Why become a mountain guide?

Six guys are gazing intently at a topographic map. They’re all a little windswept and sun-kissed from a day high up in the Swiss Alps surrounding Davos. They look just like any other group of outdoorsy 30-somethings. But what distinguishes these six men from others their age is their commitment to their passion. Their dream of turning what they love into their day job. They are all IFMGA-certified mountain guides in the making.

Learning to become a guide is not a decision that should be taken lightly. The training is demanding. The prerequisites for getting in are extensive and the cost of the education dents even the healthiest of bank balances. But for some, the allure of spending all their time in the outdoors, where they feel happiest and most free, is just too great.

“I’ve no idea what to expect from this course or how I’m going to feel once I’m qualified. But I do know that I’m happiest when I’m in the mountains.”

This is Olov Isaksson, a 36-year-old assistant professor at Stockholm University. Olov is the eldest in the group and he’s been thinking about becoming a mountain guide for the past 15 years. “I don’t think I was ready before. I was too focused on pushing my own limits. But now I think it’ll be fun to share my love for nature and the outdoors with others.”

Marcus Palm, a 33-year-old Swede now living in La Grave, France, seconds this. “I’m really looking forward to being able to share my passion with others.”

Although each of them comes from a different part of Sweden, has a different background, different strengths and weaknesses, they were all in agreement about why they wanted to become mountain guides.

But of course there’s a little bit of selfishness in there too. We all have our own personal goals in life. A job doesn’t just have to be a means-to-an-ends. “I’m looking forward to the freedom that comes from being a qualified guide,” says 29-year-old Carl Granlund, who’s working as a climbing guide in Norway’s stunning Lofoten islands. “I love northern Norway, but with mountain guiding I’ll be able to travel and go on expeditions all over the world. And I’ll be able to push myself in a way I can’t right now.”

The training itself is a big draw. When I met the guys at the start of February they were in Davos for their first course - a collaboration between the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) and Manuel Genswein, a well-known expert in the field of avalanche rescue and transceiver training. The trainees were learning how to act when normal avalanche rescue protocols don’t work. The course was demanding and the trainees were really put through their paces. But this is just one course of many on the trail to becoming a fully-qualified mountain guide.

There are 22 meet ups and exams over a three-year period. The trainees get to ski, climb and learn guiding skills in some of Europe’s best natural playgrounds. And they’ll be sharing all this fun with like-minded people, each equally well endowed with outdoor adventure skills.

“I’m really excited about learning lots of new things and getting to hang out with these guys,” says David Nyberg a Swede working as an outdoor activity teacher in Finland, who turned 30 during the training week in Davos.

Becoming a mountain guide is not ‘all play no work’ however. The course is incredibly demanding. Right from the start the guides are in the spotlight. Their actions and decisions are under the keen eye of Mikael Amlert, the President of the Swedish Mountain Guide Association. But although Mikael is stern with the trainees, he doesn’t doubt their abilities.

“There are at least 90 days of avalanche-related training built into the programme. These days are spread over several different courses with exams in seven modules, as well as throughout the apprenticeship period. Here in Davos, they go through the fundamental knowledge and techniques. Still there is no doubt their first course is already on a high level. Before being accepted to attend the programme all the candidates went through a process of showing a vast list of their experience in avalanche terrain and were later selected after a test in Chamonix in May 2016,” says Mikael.

Getting the Swedish mountain guiding qualification is the beginning of a new life. It will set these men off on a new course, filled with new adventures. It’ll open new doors, but also close a few old ones. This seems to be something they’re all acutely aware of however. They have commitments, families and other interests. They’re not all going to pursue guiding in the same way, or even full time.

For 34-year-old Robert Lönell however, who loves the mountains in winter so much he moved to Engelberg in Switzerland, guiding will become his full-time job. “I can’t wait to get started. To use all I’ve trained for, for so many years; to enjoy life outdoors with other people is amazing. I will definitely be working full time as a mountain guide in the Alps, otherwise why would I be here doing this course?”

But for Carl, Olov and Marcus guiding will be shared with other work. “I think it’s good to have variation and regular change. It helps give you perspective on life,” says Carl.

For 34-year-old David Lindgren deciding to be a fully-qualified Swedish Mountain Guide was just a natural progression. Already working as an outdoor leader and adventure guide in Åre, Sweden, this is what he sees as the best – and most obvious – step forward. “I already work as an outdoor guide in Sweden but it’s not the same level as what we’re pursuing with this. This education is a way to progress and get the ‘stamp of approval’ to show I’m qualified at what I do. But at the same time, I don’t know what else I would do. I love being out in nature and I love teaching people. There is nothing better than getting to tailor an outdoor experience to a person’s dreams and goals.”

With an attitude like this, we think Carl, Olov, Marcus, Robert and the two Davids will do just fine during this three-year education. Their journey to becoming professional mountain guides has just begun and we’ll be tracking their progress for the next few years. We hope you’ll follow along on the journey. Their next course will be in northern Norway learning guiding techniques for rock climbing and rescue.

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