AMGA Alpine Conditional Exam

On Memorial Day I sat back in my first class seat (paid for in mileage points), sipped my glass of cabernet and considered what has taken two years to complete.
In September 2006 I took my Alpine Guide Certification Examination from the American Mountain Guide Association, in Washington’s Cascades. I spent 10 days guiding another candidate and examiner, with mixed results. One examiner raised my stress and nervousness with his constant chatter and helpful advice, the other examiner calmed my nerves by saying very little. In the end, they decided that I should be examined for another two days to determine if I met the examination requirements.
Last September I returned to the Cascades with that first examiner and another Conditional candidate, only to be rained off of Shark Fin Col. With no extra time scheduled for a weather delay, we had to go home and wait another year.
So this year the AMGA and I wised up and planned for weather, scheduling three days to conduct a two day exam. I decided to make this go as mentally easy as I could. I arranged for places to stay all over Washington, from Bellingham, Mazama, Leavenworth and Seattle. My old house-mate Amanda loaned me her car, saving me from hiring a rental. I used my earned mileage on Alaska Airlines to purchase a first-class seat. Finally, my partner in this exam, Angela, offered to bring all the hardware we would need in her car, since she was driving from Wyoming.
Angela and I met at Sea-Tac on Wednesday afternoon to drive to my old house, and we made plans to meet for breakfast. I spent the evening relaxing with old friends, watching them play a muddy soccer game (mud in Seattle – get out!) in the city league before going out for beers and burgers at the Blue Star. We talked about upcoming weddings (Eddie and Annie’s), kids (Greg and Brenda’s), and of course climbing and skiing.
In the morning Angela and I met for breakfast to figure each other out. I hope I didn’t disappoint her too much. I’ve been working so much that I’ve only had three days in the past three months to climb for fun. I have had to rely on my work to provide any training opportunities, and I felt as ready as I could be. After breakfast we split up to buy supplies and made plans to meet later in the afternoon to write up a common route plan.
That evening I stayed with old friends out in Snohomish, playing with the kids and feeling more at home than I have in a long time. But the weather was constantly threatening, and our examiner used our weather day to delay the exam to Saturday.
On Friday I drove up to Bellingham to pick up John, an AMGA examiner for the Alpine and Rock Guide Certifications. We hadn’t met before and used the hour and a half-drive to Marblemount to get to know each other. He put me at ease with his openness and honest talking about guide politics and opinion about other guides we both knew. We met Angela at the Totem Trail motel, and made plans for getting up in the morning for our first objective, Black Peak.
The weather forecast for the weekend was un-promising, calling for heavy clouds, cold temps and a 40% chance of snow/rain in the North Cascades. John decided to have us climb two one-day climbs to allow us some flexibilty, and chose routes that we could guide even in poor weather. None of us – especially me – wanted a repeat of last fall’s canceled Conditional Exam.
We woke up early and drove up to Rainy Pass. In my excitement I picked the wrong trail, leading us on a 40 minute “warm-up” as we walked to Lake Mary, dead-ended, and turned back to the trail head. Ooops. Note to self: read all the signage at trail heads! We had an uneventful approach up the trail and across Heather Pass, talus hoping, past Lewis and Wing Lakes, and onto the snowfield below Black Peak. I short-roped us up to the North Ridge and started climbing, trying to protect the loose rock. On Wednesday night at the Blue Star my friend Greg had described this route as a climb that “if you like the handhold, you can pull it off and hand it down to your partner to use.” Nice. He was right, too. Just when the rock improved it was time to switch roles with Angela and become a client. Angela got to lead us up some good climbing to the summit, down the South West Chutes and back to the car.
That night we stayed at the Unibomber Shack, Mark A.’s one-room cabin in Mazama. It allowed us to get a later start in the morning to climb the South Buttress of Cutthroat Peak. Angela did a fantastic job leading us up the approach and lower 2/3rds of the buttress, before switching roles with me. I got to climb the tricky chimney pitch in wet conditions in my approach shoes, and continued on to the summit.
Here I really bobbled. John wanted to make sure that we reached the West Ridge for the descent, and gave me partial beta for a descent route that I wasn’t sure of on the North West Face. So I followed the descent I was familiar with, requiring me to rebuild several rappel anchors. Time seemed to suck away from my route plan, and my rope management started to tangle. John – I think intentionally – created a light-hearted moment with some good jokes and a teachable moment that re-booted my mind, and I found my groove again on two more rappels and short-roping down the ridge. We finally gained the ground and continued down to the snow-field in the basin, where Angela demonstrated a crevasse rescue for her Conditional Exam requirements and we finished the day.
That evening we had dinner in Concrete at Annie’s Pizza, were John told us the good news: we were AMGA Certified Alpine Guides. My first AMGA course was the Alpine Guide Course in 2001. It had taken two years to complete my Alpine Exam. On the way I decided to become an IFMGA Guide, and this exam is my first step towards that goal. The Alpine Exam is the longest of the three tests, and by reputation the most difficult – it requires the longest approaches, the heaviest packs, and the biggest days. For me, the most difficult element was the nervous anticipation in not knowing what was coming next. I think the Rock and Ski Exams will be easier – in my mind – simply because they won’t be the first.
I shook John’s hand and gave Angela a hug before driving to Seattle to return Amanda’s car, Angela and I had breakfast with Mark R. at the Salmon Bay Cafe before Mark drove me to the airport. First class seats meant I got to use the lounge, drink endless coffee, and call PG and my mom with the news – I was Certified.

Special thanks, in sort-of-order of appearance, to everyone who made this possible. My Mom and Dad, PG, Montana, SP, Eric, Neil, Art, Seth, Angela, Amanda, Eddie, Annie, Greg, Brenda, Meredith, Mark H., Ben, Avery, John, Jen, Dave, Mark A., Josh, and Mark R. And thanks to my clients, especially those this summer, who unknowingly were part of my training program in the Palisades, on Whitney, and Bear Creek Spire. And thanks to the businesses who have helped me too. Sierra Mountain Center, Feathered Friends, and the AMGA.

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