By Will Cockrell
As splitboarders earn their stripes in the world of professional guiding, a few pioneers are rewriting the ski-centric certification model of the American Mountain Guide Association.
In the spring of 2009, snowboard guide Jamie Weeks was facing a tough climb. He was in Valdez, Alaska, the lone splitboarder, touring with some of the strongest ski mountaineers in the country. Weeks himself had been guiding big-mountain snowboarding in Valdez for 15 years and back in his hometown, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for 20. He's a legend in the guiding game and had no trouble keeping up. It wasn't the steep ridge of ice and snow ahead that worried him--it was convincing the American Mountain Guide Association to certify him as the first-ever snowboarding "ski" guide.
One doesn't actually need AMGA certification to work as a ski or snowboard guide, and many are quite happy to skip the expensive and arduous process. It is, however, a valuable credential to some clients if you plan on working in highly technical and exposed terrain--as Weeks often does--and it's a fairly prestigious stamp of approval. "I had the jobs that I wanted and I didn't need certification to get more work," says Weeks. "But I wanted to help give the program some validity. The organization had a hard time figuring out what to do with snowboarders. They didn't have a standard yet, so I was like, 'Let me help you set one.'"
The Canadians had been allowing snowboarders to participate in guide courses for nearly a decade and there were people within the AMGA--including Weeks' late mentor, ski mountaineering legend Doug Coombs--encouraging him to go for it. Many within the organization were ready to change with the times.
For others, however, allowing knuckle draggers like Weeks into the fraternity was a slap in the face of tradition. Many ski guides even insisted that splitboarders were simply not efficient enough to be managing clients on dangerous terrain. During his exam in Valdez, one examiner wouldn't even call Weeks by his name. "He called me 'the shredder,'" Weeks remembers. "He'd be like, 'We better go this way because we have the shredder.'" Weeks, who's 42 and built like he can outride, outrun, and outdrink almost anyone, kept his head down and charged past fellow trainees so he could transition in time to avoid ever being the last one ready to drop in. He kept his poles out while riding, just to eliminate that one step, and sometimes skipped snack breaks to stay ahead of the pack.
"I had to be stronger and in better shape than most of them to get to the top quicker," he explains. "My goal was to make sure the snowboard was not an issue. Every single transition, I had to not be the last one done. And 99 percent of the time, I was there."
Upon finishing the course, Weeks got some crushing news: He'd failed. Not only had he failed, they told him he wouldn't be able to retest on a splitboard, only on skis, if he wanted full AMGA accreditation. "It was pretty frustrating to go through that," he says. "They had already let me test on a splitboard, then decided they wouldn't allow that. They just had no idea what to do with me."
Six years later, the AMGA has just certified its first two splitboarders, Eric Layton of Lake Tahoe and Brendan Burns of Jackson Hole. It signals a new era, not just in American guiding, but in snowboarding itself. v On the pro scene, guys like Jeremy Jones and Ryland Bell seem to be the ones pushing the sport to the next level. For Weeks, it was a frustrating road, for sure, but even he is excited about where things are headed. "I would totally encourage a younger rider to go through the process," he says. "The certification is valuable -- to put that stamp on it and put that on your résumé is huge. And with the AMGA saying they're allowing splitboarders to become certified, a bunch of kids who never would have thought of becoming a guide might go for it."
Many riders agree that certifications of any kind are almost antithetic to what snowboarding is all about. We'll leave the merit badges to the skiers and forge on in the same creatively unstructured manner in which the sport was born. But the truth is, had some of the sport's early big-mountain pioneers decided to make their living as guides instead of going pro--guys like Shawn Farmer during his Critical Condition days, or Jeremy Jones when he started chasing first descents--there's no doubt there would already be an AMGA-certified snowboard guide.
To be clear, AMGA certification for snowboarders only became possible with the advent of the splitboard as a modern, fully functional touring tool that emerged mid- to late '90s after some years of garage-built DIYs. Unlike, say, your average heli-guide in Alaska, who are PhD-level avalanche nerds and experts in the ride down, AMGA guides need to also be skilled mountaineers, able to lead long tours--up and down--in the backcountry. Until the AMGA creates a separate track for snowboarders--or until there are enough snowboarders seeking certification--the course work and certification will fall under "ski" guiding.
Getting AMGA certification costs more than some guides can make in a season (about 8,000 dollars), and it takes at least two winters to finish the required course work. And while AMGA certification remains much less important for ski and snowboard guides than it does, say, for rock climbing and alpine mountaineering guides in terms of making a living, it's becoming more and more important within established guiding companies.
Jamie Weeks may have broken new ground here in the States, but it was another legendary rider who first punched through the glass ceiling on behalf of snowboarders everywhere: Craig Kelly. Around 2000, the "Style Master" actually told his sponsor Burton he wanted to do less in the way of freestyle competitions and more freeriding. And in 2003, he became the first snowboarder ever to enroll in Canada's guiding program under the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG).
"Craig Kelly was a superb athlete and very skilled," says Dwayne Congdon of the ACMG's training arm, the Canadian Mountain Ski Guide Program at Thompson University in BC. "He demonstrated that snowboarders can participate in the program as equals."
Sadly, Kelly was killed in an avalanche that same year while guiding (six of his clients also died). But less than five years later, snowboarder Greg Johnson passed the ACMG's apprentice ski guide program, and in 2012, Scott Newsome became the first fully qualified guide to go through the program on a splitboard.
"It has been almost a 10-year process," says Congdon. "There was a lot of skepticism on the part of my instructors--there was debate, in terms of the younger generation versus the older generation. It was two brave--and very skilled--guides that went though the program to prove to us that they could do it. Now, nobody misses a beat."
Critics of the American Mountain Guide Association's handling of snowboarders point to the Canadian system as proof of concept. But others say it's not so simple. And it wasn't just a few salty old skiers holding things up--it was the snowboard community itself. Until recently, the number of snowboarders as skilled in split-mode as they were riding down were few and far between.
"What took so long is snowboarders getting to where they had that skill level on their skis," explains AMGA climbing instructor program director, Ed Crothers. "The intention has never been to stigmatize snowboarders and block them out of our system. But we need to be in compliance with the international standards."
Needless to say, there were even fewer splitboarders experienced enough to become AMGA instructors or trainers. The last thing a snowboarder wants is a skier telling them they didn't pick the right line. "But everybody here is a skier," says Crothers. "In our instructor team we don't have any snowboarders. We only have one person in the country we can use to judge snowboard movement skills."
That person is Brendan Burns, a 42-year-old veteran snowboarder with Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole who happens to be one of the first two splitboarders with full AMGA certification. But, ironically, at the time Burns was doing evaluations, he himself was not yet certified. The fact that the AMGA consulted Burns as he was going through his own certification process points to not only a lack of resources, but also a significant shift in thinking.
"We know the importance of bringing the snowboard community into our guiding programs," admits Crothers. "Splitboarding is getting huge. And there will be more and more people who splitboard who will want to hire guides."
Brendan Burns has a lot in common with Weeks, and a lot to thank him for. Weeks actually gave Burns his first guiding job 15 years ago. "I was living in Vermont, following the careers of guys like Farmer and Kelly," Burns remembers. "As soon as I saw Craig trying to make a living freeriding, I was like 'I want to do that!'" In 1998, Burns moved out to Jackson and has been guiding and training snowboard instructors ever since.
Eventually, Burns was asked by the AMGA to help write a splitboard-specific standard and then went on to help evaluate movement as an examiner. Burns recognizes the vast differences between guiding on a splitboard versus skis, which he feels underscores the need for splitboard guides "I understand skiing is sometimes much more efficient," he admits. "But the number one growing trend in snowboarding is mountaineering. Look at [Jeremy] Jones, his movies, and even the stuff Travis Rice is getting into. Snowboarders are not afraid to hike for their turns, and I want to tap into that market."
Technically speaking, those within the AMGA and ACMG--and the handful of certified riders themselves--point to a couple of specific differences between a skier and snowboarder, in terms of handling challenging terrain. The main one is picking the right cross-country line, which is essential to managing energy levels. Long ski tours are challenging enough for a client without a guide leading them into unnecessary flat sections and unnecessary changeovers from ride to split-mode. Of course, mastery of the changeover is probably the single most important skill for a splitboarder. On steeper, icier terrain, wider splitboard skis are much harder to edge while sidehilling and often require a ski crampon. "Splitboarders do have to be really organized," says Congdon. "They have to be really dialed in with their gear--there would be no patience for holding up the program."
On the other hand, challenging snow conditions, like heavy powder or crust, are more difficult for skiers. And when it comes to dropping into steep hardpack or ice, a snowboard can actually be a better tool for a slow, edge-controlled scoot, either in a tight couloir or near-vert transition.
Regardless of the benefits or drawbacks, it's safe to assume that anyone reading this article would prefer a rider picking their lines--up and down.
While Brendan Burns will always be remembered as one of the first, the road ahead for aspiring AMGA snowboard guides is likely to look a lot more like that of Justin Ibarra. At 29, the Colorado native is already well into his AMGA course work and could be fully certified before he turns 32. Ibarra represents the future--a shift in the type of riding many of the most talented young snowboarders are doing these days. While most aspiring pros spend long spring afternoons sessioning the park and learning tricks that will land sponsorship, win comps, or earn a film part, guys like Ibarra are dreaming of the biggest, most committing lines they can find. They're forgoing chairlifts and boning up on their avalanche awareness.
"I started out riding the resort every day," says Ibarra. "Then me and my buddies got snowmobiles and we started doing sled-access stuff. Then the snowmobiles became a huge hassle." Ibarra did his first splitboard tour at age 22. "I haven't looked back since. That's my passion in life now."
Ibarra's story signals the two biggest shifts: More snowboarders are signing up for guided trips into gnarlier terrain and more snowboarders are deciding that guiding is a viable and exciting way to make a living.
"It's still a little weird, but it's getting better," says Ibarra. "From day one you're under a microscope so I just kept my mouth shut and transitioned faster than the skiers. But I had one instructor--a skier--who was super excited to have a splitboarder on the course."
Now that there's a precedent, perhaps Jamie Weeks will go looking for redemption. "I've toyed with the idea," Weeks says, of testing again. "The biggest problem for me is that the exam is offered during prime-time ski and mountaineering guide season. I just don't see it happening during my career."
That's not to say Weeks has any hard feelings--quite the opposite. "I think the AMGA has finally figured out where splitboarders fit in," he says. "And it's so refreshing to see how many new guides are coming up through the system, now that the door is open."
He's even okay with asshole ski guides who still look down their noses at splitboarders. "I reap the benefits of that!" he says. "I've had a lot of splitboard clients who've been out with ski guides that were dicks to them. Then they get with me and it's refreshing. Sure, there's a difference to the guiding, but the biggest thing is attitude."
Weeks is over the whole skier vs snowboarder debate and his long-time clients couldn't care less what tool he uses. "As long as I can find good snow and tell good jokes."