The guide’s training programme has to be in accordance with the IFMGA platform which is the internationally recognised standard in the profession. The training of a mountain guide goes through several stages, detailed below:
Gain experience: this is the stage at which you are most likely to decide to become a mountain guide. You are already a recreational climber or a skier or a mountaineer or maybe just a hiker. You may excel in one discipline and have never practiced another or you are a great all-arounder. You have been in the mountains, recreationally and you could envisage a profession that would allow you to spend even more time there. In this case you need to ‘step up’ your game. Working as a mountain guide will require expertise in several disciplines (rock climbing, alpine climbing and skiing) and above average skills in moving on rock, on easy scrambling terrain, on glaciated terrain, on skis or on foot. You are not required to become a champion in these disciplines but above average competence is needed. After-all you aim to take, safely, people less skilled than you out in the mountains.
Start bringing up your rock climbing level at least to 6b+ (VII+) onsight on sport routes. By today’s standards this is nothing exceptional. Climbing at higher grades would make it easier but lower than this it is unlikely to allow you to pass the entry exam or to follow the course. Spend many days on easy angled, moderate rocky terrain. Do ridges and scrambles and a lot of it at around grade III – V UIAA. As a guide this is the kind of terrain you will be spending most of your time on so you need to move with ease, proficiency and speed (not racing but efficiently). While doing this try to get used to longer outings, not at high pace and record breaking traverses but long (>8hrs) days spent traveling on mountain terrain regardless of weather conditions or time of the year. If you will not like this then this profession is not for you….
Build your experience on technical ice climbing by doing loads of easy WI3 ice-falls and a good number of WI4 / WI4+ ice-falls. Remember that at the exam you will need to climb in control and with ease WI4 / WI4+ and getting to the top is not a sufficient condition to pass. Do not neglect however to get used to older, maybe seemingly more antiquated ways of travelling on ice, like climbing steep ice with only one, classical ice-axe or doing long traverses without using front-points or down climbing facing downwards on steep ground. You need to get better at these techniques as well since, in winter conditions, this is how you will travel most of the time while providing security to your clients. Climbing rock ridges in winter will help you feel more secure in crampons on rock a skill that is vital to your future profession.
Get back to the basics on skis on piste, at first. Go back through the basic techniques like snow-plough, parallel turns, body positioning. Put in long hours on piste improving your skiing technique. If you never skied before take a good, professional instructor. It’s much harder to correct bad habits than learning from scratch. Then go out and enjoy what winter has to offer on skis. Forget the costly lifts and skin up to the top. Build in good cardio and refine the art of moving with as little effort as possible in deep snow. Play with the gear until you find what suits best your style and preferred activity. Ski off-piste regardless of snow conditions. Don’t chase only the powder. Learn to ski the worst snow.
Gaining this experience is best done with friends and pursuing personal projects. It’s always more fun doing your own thing than chasing a tick-list for an exam. Gaining this experience in a natural way should both improve your skill and result in a routes list that would qualify you for the entry test.
The guide’s training programme is not designed to transform you into a skier or a mountaineer or a climber. It is designed to take all-around mountain climbers and skiers and give them the tools and training to lead novice or competent climbers or skiers into the mountains.
Compile a list of climbs and ski tours: at this stage you have decided this is a career you want to consider. In order to be able to register for the entry test you need to prove your experience (that is what is written above). Don’t undererestimate what is required since it’s highly unlikely to be able to achieve all these in a year or so. For a very motivated individual compiling this required experience will take at least 3 years. If you only have to ‘fill in gaps’ in disciplines do not forget how long it took you to get the proficiency in the disciplines you already master. For admission to the entry test you will need to prove that you have compleeted:
- at least 10 mountain routes on mixed (snow, rock and ice) terrain of which at least 5 need to be in excess of 800m and of D grade or harder.
- at least 10 rock climbing routes of minimum grade IV UIAA (scramble) and a vertical height gain of at least 250m to be climbed in mountaineering boots and with protection to be added at least for some pitches.
- at least 10 multi-pitch routes (minimum 4 pitches each) bolted or trad of grade 6a (VI) or harder.
- at least 10 steep ice climbs of grade WI4 minimum
- at least 10 ski touring days each day having at least 1000m ascent/descent and at least 5 of these days to have been on glaciated terrain.
Remember that on all the climbs you need to have led at least half or the route if it is a multi-pitch and all the routes if they are single pitch.
Register and show up to the entry test: Submit your application form and routes list and come to the entry test prepared. Sometimes the entry test will be all in one go (several days linked) or in two sessions (one summer and one winter session). Sometimes you will have longer and more complex tests sometimes more straight-forward. It depends from association to association and also it depends on how many people register that year. In some countries the rock climbing standard, in reality, is way much higher than what the IFMGA platform requires and in some others the skiing level is extremely high. This is the result of having very well, extremely well, prepared candidates showing up for the exams and no country or association could accommodate an indefinite number of candidates to the training programme. The specifics of certain countries and the high registration numbers in some have developed a bias that goes upwards and never downwards regarding the standard required. In all cases, however, remember that no association will drop an inch under the IFMGA platform requirements.
Show up to the entry test prepared to be examined in 3 disciplines: rock climbing, ice and mixed climbing and skiing. The minimum requirement (yet not always the ‘good enough’ criteria) is to be able to prove that you can:
- climb, leading, rock routes of grade 5a-b (V) minimum in mountaineering boots (crampon compatible)
- climb, leading, rock routes of grade 6b minimum in rock shoes (sport climbing setting)
- climb, leading, steep ice of grade WI4 minimum using two technical ice axes and 12 point crampons
- travel on mixed ground (ice and rock) using one single classical ice axe and 10 pint crampons technique (no front points)
- ski down and skin up on varied terrain, regardless of snow conditions and with a 10Kg rucsack
The exam will be organised in various tests covering the above skills so several routes and scenarios can be devised by the examiners in order to evaluate the candidates. Prepare for long days in the mountains, a high level of stress you need to manage while you perform at your best. A typical mountain guide’s work day. The entry test is not thought out to be a competition. You do not, directly, compete with the other candidates. Your main aim is to prove to the examiners that you meet and preferably exceed the minimum required level. However keep in mind that the guiding profession cannot accommodate large numbers of professionals and the places in the formation programmes are limited, therefore, to the best ranked candidates across the board (from the routes list to the aptitude tests). It helps, in this case, to come prepared and exceeding the minimum that is expected from you. Also remeber: the examiners expect you to perform but not to show-off!
Some candidates take the year prior to the admission test to prepare for it with a guide (same as you would do for a university entry exam). Would fill in the last gaps in the route list, would work on skills needed to pass the entry test and correct the weak points. Although definitely not necessary this practice is quite widespread in countries with high number of candidates and not necessarily a bad practice. In the end, everything that makes you a better climber and skier is to your advantage!
After the entry test, at the end, you will receive the results and a feedback. If you passed make sure it is not with a sigh of relief that you ‘just squeezed through’. The courses to follow are hard and demanding and you will need to keep up. If you fail you’ll end up at the end of the queue again and having to start everything from scratch again. Mountain guiding is a profession that, primarily, mitigates risk and shortcuts are never in the policy of the training programmes.
If you failed listen carefully to the feedback you receive. It will be hard. It will be hard to accept not passing especially if you prepared hard; it will be hard to accept that your hardest or your best are not good enough on this occasion. It is OK to be disappointed and sad but do not take it as something personal. Take it as an opportunity to improve even more. Take in the feedback and do the most out of it and show up next year! Especially if you are young and you feel that this year is wasted time then you are not ready for this profession… A year of building more experience, a year of becoming a better climber and a better skier is invaluable! Better than passing the exam by the skin of the teeth is to come back second year and pass through easily. Now you know what is needed. Some of the best athletes and some of the most respected mountain guides have failed the entry test at least once. Fore sure some if not all of your instructors have failed the entry test for the first time. Not all expeditions end up with a summit; the summits are reserved for those who have the stamina to try again and again…
Year 1 & Year 2: You have passed and soon you will began the training. You have taken on a huge challenge and your life will need to work around your training. Your job (if you have one) and your family will have to accommodate your training. Do not forget, however, that the 80+ days of courses and assessments are not all the training you will need to do. In the time in between courses you will need to prepare for exams, to get more experience, to practice newly learned skills. It is not enough to show up for a module the be a couch potato for two months.
You will have modules (theory and practice) in various subjects, grouped in 5-14 day clusters throughout your training. You will have courses in alpinism, rock climbing, rock guiding techniques, avalanche and rescue, legislation, client care, first aid, camping, aid climbing, big wall climbing, freeride etc It will be exciting and hard. You will have exams following the modules. Some of these exams you can retake – some of them (mainly those skill based and with elements of safety) might see you repeat a year or failed from the course and in need to show up for entry test again. You will need to be on the ball! If you pass all the exams and complete the coursework you will be granted Aspirant Guide status and you will be allowed to do limited paid work. You will also need to log in a minimum of 15 days of supervised guiding.
Year 3: This year will be dedicated to the “guide’s course”. All the coursework and work experience from the previous two years will be refined and tested in two major blocs: the winter and the summer course. An instructor and a fellow candidate will be your ‘clients’ throughout most of the 4 weeks of the two combined modules. At the end, if you pass you will receive your diploma and IFMGA-UIAGM-IVBV pin! You are now a fully qualified IFMGA Guide.
CPD: However, do not forget. Graduating should not be the end of your learning experience. Take every opportunity you have to acquaint yourself with the newest techniques and best practices, register to professional seminars and learn from colleagues from other associations. make the continuous professional development an integral part of your profession!