Scope of Understanding

“Until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another


is finally

and permanently


and abandoned

everywhere is war”

-War by Bob Marley1

   A guide: a person who has the necessary skills to teach people an outdoor discipline or lead an outdoor experience. When that word is uttered, what type of person comes to mind? Most likely not a person of color.

   Furthermore, what processes are in place to validate one’s skills? How easy are these processes and certifications obtained? What are the obstacles to obtaining them? I will share a personal story before we dive into these topics.

   We all have moments where we feel inadequate. And for people of color this feeling can be amplified when we see ourselves treated a certain way while someone else of a different racial demographic is treated another way.

   I was a recreational climber who had been offered a volunteer position by Climbers of Color in 2019 to become an instructor along with my partner Keith (he/him). The first step to teaching was to take a formal course to learn how to teach rock climbing as a guide (also known as a person who teaches an outdoor discipline). Enter the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA): the sole certifying entity in the United States for guides. We found a course called the Single Pitch Instructor (SPI) course and attended.

   I had never taken any formal climbing courses before: this was my first one. Everything I had learned was through my partner Keith who is a very kind, compassionate, and supportive person; even during climbing. We also have a shared identity of being Black. It was all I had known my entire climbing experience so far. Beyond being the only Black people or even people of color at most crags we visited even nationally, I was having a good time regardless. But we wanted to see more people of color in climbing which is why we offered to assist Climbers of Color with their mission and for us to build rock programming for them.

   And to my surprise, the SPI course we took happened to be filled with a majority people of color (POC). Out of 8 participants 5 of us were POC. I was the only person who did not identify as male. Even the instructor, who was white, expressed awe that it was the highest rate he had ever experienced in one course. I was sure I was in for more of a good time.

   I will say the majority of the course was pleasant and I learned quite a lot. But one day sticks in my mind. The instructor divided up topics of climbing to present and teach to the rest of the group. My section was all about carabiners. To the instructor’s credit: they gently educated me about my use of the abbreviated word carabiner, which is offensive. And it opened my eyes to the power and impact of language especially when it comes to marginalized communities. And I am forever grateful to him for setting me upon that path of awareness in my teaching.

   I gave my presentation with as much detail as possible. We had a time minimum and maximum and I hit the maximum as I had a lot to say. I even had an interactive element included. The instructor didn’t hold back on his critiques with my performance. Which was fine at that moment because I was eager to please and wanted to be a good instructor. I soaked up every word.

   But as we all went one by one a theme started to emerge: the people of color in the course were going all in and the instructor did not hold back. When two of the white people in the course did their turn, it was brief and frankly I was severely less impressed than the others. It was clear who had not put the work in. And yet, the instructor had very little feedback for them. These two white cis gender male individuals in particular struck me as introverted and very outdoorsy: your typical stereotype of a mountain guide as I would find out later.

   I was a little angry with myself for not doing better. When all the people of color in the course went out to dinner that night the subject came up and they all saw the same thing I did: a different treatment. And then my anger turned toward the instructor. But what could I do? I needed this course: his power to pass or fail was apparent to me. I am sad to say that none of us gave him this racially charged feedback. And at the time I didn’t have the tools to confront it. I was just trying to skate by to be able to assist the POC community.

   The foundation upon which Rock programming for Climbers of Color is built is from a perspective of two Black rock climbers who have seen and been shown inequity. We do the hard work of tackling inappropriate and offensive language in climbing and open up communication for participants to voice when they are uncomfortable or being treated poorly. We know this is a two way street in which I personally fell short in the past with. It takes two to work out conflict and I recognize that, but it is an even more complex issue to tackle when there is a power dynamic like instructor to course participant.

   As I took more AMGA courses, I found myself in uncomfortable situations multiple times. Anything from not having any common ground with instructors to micro aggressions about my body size to unwanted touch. I am willing to go through it so I can bring these skills and resources back to the community I care so much about. But that’s another healing story for another time.

   If we look carefully at the AMGA as an entity, it was never built for people of color, LGBTQIA2S+, or Disabled communities. And that is what makes it so difficult to bear these uncomfortable situations: in order for instructors of color to be deemed worthy of teaching or insurable, on the whole we have to go through a process that can and does hurt us due to our identities. And now due to the ever evolving policy known as the Scope of Practice, they have made it more difficult than ever to get people of color to teach climbing for affinity groups like Climbers of Color.

   Here I will be looking at the history of the American Mountain Guides Association, their certification processes for rock guiding, and the impact their Scope of Practice has on affinity non profits such as Climbers of Color.

   First let us drop into the history of the American Mountain Guides Association. Specifically in the context of the United States where they are based out of, we have to start with talking about the land. “The original sin of this nation is the genocide and displacement of millions of Indigenous First Nations people, and then it was followed by the stolen labor which built the wealth of this country, which was predominantly African labor at first, and then through the Bracero Program and H-2A (temporary foreign agricultural workers) became the labor of folks born outside the United States, especially from Mexico and the Caribbean. And today, depending on what census you look at, between 95 and 98 percent of the rural land is controlled by white folks…land is the basis of all power, all dignity, all freedom, and land doesn’t just give us the opportunities to provide for our material sustenance and have businesses, it also gives us the capacity for autonomy and resistance.”2 And as societies modernized and socioeconomic status became tied to the idea of recreation, less people of color were able to spend time in nature due to the intentional limiting of our resources. Most Black people residing here have ancestors who had a tumultuous relationship with the land due to being forced to work upon it enslaved. Indigenous Nations have had to fight for land that originally belonged to them taken by violence. And immigrants of color seek refuge across an imaginary line drawn upon the earth where the other side promises dreams yet delivers meager wages and inhumane conditions. Historically the majority of people who were willing and able to go out and “enjoy nature” are white populations where leisure time is granted due to occupation and generational wealth built on the backs of people of color.

   I have talked about who public land seized by the government was really meant for in my other article Hip Hop in Climbing Part II: The Birth of Climbing.3 “This allowance of specific individuals [white people] to live long term on the property demonstrated that the parks were made and maintained with white, middle class people in mind.” White climbers known as ‘dirtbags’ lived full time in Yosemite National Park with little repercussion while Indigenous people were not allowed to after having been forcibly removed. One example of many illustrating white privilege. And the vast majority of government sanctioned and controlled areas are where the American Mountain Guides do their business of guiding.

   Content warning: violence, torture, segregation

   The AMGA was conceived around 1965: about one year after the Civil Rights Act was enacted. “The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a huge step in desegregation and most notably for intended purposes: prohibited discrimination in federally funded programs (such as national parks).”4 The very areas the AMGA would guide people for climbing and mountaineering. Suffice to say due to lower socioeconomic status and sheer lack of access to parks; people of color on the whole (especially Black and Indigenous people) were not one of their patrons. And if they had the funds to pay for guiding services in that time,  how were these individuals to choose a guide who was not racist? Someone who would actually be willing to be an ally in a moment of crisis with authorities? Even in current times, we still have Black people crying for help in city streets begging for assistance because they were afraid of being killed by the police only for no one to assist and that person being killed as they feared. Rest in power, Keenan Anderson.5 How were people of color to trust a white person guiding them into the middle of nature where they were vulnerable and alone while lynching was still a practice in the 1960’s?6  There was no resource like the Negro Motorist’s Green Book7 that told us what climbing guides were allies and safe. Furthermore, how many guides were willing to take ‘Negro’ families on a guided trip? The most likely answer is we didn’t go and were not welcome. We stayed in our segregated hotels and cities where we felt more safe (even though statistics say we have been killed all over in this country).

   Focusing now on the guiding aspect of this, guiding wilderness areas became lucrative as people working in cities with leisure time chased excitement and thrill from their 9 to 5 job. And it was usually an individual or a small company that provided the service. “Spread across the country, guides operated regionally, with little communication between each other…Thus, climbing standards were all but impossible to implement. But then the insurance crisis hit. From the mid-80s until 1990, insurance premiums rose and coverage became unavailable for many guides. Many faced the loss of their guide services or careers. Subsequently, this spurred John Fischer, owner of the Palisades School of Mountaineering, and Allan Pietrasanta, a guide, to try again to mobilize America’s guides.”8 The AMGA had little traction up until then. Many guides viewed the entity as a ridiculous notion. How could an organization come in and tell them how to run their business and ask for an annual membership fee as well? It seemed like a waste of time.

   Obviously the insurance crisis was a wonderful opportunity for the AMGA to insert themselves as being helpful. Currently, it is much easier to get insurance to guide if you have the name brand AMGA associated with your business. Insurance companies usually have little knowledge of rock climbing or the dangers surrounding it, so why not simply look for standardized way of doing things? And that way of doing things is called the AMGA Way. I am guessing suddenly people saw the light and became members.

   This would all be good and well except the AMGA is the only guide certifying entity in the United States with traction such as this with insurance companies. Being an entity with that much overarching power does beg the question of is it a monopoly? A few years ago I would have said no. There are ways around guiding without being AMGA certified. But as the years have gone on, policy they have been implementing would say otherwise.

   The most recent policy that has gone nationwide is called the Scope of Practice which stipulates what certifications are required to work in specific types of terrain. And why would the AMGA make a policy stating who can work in what types of terrain? The AMGA will tell you it is for further standardization of expected practices, which may be true. Safety is paramount in climbing. However, the answer is also power over businesses and more money. Let’s examine the business to AMGA relationship. If we look at the structure of the AMGA they offer a few perks for AMGA accredited businesses.9 They get a higher chance of being granted insurance for guiding when their guides have AMGA training. Also when a business is AMGA accredited, they get a discount on courses when sending guides to them, and a certain number of the accredited businesses’ guides must be AMGA certified.                                                                                                                                            

   When I started guiding in 2019, we actually didn’t need any certifications. Keith and I took the SPI course because we wanted to be prepared, but the climbing experience we had was adequate enough to teach. And I began to hear about something called the Scope of Practice maybe coming into effect. It was a  policy that would be coming to pass soon that said we would have to pass the SPI exam in order to teach. I personally thought this ridiculous due to the AMGA inserting itself into an affinity group’s affairs like that. But we would have to adhere to it for insurance purposes is what people kept telling me. And if we were to pursue our own insurance, having AMGA certifications would greatly enhance our chance to acquire it. Therefore, we went through AMGA courses and exam.

   AMGA courses are provided at a 10% discount when a business is accredited, enticing guiding companies to send their people to training. And to fit the requirement of accreditation, a specified number of guides are required to have an AMGA certification.10 Now, here is where it gets interesting. Prior to Scope of Practice, AMGA accredited businesses would get their guides certified the cheapest way: Single Pitch Instructor. However, with the AMGA not stipulating what kind of terrain those SPI certified guides could teach in they would utilize them for other types of terrain such as mountaineering or alpinism all the while benefiting from their accreditation. Gaming it all the way.

   The AMGA had to take action: its survival partially depends on people taking courses, especially higher level courses that are higher tuition. Thus, the Scope of Practice was born. New wording was put into the accreditation requirements stating: “Accredited Businesses must meet and follow the requirements of the Scope of Practice (SOP).”11 The gaming was over for guiding services and the AMGA established power, control, and more money once again.

   Where this becomes problematic from a marginalized identity standpoint is the lack of the AMGA’s understanding for the need to have affinity groups being able to teach untethered. The strong arming of groups such as Climbers of Color is wildly inappropriate to make us get AMGA certifications. First off, the entire organization was made and maintained by white, cis gender able bodied men. It has never fully understood the diversity problem in climbing and still struggles with it due to who makes up their ranks.

   The AMGA has a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.12 Previously it was also made up of white cis gender men. The committee has seen more diversity, but how effective have they actually been? How has the AMGA held space to listen to them and support their ideas? I would venture to say little to none due to the recent change in policy as some of the committee members were also concerned over Scope of Practice and its effect on affinity groups’ ability to teach rock climbing. And their concern is justified.

   Climbers of Color13 is an affinity group who has been non profit since 2017. An affinity group is a community that gathers under a shared demographic, usually one of an oppressed history. In this case we are an affinity group for people of color. All of our guides, instructors, administrative staff, volunteers, and course participants are people of color. Affinity groups can range from race to queerness to disability. We are not in it to make money: we are in it because we want to make change and hold space for people who may and do struggle in mainstream climbing culture, or even society in general. We have also built programs to bring in more guides of color. Our main focus is on teaching and honing climbing skills. Up until recently we didn’t need certification to teach our community.

      In July of 2022 the AMGA enforced the scope of practice (SOP) policy.14 This new policy stipulates what type of terrain guides can teach based on their AMGA certifications, as we have talked about previously. It has gone through a few inconsistent revisions for applying for a variance though. First let’s define some terms from the document itself. “Instructor: An individual who has passed the…Single Pitch Instructor Assessment”,15 which means the SPI course AND exam. In this document, referring to a Single Pitch Instructor implies they have taken and passed both. “Single Pitch Instructors…can work Unsupervised in this [up to Grade I] terrain…Graduates of the Single Pitch Instructor Course or Alpine Skills Course can work under the Supervision of a Single Pitch Instructor, Multi-Pitch Instructor, Rock Instructor, Rock Guide, IFMGA Guide, or Tenured Guide.”16 A resource a lot of affinity groups may not have access to. Which leads us right back to having to take the SPI course and exam. But there is an out: “Professional members, accredited businesses, or outdoor education organizations may anticipate situations in advance where working outside the SOP is difficult to avoid. The AMGA will consider issuing a variance to the member, or accredited business, so that, in defined situations, work outside of the SOP is permissible.”17 This policy has not changed since 2022: it is the application process which has changed. This is an important distinction to make: policy is implemented by processes and applications. A change has taken place somewhere between 2022 and 2023.

   When the scope of practice was implemented we had several of our guides apply for a variance in 2022 which is a process that allows our instructors and guides to teach without certification, with certain expectations. The first expectation was that we were an educational entity. Check. The next was our organization has annual training for the specific terrain they will be working in (which up to this point is all single pitch for the majority of our team). We put on an annual rope skills training/refresher pre season for our rock guides and training rock guides every year. The second expectation is that we have a risk management plan in place. We have been operating for over 3 years: of course we also have that. Beyond that this individual can only use this variance for the entity they put on the application as well as maintain their AMGA $120 annual membership.

   The guides who applied from our organization were granted their variance no problem, as it should be. They applied through an Individual Educational Variance application. And it expires in 2 years. There are 3 ways to apply for a variance: “Individual Educational, Bridge, and “Other”.18 They changed the requirements on the Individual Variance application.19

Notice no option for Single Pitch Instruction in the updated application. Website last visited 01/21/2023

   Somewhere near 2023 the AMGA scope of practice committee completely eliminated the option to get a variance for single pitch instruction through the individual variance process. Without a variance, Climbers of Color and other affinity groups have to adhere to insurance policies by having every single one of our guides be single pitch certified; meaning they have to go through the Single Pitch Instruction course as well as the exam to teach solo. This entire process costs up to $1,15020, not including transportation, food, lodging, and gear expenses. This also does not include the $120 annual AMGA membership fee or the need to re-certify every 3 years as well as maintain a Wilderness First Aid Certification. When we inquired about the change in variance process, we were told we could try to apply through the “other” variance request, but that it was hard to come by and would probably be denied because it would have to be extreme extenuating circumstances. I appreciate the honesty but having been involved in the coordinating of an affinity group activities for years now I would say having a marginalized identity in climbing is an extenuating circumstance. And affinity groups are here to alleviate that. We are owed flexibility and more concrete guidelines than that.

   Climbers of Color has run rock climbing courses for the past 3 years now. 2023 will be our 4th year running courses and seeking rock guides of color. We have seen the guides of color talent pool available to teach for us and it’s even less than the demographics of people of color in climbing. The 2019 Inaugural State of Climbing Report study from the American Alpine club showed that 18% of recreational climbers were people of color. Not all recreational climbers want to become rock guides so the pool of candidates we pull from is way less than 18%. People of color also have intersecting identities with a history of oppression such as trans women, cis women, or gender non conforming people. Last year our team of rock guides and instructors was made up of 77% cis women of color and gender non conforming people of color. The same cannot be said for any other US guiding business in the US, of this I am sure.

   The number of guides of color the AMGA would grant variances to is very minimal and tied to a non profit status. There should be variances allowed for affinity nonprofits such as Climbers of Color for single pitch rock instruction, like they were issuing before. The barriers for someone of color to become a rock guide are already insurmountable for some and all around difficult already. And with this added scope of practice it makes our mission of bringing more people of color into the sport or profession of climbing even more difficult. But what of the AMGA’s initiative of putting on Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color (BIPoC) Single Pitch Instruction affinity courses and scholarships? Does this actually alleviate the problem?

   Climbers of Color has our own in house rope skills training/refresher pre season and the people we take on have experience. We make sure our guides are all up to the task of teaching people of color by also going one step further with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training. Something the AMGA still has yet to implement in any of their regularly taught courses, especially their newly implemented BIPoC SPI courses. To their credit, they do carve out space for the course participants to discuss with their BIPoC community by bringing in community members to lead an evening of activities called the Fireside Chat. This is a wonderful tool that was created by Monserrat Alvarez21 and the AMGA Diversity Committee that is much needed for BIPoC emerging leaders taking an AMGA course. People going through the SPI course will be the next leaders in their climbing communities and first space needs to be held for them so they can hold space for others. And that is what the Fireside Chat is all about. Montserrat is no longer with the AMGA but the impact left was very powerful and we thank you for your hard work.

   So no: the AMGA running affinity programs does not fix the problem. The first reason is because the people of color leading the BIPoC courses are usually not educated themselves in DEI work. There is no training to my knowledge for DEI before being eligible to teach the SPI course. And as we have found in Climbers of Color while seeking guides/instructors of color, being of color is not enough to serve our community; we have to do the hard work of dismantling our own biases and social programming in order to truly be effective and insight change. Unfortunately many affinity programs fall into this trap of simply gathering without doing the hard work: but I cannot fault them as much as the AMGA. The AMGA has been an entity long steeped in whiteness, ableism, and privilege due to society and their history of participants. And any of the POC who have long been in the AMGA of course succumb to that environment or outright agree with the status quo. Letting them continue to teach and hold space for these new POC educators would be a mistake without the proper education and continuing their self education. But again, we cannot fully blame the POC who were doing what they love and trying to survive themselves as people of color in a fully dominated cis gender and white occupation.

   The AMGA squeezing affinity groups in the US is another play at power and control, even if it is unintentional. Forcing us to send our educators to them for training not only indoctrinates them in a culture we are trying to get away from being the standard, it also takes money and resources away from our other initiatives due to the new Scope of Practice application for single pitch instruction. Not to mention the affinity courses they offer are only once or twice per year with limited space. Even though for now some have variances for teaching, those variances run out in 2 years. Will racism be ended by 2024? I think not. We are not asking for this forever: we are here to build up people of color at our own pace. It is a grim future for affinity groups if they do not change the policy of application process for variances as it is a national policy here in the US.

   Why should affinity non profits made up of barely existent marginalized identities in climbing have to adhere to a policy which would make everything more difficult to serve our communities? We shouldn’t. We need autonomy, we need allyship, we need to be the controlling entities of our destiny and outcome. As people of color we need time and space to go at this our own pace, feeling confident and free to lead other people in the outdoors.

Works Cited

  1. “War – Bob Marley” Youtube, uploaded by Naru Maken, 21 Jan 2023,
  2. Blue, Sky. “Black Land Matters: An Interview with Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm.”, 20 Jan 2023
  3. Crystal Rose H. “Hip Hop in Climbing: Part II.”, 20 Jan 2023
  4. Crystal Rose H. “Hip Hop in Climbing: Part II.”, 20 Jan 2023
  5. Levin, Sam. “Teacher and cousin of Black Lives Matter founder ‘Tased to death’ by LAPD.”, 20 Jan 2023
  6. Zinn Education Project. “June 21, 1964: Three Civil Rights Workers Murdered in Mississippi.”,Philadelphia%20in%20Neshoba%20County%2C%20Mississippi, 20 Jan 2023
  7. Lind, Dara. “The segregation-era travel guide that saved black Americans from having to sleep in their cars.”, 20 Jan 2023
  8. AMGA. “AMGA History.”, 20 Jan 2023
  9. AMGA. “Accreditation.”, 21 Jan 2023
  10. AMGA. “Accreditation.”, 21 Jan 2023
  11. AMGA. “Scope of Practice.” 21 Jan 2023
  12. AMGA. “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.”, 21 Jan 2023
  13. Climbers of Color., 21 Jan 2023
  14. AMGA. “Scope of Practice.” 21 Jan 2023
  15. AMGA. “Scope of Practice.” 21 Jan 2023
  16. AMGA. “Scope of Practice.” 21 Jan 2023
  17. AMGA. “Scope of Practice.” 21 Jan 2023
  18. AMGA. “Scope of Practice.” 21 Jan 2023
  19. AMGA. “Scope of Practice.” 21 Jan 2023
  20. AMGA. “AMGA Single Pitch Instructor.”, 21 Jan 2023
  21. Outdoor Research. “Monserrat Alvarez Matehuala.”, 21 Jan 2023

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