Mountain guiding is not about pushing your own limits. In fact, despite outward appearances, it’s actually a pretty selfless job. First and foremost it’s about enabling people to get to places, safely, that they couldn’t otherwise reach alone. It’s about pushing people’s limits; it’s about inspiration; it’s about collaboration and trust.
This season we’ve launched a new mountaineering collection called Bergtagen. It’s designed for a life above the treeline. And who spends more time above the treeline than most of us regular folk? Mountain guides. So we’ve embarked on a collaboration with the Swedish Mountain Guides Association (Svenska Bergsguideorganisationen/SBO).
Of course, the reasoning for going into guiding is usually due to a love of the mountains and a strong urge to share this passion with others. But the journey to becoming a fully qualified mountain guide is often convoluted and no two journeys are alike. For SBO president and training programme coordinator Mikael Amlert, it also started out of necessity.
“Long ago, in my ‘other life’, I was in the army. There came a point when they needed mountain guides. So I got sent off to military mountaineering school for eight months. It was great and I learnt a lot of skills but it wasn’t long before army cut backs meant that I was out of a job.”
Faced with the prospect of real life and a desk job, Mikael decided to put his mountaineering skills to good use and train as a civilian mountain guide.
“The technical part of the two courses was similar – there are only certain ways of doing things in the mountains. But the soft skills, the actual guiding skills that you need to apply to people who are on holiday or have differing abilities, were quite different. The civilian training was much harder. The risk management part was totally different. In the military you just follow orders and rules. But as a private guide you need to always adapt to change, all over the world – with different cultures and languages. So work as a civilian guide is definitely more complex. But at least nobody is shooting at you.”
Mikael qualified in 2003 and devoted most of his time, at least in winter and spring, to guiding. The Swedish focus on ski touring means this is the main season. Summer is down time for Mikael and he likes to spend much of it at home with his family in Stockholm. But over the years he’s travelled extensively. He still travels a lot, but since 2013 he’s had another focus, aside from guiding. For the past four years Mikael has been the president of the Swedish Mountain Guides Association (SBO). It’s a role he loves and has made his own, spending “way too much time” on coordinating the training of new guides.
“There’s a lot of time invested in being president, but there are also a lot of rewards. The best part is to be able to really make a difference. I’m driven by my heart and my experience and I put this into the training of the young candidates and into maintaining our network. But, of course, I’m never satisfied. I’m always thinking about things I can do better.”
Mikael has spearheaded some changes since becoming president of SBO. Being part of the IFMGA (the international association of mountain guide associations from all over the world) means meeting high international guiding standards. And these standards are periodically checked and reviewed. This has resulted in SBO delving into how it trains its guides.
“We focus on ski touring here in Sweden, but also on communication between guides and clients. We promote a Swedish way of working. We cover the interaction between guides and clients, in terms of sharing information and interaction with safety and rescue services. Each country has its own culture and there are some differences in how each country guides. But I think these differences are good because it’s colourful. Some things are the same everywhere though and working together with other guides is one of the things I enjoy most.”
Although IFMGA membership requires a lot of extra work, it has many benefits too. The camaraderie that comes with sharing a rope reflects that the IFMGA guides, from all over the world, share. And they’re able to learn from each other.
Presidents from all the IFAMGA members meet twice a year. They take part in technical and political clinics and workshops covering everything from how to secure work permits in far-flung regions of the world to new safety techniques. Despite their cultural and language differences, everything gets sorted “over a coffee or a beer”, and the presidents always leave with an action plan for navigating through the red tape.
“Everything is possible within the IFMGA. There is a great connection with all these different people working in the same role, as guides. It’s really inspiring. I’m always so excited when I get back from these meetings, full of fresh energy to keep working with the development of the SBO.”
It’s this spirit of sharing, understanding and team work that Mikael likes most about guiding. And it’s something he feels with both fellow guides and clients.
“When you tie into a rope with somebody you get attached and you’re dependent on them as well as them being dependent on you. When you take on a new challenge in a new destination or with complex conditions, in combination with inspiring the clients – who really have to push themselves physically and mentally – it’s really special. To experience topping out on Mont Blanc after eight or nine hours in the dark, with people who thought they were never going to make it, is incredible.”
This explains Mikael’s lust for guiding. But his passion for working as president of SBO, for guiding it to new heights and for collaborating with the IFMGA comes from his affinity with other guides, from the ‘brotherhood of the rope’.
“To come together from different nations, different backgrounds and different ages is fantastic. It’s like a self-perpetuating mentorship. There is nobody telling you to go and speak to that guide over there, it’s just what you do. Clients see this interaction and how we work together without knowing each other. And I’m sure they take something home from that. I’ve had a few bad-weather rescue scenarios where I’ve had to work together with other guides –perhaps from five, six or seven different countries – to save someone in distress. It really affects you and you learn a lot. It’s important to bring these experiences into the training of new guides.”
Guides, along with mountain rescue services the world over, put their lives at risk saving others. They also put their bodies through a whole load of stress – climbing mountains for a living isn’t exactly easy. Add to that a whole load of planning and paper work to fill in, red tape to jump, family dinners and birthdays that are missed and it’s not that cushy job we, as outsiders, think it is. You have to be a certain kind of person to become a guide.
“There should be a disclaimer that says: this job isn’t always what it appears to be. But you always come back to the good parts. Even if you have a lousy experience, a bad tour or something, you forget about it before the next one. If you work in an office and have a bad day I think that’s harder to get rid of. That stays stuck in your body. It builds up with a feeling or sense that I’d like to do something else. But as a guide, as soon as your clothes are dry – or half dry at least – you’re ready to go again. And all you need is a good sleep, a good dinner, a beer and a few laughs with a colleague. We have a very short memory for bad experiences.”
Yep, guides are pretty special. Despite risk, tiredness, time away from home and injury they remain forever positive. But when you get to spend most of your time in your element – nature – we can understand why.
Text: Sarah Benton