Markus Beck has come full circle. The Swiss born native grew up skiing and climbing in his home country before achieving his Master’s degree in PE from the University of Bern. While working as a ski and snowboard instructor in Davos, he followed his heart to the US, where he traded it in for full international guiding certification through the AmericanMountain Guides Association. Since 2000 he has fronted Alpine World Ascents, an internationally recognized guiding outfit that is based out of Boulder, Colorado. In addition to his mountain credentials, and Level 3 ski and snowboard instructor certification, the SCARPA partner is also quite the polyglot, who speaks six languages.
You grew up in Switzerland. Have you always had a relationship with the mountains?
I grew up in the “flatlands” of Switzerland, that is the area between the two mountain ranges of the Jura to the northwest and the Alps. But in Switzerland, everything is close by, and so I was nevertheless introduced to the mountains at the gentle age of three when my parents got me into ski school.
Skiing became a deep passion of mine and eventually, at the age of 24, I achieved professional level certification as a Swiss ski and snowboard instructor. With this, I started to ski guide away from the resort and the thought of becoming a fully certified mountain guide got into my mind.
How did you end up in the States?
Ha! A woman story—I followed love. I met my ex-wife during my ski instructor years in Davos, Switzerland. After a year and a half of a long distance relationship, which included several visits in the US and Switzerland, I dropped everything and moved to Boulder, Colorado.
How did a Master’s degree in Physical Education lead to you becoming a full-time, professional guide?
I was exposed to mountain guides as a kid attending climbing and ski touring camps. Later, during my PE Masters at the University of Bern, I got exposed even more to the mountains with several classes involving backcountry skiing and climbing.
Upon moving to the US, I taught 2 years PE at a small private school near Denver. During that time, a friend and I ventured to Nepal, trying ourselves on the first snowboard descent of Tharpu Chuli, as well as a new route on Hiunchuli’s intricate and then unclimbed east ridge. While we were there, I also visited several schools in the Nepali hillsides. The display of dedication, insatiable interest and camaraderie amongst students and teachers alike touched me at the core, as such traits are something clearly lacking in our Western civilization.
I came back and soon realized I lost my compassion for teaching. The thoughts about becoming a mountain guide now became a firm idea. Coincidentally, the AMGA (American Mountain Guide Association) was accepted into the community of the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations) and its mentor country was Switzerland. With several Swiss guides acting as instructors/examiners, I went through the AMGA program to pursue a full guide certification instead of going back and forth to Switzerland to get it done there.
In 2000 I started my own guiding outfit, Alpine World Ascents, which quickly became a full-time job year-round and became fully certified with the AMGA and IFMGA in 2005. I still make a living guiding full-time year-round in all disciplines, love my job and don’t plan on changing anything any time soon.
What was the impetus for Starting Alpine World Ascents? The guiding industry in the US was in an infancy stage. Salary, benefits were nonexistent, and the nature of guiding was limited to small areas where an outfit was permitted. Since the conditions of guiding were so miserable, I decided, at least, to suck it up on my own conditions, which allowed me to be less limited on where and what to guide. It took me only three years to turn this into a full time job enabling me to make a living off guiding and confirmed that this is what I wanted to continue doing for a living.
How does American guiding differ from European guiding?
In Europe, the profession of mountain guiding has a history that goes back more than 200 years. Guiding is a well-respected profession, and the title of a certified mountain guide is legally protected, and an IFMGA certification is required by law for guiding throughout Europe. That certification allows guides to work throughout the mountains, whereas in the US commercial use permits are required to guide on most any land. The problem is the permits are not based on a guide’s qualifications or certifications, and are rarely granted to anyone in the last twenty years. This has lead to a monopolistic system where permit holders rule an area, shutting off competition and preventing clients to have their free choice on which guide to use. Keep in mind that training, let alone certification, are not required to guide in the US, and even today many permit holding outfits do not employ (m)any guides trained to the standards of certification.
In Switzerland alone, the largest guiding association, there are about 1400 active certified mountain guides, compared to the 80 or so IFMGA certified guides in the US. In Europe, a good guide can make a decent living off guiding whereas in the US this is still an exception, and most drop out sooner or later or move to Europe after completing the IFMGA certification. Competition is a good thing, as it tends to weed out the bad eggs in an industry. The protective nature of the US guiding industry has largely prevented competition from growing and regulating the market, and instead seems to be creating a guiding standard, despite AMGA/IFMGA credentials, that is of lower quality compared to Europe’s traditionally tough protocols.
What attracted you to a partnership with SCARPA?
Its European roots, a long history of manufacturing quality and innovative boots, the breadth of products (hiking, rock, alpine, ice, ski), a great team to work with. As a professional full-time guide I go through a lot of boots, and SCARPA lets me abuse them as long as I provide my feedback, and the feedback of my clientele. It’s a win-win relationship.
What are your plans for AWA in the coming years?
Keep on guiding. AWA is going through a bit of a change that reflects the changing nature of guiding. We’re working on a new and improved website in the next few months, a new brochure by year’s end, as well as a renewed and increased commitment to quality and professionalism in guiding, with customized trips to the mountains locally and throughout the world.