to end up spending a lot more of your time marketing the company and running the business end of things than skiing powder and bouldering with your clients.
Instead, finding work with an established outfit can make the beginning of your career much smoother and allow you to focus on honing your skills. Larger guiding companies are going to be the easiest to find work with, but will usually pay the lowest wages. As you progress, consider moving to a more specialized, pricier boutique outfit that can provide you with higher wages (and bigger tips) — think multi-day trips climbing in Patagonia or summiting Denali. And once you have the experience and reputation to build your own business, if you choose to go that route, your earning potential can greatly increase. Trust us, no one ever took a cheap heli-skiing excursion.
If you want to hang a mountaineering shingle, take a look at this guide to starting your own business in a mountain town.
Becoming a guide requires the kind of commitment that only the most hardcore mountaineers can maintain. Do plenty of research and understand what you’re getting yourself into before attempting to lead that Chamonix climbing/skiing trip. Once you take the plunge, though, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best careers out there. Sharing your love for nature and outdoor recreation with others is an incredibly gratifying way to make a living. And it doesn’t hurt that your office will be a majestic rock face, beautiful old-growth forest, and/or wide-open powder bowl.