Will is maybe the most experienced alpinist of his age in the country. In this blog post Will describes his journey to becoming a guide, and what he has learnt in his time guiding clients in the alps.
“S**t, its over! What a Journey…” was a text from one of my best friends a few days after we’d both been told we were now IFMGA mountain guides. Why such excitement and shocked realisation? Because the journey had taken us four long years and had had its moments for both of us; frustrating, agonising, painful, educational, exciting, joyous moments. We had forged strong friendships, nearly died a couple of times and fulfilled a childhood ambition.
So what is an IFMGA mountain guide anyway?
An IFMGA diploma is the highest certified level of training and assessment for mountain activities in the world. It means you have been assessed to the highest standard of professionalism in mountaineering and skiing. Yes, skiing! As an IFMGA mountain guide you are just as qualified to guide people skiing in the mountains as you are climbing. The IFMGA diploma is also a legal requirement to working above the glacier line on big mountains in the European Alps, and it is this which makes it a prestigious piece of paper.
There are currently just over 20 countries affiliated with the IFMGA, and to become a guide you have to first be accepted on to the training scheme of one of these countries. With the British system this is often regarded as the crux, as you have to demonstrate in your application that you have done close to a lifetime’s worth of climbing and skiing before you are accepted. It’s not technical brilliance that is looked for in your application, but rather a large breadth of experience. Once accepted, you can then attend courses and assessments that span a minimum of just over three years until you have jumped through all the necessary hoops to be given your diploma.
So what do you learn? And how does it change you? I guess these are the important questions.
Well the easiest way to answer them would be to look at myself sat in a room in North Wales as a 22-year-old full of anticipation at the beginning of my first induction course. Then myself four years later, sat on a bench in Switzerland having just finished my last ever day of assessment. It’s hard to articulate my thoughts, but here are some fundamental skills I feel I have developed and have been tested on over the last few years. Some of them were taught, but a great deal I developed by myself, with a nudge in the right direction.
Working as a professional you must develop a new platform from which to assess risk, not for your own ability and experience levels, but for those of your guests and yourself as entity. Being able to make dynamic decisions on the hoof according to one’s environment is a skill we all have as experienced mountaineers already. As a guide you have to develop that skill to also take in to account your guests, and often it’s these human factors that are more important than the mountain. You also have to shift your general level of risk acceptance fairly substantially in the conservative direction.
An ability to get in the head of your guest, understand what they want, and more importantly what they’re capable of.
Everybody has a line; you could call it the “adventure-misadventure” line. When you cross that line a fun, hard, wild experience can rapidly be too much. As passionate climbers and skiers we are often trying to intentionally cross that line and keep going in to uncharted territory, searching for the rawest adventure. I think a key skill in learning to be a guide is first realising that this is not the case for everyone, and secondly how to identify where that line is in an individual.
As a guide you are constantly trying to make something extremely dangerous as safe as possible. Some of the places you end up as a mountain guide with paying clients are simply places you shouldn’t be if you want to be “dead safe”. This in particular is something I battle with mentally, and don’t expect to solve any time soon. Other than with the thought – it’s all relative.
You are being tested on your ability not only to guide, but to teach. As a mountain guide you can spend a lot of your time teaching skills, whether it be how to carve on a set of skis or how to move safely on loose ground, remove a nut or look cool in a white pair of sunglasses! There is a stark correlation between your ability to teach something, and how safe your students and therefore yourself are.
How to be fun yet firm. How to be serious yet irreverent. How to calm someone down. How to psyche somebody up. How to let somebody completely trust you. These are things which naturally evolve through working and experience in the mountain environment with novices.
It soon becomes obvious that the adage “guiding is not about climbing or skiing, it’s about people” is extremely accurate.
Ultimately I can sum up the process like this – You are learning to be a professional climber and skier. I don’t mean how to climb 9b or ski like Candide Thovex. I mean how to make good sound decisions. How to make a day in the mountains run without a hitch. How to pitch something at exactly the right level. How to use the mountains as a place of work, not have too much duct tape on your clothes and how to pace a day by drinking copious amounts of coffee!
It’s strange to write this so early on in my guiding career. I am a real believer in learning through doing, not teaching, and that you really start learning once you’ve qualified in any profession. But hey, sometimes first impressions are accurate ones.