Onwards and upwards

There’s barely any snow in Stockholm. The skies are clear. The usual winter of minus temperatures and a covering of white is nowhere to be seen. Olov Isaksson seems a little out of his comfort zone as a result. He’s keen to get to the Alps for the final course on his mountain guiding programme.

It’s been two years since we first met Olov and his five fellow trainees. Back then, we were surrounded by lots of snow and mountains in the Swiss resort of Davos. Olov has been training to become a mountain guide with the Swedish Mountain Guide Association for almost three years. He has just over a year to go before he’s a fully-fledged mountain guide, able to take clients out on his own.

Fresh ski tracks
Skiing fresh tracks

For now, though, he is what’s called an aspirant guide. This means he can work as a guide but under supervision. “In the Alps this means guiding with a qualified guide. But in Scandinavia we can guide under indirect supervision; this means we can go out by ourselves so long as we first check the objective with a senior guide.”

Mountain guides ready to go out skiing

Olov qualified as an aspirant guide last summer; since then he’s crammed a lot in. A wedding, a honeymoon, regular work at Stockholm University – even getting sick – and some guiding, too.

“It can get pretty hectic, having a regular job and travelling so much. But it works out pretty well. My job here in Stockholm is flexible. I work part-time; in reality this means working more than full time when I’m here, so I can take time off to do the courses. I can also work remotely from the Alps if I need to”

Olov is the oldest trainee on the course at 38. But his love for the mountains blossomed from an early age and throughout his twenties, despite toying with the idea of becoming a guide, he decided instead he wasn’t ready to share his passion.

Olov Isaksson

I was physically ready to become a guide when I was 20 or so,” he explains. “But I wasn’t mentally ready to put my own ambitions aside, particularly around climbing, in order to give other people an experience in the mountains. But I’ve now reached my peak, personally, I think. So now I want to help others have memorable experiences in the mountains.

Olov has a broad skill set; but his first love was climbing, particularly winter alpine climbing. This is what he dreams about guiding one day. But becoming a mountain guide requires all-round skills. “The programme kind of levels everyone out. Those with a ski background have to focus on climbing and vice versa for those with a climbing background. So for me it now feels that I’m a better skier but a worse climber than I was at the start, but overall I can do and enjoy both.”

The Swedish system is a little different to its sister programmes in the Alps. For starters, it takes twice as long. There’s a lot more repetition as a result, which Olov believes helps to ensure you really know things; it’s not just about passing an exam. Secondly, the focus is more on learning and nurturing. “In France and Switzerland and so on, it’s very competitive. It’s basically 50% have to leave if they’re not good enough. But in Sweden it’s more nurturing. We help each other a lot. The courses in Sweden are supposed to be courses, not exams, which for me, when you’re learning, makes a big difference.”

Looking out of the gondola

Then there’s the opportunity to travel. French guides spend most of their time in Chamonix. The Swedes, on the other hand, travel all over Europe from France, Italy and Switzerland up to Norway and Sweden. “It means we learn how to travel around and get information on new places” – a vital skill for modern mountain guides.

When we caught up with Olov he was on the eve of his departure to Chamonix to do the final course in the guiding programme: an exchange course together with French aspirant guides. “We’ll do a two-day avalanche course with one of the French experts then four days of we-don’t-really-know-what. The idea really is to just network a bit with the French guys then come up with complicated situations to train on. It should be quite easy in Chamonix right now, as the conditions are really bad. So we’ll be spoilt for choice.”

After that he has a few more exams, with the final guiding exam in March 2020. Then… the mountain guiding world is his oyster.  

“In the future I’d like to mix much current work at the university, researching and teaching, with guiding. I think it’s fairly feasible because most guides work intense periods during winter and summer. So I could work for the university in between. It could be a good balance. But we’ll see. In terms of what I’d like to guide, I think ski-touring is a lot of fun. I’d also love to guide winter climbing because this is a passion of mine, but there’s a lot less commercial demand for this. I also want some time off during the summer to rock climb for myself. Though I’ve already realised it’s hard to say no to interesting job offers.”

Mountain guides getting ready
SBO/Fjällräven Davos, Schweiz

Olov has just landed his dream job guiding a group into and around Sarek National Park in Sweden this Easter. He’s also got some other high alpine touring routes planed for the spring. Olov, like the other aspirant guides, has more than enough to be getting on with – not least enabling other people’s dreams to become a reality as well as fulfilling his own long-term goals.

“I’m really enjoying the course and I’d definitely recommend it. I’ve learned a lot and there’s a really good dynamic between all the guides. I’m just excited to get out guiding for real, now"

You can find out more about our collaboration with the Swedish Mountain Guide Association (SBO) here. And you can view our Bergtagen mountaineering collection here.

Images: Fredrik Schenholm & Olov Isaksson 


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