The Journey to IFMGA Certification

Do you sometimes wonder which fork in the road led you down this wild and precious path you’re on?

Karen Bockel IFMGA

When I was a kid, I wanted to become either a Nobel-Prize winning Physicist working at CERN in Geneva or a Certifed Mountain Guide. The latter seemed so far-fetched and impossible – my only connection to the mountains was the countless hours I spent in my hometown library pouring over coffee table books of Reinhold Messner climbing the 8,000m peaks, that I stuck with Physics.

I studied atomic and laser physics and spent most of my graduate school days and nights inside a lab.  The black blinds shut out any stray light, and any sign of life or weather outside.  I spent the daytime hours tuning the lasers and solving page-long differential equations, and the nighttime hours, when everyone else and their perturbations had left the building, running experiments.  Laser cooling of atoms, Rubidium atoms to be precise, was my project, and it required a lot of planning, calculating and designing to eventually create a vacuum system containing a cloud of atoms in the crosshairs of 3 perpendicular laser beams. When everything lined up one fine day, a few weeks after having passed my Master’s thesis, the diode laser measuring the atom cloud’s temperature finally produced the expected signal, and the pale image of my Rubidium atom cloud hovered there, suspended in space, at a temperature of a few microKelvin.

Not long afterwards, I realized that, while I loved the research and academia, I missed the outside more, and something had to change.

After sneaking away for several trips into the mountains, I finally told my advisers that I was headed for the hills for good. I moved to a little mountain town in Southwest Colorado, learned to ski on leather boots and tele gear, worked as a carpenter, and spent most of the next few years either above treeline or on some rock wall, exploring all the beautiful San Juans had to offer.

I started ski patrolling and traveling to ski in far away places. I planned and took part in an expedition to ski Denali with three other women, and through two of my teammates got introduced to expedition guiding. I was intrigued. My neighbors owned Mountain Trip, a company guiding the 7 summits, and I timidly asked if I could hire on as an apprentice.  They took me on, and the next summer I found myself back in Alaska. Under the tutelage of Dave Staeheli, who when I asked him to teach me, basically provided me and the other co-guides (and even all our clients) with an entire alpine course while slowly climbing our way up the West Buttress. We got caught in a major storm at High Camp, leaving us stranded at 17,000’ for 8 days, before we fought our way back down to more livable places. It took perseverance, teamwork, and skill to get the teams down safely. The hard work of expedition guiding felt good.  I was hooked.  I was finally on my path toward this old, nearly forgotten childhood dream of becoming a mountain guide.

Karen Bockel IFMGA

The following fall, Mountain Trip offered a contract AMGA Rock Instructor course to their lead guides taught by Angela Hawse and Vince Anderson, and I, the rookie, somehow got in. I frantically tried to find some climbing partners to get ready for the course, but most my friends were runners and bikers. Nonetheless, I showed up on the first day, eyes wide open. It was great.

I’ll never forget that moment of Angela telling me when I was short pitching, braced behind a small boulder “that rock is not strong enough to hold us if we fall – look for a better solution, keep it real.”  I got that one, not just for right there, but for life!

I also remember that she taught us a ‘munter pop’ maneuver to get two clients safely established on a single rope lower – she might as well have spoken Chinese.  Mostly, though, the guiding instruction and climbing were really informative, fun, and inspiring, and I felt at home on the rock and on the rope. In the evaluations, Vince told me I had mountain sense, the ultimate compliment. I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about that ever since.  Needless to say – I’d found my path with the encouragement from these two extraordinary mountain guides.

Fast forward seven years, many vertical feet, footsteps, rope lengths and a couple knee surgeries later, and I found myself tied to my examiner and a co-candidate, breaking trail up the Quien Sabe Glacier of the Boston Basin in the heart of the North Cascades. We are on our last two days of the alpine exam, my final AMGA program on the path to IFMGA certification. It is only fitting that I finish the alpine track last, the queen discipline that combines the worlds of skiing and climbing, the one with the most tradition, the one I dreamt of as a kid. The moments of sunshine from earlier have given way to dense clouds, crevasses and handrails have disappeared into the mist, and I can see nothing, and yet somehow I see everything.  Years of training, experience and guiding days come together. I find the top of the glacier, lead the rope across the moat and climb onto the ridge above. We keep going into the clouds, in the cold wind, a fresh foot of snow covering the rocks. As we move together, chilled to the core, precariously but perfectly counterbalanced on the ridge, the sentiment I felt on Denali years prior returns: we are at home in the mountains.  For me, the exam finished on a high note in a wild and amazing place. I couldn’t have been more stoked.

It’s been an amazing path, and I have been lucky to share the rope with great friends, co-guides, mentors, and clients.  I have also been lucky to work for a number of great guide services.  I am thankful for every moment (except maybe the many hours on the trail down from the Grand Teton). In particular, I want to thank my Chicks Co-Owners for our partnership and friendship.

  • Angela Hawse for encouraging me at the start and always having my back
  • Bill and Todd at Mountain Trip for opening the door to the guiding world
  • Kitty Calhoun for climbing El Cap and becoming friends along the way
  • Dan Starr for letting me tell him all my guiding reflections and for practicing rope tricks in the garage
  • The Telluride Ski Patrol for the best early morning ski runs and letting me stick my head into the snow
  • Eric Larson for being there for me in spite of telling me not to become a guide
  • Emilie Drinkwater for an amazing climbing trip to the Alps
  • Larry Goldie for turning me loose in the Cascades
  • Thomas Olson at Howard Head Sports Medicine for getting me back onto two legs
  • And for my family who allowed me to take the fork less travelled.
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