Down the Guide's Path

“What do you think they’d want to see here?” Oh God. Please don’t ask me that. That’s the sound of all fun being sucked out of our day. We’re on a small, snowy knife ridge above a steep couloir in the Canadian Rockies and I didn’t want to hear that question for a number of reasons. 

“They” refers to any Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) examiners we may be faced with as we attempt our ski-guiding certificates. Candidates for these exams, like Martin Lefebvre and I, spend a lot of time speculating how to please them and debating pointless details like if a knot should be tied facing left or right.

The thing is, if you ever found yourself here, perched above this couloir on an exam, you would have already failed. Few would be comfortable getting down it on skis and the rope work you’d be expected to demonstrate would be cumbersome at best. 


The second reason I hate that question is the self-defeating feedback loop it creates trying to guess whatthey want to see instead of doing whatyou want. I know from experience how badly that can go. Since age six, skiing has made me happy. I spent most of my life chasing that dream until the ACMG process damn near stopped me. Why on Earth would I ruin what I love by trying to make it a job? Snapping out of it, I throw a snowball at Lefebvre and ignore the doubt. At least if I knock him off the ridge I can practice my rescue skills.

The temptation to become a guide creeps up on you. First you love getting out and playing in the mountains, then you learn new skills so you can go farther and challenge yourself more. Avalanche courses, mountaineering training, ski skills—as it turns out, each is a step towards becoming a guide, and before you know it, finishing that process becomes the goal itself.

Some people worry about the risk of a life spent travelling in the mountains for work, but the real risk is in losing your passion. Add to that the financial burden and sacrifice of time away from family and friends. I’ve tried almost every avenue to make skiing my life: coaching, writing, summer-only construction gigs, sponsored freeskiing and ski patrolling. All have become stepping stones. Knee surgeries, mortgages, fatalities, ending sponsorships, and parenthood have never even put a dent in my desire to get out in the mountains. But after failing the ski-guide exam a few years ago, part of me gave up.

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Hjertaas and Lefebvre "working". pic: Bryce Brown

The allure of the guiding path is obvious in 22-year-old Kevin Rohn as he gears up for his first season of ski-guiding courses and exams. On top of gaining experience in different snowpacks and mountain ranges, applicants need to complete numerous multi-day trips and tick off as many summits and big lines as possible, just to get into the program. That’s the addictive, inspiring phase of the process. 

To beef up his resume, Rohn went on a ski-touring bender in the Canadian Rockies last spring. “It was fun just sleeping out of my car and ticking [lines] off,” he admits: The Sickle, Mount Lefroy, the Kahl Face.

I’m almost twice Rohn’s age, as is Tim Ricci, a father, like me, plodding through the exams while trying to financially support his family. “I can’t just move back into my van and recoup costs until I try [the exam] again,” explains Ricci. “Failing doesn’t just affectme.” 

But it’s not just the money (roughly $11,000 for the apprentice ski program alone, and $4,000 for the ski guide exam, excluding other alpine disciplines), it’s the year spent pushing and straining relationships that’s hard. Working as an operations manager for Global Mountain Solutions in Canmore, Alberta, means Ricci is home more than most apprentice guides, but he doesn’t get fieldwork as training because of it. 

“Balancing a full-time job while training for exams and maintaining a family, it’s full-on. Like having three full time jobs. You need to be clear with your partner about what the training entails. You aren’t going to be sitting at home reading a textbook. You’re going into the mountains for 15-hour days. Or you’re going to fail.”

Ricci’s plan is ambitious. He completed the apprentice ski-guide program last winter, which is three training modules a week each, and a nine-day exam in spring. Picture that squeezed into your work calendar, plus time to train. To top it up, in January, Ricci threw in the ice-climbing module for the apprentice alpine-guide exam.


Lefebvre finding the line.

Time is definitely one of the hurdles that lead to utter defeat on my last exam. Squeezing training around family and work is tricky, but if you don’t put enough into it and fail, it’s all a waste. I try to keep that in mind on December 21 as my seven-year old daughter cries herself to sleep clinging to my lap. She doesn’t want me to leave, but I have a couple weeks of assistant guiding ahead. It’s the guilt that gets you. Even as an apprentice ski guide, the intermediary paid stage, you end up being away a lot—both to gain money and experience. The fact that your job is amazing and you really enjoy it just makes the guilt worse. Luckily my daughter’s still too young to realize that I’ll be gone for Christmas, New Year’s, her birthday, my birthday, Easter, and countless school assemblies or other events. But, just as I might feel sorry for us, I look at Lisa Paulson and how she earned her guide’s badge. 

I knew Paulson from around town in Banff, Alberta, her kids always in tow. Her happy, steady, maternal way seemed perfectly natural. So I didn’t recognize her dangling below the rescue helicopter as it circledthe Sunshine Village parking lot in a mid-winter storm four years ago, while I was working on ski patrol there. As a full mountain guide, Paulson now works with Banff National Park Mountain Safety. She was trying to rescue two lost skiers that day. But the wind bounced the machine so hard it couldn’t even land, much less get to the skiers. Eventually the bird just pulled away and made for town, with Paulson dangling beneath from a long cable. 

I finally recognized her later that night as I helped try to reach the lost skiers on foot, by headlamp. Through blowing snow I got to watch her superwoman routine searching technical terrain for the two skiers before she went back to town as a mild-mannered mother of two. I was impressed, but I didn’t know the half of it. The next day, the skiers were back safe and warm, Paulson was at the park with her kids, and I got to dig into her backstory.

In the early 2000s she was working for Parks Canada and plodding through the ACMG exams while also starting a family. Parks was implementing new standards for safety specialists, which meant she needed to finish her full mountain guide’s ticket or risk losing her job. “The plan was to take the exam, but then I got pregnant,” she says. That was “not a great training summer due to morning sickness,” she adds, downplaying the normal fatigue that goes along with growing a new human. 

“I knew it would be hard because I was totally unfit. And I couldn’t go anywhere because of the kids.” After her second child was born, she worked out with a personal trainer and committed to a diet that would at least have her in shape for the next summer. The pressure was high, she says, “I had to get it done both for family and work.”

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Lefebvre touring.

The full alpine-guide exam is regarded as the most grueling for Canadians. Sixteen-hour days start at three a.m., slogging up and down massive peaks for an entire week. With lots of rope work and varied terrain, the ever-present possibility of making a mistake takes its toll.

On the bright side for Paulson, she got more sleep than at home. “It was a sleep vacation,” she says. “I slept from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. straight!” Of course she passed. And in so doing, removed any excuses I might have for not trying the ski guide exam again.

I suppose it was never really a choice—those amazing days or even moments in the backcountry are what drive me. I didn’t realize it when I started, but chasing those experiences for others is just as rewarding and addictive. Safely finding the perfect terrain for clients in the right snow conditions to make them light up with smiles and cheers is still the best job I could dream of.

It’s mid-May now and I have a wet pile of camping, skiing and mountaineering gear on the floor. As we left the exam, candidates raised beers and toasted not having to touch skis for six months. The next day I left for a family beach trip. Home now, it’s summer in the valley but I’m waxing and tuning. I expected to feel beat down and tired but I’m excited. Really excited. The exam is over and I passed.

There will be years of honing the trade and breaking trail but I’m fired up to get started, already dreaming up trips to take clients on. Before all the snow is gone though, I want to climb and ski one more late-spring line with Lefebvre. Something steep and challenging. If all goes well we’ll end the day with drinks on a sunny patio and as we read the beer menu I’ll ask, “What do you think they want to see here?”