How to become a rock climbing guide

Are you wondering how to become a rock climbing guide? I was in the same boat as you. I loved teaching my friends the ins and out of rock climbing. I always have a blast sharing tips, tricks, and how to safely have fun in the mountains.

I then began to daydream about getting a job in the outdoor industry and how rewarding it’d be to be compensated for being in the mountains.

I figured the best way to become a climbing guide was to look through the steps laid out by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA).

The best way to get started is getting on their track to become a certified single pitch instructor. We wrote this article targeting people who want to receive their SPI certification, since it’s an excellent beginner guide certification. But the AMGA also provides multi-pitch, ice climbing, and ski certifications.

But to become a climbing guide, we need to make sure our own skills are proficient. I spent a lot of time practicing my technical skills during my personal climbing time.

In this guide, we’ve included a technical skill checklist so you can gauge your own skills against the exam. This guide will help prepare you to pass the single pitch instructor exam on your first try.

We also detailed every piece of gear you’ll need during the exam. A climbing guide will take out a different rack for a day of guiding vs. a day of recreational climbing. So make sure you have some guide-specific items!

Rock climbing guides can help take clients to the top of mountain peaks across the world

Table of Contents

What are the AMGA SPI Course Pre Requisites?

Before you take the exam, you will need to have taken the three-day AMGA SPI Course. Take the course 6-12 months before you plan on taking the exam.

That gives you ample time to practice and refine your skills. The course will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses. You will also receive written feedback on what you will need to improve for the exam. Proper training is key to become a professional mountain guide.

I recommend familiarizing yourself with the climbing area where you will take your exam. If I was taking my exam in Rocky Mountain National Park, but only climbed on the east coast, I may not know the ins and outs of the crag. Set aside a few days to check out the crags and get a feel for the area.

You will also need to have completed a certain number of outdoor traditional rock climbs. Start working on the resume by ticking some classics near you!

How hard do I have to climb to be a mountain guide?

Before going for the AMGA certification, you’ll need to demonstrate that you have the ability to climb certain grades in areas. If you’re taking clients out for the day, you may need to climb a route to set it up.

The SPI exam requires you to lead a 5.6 trad climb and top rope at 5.8 climb. If you aren’t there yet, don’t worry. Plan a climbing trip where you focus solely on working towards these movement goals. Becoming a mountain guide isn’t solely focused on the difficulty of climbs you can do. There is so much technique and skill involved in the sport. Climbing hard has no impact on your ability to build anchors, manage risk, and efficiently transition on multi pitch climbs. Focus on the big picture rather than just your hangboard routine.

Let’s first go over the technical skill checklist on skills to practice for the exam. Find an experienced mentor to practice these skills with before your exam.

They will verify that you are doing these skills correctly and give you tips to improve efficiency. These skills can also be practiced on the ground using closet space, shelves, or a training board like the Skillzboard or remsboard.

Mountain guiding in Great Falls Park

What’s involved in the SPI Exam?

  • Risk management
  • Client care
  • Technical systems
  • Application of skills
  • Terrain Assessment
  • Climbing movement
  • Mountain sense
  • Professionalism
  • Instructional technique

During the exam there will be nine different criteria fields that you will be evaluated on:

Risk Management: Minimize risk for all participants (instructor and clients). Recognize and deal with potential hazards.

Client Care: Create a memorable, rewarding, and comfortable experience for the client.

Technical Systems: Understand and correctly use: protection, anchors, belaying, rappelling/lowering, rope management, and assistance skills.

Application: Apply the right technique at the right time.Understand what tools (anchors, knots, belays, etc.) you have in your toolbox and use them appropriately.

Terrain Assessment: Select and find appropriate routes for clients. Don’t take a new climber to the hardest climb at the crag!

Movement: Be in shape for a day of climbing and demonstrate the ability to trad lead 5.6 and top rope 5.8

Mountain Sense: Correct errors in due time, manage stress, and make the right decisions.

Professionalism: Plan and prepare the activities for the day, present yourself in a professional manner, leave no trace.

Instructional Technique: Lesson planning, coaching ability, and teaching ability.

What technical skills do I need to pass the exam?

Anchors

Build an equalized top rope anchor, with a lifeline tether, placed appropriately for the selected climb.

Tie a bowline on a natural tree anchor.

Build an anchor with the instructor tether secured to both anchor components. (three-in-one (Fox system) or backside BHK).

Rappel over the edge with an instructor tether. Attach the climbing rope to the master point. Then transition from the tether to rappeling on the climbing rope. All while wearing your backpack.

Top rope anchors using bolts and traditional gear (quad anchor, equalized multi-piece trad anchors)

Belaying

Belay take-over and pick off. Manage the spacing of you and the client while performing the counterbalance rappel. Make sure you can position yourself below, above, or at the same height as the climber.

Coach clients how to back up belay. When having students back up belaying they should be positioned so that the strand they hold is fed through the braking plane of the device

Lead, top-rope, and belaying from above.

Go hands-free with a belay device

Climbing Skills

Trad lead 5.6 and top rope 5.8. These climbs will depend on the area you’re climbing in. You could potentially be climbing some sand bagged climbs!

Lead Climbing – competent in placing good trad protection.

Rock climber following guide at Buzzards Rock in Elizabeth Furnace

Top Managed Sites

Top Managed Sites. Elevate the master point (If there are no natural elevators, you can stack the climbing rope or use backpacks to put under the master point). Lower climber on grigri and belay them back up.

Rescue Skills

Belayed Rappel

The belayed rappel is one of the trickiest parts of the exam. There is a specific order of operations that needs to be followed and organization is crucial to your success.

The climber is rappeling while belayed on backup. Use a munter mule overhand (MMO) to create the rappel line and belay the student on a munter hitch as well. Keep this system well organized.

There is a lot of room for confusion between your instructor tether, rappel line, and belay line. The rappel line and belay line need to be offset vertically. The vertical offset (rappel line is higher than the belay line) can be accomplished by lowering the belay point with daisy-chaining multiple carabiners.

The belay line should be on top of the rappel line. If the rappel line is on top of the belay line then the weighted rappel line pinches down on the belay line and we are unable to feed slack.

Climbing guide standing behind the impressive peak of Seneca Rocks

What soft skills do I need for the exam?

Teaching

Teaching and guiding go hand in hand. You’ll be teaching clients to lead belay, how to have precise footwork, how to set up a top-rope anchor etc.

The AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Manual has an in-depth guide for teaching on pages 17-27 (along with a cheat sheet on page 21). But the gist of it is

  • Tell the students what they are going to learn
  • Convey the information so that it will apply to all learners (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic – learn by doing).
  • Ask the students to demonstrate what they’ve learned
  • Tell the students what they just learned
Practicing climbing guide systems

Risk Management

Keeping the guide safe (instructor tethers, place plenty lots of good gear while leading, position yourself so you can see climbers while they climb)

Also plays into terrain assessment, get to know the clients you are guiding and put them on appropriate climbs. If they are scared of heights, look for shorter climbs, sometimes climbing up to the guide (top managed site) feels better than climbing away from the guide (base managed site)

Professionalism

When you’re guiding, you’re going to have a huge impression on the clients. They will remember how you do things, so make sure you do it right. You may be working for your own business, put your best foot forward in customer service before, during, and after your guest’s day of climbing.

Client Care

Make sure your guests will have anything they might need for a day of climbing. Verify they have food, water, and medication.

Before you begin guiding professionally, you will at least need a Wilderness First Aid Certification. Depending on the insurance of your local guide services, you may be required to take the wilderness first responder course.

Now you Know How to Pass the SPI Exam!

Find an experienced mentor to help you practice these skills. And utilize your bedroom closet! The closet is a fantastic place to practice tying knots and anchors.

Frequently Asked Questions?

What are the mountain guides associations?

A mountain guides association is a group that provides training, certification, and support to mountain guides in the industry. Within the United States, the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) is the most prevalent guide association. The International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) is an internationally recognized group.

How do I become a rock climbing instructor?

Following the rock guiding track from the American Mountain Guides Association will put you on a path to become a rock climbing instructor.

How much do rock climbing guides make?

Guides are paid by the day or half-day and when you’re just starting out expect to be paid minimum wage plus tips. Depending on your climbing experience and certification levels, your pay will be increased. Climbing guides rely on gratuity for their income, so please tip well!

How long does it take to get AMGA certified?

An SPI Course takes three days and the exam tasks two days. But it’s recommended to spend six to twelve months perfecting your skills. As a climbing professional, you need to be 100% certain with your systems to provide the best experience for your guests