Exams are tough. Whether they are your first drivers test, an important midterm, or a job-dependent physical exam, they all force you to lay it on the line. There is no hiding behind feigned indifference, or deferral to a more knowledgeable friend. It is you, the challenge laid out, and the raw truth of what knowledge or physical prowess you have amassed up to then.

The Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) Ski Guide exam is run through Thompson Rivers University under their Canadian Mountain Ski Guide (CMSG) program. It is the culmination of prior training courses, an Apprentice Ski Guide exam, seasons of work experience and a lot of old fashioned hard work. I did my Apprentice Ski Guide exam six years ago, worked for a couple years after that, and then went to business school. Not the ideal path to continue with my Ski Guide goals, but one that allowed me to juggle guiding with “regular” schooling and work.

To be a student and attempt an exam is normal; the risk of failure is part of the learning process, and is a generally accepted part of educational progression. In the CMSG program, candidates go into their exam identifying as ski guides already. The risk of failure is compounded by that negative result making them feel like unworthy guides, which is as crushing an assertion as anything to people who have worked so hard to get where they are already, and by all accounts are very capable of safely guiding clients through the mountains.

This “what if” outcome is always close by, reminding us, the candidates, to train harder and prepare more thoroughly for the upcoming exam. Maps are pored over, techniques refined and ski miles are pounded in. We visit the exam location, scouting potential routes daily, hypothesizing over different examiner approaches to a particular situation. The evenings are spent discussing more potential exam options, every candidate with their own opinion of how things will go down. Everyone is fueled along by their own “what if” scenario, adding to the general group stress and anxiety. The weeks before the exam generally unfold like this. The focus is singular, creating a mad sort of efficiency, all of the candidates striving towards one goal, the successful completion of the exam.

In many ways we are no different from university students preparing for their finals, or firefighters with their physical tests. All of this preparation has come down to one week in the mountains with my fellow candidates and examiners. We are now up to the challenge, skills honed from months of training and years in the mountains.

The exam pressure lies in putting together seamless days back to back. One great lead is not enough. The next day we need to put together another great lead, and the following day, and the day after that. The singular focus remains from training and all other worldly worries melt away. All that matters is the day in front of us. The stress of all our prior assumptions disappears as well, as now this exam is a reality, and we are actually out there, skiing in some wild places. The proper reasons for embarking on this crazy process come flooding back, as I top out on another Rocky Mountain peak, a vast expanse of mountainous terrain expanding before me. “What exam?” I think, as we lay turns between massive rock walls, sinuous pathways of powder cascading far down below into the valley.

The longest week of my life somehow quickly comes to a close. We are now left to reflect on the week, wondering what we would have done differently, if anything at all. Feeling thankful for a pretty much perfect week of weather and conditions with a great group of candidates, I now allow my body to start recovering from an intense winter season of guiding and training and begin a new stressful period: waiting for the official results of the exam to be mailed out in a couple weeks.

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