August 03, 2016 5 min read

Mike Arnold: The Road to Becoming an IFMGA Guide

By: Tess Weaver Strokes

IFMGA guide Mike Arnold powder turn
IFMGA guide Mike Arnold on rappel

Of the 111 AMGA/IFMGA Mountain Guides, 28-year-old Carbondale resident Mike Arnold is among the youngest. Arnold grew up in Northern Maine, where he ski raced across the border in Canada. That sparked a love for the mountains that convinced Arnold to quit Division 1 soccer and move to Colorado, where he pursued outdoor education classes at CMC and started guiding with ClimbingLife Guides and Aspen Expeditions. Arnold entered the international guide program via a ski guide course in Washington in 2009. “From there,” says Arnold, “I was hooked.” Arnold took on the ambitious task of completing the AMGA ski, rock and alpine courses in one year. He took a year off, then passed all three mid-level exams. After another year off, Arnold passed his final exams for ski, rock and alpine in 2014, becoming the 96th American to do so. Arnold co-founded Vetta Mountain Guides and runs his business from the Roaring Fork Valley.

IFMGA Guide Mike Arnold skiing in Chamonix

TS: By taking on all three programs with time off in between studying and exams… how did you come up with the schedule?MA: I made it up for myself. A lot of participants were skeptical of me doing all three in a year. I had a lot of mentors and high end guides who were encouraging me to go for it. I had the resume and I was already guiding 150+ days a year.

TS: When did you start guiding?MA: True year-round mountain guiding started in 2008 when I met Eli Helmuth, an IFMGA guide out of Estes Park who owns ClimbingLife Guides. He mentored me and took me on three Alaska trips. As soon as I got into the Alps and high peaks like Denali and Aconcagua, I knew I was going to be a mountain guide.

TS: What does international certification mean for you?MA: It’s the golden ticket to be able to guide in Europe. I spent three months in Europe this summer. I’m going for a three-year French work visa. My plan is to reside in Europe for a majority of the year.

TS: What do you love about guiding across the pond?MA: My first impression was the incredible mountains, but after following around French and German guides for two months in Chamonix in 2010, I saw big differences. Access is an issue in the US. Permits are held by certain concessionaires and you have to be an employee of the permit holder. European guiding means less overhead— I can work on my own. As long as you’re IFMGA certified, it’s legally allowed. What hit me at first, was the whole idea of longevity being a mountain guide. So many guides in the U.S. burn out, while in Europe they’ve found this balance that allows them to live a well-rounded lifestyle.

TS: What do you appreciate about the Elk Mountains?MA: The Elks have some of the best ski touring in the country. It’s hard to believe how much is still left out there after 100 days a year of skiing. The motivation within the valley is really attractive. It’s what pushed me to want to guide in the big mountains. Between the mountains and the community, this zone is tough to beat.

TS: Any advice for people who want to go into this line of work?MA: The biggest thing for me, being one of the younger international certified guides, is patience. You have to take the time to go through the proper channels. Whether that’s avalanche education, medical training… But, the biggest thing was finding a mentor. You have to find a mentor who can teach you in the environment you want to guide in. If you want to guide up on Denali, there’s no point having a mentor in Europe. It was key for me to have guides who I could shoot a message to to get info and constantly have a fall back plan.

TS: What were some of the most difficult challenges?MA: Coming from strong ski background, skiing was my favorite and the least stressful of the three disciplines. I had to focus more on rock and alpine. The alpine exam was quite vigorous. It was five days in the mountains dealing with rock, ice and massive glaciers. In terms of rock, being examined by a peer right next to you, judging every move you make is pretty stressful. I moved to boulder to just focus on rock and alpine and put the skis away for a bit. That’s what got me through program. Also, just looking at the end goal. The first aspirant alpine exam was just brutal. It was five days in the rain traversing the North Cascades, climbing rock and ice and never being warm for five days. There was a certain amount of suffering in each of the disciplines, but alpine was full on. A lot of people view mountain guides in sunny weather on a nice rock ridge. I never got any of that in courses or exams. I was a 26-year-old balancing life. My friends would be going out and I knew I had to go train the next day.

TS: What personality trait helped you succeed in becoming a guide?MA: I’m from Northern Maine where the whole suffering aspect was second nature.

TS: What did you do in those years in between exams?MA: A lot of personal trips with friends who were becoming mountain guides. We’d go to the Bugaboos or Europe or Washington state. I would focus on weaknesses. After your first level courses, you get a ton of feedback. There are nine different segments in each exam and I picked those apart. For example, I focused on technical systems for alpine guiding, basically when to use a certain system and when not to. I flew to the Alps and practiced over and over.

TS: How did you get involved with Strafe?MA: I met Pete [Gaston] my first day of guides training three years ago. We both like traveling through the mountains similarly—short times, big distances. And we’re both geeks about gear. We developed a strong friendship. It’s people like Pete, and everyone at Strafe, that make me want to stay in the valley.

TS: How do you see your guiding evolving?MA: I would really like to push the athlete skimo world into more of a guiding realm—speed ascents, more challenging objectives… I had a great trip up to Revelstoke with six ex-cyclists. They could move like no other, it was a really motivating way to move through mountains. We were spending 6-7 hours covering so much terrain. I’m trying to figure out this niche.

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