Monday, May 19, 2008

AMGA Exam – Zoe’s Perspective

Big congratulations today to Karhu Ambassador Zoe Hart, who just recently passed her Ski Mountaineering Guide’s exam. With that, she becomes the fourth American woman to earn guiding’s highest credential – IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations) status. Achieving the status is a very long process of course-taking, passing guide certification exams in Rock, Alpine and Ski Mountaineering, with guiding days between each. It’s a huge accomplishment, and all of us at Karhu would like to say congrats!

Last week AMGA Guide Evan Stevens brought us several posts on the process of instructing the Ski Mountaineering exam in Valdez, AK. Today it seems appropriate to bring you Zoe’s perspective as one of the aspirant guides taking it:

I stared out the window across the Chugach as we floated into the air. Tears began to roll down my cheeks. I slouched deeper into my chair to hide my face from my Examiners who where sitting a few rows ahead of me. I hadn’t cried on this exam and I wanted to keep it that way, at least in their minds. The feeling of completion settled in. The process of courses began 5 years ago the exams 7 and now I was finished. I felt light and heavy all at once. Memories of staring out an airplane window 11 years ago flooded through my heart. It was the first time I would go home to see my family without my father. I remembered crying the whole flight home. Nothing made sense. He was a healthy 42-year-old man, fit, and strong and he had died of a heart attack in the middle of his daily run. I was sad that I couldn’t share this pin with my father, but maybe I already had. It was May 7th, I was pinned on May 6th – his birthday. His death sent me searching, and I found the answers I was looking for in the mountains.

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One by one the candidates trickled into Anna’s B&B. The common lodging choice for the AMGA exam participants due to Anna’s cooking and motherly nature! Geoff Unger and Mike Bromberg arrived first. Mike was the local guru this year as he had spent the winter heli ski guiding in Valdez and had a great handle on conditions and snowpack. Geoff had unfortunately just torn a knee ligament when I arrived and was on the injured reserves. A few other candidates joined the anxious crew, and we all headed into the horrible weather to train. Whiteouts, GPS, map, compass, breakable crust. UGHH, I could only hope that the weather would open up before the exam.


(Zoe prepping skis for the exam. Photos courtesy of Zoe Hart.)

Each night at dinner was a back and forth of SWAG (the American Avalanche standards) information, sled rescue ideas, short roping techniques, crevasse rescue. My head was spinning by the time I went to bed. We broke into small groups each day exploring different potential objectives, gathering information, and sharing it over dinner and breakfast.
Each night I dipped into the guilty pleasure of wireless internet, and old episodes of Desperate Housewives and Lost. I don’t have television in France, and it was all I could think of to clear my busy mind.



In the mornings I woke with a gasp and the remnants of exam stress dreams, examiners hovering over my shoulder, getting lost in a whitout, losing a ski, falling into a crevasse.

Four days before the exam I received an email from a good friend and mentor Steve House

"I recommend that you rest. Decompress. Maybe get outta guide-world for a bit if that is possible. That kind of thing helped me more than stressing about prepping. You'll be more impressive doing a 90% perfect job totally on-sight than 100% perfect job having done the tour before."


He was right. I needed to step back but the energy in the group was buzzing. Twelve of us, accomplished athletes, pig-headed guides, and 11 of them MEN. I was having FOMO (fear of missing out) the days I chose to rest, but I needed to. I wondered what if I get the objective that the other guys are out doing, and I didn’t do it? What if it’s a whiteout? The answer was, it’s my job to prove that I can handle all those skills without having done the tour already. So, really if I was ready, none of those things would be a problem for me. We met at the Totem Inn in Valdez. We were introduced to the examiners, the itinerary and the groups. We picked out of a hat and would stay with our groups of four each day and rotate examiners.
The first day we did group skills examinations, crevasse rescue, beacon searches, sled lowers. It was pretty mellow; as long as you had your technical systems dialed and had practiced, you should be fine, should be a gimme.

Day two my group drew Rob Hess first. I knew I had to perform. I had attempted the exam last year and hadn’t passed (a normal phenomenon in the exam process), and I wanted to show him how much I had improved. I knew I’d be battling a male dynamic all week, 11 male candidates, three male examiners and ME, and I wanted to step up first to show my confidence and leadership.

I led out towards the Berlin Wall and Goodwills, our first objective. As we got higher and higher, the winds picked up and the skies closed in. I pulled out my GPS, compass and map and fought anxiety. Taking a deep breath I kept the constant pace and landed us directly below the col we were heading for. Time to swap. My hot seat was done for the day, and I had succeeded. Throughout the day you are examined constantly on movement skills, assessments and notations, whether you are in the front or not, but you rotate through the hot seat.



Due to weather and avalanche hazard we chose not to ski the steep North Facing Couloirs on the Berlin Wall and continue with our traverse.

The rest of the day went without a hitch, and the rest of the candidates rotated through with the same confidence and success.

Each night we joined the examiners to talk about the day, where we were given a debrief to evaluate our performance, both by the examiners and ourselves. There are a plethora of things talked about, from technique to style, application and standards. Having been on other exams before I knew by Rob’s feedback we had all done well, but the day was mostly straight forward.




Day three, our objective was Python and the Cherry Couloir, a 50+ degree couloir on the east face. We couldn’t boot up the couloir, and stability was variable. One of the other groups had found a buried weak layer on a NE aspect that was reactive and potentially dangerous. The winds had been high enough to transport snow, and we had already found wind slabs on the Berlin Wall. Once you got into the Cherry, you were going down it. If you fell in the Cherry or were avalanched, you were most likely coming out the bottom. I knew it would be a challenging day.

Nat Patridge, another candidate, drew the start of the day. Each night we chatted as a group about stability, route plans and hazards. We decided it would be best to ski a less committing, subsidiary couloir on the arm of Python first to see what the conditions were like before we committed ourselves to the Cherry. Nat took us up and down the first mini-golf couloir. The conditions were good, but a little challenging. There was a firm sun crust from the warm spell that we had had the week before, before the bad weather and new cold snow settled in. We encountered sluff management and firm skiing skills, but overall the stability was good.
Off to the Cherry. We all knew Rob would swap the lead soon. Mike had lead a descent the other day, and Nat just did one, leaving Mark Allen or myself for the descent. Rob set us up for success and gave ample notice of the change.



“Ok Nat, you will lead us up part of the couloir to the col and then Zoe will take over.”

Urghhh, my heart raced. I knew it would be a challenging descent and part of me didn’t want it. I thought of the other groups skiing more mellow objectives, I wondered why Mark Allen couldn’t lead it. A few minutes of steaming, and I changed my mind. I’m gonna slay it. I can do this. Each step up the couloir, I thought of all the possible options, challenges, hazards, conditions and guiding techniques.

We arrived at the col, and the wind picked up. Each of us added layers, I prepped the rope just in case I needed it, looked up the steep scoured ridge and directed each candidate to put on their crampons and take out their axes. One of the challenges of ski guiding is higher ratios. Terrain that you might be able to short rope on with only 2 clients in alpine, you can’t with 4 in ski boots, and skis on your back. I started out of the col found good snow. My steps were deep, and they became our security, along with our axes and crampons, as the slope got steeper and steeper.

As we climbed, we began to foray into small pocket slabs, and I wondered whether we would make it to the ridge. I knew Rob wanted to ski it, if it was safe enough to do so. I knew that he hated when guides and candidates tried to find excuses not to have to deal with a technical situation and found reasons to go down rather than ways to manage hazards. Bit-by-bit I kicked steps up the steep face, stopping to do quick hand shears to see the quality of the slabs. They were small pockets and not consistent, so I felt it was safe to continue.

At the top we arrived upon a small ridge and a little rocky section. I stationed the rest of the group on the summit and took a walk alone to see what the conditions were like. Walking back I decided that everyone could downclimb the little steps in my bootprints, as long as I spotted them from falling into the couloir.

In the mouth of the couloir, I probed around with my shovel, happily finding no slabs – basically the same snowpack as the other mini golf pitch we had skied. One at a time, we sidestepped into the couloir around barely buried rocks. Finally all in, the energy was again buzzing, and we were all amped to ski.

Out front I could see from our entrance that the new snow above the suncrust would sluff as we skied, and I needed to manage it. Zig-zag-zig-zag, I zipped across the slope ski-cutting and pushing the excess snow down the couloir, looking for a little rocky nook protected from the next skier’s sluff to station myself. One at a time the candidates and Rob followed. The skiing wasn’t stellar, but the ambiance in the couloir was fun!

Two-thirds of the way down the couloir, Rob tapped me out, and Mark was up. Relieved and psyched, I felt that I had proven myself, and we soon made it out the bottom safe and sound with big smiles.

Night was again a frenzy of debriefs, dinners, drying gear, planning routes, printing maps and plotting points on GPS and topo programs. Sleep was secondary. We woke more and more exhausted, and there came a point of asking myself, “With four days left, how bad do I really want this?”

Day by day we faced challenges as they arriveds and learned bits of new information from our peers and examiners. Finally the last day came, with us all skiing down the Worthington with our three-day overnight packs. Whether we passed or failed was already written in the sand by then, and we were all relived.



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May 6th, I sat waiting amongst the crew for my turn. I felt like vomiting. I felt confident that I had done very well, but wondered if I could truly be done with this examination process. I walked in the door to see Rob, Colin and Bela seated there, all straight-faced. “How did it go for you?”

I reached deep to come up with some poignant comments but really just wanted to know. Finally, Rob’s face lit up ear-to-ear.

“Ok, enough waiting, we’ll give you this first,” and with that he handed over his pin.
I had gone through a little bit of the process with each one of them. Colin Zacharias was my first examiner on my Alpine Exam; Bela Vadesz had taught me on my first ski course; and Rob Hess had taught me on my ski mountaineering Aspirant Course, watched me be unsuccessful on one exam, and seen me work and strive to the standard on the next.

Finally it had all come together. AND it was my dad’s birthday!!

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1 comment:

Dave said...

Great story, CONGRATULATIONS!