Why IFMGA-certified guide Margaret Wheeler believes that variety makes a difference in the mountains

When I call up guide Margaret Wheeler, 45, at her home in Ketchum, Idaho on an early November day, she answers with a sniffle. Wheeler apologizes and explains that her nasal tone is induced by a head cold, but continues on, unfazed by her condition. I get the impression that she doesn’t let much get in the way of her goals, and as we keep talking, this feeling crystallizes as she details her trajectory toward becoming the second female in North America to earn her guiding certification through the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations. 

From college at Dartmouth in New Hampshire to extreme skiing in Chamonix, France, then on to guide training, based in the Pacific Northwest and completed in tandem with studying for a masters degree in engineering, Wheeler seems to have access to more hours in the day that your average skier. But, she says, her multitasking isn’t about quantity; it’s about diversity. Whether in her personal life or in her career now spent teaching avalanche and guiding education, she emphasizes the importance of being a generalist and expanding horizons, peer groups and perspectives to provide a bigger picture—from terrain and avalanche hazards to why it’s worth pursuing the guiding life in the first place.

The guide’s guide: Margaret Wheeler.  [Photo] Stellar Media

Backcountry Magazine: What was it about your childhood that made skiing become such a key player in your life?

Margaret Wheeler: Growing up skiing in New England, my mom would drive me and my two siblings from New Hampshire to Vermont; one parent, three kids, every single weekend when I was tiny. She would pile us into the car on Friday nights, and we’d drive to Mad River Glen. I did the race team there when I was in the eighth grade.

Then, in college at Dartmouth, I joined the Outing Club and began climbing. That’s where I got exposed to my first carabiner. I was determined to be a ski bum after college, so naturally I decided to move to Chamonix because I’d watched Blizzard of Aahhh’s too many times. I was supposed to go with a friend and he bailed, so I just showed up, and that first week I was chasing down North Americans trying to find people to ski with. This was the winter of 1998, and I was staying in a gîte—a hostel. I ended up living with Hilaree Nelson, because I saw her across the ski area and was like, “That’s a female, and she is from North America.” I got on the lift and started talking to her, and she was looking for a housemate, and we lived in what was basically a closet on the top floor of one of the apartment buildings in Argentière. That was a life changer. She’d been in Chamonix for five years at that point. I also met a little posse of North Americans, and we’d eat two-day-old baguettes ’til our mouths bled and buy cheap beer and cook dinners together because everyone was living on $200 a month. And one of the members of that posse [Matt Farmer], years later, I’m now married to.

BCM: You transitioned from the steeps of France to the Pacific Northwest. What inspired you to move 5,000 miles away?

MW: That time in Chamonix was formative, because I had climbing skills and that posse had ski mountaineering skills, so I just latched on with them. That was my version of being young and foolish. I’m pretty risk averse; so the number of times I was really doing dumb things was pretty low compared to what it could be in that place—my mom would have freaked out if she knew what I was up to in Chamonix. But it was there that climbing merged with skiing in this little mini community, and that was life changing.

The next fall I went to grad school, but in the process of moving to Washington I met my ex, Scott Schell, who’s now in charge of the Northwest Avalanche Association. I also met Martin Volken, and they both exposed me to guiding. Partway through grad school was when I took my first American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) ski-guide course with Kasha Rigby and Hilaree Nelson, and that’s when I was like, “This is what I actually need to be doing with my life.” So then it looped back and I went to guide training while I was finishing grad school at the University of Washington and got a job as an engineer.

BCM: The waters of your guide’s education were relatively uncharted for women when you took on this career path. What was that process like for you?

MW: When I took my first course, I’d guided zero days. I’d met Martin, and he was a guide, and I’d met Scott and he worked for Martin as a guide, and I got interested in it. Because of that, I went and took the ski-guide course before having guided a single day, and I loved it. That course was in the Sierra, and we got two meters of snow. It was a junk show of a course because we got pounded on, and I didn’t care. Something just clicked: the blend of the analytic, the judgment, the decision-making and being outside on skis with cool people. That was it. 

I did the ski-guide training first. Later on, I did the advanced ski-guide course in Alaska, and I did my exam. Then I started to add onto that with rock and alpine. It took me five years to do all of the programs. 

BCM: What advice do you have for others looking into the IFMGA program?

MW: My advice to people who take these programs is not to rush. I did one program each year for the first three years. At that point, I was working part time as an engineer, so I was doing that and then I could leave to go and do the guides’ program or go train. But it was intense because I was essentially working all the time.

I see parallels in my current work and my life’s trajectory. Part of being a forecaster is trying to tell whether or not past events are forecasting your future. If you have a really high uncertainty situation, your past data is going to be of limited usefulness, and if you have a more known situation you’ll be able to use past data better. I think this is funny because my career advisors at Dartmouth were like, “You have a history major and an engineering minor, so you’re actually really well trained for finance.” And I was like, “Um, I’m gonna go to Europe.”

I knew I wanted to get exercise and move around in the mountains. So that was my first swing at being a guide. But then I had to learn alpine climbing, because I’m a skier and I had to develop as a rock climber. And in an alpine environment you have objective hazards. In the ski environment you have avalanche hazards, and in the rock environment you have a narrower band of what your hazards are. You have exposure and rock fall, but you don’t have the same complexity level most of the time. So as I was going through the program, I was being forced to expand on what I was learning to manage hazards. I finally went out to work as a guide when I had all those pieces, and I could see how that hazard management played out across the disciplines, and, for some reason, that was enormously informative.

BCM: How did pursuing the IFMGA track affect your perspective on both guiding, and, more recently, educating others in the field?

MW: In the avalanche industry, we’re now focusing on getting ski patrollers, guides and forecasters together in the same classroom—not to have one class for patrollers, one for guides, etc. When you look at operational risk management, that comparative component really provides perspective and depth on how you manage risk.

I was the second North American IFMGA woman, the 33rd IFMGA guide. We’re now sneaking up on a couple hundred, so it’s grown a lot. In that time, the IFMGA certification has changed. The AMGA has been inclusive of as many entry points as possible and of how people work as a guide, rather than forcing everyone to become IFMGA if that’s not where they want their career to go. In the U.S., I still feel that for most people who work in more than one discipline, having the full training really benefits them in the long arc because of that cross-comparative situation, but that could just be my bias.

What I see is that folks come in, perhaps with the perspective that they’re going to be in one particular arena, and then people get exposed to other ways they can do either their current job better or they can add to the work that they do and diversify their job. And that’s more sustainable in the long run. I think that’s what makes people go farther in the education process than they originally intended. Part of it is curriculum and part of it is context: who else is in the courses and where are they all coming from? You bond with the others in your course because you’re training together, and you take courses together and you take exams together. So you end up with a network, going through the programs, which then serves you really well and builds your career moving forward like you never would have without that cross pollination. z

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