At Altitude

Guiding Light

A merger of two Aspen outfitters creates a clearinghouse for mountain purists.

By Tess Weaver June 14, 2022 Published in the Summer/Fall 2022 issue of Aspen Sojourner

In 1977, Dick Jackson, only the 15th American at the time with coveted International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA) certification, bought the Rocky Mountain Climbing School for $200. Rebranded as Aspen Expeditions Worldwide (AEW;, the business operated from an office in a trolley car at Rubey Park, then from a space above the Butcher’s Block, before moving to the base of Aspen Highlands in the mid-2000s. Jackson was one of the first Americans to guide in Europe, where the history of mountain guiding began a century before ours. But where Europeans idolize their guides, Americans revere the counterculture ski pioneers who defined backcountry and extreme skiing.

“I think it stems from our pioneering past,” says Amos Whiting, who owns AEW with Britt Ruegger. “America has long valued doing it ourselves—discovering and adventuring on our own through vast wilderness. Somehow in early mountain-town culture, a stigma developed—you looked weak if you hired a professional to take you into the mountains.”

But Whiting, the 20th American to earn IFMGA status and a senior instructor and examiner for the American Mountain Guides Association, has observed a shift in the 20 years he’s guided for AEW.

Amos Whiting (left) and Britt Rueger

“Mountain sports have exploded in popularity and become more accessible,” says Whiting. “A lot of people new to these sports are used to paying for professional services. They hire a mechanic to change their oil and a lawyer to read a contract, so they can pay for someone to take care of their life for a day.”

Going all in with that logic (and, following Jackson’s example, investing considerably more than $200), earlier this year Whiting and Ruegger purchased their primary competitor, Aspen Alpine Guides (AAG). Prior to the merger, each company operated in different permit areas, with AAG leading hut trips to 10th Mountain Division Hut Association facilities and guiding peak-baggers up Mt. Elbert, Mt. Massive, or La Plata Peak in the Sawatch Range, and AEW guiding Aspen’s Braun Huts and Elk Mountains 14ers.

“We can offer consistency and a greater variety of product—including new products we’ve never been able to offer, like hut-to-hut gravel biking,” says Whiting. “We have a bigger guide pool—our roster now rivals big operations like Exum [Mountain Guides in the Grand Tetons]. More highly qualified guides and a bigger staff mean more availability and options for clients.”

Call it a one-stop shop for Aspen action adventure.

Choose Your Adventure

Hut-to-hut gravel biking  
Try one of cycling’s fastest-growing disciplines–it lies somewhere between road biking and mountain biking and includes dirt roads and trails–while staying at backcountry huts for one to five nights. This vehicle-supported, custom-guided, and catered trip is a first of its kind for AEW, which can create an itinerary as easy or challenging as desired. Price upon request.

Nontechnical 14er
New for AEW, climb one of three nontechnical, hike-up 14ers on the other side of Independence Pass. Mt. Elbert, Mt. Massive, and La Plata Peak in the Sawatch Range offer the experience of bagging a 14,000-foot peak without the difficulty of other 14ers in the Elks. $330/person for a group of four; $400/person for a pair. Driving fees not included.

New rock-climbing zone
AEW guides have pioneered a new rock-climbing area on Independence Pass referred to as Wild Ridge, a zone unique in its ability to get intermediate climbers up high to experience multipitch climbing and sprawling views with only moderate climbing required. $655 for a solo trip; $350/person for a pair. Includes equipment.

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