Becoming a Certified Guide…

By Michelle Marco, April 9, 2018

My introduction into the Rock Guiding world has been quite a unique experience. I was lucky enough to find a mentor when I had very few years of climbing experience under my belt. I started with Stoneman in August 2016, and at that time, I had only been outdoor rock climbing for barely over a year. I knew the moment I tied in my first time outside, that I had just made a life commitment. I was “tying the knot” both literally and figuratively with rock climbing at that moment, because I fell so deeply in love that day, I knew there was no turning back. From that point on, I spent the vast majority of my free time learning what I could about outdoor climbing and practicing my skills at a local indoor gym. About a year later, I reached out to a local climbing guide to ask “Hey, what’s this guiding thing all about?” We met for coffee, and I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse: a guiding mentorship, where I could learn the ins and outs of what it means to be a Rock Guide. And man… was it a steep learning curve!

There are a lot of skills that a climbing guide needs to know, a lot more than you may even imagine. Learning to efficiently handle ropes, tie knots, place gear, communicate with guests and climbers, perform rescue and safety techniques, and other skills can be quite overwhelming at first. It is a continuous learning process, and many of these things can take years to master. Because there are so many facets to guiding, it is only natural that there is a certification process for Rock Guides. Even guides must go to “school” to hone their craft, and pass tests to prove their aptitude. This past month, I participated in my own certification course through the Professional Climbing Guides Institute (PCGI).

The Single Pitch Guide (SPG) course is 3 days long with a 1-day assessment. I was lucky enough to take my course close to home, in the McDowell Mountains. The first day of the course went over anchor systems, or building the gear at the top of a route to hang a top rope (a top rope is similar to how it appears in the gym, when the belayer is on the ground). The following photo shows a solid anchor for top roping:

The red line is the anchor. It is attached at the top (not in the picture) to two pieces of gear in the rock and there is a giant, super strong knot tied in between the two pieces of gear. The loop underneath this knot is called the master point, and this is where the top rope is hung.

We also reviewed a few effective methods to take over the belay from one guest, and ascend the rope up to the climber in the event that the climber should become frightened or hurt, and need assistance lowering to the ground.

A majority of the information from the first day was review for me, although I did pick up some very handy tricks from my instructor that will help make me more efficient at building anchors. Efficiency is key to be able to set up systems in a timely manner and prevent the other climbers in your party from waiting an unnecessary length of time.

The second day, we returned to the McDowells to review 3-1 and 6-1 hauling systems. A 3-1 or 6-1 hauling system creates a mechanical advantage that allows you to pull 1 lb of force for every 3 (or 6) lbs of force at the other end of the system. So for example, if a climber were to need help through a section of a climb, I could set up at 3-1 system where I would only be pulling 1/3 of their weight, and the system would help me with the other 2/3. That also means that for every 3 feet of rope I pull up, the climber is only going to move 1 foot. The graphic to the left from helps explain how this system looks.

On this day, and the third day, we learned various methods to safely teach climbers how to rappel. These include belayed rappel and load releasable rappel (using the munter-mule combination hitch). This allows the climber to rappel on one strand of the rope while backed-up on a belayed strand, should the climber let go of the brake strand, or get their hair caught in the rappel device. A proper anchor set up with this system is pictured below:

This picture doesn’t do a great job of clearly showing you each piece, nor is the munter-mule tied here, but as you can see, there’s a lot of gear involved and a lot going on at once when multiple ropes are involved.

One other method to safely rappel is to set up a pre-rigged rappel, where the new climber is set up on rappel at the top anchor. The guide then rappels down to the ground, and keeps their hands on the brake strands to protect the climber as they then rappel down to meet the guide. This seems to me to be the most effective and time-efficient way to teach a new climber how to rappel, although there are situations when a belayed rappel would be ideal.

After going over all of these systems, it was time to put them together in various scenarios. For example, in the first scenario…

  1. Guide instructs Guest #1 and #2 on how to lead belay, and backup a belay. Guide lead climbs traditional route (placing trad gear) and builds a traditional anchor.
  2. Guide belays Guest #1 to the top of the route. First guest has trouble, and needs assistance through a section of the route. The guide implements a 3-1 system to help the climber through a few meters of the climb. The guest finishes the route and is safely anchored in at the top of the route.
  3. Guest #2 climbs route to the top with no trouble, but does not want to rappel down. This climber is lowered to the ground.
  4. Guide sets up load-releasable rappel for Guest #1. Guest #1 rappels safely to the ground.
  5. Guide cleans up anchor and joins the guests at the base of the route.

Roleplaying this scenario as the guide (with the instructor and another climber roleplaying as the guests) was very high-stress and high-intensity. There are many steps that go into each of these systems, and it is imperative that they are completed in a safe, accurate, and timely manner. These are the same scenarios used in the assessment. In the assessment, these skills are timed, adding to the intensity.

Because I have had 1.5 year experience as a guide under my belt under my mentor, a lot of these techniques were review for me, although many of these rescue / safety techniques are not something that I have needed to use very often. I felt that this was a great opportunity to be able to really master some of these skills. At times the course felt a bit like information overload, so I can’t imagine how stressful it would be for a climber with little-to-no guiding experience.

In all, I am really satisfied with the material presented in the course. I was able to really hone my skills, learn some new tricks, and become a better, more efficient Rock Climbing Guide. But the road doesn’t stop here! There is a lifetime’s worth of growing as a rock climber, both recreationally and professionally as a guide. There are more skills to learn, and more courses to take, and this is just the beginning of my journey.