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HelloHello Hello

John Bicknell
 Director, Colorado Mountain School & Boulder Rock Club
early May, 2007


FRB: Name?

John: John Bicknell, John D to folks from Texas.

FRB: Age/Height/Weight?

John: 49, 5'10'', 175 lbs.

FRB: Hobbies? (other sports)

John: Baseball, played professionally and still in amateur leagues.

FRB: Education?

John: M.A. Geological Sciences, UC Santa Barbara; B.A. Harvard University.

FRB: Political Affiliation?

John: Not much affiliation to any party.

FRB: How did you get into climbing, JD?

John: Got a taste on an Outward Bound course to the Texas Big Bend when 13, really got started in college (late 70's) in places like New Hampshire and Boston's Quincy Quarry. For me, the progression was backpacker, easy summits, technical climbing.

FRB: Tell us about the early days. Who were some
          of the significant climbers in your early days?

John: My early days weren't that fascinating, because climbing was never the central thing for me, at least not till the 90's. I was in my 30's before I became a full time climber. From 14 on, I loved mountains, but they were not where or how I lived my life. I tried to be a pro ballplayer, which was a 12 month job, with maybe some time in the Valley in the fall to climb a little and clear my head. I did become a geologist, which left time for a little more climbing and a lot more time in the mountains, but geology was still what I did. It was 1992, when I said the hell with it and left the USGS in CA, and moved to Boulder to work with Outward Bound. That's the first year of my life when my I climbed more than a 100 days. Including guiding, I've probably averaged 200 days a year since. Bob Palais, who's still climbing in Salt Lake, taught me. I met others from the Concord circle -- Ed Webster, Jon Waterman. Allan Steck climbed with me off and on when I roomed with his son in Grad School. I certainly met other famous climbers in the 70's and early 80's -- in Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Eldo. But there would be no reason whatsoever they'd remember me from then.

FRB: Where do you like to climb these days?

John: I love Lumpy and the High Peaks of RMNP. Estes was my home for a decade (we recently moved back to Boulder for better schools). But RMNP granite is both my home aesthetically and technically -- it matches my strengths as a climber.

FRB: You're into ice and snow as well.
          Where do you like to ice climb?

John: This year, nursing elbow and shoulder injuries, I'd ice climb anywhere I could, and, naturally, this has been a fat year in CO and I could not take part. A lot of years ice climbing in RMNP is a case of taking your tools for a walk (I think I'm stealing that line from Topher Donahue) and I look forward most to spending a week each winter in Canada. What I love are ice climbs that feel like alpine climbs -- Polar Circus in Canada or Huntington in AK for instance.

FRB: You are the director of the Boulder Rock Club
         and the Colorado Mountain School.
         What is your motivation behind it?

John: I'm primarily a climbing guide and owning the Colorado Mountain School allows me to guide in RMNP, Eldo, in some of the greatest terrain in the country. But the guide service, despite expeditions, avalanche courses, and ice climbing, remains primarily a summer business. When the BRC came up for sale a few years ago, I saw a potential year round business in climbing. The BRC was a great nexus for Boulder climbers and I thought we could also do more with indoor instruction and programming (maybe now we can with the expanded terrain). I love climbing and teaching climbing, introducing people to climbing and to the mountains. I can do all those things better combining the BRC and CMS.

FRB: You are the president of the AMGA.
          What drives you in this regard?

John: Helping make guiding become both a viable profession and a viable career in the U.S.

You can tie that in with my last answer -- CMS was not really viable year round employment for guides, so how do you make a profession out of part time work? Maybe with both the BRC and CMS you can. Guiding is a difficult way to make a living. The AMGA knows that and is trying to help guides through improved potential for access (permits), various member benefits, and marketing of the profession. But primarily, the AMGA exists to improve professional standards through its training courses and certification exams. Soon, every working US guide will be an AMGA member and in support of its basic message of education and certification. And those increased standards will reflect themselves in who becomes a guide and the careers they are able to create in guiding.

FRB: What are the duties of the president of the AMGA?

John: I'm a go-between. I work closely with the AMGA office (day to day operations) and I lead the Board of Directors (in charge of the basic mission). It is my job along with the Executive Directors to make sure that what the AMGA does day to day is in keeping with our mission and strategic plan.

FRB: Where can customers climb with the AMGA?

John: Unless you are a guide in training, you cannot climb with the AMGA but you can climb with an AMGA certified guide or an AMGA accredited guide service. A certified guide has gone through extensive training and intense examination in one of the three mountaineering disciplines -- rock climbing, alpine climbing, and ski mountaineering. An IFMGA (internationally ) certified guide is certified in all 3. Nationwide, you can find a listing of all certified guides and all accredited guide services on the AMGA website: www.amga.com.

FRB: We've heard you have some excellent guides.
          Tell us about them.

John: As a group, I believe their qualifications are unequalled. We have about 20 guides (more in summer, fewer in winter). 7 of the 20, including myself, teach guide training courses for the AMGA. There are presently 36 IFMGA guides listed on the AMGA website (of which only about 30 are active and living in the United States). Five of these, including our Head Guide, Eli Helmuth, work currently for CMS. Most of us are all-rounders, meaning we like and can guide with equal skill on rock, snow, and ice. It's always a mix -- some of our guides climb harder, some are better teachers, some have a particular knack for connecting with their clients -- but in general it's a strong and well rounded bunch in all of these areas.

FRB: What can we expect from being guided
          by an AMGA certified guide?

John: Right now AMGA certification is almost feels like a doctorate in guiding in the U.S., eventually, it will be like a bachelor's -- the minimum standard before being a full fledged guide. That's what it is in Europe -- if you don't have your IFMGA, you're not a guide.

It promises the client a baseline of training -- a certified rock guide has had at least 27 days of training and examination with some of the most skilled guide trainers in the country and has in addition guided and climbed 100 of routes on the way to meeting the experiential requirements. All the other disciplines have similar training programs. You know he or she climbs at a certain standard, you know they are skilled in impromptu rescue if needed -- basically you have assurance you're out with a professional. You can just relax and enjoy the climb.

FRB: Where is the AMGA going?
          How are things progressing on turning
          guiding into a real living?

John: The AMGA is going great in terms of getting buy-in both from guides and from the Outdoor Industry. Sponsorship by companies like Black Diamond, Mammut, Marmot, and the North Face are how the AMGA is able to keep training and certification somewhat affordable for working guides.

As for turning it into a real living, let's just say that's a little slower. But I believe there's been some progress. Looking just at CMS, a lot more of my guides are married, a little older than the staff of a decade ago, looking at guiding as their career not just something they'll do for a few years.

FRB: Tell us about the new terrain at the Boulder Rock Club.

John: In general, we moved to more sloping angles, with fewer abrupt changes. It's still visually striking but it is less confining to the route setters and on a given stretch of wall they will be able to create routes that cover a wider range of grades and a wider range of movement. That should keep things fresher for a long time.

The new boulder looks great and the return to the main floor via the slide is a lot of fun -- for kids of all ages, my staffs been loving it.

FRB: What's next for the BRC and totalclimbing.com?
          Where do you go from here?

John: I don't know. I have two more years as AMGA President probably and then I'm not sure. You've sometimes said I'm the busiest person you know -- I'm not sure I want that to be my obituary, so I may have to look into finding some more time for my family.

FRB: You have a strong history of volunteerism and
         giving back to the climbing community.
         What drives you?

John: I have always felt that sharing climbing with others was almost as rewarding as climbing itself, they cant really be separated for me. In terms of the giving back, those of us who love it all receive so much from climbing, how can we not give back to the extent we're able.

FRB: How do you want to be remembered
          in the climbing world?

John: I'll never be remembered as the strongest climber but I hope to be remembered as someone who just kept doing it -- someone who was still climbing well and enjoying it hugely long into my 70's. Alan Steck is like that; we climbed 10's together in Joshua Tree a few years ago when he was in his 70's. I'll probably be remembered more as a guide than a climber -- and I'd like to be remembered as someone who was instrumental in guiding becoming a true career in this country.

FRB: Thanks for the interview, Mr. Bicknell.

John: You're welcome. Thank you.


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