Tuesday, November 23, 2010

2010 AMGA/IFMGA Conference

The American Mountain Guides Association recently held its annual meeting in Boulder, Colorado.  In the past we have written about the AMGA and the events associated with it.  In 2008, we covered the annual meeting at Smith Rock and the always popular Guide Olympics.  This year was quite bit different, and the focus of the annual meeting was much more broad.  It also coincided with the annual meeting of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA, or UIAGM in French or IVBV in German) and this year that organization held it in the United States in conjunction with the AMGA for the first time in history.

Banners Advertising the Meeting Ornamented Boulder's Downtown District

The AMGA is one of the twenty-two member organizations of the IFMGA, and through it, American guides who attain the highest level of certification in all three American guide certifications (rock, alpine and ski) are provided with welcoming access and assistance in the mountainous areas of member countries from the regional organizations.

While the AMGA/IFMGA meeting was really a conference with dozens of smaller committee meetings and trainings all over the city, there were a handful of bigger events at which a large percentage of the participants got together.  The first was a fantastic opening event at the Prana store in downtown Boulder.  The second was the IFMGA General Assembly, the third was a guides parade in Downtown Boulder, and the last was the AMGA Main Event, consisting of dinner, talks, awards, and a climbing narrative presented by American IFMGA guide and world class climber, Vince Anderson.

The AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Provider Training at the Boulder Rock Club

I had the opportunity to attend the IFMGA General Assembly on the morning of the 14th.  This particular meeting was the centerpiece of the entire affair, and was devoted to a range of business and guiding issues in the member countries.  It was tricky to understand what was going on though.  The meeting was presented in German and there were limited translation headsets.  I ended up sitting near someone wearing one of them to get an idea of what was going on.  This made it a bit difficult to follow the whole thing, but I got the jist through second-hand communications...

Herman Biner, the President of the IFMGA, talks to a group of Swiss Guides at the Guides Parade

The elephant in the room at this meeting was the fact that while American guides have access to Europe, European guides don't have the same level of access to the US.  This has to do with the public lands permitting systems in the US.  Each of the parks, recreation areas, forest lands, and BLM lands have different permits and rules in the United States.  And unfortunately for the European guides, US permit rules do not make it terribly easy to get access to these lands.  This is something that the AMGA pledged that they would continue to work on with the Europeans on over the coming years.

The city of Boulder pulled out all of the stops at the event.  You're probably aware that Boulder is an extremely popular place for outdoor sports.  Indeed, like our homebase in Bellingham, Boulder is considered by many to be one of the capitols of outdoor and adventure sports in the United States.  Clearly, the business owners and residents of the city take pride in this perception and opened their arms to the visiting guides. There were meetings and dinners at numerous restaurants and shops. And for a few days, guides wearing IFMGA and AMGA jackets dominated the downtown scene.

Bergfuhrer is German for Mountain Guide.  This specialty brew was created 
for the meeting and features European IFMGA guide Leo Caminada in the center.  
Leo was the president of the IFMGA when the AMGA was selected as a member.

On the afternoon of November 14th, all of the guides got together and walked in a parade down Pearl Street.  This public event with guides from seventeen countries was perhaps the largest such event for mountain guides in the history of American guiding.  Following is a short video from the parade.

The final evening of the conference was far more AMGA oriented than many of the previous meetings.  The first part of the evening was dedicated to the memories of two guides that passed away this year.  John Fischer and Heidi Kloos were guides from two completely different generations.  Fischer was a pioneer in the guiding industry in the 1970s and was instrumental in helping create an organization that was the predecessor of the AMGA (the APMGA - the American Professional Mountain Guides Association).  Kloos was a modern "big mountain" guide and one of the few women in the United States to complete her Alpine Guide certification.  The community lost both of these guides this year, Fisher in a motorcycle accident and Kloos in an avalanche.  As with every guide memorial, many tears were shed.  Both John and Heidi will be missed.

At the centerpiece of the Main Event was a history of the AMGA.  Doug Robinson sketched out the events that led to the creation of the APMGA, the predecessor to the AMGA, the original organization pioneered by a small circle of guides in California from 1979 to 1985.  Dunham Gooding, AAI's president, gave a colorful history of the AMGA's challenging and ground-breaking first ten years. He detailed the events which led to where we are today.  Dunham began the narrative in 1986 and talked about how the National Accreditation Program was established, how the National Guide Certification Program was designed and implemented, and how the US applied to the IFMGA for membership in that international body.  Dunham served as AMGA Vice President for three years and President for six years during that formative time.

Former AMGA Presidents - From left to right, Alan Pietrasanta, Ian Wade, John Cleary,
 former AAI guide Mark Houston, AAI President Dunham Gooding, Phil Powers, Dick Jackson, and John Bicknell.  Missing was former AMGA president and AAI guide Matt Culberson.

Dunham related that some individual European guides were concerned that with US membership in the IFMGA, the Alps would be overwhelmed with American guides.  He said he jokingly reassured them that "it would be at least 6 or 8 years before there were 1000 American guides in the Alps."  The reality was and is that the certification process is a rigorous one, and the increase in numbers of American guides working in the Alps has been very gradual. The AMGA was officially voted into membership of the IFMGA in 1997.  Now, 13 years later, approximately 30 American guides regularly work in the Alps.

In the historical sketch, Dunham noted that the leadership of the IFMGA was incredibly encouraging and welcoming to the American application.  Representing the US through those years at the IFMGA annual meetings, he described how open and supportive the Europeans were to the candidacy, both on personal as well as on official levels.  Dunham particularly noted the generosity of the Canadians, Hans Gmosser, and Karl Classen.  Canada served as the US sponsor in the application process, led by the esteemed Canadian Mountain Guides Association President Hans Gmosser (known as the beloved "grandfather of guiding" in Canada, unfortunately now deceased) and Technical Committee Chair Karl Classen.

The AMGA Annual Meeting and the IFMGA Meeting were both great successes.  This was a spectacular event, and the membership of the AMGA is thankful for the work of AMGA Executive Director Betsy Novak and AMGA President/former AAI Avalanche Provider Margaret Wheeler, in putting together the conference.  This was a real opportunity for those of us who don't work in Europe to reach out to our foreign brothers and sisters in friendship.  And now we can only hope that we have the opportunity to do so again. While this was the first IFMGA meeting in the United States, it will certainly not be the last.

--Jason D. Martin


James H. "Jim" Moss said...

It is legal impossible for the AMGA to change access to federal lands in the US. The AMGA has been making this same promise to its members and the IFMGA since it's inception. (In fact this promise was made to the IFMGA to get accepted.) A decade ago America Outdoors spent $2m to make minor changes to the NPS access laws. AMGA does not have that amount of money, influence or ability.
At some point AMGA is going to have to realize that it is making promises it can't keep and throwing money down a hole.

Jim Moss

American Alpine Institute said...


They are pursing a variety of other avenues to do this, including access through current American concession holders and an adjunct organization that will hold permits for foreign guides.


Francis Kelsey said...

Sad but true I think Jim is probably right. I can't imagine seeing any significant change whether it be through the Nat Parks, concessions or the CGC. The only light I see is in all those come together in a common agreement...so is AAI ready to share it's permit?

American Alpine Institute said...

Hey Jim,

I represented the AMGA to the IFMGA when we went through the application process. We never made a promise about access. Instead, we described the US land management systems (Park Service, Forest Service, and BLM) in detail and conveyed that it was an entirely different approach to land management in the US than in Europe (and most other – not all - parts of the world).

We also explained that there was a very, very large "guiding industry" already in place that was quite competent and with a remarkably excellent safety record, and noted that the land management agencies therefore did not have any significant incentive to change their management systems.

We did pledge to try and find ways for IFMGA guides to gain access to our mountains.

Four (or perhaps it is five) on the concessioners on Denali have accepted IFMGA guides onto their expeditions with the IFMGA guide's clients. The challenge is that US companies cannot employ foreign guides unless they have a work permit (a green card). Since that is very difficult to obtain, in the case of Denali, they are allowed onto the expeditions by the National Park Service in a non-paid "translator" position. Clearly they can still work with their clients, but they can't lead them off separately during the expedition. In lieu of pay, they have gain their income through a booking agent commission plus add-ons to airfare, hotels, etc., that the guide can develop as part of a “package program.” It’s not simple, but permit holders have tried to be accommodating.

So at present there aren't any great alternatives for the IFMGA guides, but we never promised anything we could not deliver. We were quite realistic, honest, and open with the IFMGA about the system here in the US.

It was good to see you at the Outdoor Retailer show in August in Salt Lake.

Dunham Gooding