Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
So reads the opening pages of The Mountain Guide's Manual, or, The Book, as I'll refer to it. As a guide this is the definition of perfection that I am constantly working toward. Not that any of us ever actually get there... it's more of direction than a destination. There are some individuals though, Marc Chauvin being one of them, that have gotten pretty damn close. One of the first Americans to be certified and recognized by the International Federation of Mountain Guides (IFMGA), Marc helped develop the certification program now offered through the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). Over his thirty year career Marc has worked continuously as a professional guide, served as president of the AMGA, and has trained and examined countless other guides. Marc was one of the my first teachers as an aspiring guide and his approach to risk management in the mountains was eye-opening, sometimes provocative, and always masterful. When it comes to technical systems, Marc is pretty much the authority. Frequently referred to as The Professor, his ability to teach is as strong as his technical expertise. What strikes me most about Marc is that he seems to always be thinking a step ahead, or taking something just a little bit deeper than everyone else. Behind the technical mastery is a wealth of knowledge and experience that can only come with time and strong sense of curiosity. The result is that Marc seems to have an answer for it all. Take nearly any technique, tool, or method used in the climbing world and Marc can likely explain how it developed, what it does best, and where it falls short. Chauvin's mind is always running!
Along with co-author Rob Coppolillo, also a certified AMGA/IFMGA mountain guide, writer, and all around goodfella, Marc has taken this body of knowledge to paper. For the first time we now have a comprehensive reference manual covering the skills and techniques taught in the AMGA's Rock, Alpine, and Ice programs. Available in all it's glossy glory from Falcon Guides, it is sure to be an indispensable resource for any guide or advanced recreational climber. As a working guide who has been through these programs, there is little in the book that I haven't seen and practiced before. What makes it most valuable to me is the thinking behind the techniques. Learning the rope tricks is the easy part. Learning when a trick is appropriate and most efficient is the part that takes years to master. This isn't just a read once and pass it along type of book, this is reference guide I will come back to again and again throughout my career. It's a personal resource for debriefing the choices I make in the mountains. See my previous post on the importance of that process.
In the mountains there are often many ways to get up, down, or across terrain. Usually there are a few ways we might say are definitively wrong, ie, very unsafe. The remaining options range from ultra secure & time/gear intensive, to less secure and fast. Especially in the alpine, we are constantly forced to evaluate and weigh our priorities in order to determine the most appropriate system or approach. The bigger our toolbox, the more options we have. Options are good. What's even better is carrying a lighter, smaller toolbox without sacrificing any of those options. Throughout our careers as climbers, whether professional or recreational, we gain more and more tools over time. Achieving mastery, or progressing toward Exupery's definition of perfection, means figuring out how to travel with only the tools we need and nothing else.
The bulk of the technical information comes in the later half of the book. The detailed, step-by-step instructions for performing nearly every type of transition you could run into in the mountains are the reason to buy this book and hold onto it dearly. However it is the book's first five or six chapters that present the philosophy and mindset around risk management that make this book an invaluable read for every serious climber and mountaineer. The inclusion of sidebars and anecdotes, along with engaging and humorous prose, make the discussions around basic systems and fundamental skills far more rewarding to read than the standard technical climbing literature already out there. Discussions around human factors, while becoming more common in the avalanche world, have until now been mostly absent from educational climbing literature.
One of the missing links in the AMGA training program is how the techniques taught and used by guides can be adapted to suit non-guided recreational climbers. Marc and Rob have done a nice job of presenting techniques from both perspectives throughout their book. I personally have found this enlightening and helpful both in my personal climbing, as well as in how I disseminate knowledge to clients interested in pursuing their own objectives.
A recent tragedy where a young climber was killed while simul-rapping reminds me just how valuable this information can be to the non-professional guide/recreational climber. The point is not that simul-rapping should never be used. There are certainly situations when it is an appropriate tool. That said, 95% of the time I see climbers employing the technique, there are better ways to move just as fast, if not faster, and with a drastically improved safety margin. For many advanced climbers, there is an almost binary aspect to the toolbox. Ie, there is the standard way to belay, rappel, move through fourth class terrain, etc. Then there is the fast way, which often involves sacrificing a significant level of security in return for an increase in speed. Simul-climbing and simul-rapping are the examples that come to mind. For the advanced recreational climber, many of the techniques presented in The Book will open the doors to an entire spectrum of options that fill in the gap between the standard way and the fast way. Often, somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, is the most appropriate solution. Fast, efficient, and safe.
Marc and Rob's book not only presents the techniques you need to fill up your own toolbox, but teaches how to use them most effectively. By learning and practicing the material in the book, you will find yourself adding new tools, ditching outdated ones, and becoming an overall faster, safer, and more elegant climber. Rob guarantees it ;).
Purchase your copy here:
**Note: you can save a few bucks buying it on Amazon. Purchasing directly from the authors instead puts more money directly into their hands, which, yes, is a good thing. These guys worked tirelessly on this, it's been years in the making. The difference is less than the cost of a beer. Rob will buy you a beer next time he sees you (tell him I said so) ((no guarantee that will work)). Please show these guys some support!