american mountain guides association

The Myth of the "AMGA Way"

This blog originally appeared on Elevation Outdoors, June 15, 2012. Rob and Vetta co-founder, Mike Arnold, have since both achieved international certification through the IFMGA. 

Talking to climbers and reading online forums, I consistently hear about the “AMGA way.” A recent post on mountainproject.com got me thinking about this subject (again) and I thought I’d write something on it. For the record, I have taken my beginning rock, alpine, and ski courses, passed my “Single Pitch Instructor” exam (though, come to think of it, I think my cert is lapsed in that discipline–oops!), and I just passed my aspirant exam in ski mountaineering, all through the American Mountain Guides Association–or the mythic AMGA. I’m headed towards my full certification (I hope!) through the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA; or your “international” cert, basically). I am by no means a representative of the AMGA, any more than a “normal guide” is–I don’t teach for the AMGA, write on its behalf, etc.

Bottom line: though I’d say I’m pretty immersed in the process at this point, this here’s just the opinion of one dude going through the program.

Second bottom line: there is no “AMGA way.” I’ve heard the contrary a lot on courses and at cliffs–“oh, I heard the AMGA way is…” or “hey, what’s the AMGA way?” In doing my courses I’ve run across a couple old-school guides who preferred (quite strongly!) doing things in certain ways, but the vast majority of guide instructors I’ve worked with haven’t had or taught “a way.” There are practices one experiences repeatedly, but I’m trying to think of a course in which one of the instructors or examiners said, “You must do it this way…”

And I can’t.

They hammer certain principles into our heads, though: safety, speed/efficiency, client enjoyment, stuff like that, and in that order. As long as it’s safe, hopefully saves you some time (and doesn’t cost you any!), and your clients are having a blast–party on, brothers and sisters.

My most recent course in Valdez, Alaska, brought this general point home to me when doing my sled-rescue drill. I had been practicing it all winter and when I showed up my examiner, Vince Anderson, said everything looked cool, but he asked me a few questions: why didn’t I just “Munter pop” when doing my knot pass; why not just feed the knot through your Munter; how about setting your releasable hitch on the load strand rather than the brake side?

I don’t want to go fully into the sled-rescue exercise and its details, but my point is Vince was encouraging us to think within the context of skiing and snow, rather than a full-on rock-rescue exercise. We might have way less gear with us during a day of skiing. The potential load forces are generally, but not always, lower than in a rock setting. He said everything I was doing was fine safety wise, but towards efficiency I could improve my exercise.

The over-arching maxim for technical systems within the AMGA, seems to me, is “the right tool at the right time.” This can lead to some frustration, as an examiner might ding a student for using a technique that is arguably not quite appropriate at that particular moment, but the principle also leaves the door open to creative solutions to often complex situations and problems.

Is a single locking carabiner sufficient when clipping in to the rope on a glacier? How about on non-crevassed, but snowy terrain? A two-point anchor in alpine terrain, rather than a full-on three-point equalized rig? How about when a storm’s approaching? Are two locking carabiners “standard” on a toprope system’s master point, or a single non- and single locker?

The above questions might solicit several different solutions and answers, depending on the day, the time, the guide, the climbers, and the situation. Part of the fun and challenge of the AMGA process is filling one’s tool-box with as many techniques as possible, but the real finesse and elegance in guiding is knowing when to pull which one out and put it into practice. Just as important: when NOT to pull out the fancy stuff and let your routefinding, pacing, coaching, modeling, and communication improve safety and the experience.

Again, I am by no means a spokesman for the AMGA and I’m still a ways off of my IFMGA cert, but I spend a lot of time with guides and I’m way down the rabbit hole in terms of courses, so I have some perspective on this “AMGA way.” I don’t think it exists…unless you tack a little “s” on to the end of way…and then you’re on to something. Safe, efficient, and happy climbing!

Big Agnes Horse Thief 35--Light, Warm Comfy

Jargon, marketing, diagrams…it’s all for naught if you don’t get a good night’s rest. I thought twice before packing a Big Agnes Horse Thief 35 (852g; 1.8 lb.; $370) for a couple nights on Mount Shuksan. Despite having 800-fill down, the Horse Thief–like all of Big Agnes’s bags–has no insulation in the bottom of the bag. Makes sense on paper…but in the field, on my advanced alpine course…was this a good idea?

Turns out it was a great idea! My only gripe was not trying to score an even lighter model from Big Agnes…but hey, there’s always next year, right?

I’ve known of Big Agnes products for years, but just haven’t gotten around to trying ‘em. The idea that put ‘em on the map, not using insulation beneath the sleeper, seemed logical to me. You crush your insulation, particularly down, and it quits working…so why use it? Good question. To keep the sleeper warm, Big Agnes bags feature a sleeve along the bottom into which a sleeping pad slides. You’re literally locked onto the top of the pad, meaning you’ll never slide off of it and onto the cold ground. Second good idea.

More than a decade later and I’ve tried it out. Makes me want to sell my other bags and convert ‘em all to Big Agnes. I mean, seriously–why are all these other manufacturers stuffing the underside of their bags with expensive (and ultimately useless) goose down and synthetics? You’re better off with a quality pad beneath you and putting some of your insulation across your top.

The Horse Thief falls into Big Agnes’s “Divide Superlight” category. No hood, 800-fill down, Pertex Quantum shell fabric. I still found it roomy enough in the shoulders (I’m 5’10”, wear a 41R suit jacket, 165 lbs.) and I begged for a long model, so I’d have room to dry socks in the bottom. They call it a “mummy” bag, but it sleeps more like a rectangular rig. Mission accomplished and I dozed like a baby.

BA builds these bags with more vertical channels/chambers for the insulation, rather than horizontal. They call it "Insotect" construction, but whatever the case, it's plenty warm. I slept in my skivvies several nights in the Cascades, into the 40s and I was just fine in the Horse Thief. I'd have liked to try the next bag up, the Pitchpine 45, a lighter, quilted-construction model. Next time. 

I like the pillow pocket on the Horse Thief, too–just a thin, nylon pouch that’s sewn into the head of the bag. I stuffed my pants and baselayer into it and slept like a baby. The sleeve might add a few grams at the most; simply done, unobtrusive, and workable.

Big Agnes also sent me their “Air Core SL” pad to use and the thing is comfortable and warm–BUT, it’s heavy (561g; 1 lb. 4 oz.). So much so, I took my NeoAir (371g; 13 oz.) on my alpine course, rather than the BA pad. In fairness, it’s almost twice as thick as the NeoAir, but still…alpine climbing and the long walk into Shuksan…no dice. Backpacking, I’d probably lug the BA model, but it’s simply too chubby for climbing. The loft/height is impressive, so I imagine it’s warmer than most others (though I’ve heard too much height/airspace leads to conductive cooling).

So in summary–so far, so very good. I just pulled out the bag to shoot some expert (read: lame iPhone) photos and discovered there is a bit of down in the bottom/ground-side of the bag. I was under the impression there is none at all, but it seems there’s a bit. Why? That’s about my only question mark, though. All in all, the Big Agnes bag delivers on its word.

As for the pad–slim it down to NeoAir dimensions and I wonder if it’d be just as comfortable, but more durable than the competition. The shell material seems a little tougher than the NeoAir, so I’d love to see a lighter version and give it a fair comparison. Beyond that, though, I’m impressed with the Steamboat Springs-based company’s product. Love to try a heavier set up down the road. Maybe for my ski exam in February?

The Kong Gigi--a Guide's Best Friend

Ever been climbing as a group of three and by day’s end your elbows are wreckage from pulling ropes through your belay device? Yes, well, there is salvation for you and your aching elbows…the Kong “GiGi.” The GiGi is an Italian-made belay device that’s mostly used for belaying your follower(s) in “autoblock” mode. Ropes tend to pull through the slots on the GiGi much more easily than a Petzl Reverso or Black Diamond ATC Guide–but like most techniques and tools there are compromises for the easier pulling…so read on.

The lightweight and easy-on-the-elbows Kong Gigi

The lightweight and easy-on-the-elbows Kong Gigi

Kong has an informative page on their site detailing all of the GiGi’s proper applications and techniques, but I wanted to write something specific about the Kong because I’ve used the the thing incorrectly on occasion. More on this in a sec…

Like I said before, the GiGi’s main advantage over the Reverso and ATC Guide is ease of use. For guides, who might be pulling hundreds of meters of rope a day, day in and day out, this can mean the difference between tendinitis and smooth sailing. The GiGi has wider, longer slots than other autoblocking devices (an autoblocking device locks up when a follower falls, introducing security into the system, as well as allowing the belayer to be tending to other tasks like eating, stacking the rope, checking the route topo, etc.) which allows rope to feed more smoothly and more easily–cool.

The downside, though, is that these wider, longer slots can let a thinner rope (less than 10mm in diameter, as indicated in the Kong literature) twist, invert, and come out of autoblock mode if the blocking biner isn’t oriented properly.

As with the Reverso and ATC Guide, the follower’s strand of rope (or the “load” strand”) is on top in this pic. Unlike the Reverso and ATC Guide, though, when using a rope of less than 10mm in diameter, it is not enough to simply clip the rope in the back with a block biner–as is pictured here. This photo, therefore, is of a GiGi set up INCORRECTLY when belaying a single rope of less than 10mm.

As with the Reverso and ATC Guide, the follower’s strand of rope (or the “load” strand”) is on top in this pic. Unlike the Reverso and ATC Guide, though, when using a rope of less than 10mm in diameter, it is not enough to simply clip the rope in the back with a block biner–as is pictured here. This photo, therefore, is of a GiGi set up INCORRECTLY when belaying a single rope of less than 10mm.

Notice in the above photo that the GiGi is set up exactly as one would belay a single rope with a Reverso or ATC Guide. While this works flawlessly with either of those tools, the GiGi is not designed to belay a single strand of less than 10mm rope in this fashion. Why?

To see why the GiGi isn’t meant to be used this way, simply weight the load strand, then twist the blocking biner forcefully in either direction by rotating it in one’s hand.

To see why the GiGi isn’t meant to be used this way, simply weight the load strand, then twist the blocking biner forcefully in either direction by rotating it in one’s hand.

As you rotate the biner, you’re essentially taking the climber’s (or load) strand and flipping it to the bottom. Because of the wider slots on the GiGi, with a rope of less than 10mm in diameter, it is possible to flip the climber’s strand to the bottom and the GiGi is no longer in belay mode and will fail.    

As you rotate the biner, you’re essentially taking the climber’s (or load) strand and flipping it to the bottom. Because of the wider slots on the GiGi, with a rope of less than 10mm in diameter, it is possible to flip the climber’s strand to the bottom and the GiGi is no longer in belay mode and will fail.

 

The ropes have now been flipped, so the climber’s strand is on the right in this photo, which is also the bottom–INCORRECT on the GiGi as well as the Reverso and ATC Guide. The belay device will fail at this point. To be clear: this is not a design flaw in the GiGi. Rather, it is user error, but perhaps a common one because the Reverso and ATC Guide are virtually impossible to flip while the GiGi can with a skinny, single rope.

The ropes have now been flipped, so the climber’s strand is on the right in this photo, which is also the bottom–INCORRECT on the GiGi as well as the Reverso and ATC Guide. The belay device will fail at this point. To be clear: this is not a design flaw in the GiGi. Rather, it is user error, but perhaps a common one because the Reverso and ATC Guide are virtually impossible to flip while the GiGi can with a skinny, single rope.

Before you write the GiGi off, there is an easy fix for the above error. As described in the GiGi manual, you simply orient your blocking biner around the whole device (pics to follow) when using a rope of less than 10mm in diameter (which everybody seems to these days!). I generally only use my GiGi when belaying two strands of rope from above, which makes the potential error described above a moot point–with two strands of rope, it’s impossible to twist the blocking biner around and release them. Even with a single strand, the likelihood is fairly low, but it is potentially a catastrophic mistake.

Below is a quick video illustrating what can happen: 

So, not to worry, the fix is easy–simple orient the blocking biner around the entire device when belaying a single strand of rope. You just rendered the whole “rope-flipping” thing a moot point–good work! The GiGi manual describes this situation clearly, but I’ve seen the GiGi used this way a few times and an IFMGA guide emailed me to clarify the technique. He had a near-miss early in his guiding career and took the time to send me some video showing the GiGi release when set up incorrectly–and I want to reiterate that this situation is not a design flaw in the GiGi–it’s simply using the tool incorrectly.



The simple fix: if belaying a single follower/strand of rope of less than 10mm, orient your blocking biner around the entire device, so it can’t rotate and flip the ropes into an “unbelayed” or “non-autoblocked” orientation. Easy!

The simple fix: if belaying a single follower/strand of rope of less than 10mm, orient your blocking biner around the entire device, so it can’t rotate and flip the ropes into an “unbelayed” or “non-autoblocked” orientation. Easy!

If you’re using the GiGi with two rope strands, no sweat, but if you choose to use it on a single strand when belaying your second/a follower, then make sure you orient your blocking biner around the entire unit and you’re good to go. I like my GiGi because it feeds rope smoothly (on rappel, too) and despite what people say, it can belay a leader when used correctly and by a skilled practitioner. But again–visit the manual and verify that you’ve been using it correctly! It’s a great tool, but one that requires a bit more management than a Reverso or ATC Guide.

Apologies if I’ve been redundant or a bit pedantic, but I wanted to clarify this issue with the GiGi–I’m sure I’ve set the thing up incorrectly at some point in the past…and while the likelihood of twisting the rope and releasing it (as shown above) seems pretty low, I’ll make sure to always orient my blocking biner around the GiGi so it can’t flip.

I’m a big fan of the GiGi, and maybe it’s worth introducing to your toolbox…but make sure you’re using it correctly–I am now. Thanks to the guide who took to the time to email me and happy climbing to all of you.

This post originally appeared on Elevation OutdoorsThanks for the team over there for the good work!