My very own little Rock Guide Course experience, Summer 2022

Sunset over Boulder, CO, from the summit of Sanitas

Predictably, I was very excited, and a bit nervous, for the AMGA Rock Guide Course I took June this year. I had picked Boulder specifically for the course, knowing that we’d do most of our climbing in Eldorado Canyon, a historic climbing area infamous for its tricky pro placements and runout, cryptic climbing. I figured the first course in the rock sequence is going to be the “easiest” of the three, so I should take the opportunity to go somewhere I’ve rarely climbed, and a bit challenging, rather than head to Red Rocks, often the default for these rock guide courses and definitely somewhere with sometimes friendlier climbing.

Here’s the thing: early on, when I first started multi-pitch climbing in earnest, my friends would joke that Thomas never wanted to climb in a party of three. We had a joke bot on our little chat channel that would occasionally quip, “Hi, I have a rack of hexes and can lead up to 5.4. Is a party of three OK?”

Luckily I’ve since gotten over the aversion to climbing in larger groups on multi-pitch, since the course essentially is all about climbing in a party of three. Recreationally, I’ve become fond of fixing the line for the third person (sometimes the second as well) and having them self-belay (can we call this the “self-caterpillar”?). In the guiding world, obviously you’d either belay both clients at the same time, or one at a time. It’s the little details - restacking the ropes separately for caterpillar but treating them as one rope for parallel, how to transition smoothly between the two, etc - that were new to me, and less obvious to figure out. Maybe I wouldn’t have had such an aversion to parties of three if I knew more of these techniques.

Actually, I think these “little” tricks you learn is the most valuable part of these courses. The broad strokes of climbing - placing pro, building anchors, various belay techniques, dealing with ropes - are not terribly tricky to figure out by yourself. But when you want to put it all together into a smooth operation, and try to optimize a certain kind of experience for clients, then having a bag of tricks really helps link the whole operation together.

Let’s see, what were some good little tricks I particularly liked… Remembering to back clean pro, when safe, to create a smoother climbing experience for the follower. The “handshake clove” method of tying yourself into the anchor with a clovehitch, verses the “air clove”. Transitioning from belaying with a munter hitch to a clove hitch without taking the munter out / apart (very magical!). How to stack rope on a ledge (seriously!).

I felt like I also picked up a bunch of things - things still lodged in my subconscious, hard to write out - from just watching the instructors do everything. We had a real banger set of instructors: Dale Remsberg, the technical director for the AMGA! Angela Hawse, the president of the AMGA! Joey Thompson and Mike Soucy, both awesome instructors who I mostly worked with, and Evan Stevens, who I didn’t really work with and is mostly based in Canada. It was just a super stacked team of instructors which made it a super awesome experience. Unfortunately you can’t see who you’ll get beforehand when you sign up for an AMGA course - but if you stalk the instructor team’s hometowns against where you are doing your course, you can get a decent idea who you’ll have…

Another new skill from the course was short-roping and short-pitching - essentially “quick and fast” belays on 3rd/4th class terrain. I’ve always thought this kind of “in between” terrain is sometimes the sketchiest - there’s almost always real, potentially fatal consequences to a fall, but you’re not on the “real” climbing so everyone is paying a lot less attention. At least when you’re on the climb, you are roped up and placing pro and getting a belay!

I found short-roping still very sketchy: now, instead of everyone for themselves, you’re tied into a client or two who might get a false sense of security from having a rope. It’s a skill that’s more of an art that will take a while to finesse, and nowadays in my recreational climbing, I do find that there are a lot of opportunities to apply short-roping and increase security. I have yet to pull it out on a recreational climb though…

Oh - and there’s the 50 minute rescue drill. Either a nightmare of a thing to get ready for, or a really fun systems / engineering-style puzzle, depending on how your brain works. I’m very excited to get practicing for this one :)

The rest of the course participants were a mish-mash of what you’d expect: budding guides of various stripes, mostly young; a few outdoor educators from various colleges / organizations sent to level up their skills. Unfortunately, within 5 instructors and 8 participants - except Angela! thank god! - everyone was white, cis-presenting, male-presenting, and as far as I can tell, straight. Even one or two of the instructors mentioned, phew, this is a bit more homogenous than it typically is. I wonder if that’s actually true; I guess maybe typically there’s at least one woman participant. Lots of work to do there still, for the AMGA, and for the guiding industry as a whole. It was a bit overwhelming walking into the conference room on day one and confronting the homogeneity; I resisted the temptation to conform, gave my pronouns as “he/they”, and tried not to feel too tense about it. On the flip side, every instructor at some point checked in with me about being a bit different than everyone else, which was wonderful, and honestly the best one can really do given the makeup of the course.

I’d like to thank the BIPOC Scholarship Fund and all the donors for their generous support towards making this course possible for me! It was particularly meaningful to be supported by that fund while being the only person of color in the course.

As for the course itself, overall - what an amazing experience! It’s always so fascinating to get formal instruction around what you’ve figured out piecemeal, recreationally. Highly recommended, A++++, fast shipping, will purchase from again. Can’t wait to do the advanced course!

Thomas Bukowski

Thomas Bukowski

In the MEODUDE