Living the guide life

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From the Buyer’s Guide 2010 issue

HansMore than a good life, “it’s a dream come true,” says Hans Solmssen. Hans is at the top of his profession, one of the most sought-after guides in the Alps. His story is an inspiration to any North American aspiring to the ultimate job.

“If you want to be a real, year-round guide, you have to go to the Alps,” Hans says. Most alpine guides grow up in the mountains, tethered to a rope from infancy. Hans, on the other hand, came to the oceans of snow from the surf of Hawaii. I remember marvelling at the way he skied when he first arrived in Verbier, Switzerland, more than 20 years ago: hands high and out front like a surfer.

He was far from a guide then, but learning all the time and teaching, too. There are many schools now purporting to teach rope skills and mountaineering technique, some focusing on gap-year students. Without contradicting the usefulness of such schools, Hans insists that the main requirement for an aspirant guide is simply passion. The overwhelming desire to be out on the mountain, with friends. Implicit in this comment is that in Alpine resorts like Chamonix, St. Anton and Verbier, those friends are going to be skiers of considerable skill and experience already.

My first year in Verbier, I ran into Hans when some friends and I were climbing far off-piste in the spring. We arrived at a summit with an inviting convex roll of glistening scrumptious powder. Knowing I was the least adept deepsnow skier in the group, I urged Hans to dive in.

“Go for it, Doug,” he suggested, “I’ve been buried twice already this season.” And that was the beginning of an education into the difference between mere skiing and understanding the complete experience of snow structure and human motion in the alpine environment.

Hans went on to become the first American to pass through the gruelling courses leading to full accreditation as a Swiss mountain guide. As he says, it is both a lifestyle and a business. Less than 10 per cent of all guides are fulltime year-round guides. Hans works about 150 days in winter and another 100 the rest of the year. The disadvantages include being away from the family for long periods, working seven days a week sometimes and having no guaranteed salary. But an independent guide in Switzerland can make up to $100,000 a year, sometimes being taken by loyal clients with private jets on exotic heli-ski expeditions. And a guiding career can continue right through your 60s.

Heresy to us diehard recreational skiers, Hans avers that he would give up skiing in a heartbeat if he didn’t have the motivation of inspiring clients to keep him climbing that hill. “Putting a smile on their faces, showing someone who’s always skied on-piste the glaciers and crevasses, overcoming fears…just giving people the best day of skiing they’ve ever had, these are the guide’s real rewards.”

Looking for a guide?

Despite having some of the world’s most dramatic peaks and glaciers, not to mention the world’s largest helicopter-skiing operations, Canada is woefully underrepresented when it comes to mountain guides. The guide directory of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides lists no more than 125 mountain guides accredited by the UIAGM.

Around the world, only UIAGM guides are considered “real” guides. Also known as the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA), but in Europe generally called the Union Internationale des Associations de Guide de Montagne, the UIAGM is the international arbiter from the Andes to the Himalayas on all aspects of mountain guiding.

Unlike the Europeans, the Canadian guide industry recognizes separate sub-qualifi cations for Alpine, Ski and Rock guides, and also issues certifications for Hiking guides and Climbing instructors. Each of these specialized certificates comes with restrictions, unlike the UIAGM master license. A Canadian Rock Guide, for example, cannot lead on glaciers or snow-covered rock— that is the terrain of the Alpine Guide.

A Canadian Ski Guide can conduct wilderness ski tours or work as a heli-skiing guide, probably the single most challenging job in the profession. But he or she need know nothing about rock climbing. The fully qualified “Canadian Mountain Guide,” the only one recognized by the international association of guides, has to do it all.

In the Alps, a mountain guide is a mountain guide: qualified on rock, ice and snow, and for all seasons. The Swiss Association of Mountain Guides lists 1,536 active members, including Australians, Americans and the celebrated Canadian John Hogg.

France appears to have the most guides, its Syndicat National des Guides de Montagne listing 1,752. Indeed, a single guide company in Chamonix, the revered Compagnie des Guides founded in 1821, has more guides than all of Canada.

Austria, despite having no 4,000-metre peaks, manages to find employment for 1,257 guides. And according to the Austrian Federation of Mountain Guides and Ski Mountaineering Instructors, some 20 of these guides are women.

Guiding remains a macho industry, where the girls have to be better than most guys. Helene Steiner, the first woman to become an Austrian mountain guide, is one of the most inspirational guides I’ve ever skied with. Now a Canadian citizen, Helene, a former heli-guide with Mike Wiegele and instrumental in founding Klondike Heliskiing in Atlin, B.C., runs Whistler-based Canadian Adventure Tours.

To find Hans Solmssen or another guide to make your Swiss trip memorable, try

Doug Sager
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