Mountaineering and wilderness travel in Alaska is serious, and AMS wants your trip to be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. The responsibility of introducing people to climbing is taken to heart; we aim to provide a solid foundation from which to pursue this multi-faceted sport. AMS cares about every individual that enrolls in one of our programs, and we will make every effort to ensure your experience is a positive one. This is the section we get to show our stuff:
The number one priority at the Alaska Mountaineering School is the safety of our teams. Although we cannot eliminate the possibility of an accident, risk and exposure to hazards are constantly discussed and monitored. Safety-related concerns are taught and practiced and underlie all AMS curriculum. AMS' backcountry medical direction protocols are carried by all guide teams and were written by our medical director Dr. Peter Hackett and Medical Training supervisor Lance Taysom, RN, WMT-P. Peter is an emergency room physician and world-renowned researcher on altitude-related illnesses. Lance is the chief life flight nurse out of Pocatello, Idaho and often participates on Denali NPS ranger patrols. Buck Tilton, author of over 50 books and articles on wilderness medicine, certifies many of our AMS staff. All three help keep AMS up-to-date on current issues in wilderness medicine. AMS programs are insured, carry all necessary permits, and leave for the field with medical kits, radios, cell phones, and emergency procedures for all areas of operation.
AMS is the only guide service based in Talkeetna. Most companies offering Alaska programs are based in the lower 48 states, and Alaska is a side operation. Our entire operation--everything we do--is focused on Alaska. When you call us with an inquiry, we answer in Talkeetna, not Chicago. The Alaska Range is our backyard. We receive regular updates on weather, snow conditions, temperatures, and where our teams are and what's going on in the mountains from all the climbers, rangers, and numerous AMS groups calling in.
Since 1983 when our founding company Alaska Denali Guiding was established and during the history of Alaska Mountaineering School, we have guided more than 750 Denali and Alaska Range climbers. We have also taught over one thousand students in our seminars and courses. We have taken our experiences and done everything we can to make our programs better year after year. AMS diligently evaluates our programs and listens to feedback.
AMS is owned and operated by some of the most experienced mountaineers and guides in the US who have a breadth of experience
AMS believes there is always room for improvement and encourages feedback from staff and students. All participants fill out program evaluation forms, which are read by the trip's guides, the operations manager, the directors, and the office staff. Our guides fill out self evaluations and evaluations of fellow guides/instructors. By taking the extra time to go through these procedures, our clients and students are assured of getting the best possible program.
Critical responsibilities and decisions in the field fall upon instructors. AMS briefs each instructor before every course and expedition, reviewing our operations manual and discussing current issues, current conditions, and special considerations. The constant review process assures us that the instructors have all the information possible and lessens the chance of anything slipping through the cracks.
Eating good food and enough of it is one of the most important things on an expedition. Proper nutrition allows people to better acclimatize and to relax a little bit more without worrying about being hungry. AMS provides a huge variety of hearty and nutritious meals on its courses and expeditions. We contract with specialized organic food wholesalers out of Washington who consolidate and ship to Alaska. Our menu boasts the finest quality, lightweight, and tasty foods available. We are able to prepare unparalleled menus for our courses and expeditions. Our mountain menus have been refined since 1983. We take notes every year to better our food program and it shows.
Alaska Mountaineering School stores its entire field rations in giant freezers until departure time. Arriving on the blistering hot glacier with frozen food prolongs freshness and keeps cheese and butter free of mold. Most operators with no base in Talkeetna have no choice but to leave their expedition food in their air service's hangar. Any delay into the mountains is hard on perishables.
If the mountain weather prevents us from flying, we can base out of the Mountain Shop. With anchor points on the ceiling and floors and a huge field, we are able to cover a lot of the safety systems used in anchor building. Kicking back in the evenings we can enjoy a big screen theater with a database of a thousand photos. At the moment we get the call from the air taxi, we can mobilize and be there in minutes being only a couple blocks away.
If weather prevents leaving on schedule, you do not have to spend additional money for accommodations. We have a campground set up with tents and pads ready for everyone to sleep. This allows everyone to stay organized and ready to fly at a moment's notice.
AMS has the only climbing gym in Talkeetna, the Matt Porter Climbing Wall, named after one of our most excellent guides. The structure, with its unique cave-like shape and graceful lines, has been featured in a number of climbing magazines. This facility allows AMS guides and participants a place to exercise and hone their climbing techniques as well as practice fixed line ascension before heading into the mountains.
AMS is the best choice for a custom climb anywhere in the Alaska Range given the forty guides who work for us, many of whom are out climbing in between contracts. Whether your goal is a skill building course, a climbing objective like the West Ridge of the Moose's Tooth, or a more technical route on the West Face of Mt. Huntington, we are keen about helping fulfill anyone's dream.
At the Mountain Shop, AMS can outfit a climber from head to toe with equipment that we have for rent or sale, and we offer a 15% discount to participants. We want to give people the option to rent high quality personal equipment to lessen the financial burden required to climb in Alaska.
Knowledge of the Alaskan mountains and technical prowess are not the only attributes we look for in our guides. Our guides are chosen also for their kindness and ability to teach others to become better mountaineers.
The summit is inherently a main objective of mountaineering. At Alaska Mountaineering School, we coach our expedition members to become better mountaineers. Our participants feel as though they are a part of the process. This approach does not slow us down in reaching our goal of the summit, but rather makes the entire group that much more equipped to get there.
AMS makes safety and risk management an integral part of its program. All AMS guides and instructors are certified Wilderness First Responders, many are EMT certified, and some are nurses or doctors. AMS instructors teach Wilderness First Responders and EMT courses for Wilderness Medical Institute, Wilderness Medical Associates, and SOLO. These same instructors teach the AMS in-house staff training course every year which includes a WFR recertification course. The AMS safety committee, which includes Lance Taysom, RN and Peter Hackett, MD, are in charge of updating our medical protocols and standing orders every year to make use of any new developments in the diagnosis and treatment of wilderness medical emergencies. Each year, world-renowned high altitude researcher Peter Hackett, MD gives a presentation to AMS staff on the latest developments in altitude-related injuries, their assessment, and treatment options. AMS goes beyond the minimum expectation for an organization of its size.
The AMS rations room allows our expedition members to pack their own lunches and drinks on the first day of the expedition for the duration of the climb. This method insures you have the best food selection for your taste and minimizes extra weight and waste. Packing your lunches and drinks for the climb allows you to get what you want, instead of a pre-packed bag with items that you might dislike after 3 days out and 18 more days to go. AMS has a wide selection of trail foods. We give a lunch packing orientation with many tips and instruct you on the best way to pack your rations. After thousands of days on the mountain, we have it figured out! It's all part of the AMS way: being an active participant on your climb and fine tuning every detail as part of a strategy leads to success.
One of the most common question asked by climbers is, "Which is the best month to climb?" There is no right answer as every year is differently from the previous year as far as weather and conditions. The popular climbing season on Denali begins late April and lasts through most of July, shrinking the acceptable window down to 90 days. In March and April, cold temperatures and strong winds at higher elevations make conditions severe and only the hardiest climbers make an attempt. The month of May shows less precipitation on average than June or July, but it is colder and requires more aggressive climbing tactics to beat the cold. Statistically, more people are on the mountain in June, and therefore, more people summit in June. That leads one to assume June is a better month when, in fact, it is just a more crowded month. Once you start getting into mid to late July, the snow conditions on the lower half of the mountain usually deteriorate, making for challenging route finding around crevasses. Any one of the launch dates of an AMS expedition has a high chance of success. We make it our goal to get to high camp in as strong a shape as possible, dig in, and wait for a summit day. Ultimately, it is patience and perseverance that will reward you with a view from the top.
Can you have both at the same time? AMS likes to think of itself as a combination of the best qualities of both worlds. We love what we do, and while transferring as much of that knowledge to you is the goal of teaching, it also makes common sense when guiding in Alaska. Typically when one thinks of 'guiding,' there is a summit and everything you do supports reaching it. Instruction is way more dynamic, spontaineous, and has a broader goal to learn as much as possible. The two mind sets can work well together with talented staff. Alaskan expeditions tend to be multi-day, team-effort affairs. Emerging from a five day windstorm at high camp on Denali unscathed, well-fed, rested, energized, and ready to go for the summit is the result of good instruction and teamwork lower down on the mountain. If you do not come away from AMS with a better understanding of mountaineering, we have failed. Our job is the rewarding challenge of instructing in a dynamic and awesome environment. AMS instructors have to be good guides, and AMS guides have to be good instructors; it is part of the job description. Our staff members feel alive in the mountains and are always climbers first. We like the challenge of guiding a mountain like Denali or Foraker or route like Ham and Eggs on Moose's Tooth. Whether a hiking trip, mountaineering course, or a climbing expedition with a specific summit goal, we want all participants to gain a greater understanding of every aspect of the trip. This approach builds strength and competence. Course graduates come away empowered to repeat what they have learned without an instructor next time. Expedition members understand and take part in the decision making throughout the climb. They gain ownership of the climb because it becomes their climb. Whether they summit or not, they are given the tools and knowledge to attempt and repeat the climb again without a guide.
The saying goes, "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." Time is better spent being prepared for all types of weather: pleasant to not so pleasant. It is smart to keep track of the weather so you will be collecting morning and evening weather observations as part of avalanche hazard forecasting. But to try and predict tomorrow's forecast is dubious at best. Better to plan on it being good, and decide whether to go or not go when you have to break the tent down. Guessing what the weather holds in store is borderline to trivial pursuit. Everyone gets accustomed to changing layers frequently especially high in the mountains. The low-lying Talkeetna Mountains or Peters Hills are exceptionally mild compared to the glacier-covered Alaska Range. Between April and September, you can expect temps around the 7,000 feet/2,100 meter elevation to be between 0 degree Fahrenheit and +40 degree Fahrenheit; at the 14,000 feet/4,200 meter elevation, expect between -20 degree Fahrenheit and +30 degree Fahrenheit; at the 17,000 feet/5,100 meter elevation, expect between -30 degree Fahrenheit and +10 degree Fahrenheit. These figures represent a huge range. The weather in the Alaska Range, fickle and unpredictable, will dictate our every move, forcing us to be flexible, patient, and sometimes spontaneous. Weather is the one thing we cannot change, only accommodate.
Bush planes can only fly if the weather is suitable. In the event that courses or expeditions are unable to fly to the glacier at the scheduled time, they can base out of AMS' Facilities, which consists of the office and staging area, Mountain Shop, and Matt Porter Rock Gym. This allows instructors and students to stay on track with the course curriculum, view slideshows and additional educational media, practice fixed-line ascension and other climbing techniques. Our facilities also allow for the proper storage of perishable food while waiting out any weather. Usually weather that prohibits flying persists for only a day or two; then groups are able to fly into the range. Sometimes courses or expeditions can be weathered in the Alaska Range beyond their end date. We will do our best to ensure that your course ends on schedule and most do. However, we recommend allowing 2-3 days on the return end of your travel plans (or purchasing flexible airline tickets) in the event that weather inhibits your course from flying off the glacier on time. Check out our facilities in "About Us, Our Headquarters."
AMS operates year round, but winter ascents in the Alaska Range are not everyone's cup of tea. Our courses typically run from mid-March to mid-September. Expeditions run during the same time frame, but timing depends on the mountain and route. Denali and Foraker are thousands of feet higher than any other peak in the range and starting in April or earlier makes it too cold for most climbers. That said, global warming has shrunken the spring season and we are launching expeditions earlier each year. Plane access is another concern that dictates when to go. Courses have many options and can choose locations with higher landing zones with firmer snow conditions. Some routes, such as Denali's West Buttress have only one landing option. We schedule our last Denali expedition to return to the landing strip by mid-July over concern that the pilots may tell us we have to walk out. Ice oriented routes like Ham and Eggs on Mt. Hunter are best in April; rock oriented routes in Little Switzerland are better in July or August. The best time should reflect what works for you, as there is no rhyme or reason to Alaska weather. We asked Brian Okonek who has studied the weather on Denali over the course of 30 years and 30 climbing expeditions what he thought and he said, "The more I have tried to decipher a pattern with the weather the more I have learned there is no pattern. The same sequence of weather events can lead to vastly different outcomes. The best thing is to be prepared all the time."
We have had a very diverse collection of students and clients over the years. The average student's age on our courses is around 35 years old. The age range is between 15 and 70. The average age of participants on our expeditions is around 45 years old, with an age range that has included several 18 year old expedition members on a scheduled Denali climb and a 71 year old man who was on a custom climb of Denali. We find that age plays a minor role due to the fast pace of instruction and the learning curve for all participants on AMS programs. The average age of our guides is 35 and growing. The minimum age for students on our courses is 15 due to concern for adequate body development and maturity, and the minimum age for expedition members is 18. Please note that we have made exceptions to the minimum age requirements for expedition members in the past on a case-by-case basis. The maximum age for regularly scheduled Denali expeditions is 69; however, we can happily accommodate older climbers by arranging a custom program to best suit their needs.
Our ratio of female: male participants is 35:65, and the female: male guide/instructor ratio is approximately 40:60. After much observation in the field, having both sexes present in most groups makes for a higher quality experience for everyone. Alaska mountaineering as a whole tends to attract more males than females. AMS is fortunate to have 25% of its field staff be talented women, and they work a lot. The AMS men are super too, making AMS staff the cream of the crop of Alaska Range teaching and guiding. We make a goal to have a female instructor on every course, especially when there are female participants.
All of our Alaska Range Mountaineering Courses and Expeditions are able to split the loads between a backpack and a sled much of the time. On most expeditions, we double carry to all of our camps to minimize the load and to aid in acclimatization. This allows for lighter pack weights. On a mountaineering course, under most circumstances, the heaviest a pack weight is around 50 pounds. On a Denali expedition, 60 pounds is a good average. On Denali, however, for a couple of days on the upper mountain in particular, our pack weights will be more-75 pounds plus. On these days, you will max out every inch of any full-sized expedition backpack. As we move higher and higher up on Denali, we are able to put less and less equipment in our sleds due to terrain restraints. At the same time, however, we will have used much of our food and fuel and will be wearing more clothing due to decreasing temperatures.
Staffing is AMS' top priority and we keep our staffing manager employed all winter to ensure the job gets done right . We do the majority of our staffing for expeditions and courses throughout the winter and early spring as we get enrollment. Staffing expeditions and courses is a very dynamic process. We try to match clients and students with the best guide for their program. We strive to have the majority of the programs staffed by March. However, due to the nature of guide's lives, things change. You can request a particular guide, but we cannot guarantee he or she will be able to guide the trip. We will do our best to let you know as soon as possible who will be leading your expedition or course. One thing you can be certain of is that he or she will be competent and highly qualified.
There are many locations in Denali National Park & Preserve that were first scouted by AMSMuch consideration goes into this decision. We leave the final selection up to the guides. Generally, the choice of location is not decided until two days before the course starts. The guides take into consideration current snow conditions, temperatures, and students' strengths. The guides also have to work together with the air taxi service to make sure that current conditions will allow for the guides' choice for course location. All courses plan to fly into the Alaska Range glaciers; the Pica, Ruth, and Eldridge glaciers are the most popular for our courses.
The areas that AMS runs its programs have cell phone reception, but only when you have line of sight to the Susitna Valley. This translates to having to be at a mountain pass, summit, or 14,000' on Denali. AMS cell phones are analog-only with large batteries and tied to a local provider. This combination gives us the most reliable service. Our courses and expeditions carry two batteries, one for emergency-use and one to give updates to the office. Occasionally, an AMS trip will use a satellite phone when cell phone coverage is known to be lacking. Iridium and Globalstar provide service, but coverage varies throughout the day. You might be talking and have full bars and the next minute your phone is dead because the satellite went out of range. You can contact AMS for a list of recommended satellite phone rental agencies.
Skiing in climbing boots on glaciers while roped, carrying a back pack, and pulling a sled is challenging for the most experienced skiers. Every individual on a rope team needs to be an excellent skier. Unless prior arrangements are made, we use snow shoes to travel to 11,000'.
Although predicting when storms will roll through the Alaska Range is impossible, April to the middle of May typically provide the best window of time for favorable snow conditions on steeper, lower elevation mountains such as Mt. Hunter. That said, the first ascent of Hunter's West Ridge was in July so timing is not a hard and fast rule.
Gratuities are accepted. It is customary in the service industry to tip the front line workers if they work especially hard to make your experience successful. AMS doesn't make a big deal about it because what we are doing is so serious. Sure, your guides live off tips, but they do not want money to influence anything. Any profession that is primarily teaching is not about the money. AMS guides and instructors are pursuing their passion in life, not passion for Wall Street, at least not now. It is difficult work and you will come away wondering how they do it. They love it, or at least most of it. The body gets worked carrying packs after so many years. We ask that you observe your guides at their jobs and judge for yourselves. As for amount, there isn't a standard and typically people provide what they can afford. It might range from $20 to $250; sometimes significantly more. Mountain guide's in the United States often live on a shoe string so any amount no matter how small is really appreciated and goes towards a new pair of skis or a skill saw they've been eyeing.
Certification for mountaineering is more than a pin, a badge or one hoop to jump through. AMS instructors must demonstrate high performance in the field all the time, every trip. Their performance is documented with written evaluations from peers and clients as well as a meeting with the directors before and after every contract. Many qualities make up a competent AMS instructor just as many qualities make up a competent Alaskan mountaineer. First time instructors have successfully completed the AMS Guide's Course. This twelve-day course focuses on specific teaching techniques and guiding strategies unique to Alaska's mountains. New guides must successfully assist courses and expeditions as an unpaid trainer before being put in the role of instructor. Most instructors who come to AMS already have an established history of excellence and lead-instructing experience at other well-known outdoor organizations. In many ways, Alaska demands the most from an instructor because it has the most going on: remote wilderness, extensive glaciation, year round avalanche hazard, extreme winter camping during summer months, mile-wide river crossings, grizzly bears. Each of these skill areas requires a thorough knowledge of the discipline in order to effectively lead and teach others.
AMS requires all staff to maintain current Wilderness First Responder certification. Unlike mountaineering, first aid is not a sport so unless you are part of the medical profession, you are typically not practicing it regularly if at all. Taking a ten-day course followed by biennial re-certification or refresher courses is the only way to be able to adequately respond to a real emergency. AMS takes this one step further and retains a medical training staff that includes a full-time, life-flight nurse and a world-renowned high altitude doctor. AMS' Medical Protocols authorizes our staff to carry prescription drug kits and perform lifesaving actions in an emergency.
AMS directors, Colby Coombs and Caitlin Palmer, are friends with all the guides and instructors who work for them and know how they perform and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. This knowledge is gained by getting to know the staff personally, not just from reading resumes. A mountain guiding certification, such as AMGA or UIAGM, reflects continued education and passing exams but does not tell what the person is really like. There are many "certified" guides who do not know how to build an igloo, run a kitchen at 17,000 feet, or teach a class on glaciology. In order to establish high standards at AMS, the directors need to know firsthand who is working for them and how they perform.