What’s it really like to be a mountain guide?

Spending weeks on end ski touring waist-deep Japanese snow (aka Japow), climbing sheer cliff faces jutting up from a Norwegian fjord or staring down on alp after green, cow-filled alp from a Haute Savoie peak doesn’t sound like work. But for Swedish mountain guide Magnus Lindor Strand, that’s exactly what it is.

Magnus Lindor Strand, Mountain Guide
Magnus Lindor Strand, Mountain Guide

For our 2017 autumn/winter collection we’re going back to our roots; to where the Fjällräven journey began – the Swedish mountains. Our new mountaineering collection, called Bergtagen, is seriously technical, our most technical yet in fact. And we needed to not just consult the people who need this type of gear in their daily work when it came to design details; we also needed an advanced test team to put it through its paces. So we’ve started a collaboration with SBO, Svenska Bergsguideorganisationen or, in English, the Swedish Mountain Guide Association. Of which Magnus, who we had the pleasure of interviewing, is a senior member.

Guiding brings me huge satisfaction. And to be honest, it is exactly how I envisioned it to be. To be outdoors all the time, pushing your body is amazing. But on top of that I’m able to share the memorable experiences and my knowledge with people that are just as passionate about nature as I am. I’m really lucky. It’s a pretty awesome job.

But Magnus hasn’t always been a guide. He started life working in banking and went on to become a highly successful stockbroker, holding down senior managerial positions in Stockholm, London and Frankfurt. He got married and had a family early on in his career. So it’s almost as if he lived another life before his life as a guide. But despite his success in the office, Magnus wasn’t fulfilled.

“I got to a point where I said enough was enough. You wonder if this is what you’re supposed to do for your entire life. I thought about what was important to me and realised it wasn’t business or even financial success. It was being outdoors. Being in nature gives me strength; it makes me happy and I wanted to be able to share this feeling of happiness and freedom with others. So mountain guiding was a natural choice.”

A natural choice it may have been. But it wasn’t exactly easy. The list of prerequisites for becoming a mountain guide is long. Training to be a guide is just that, you learn how to be a guide. You don’t learn how to be a great climber, skier, map reader, trekker. These are the skills you need to have honed and fine-tuned before even considering pursuing the route into guiding.

Magnus continued to work while he got these technical skills dialled in. Then in 2007 he quit his job to really devote the time required to getting in shape. A year later he started the mountain guide training.

“The training is very individual. It can take anything from three to five years. It’s not possible to do it any faster than this. Quite often there are one or two aspects you have to work on, so it often takes more time than you’d planned.”

And for Magnus, the main challenge was not physical. He was in good shape. He had the necessary technical skills. But the ‘soft’ skills, as he calls them - the skills that take you from being a good technical skier to a safe, effective guide - are much harder to acquire. Partly because there is quite often a lot of ego in the way.

Magnus Lindor Strand skiing

“I was a good skier. I’d been a climbing guide. I’d been a senior executive at some of the world’s biggest banks earning crazy money and then suddenly I’m being moaned at by a 30-year old French guide who’s prodding me in the back with his pole. It’s sobering. To a large extent, I think you need to realise just how little you know if you really want to become a good guide. It’s a humbling experience but it’s also a rough road.”

10 years later does Magnus have any regrets?

I don’t really have regrets, but I’ve made huge sacrifices. I got divorced. For a while I hardly saw my kids. I spend a huge amount of time abroad so maintaining a relationship is difficult. But it’s a choice I made and I’m glad I made it.

These sacrifices aren’t for everyone. Magnus often invokes envy from his clients. They bemoan their stressful lives, holding down busy office jobs, paying a mortgage, having to please family and maintain a strong exterior to friends. But Magnus doesn’t believe that most of them would be willing to give up what he’s had to.

“You always have a choice. It may not be easy. The best things usually aren’t. But it’s always down to you."

Rock climbing

Most of Magnus’ clients, however, are just glad to be out enjoying their time in the great outdoors. Skill and experience levels vary greatly. But taking a novice on their first ski tour or up their first steep climb is no less rewarding then spending a week exploring the back and beyond of Hokkaido or Lofoten.

“It might be that one week I’m taking an experienced group ski touring and the next it’s a one-on-one with a beginner. But I find them equally interesting and sometimes it’s actually more exciting to teach beginners. You see a lot of progression but also you’re exposing them to something they’ve never experience before and it’s amazing to be able to experience this joy with them. Plus, I love – and need – the variation. If every week was high-risk, high-skill I’d be exhausted by the end of the season.”

Magnus is busiest in the winter when he has just one day off a week and works long days. While his clients are in the local bar celebrating a first ascent or a particularly steep decent, Magnus is planning the next day’s route, scanning maps and checking the weather, often for places he’s never been to before.

So what does a mountain guide do on his day off?

I love being in nature in my spare time too. But often the focus is more just on the ‘being’ rather than any ‘doing’. So I like fishing. But sometimes you can’t beat a few beers and some TV.

SBO is giving us a unique insight into what it’s like to become a guide. They’re inviting us along for the journey from aspiring guide to fully-qualified IFMGA-associated guide. We'll be sharing their stories soon.

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