by Adventure Travelperson
What makes a good mountain guide? Charm and a good profile are nice, but...
Query one of my fellow Americans what comes to mind when you say “mountain guide”--I’ve asked this question often, as a kind of ongoing research project--and you’re likely to get one of two responses. Usually: a shrug (mountain culture is very localized south of the border). Or: you’ll get a description of a swashbuckley fellow who’s deigning to take you into the mountains so he can collect enough cash to embark on his next amazing climb in a range you’ve maybe never heard of. (I’m not saying this is necessarily true; what I can tell you is that for many, many people, Americans especially, the idea of engaging a mountain guide is a little intimidating.)
We Americans just don’t have a strong tradition of professional guiding. Not to say there aren’t professional guides in places like the Tetons and Mount Rainier, and not to say that many of the gals and guys who guide in those places aren’t very professional, in addition to being sterling human beings (I know some of them and trust them implicitly). But America’s mountain guide culture is minor league compared to the the Canadian Major League.
(I think this is because Canada’s guides come straight out of the European professional guiding tradition; most of the major first ascents in the Canadian Rockies were guided climbs, led by guys like the legendary Conrad Kain--like another great guide, CMH’s founder Hans Gmoser, an Austrian immigrant. Guided climbing just never took hold in the States.)
As a guy who has led maybe 45 treks and adventure travel tours around the world, who wrestled with the job in many ways, I’d like to share with you some of the qualities I think a good mountain guide should have.
First, though: When I first got acquainted with CMH Summer Adventures, one of the things that most impressed me was the quality of their Heli-Hiking guides, many of whom are top-notch climbers. I’ve always thought that hiking with them is a little like joining a pick-up basketball game at the Y and having an NBA All-Star or two on your team.
Okay, to cut to the chase:
A good guide has got to leave his ego at the door. (Or her ego; I hope you don’t mind if I use the male pronoun from here on out for simplicity’s sake). That’s easy to say, but for some of us, not so easy to do. Not to be mushily confessional, but it always seemed to me that my ego followed me everywhere, nipping at my heels like a needy cur. One of my colleagues put it this way: “Charm and a nice profile are great, but in the end a good leader should be part of the party, not the life of the party.”
Competence. Just knowing how to do the thing you’re hired to do. CMH’s Summer Adventure guides are often vastly overqualified; the guy who’s is helping you up the via ferrata, or rambling amiably around with you on a high meadow, might have climbed the Eiger North Face solo, or summited an 8,000 meter Himalayan giant. And the certification thing, the 10 years it takes on average to be certified by the International Federation of Mountains Guides and the rigorous certification process of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides--that’s unique in North America, a real indicator of high competence.
Good Will and the Ability to Connect. I read an article recently in which the writer wrote with a little cynicism but a lot of accuracy that a good guide is “knowledgeable about the major attractions, cheerfully conversational, deliberately inoffensive, and fond of jokes pitched to the chuckle range.” Well, yes, but the the trick is to maintain some humanity and integrity while not flashing a lot of opinion or telling one too many gnarly jokes. Because there is something a little dead and buried about guides whose apparent cheeriness, inoffensiveness, and tired, chuckle-sparking stories have more or less made a smiling zombie out of the human behind them. It happens. And, once again, I’ve always been impressed by the ability of CMH’s guides to relate with good will to all kinds of folks without seeming like they’re just going through the motions, whether they’re taking some folks on a family adventure or hiking with a grizzled mountain veteran looking for a rigorous workout. They tend to read the room well, meaning they are responsive to individuals rather than types. In my book, this is a heightened form of professionalism. As Conrad Kain once wrote, a guide must be “courteous to all, and always give special attention to the weakest member of the group.”
Freshness. A guy I work with has hired many, many guides over the course of the years. “Good guides don’t get tired of guiding,” he says. “They’ve got to be real, and they’ve got to be fresh, and they’ve got to love the places they introduce people to.” That’s a nice bottom line, isn’t it? This isn’t an advertisement for CMH, believe me, but if you’ve had the privilege of Heli-Hiking, I think you’ll agree with me that its guides do, deeply and knowledgeably and cheerfully, love the hills.
They say a photo is worth a thousand words. I never believed it. Some photos seemed hardly worth one word, and others worth a novel. When it comes to the content and happy kids you'll see on a CMH Family Adventure, these faces tell the story better than any number of words:
Do you think this boy would rather be anywhere else in the world than behind the stick of a Bell 212 helicopter after a day of exploring in the mountains?
Do you think this boy has a healthy relationship with his world?
How much cajoling do you think it took to get this girl to eat her lunch after a long hike through alpine flower gardens?
Do you think this girl was even the slightest bit upset about having a bit of snow in her socks?
How long do you think these girls will remember their family vacation?
Do you wonder if a CMH Summer Adventure could be right for your family? Give us a call at 1 (800) 661-0252 and we’ll be thrilled to answer any of your questions.
It’s springtime at the CMH heli-hiking areas, but you’d never guess it. A heavy blanket of snow still covers everything, and the glaciers are hardly distinguishable from the surrounding world of snow.
The Columbia is the biggest river in the Pacific Northwest region of North America for good reason: The Columbia Mountains that feed the river are some of the snowiest mountains on earth and last winter was a doozy. Right now, it feels like winter will never relinquish its authority over high country, so I’m posting this photo that I took during a CMH Summer Adventure in the Bobbie Burns as a reminder of what lies beneath all that snow:
Over the next few weeks, the sun will send the snowfields running down the mountainsides, the streams will carry the melted snow into the Columbia River, and the high country of the Columbias will be transformed into the splendors of alpine summertime in a mountain range that is surely one of the seven wonders of the mountain world.
The Columbia Mountains receive enough rainfall to be categorized as a rainforest. In a twist of alpine magic, however, most of the precipitation falls during the winter months in the form of snow, allowing the strong, high-altitude sunshine during the summer months to transform the deep snow banks of April into the gargantuan wildflowers of July.
The juxtaposition of standing in a field of wildflowers as high as you are tall, while looking out over a 10,000 year-old gemstone-blue glacier, combines in an almost unearthly background for an experience that stays with you for the rest of your life.
Be patient - the deep snow now will only make the high-country summer that much sweeter.
Want to know what makes a popular but contentious journalist tick? Be enthralled and amused by an anthropologist's adventures? Learn about the challenges of polar expeditions? Or how about hiking along side a grizzly bear expert? Look no further - this year CMH Summer Adventures is adding an outstanding line-up of guest speakers on several of its trips. Why? Just because we love to learn more about the world around us.
Kicking off our speakers series July 8 - 12 in the Bobbie Burns, join anthropologist, naturalist and world traveler Brian Keating for a 4-night escape. Having led some 80 expeditions to remote locations around the world, Brian will entertain guests with presentations on his adventures, including Penguins in Paradise, Madagascar Magic, and Animal-Assisted Mountain Adventure. Witness what made Reader's Digest select Brian as its 2006 "Canadian Hero of the Year" for his global environmental efforts.
One of the Globe & Mail's best-read columnists Canadian journalist Christie Blatchford, who is known for her fearless approach to controversial subjects, will join the adventure at the Bobbie Burns, July 27 - 30. Christie will talk about how journalism has changed throughout her career and will address the topic of "What journalism says about us." Get ready for a great debate.
August 2 - 5, Bugaboo guests will be able to speak with grizzly bear expert Michael Proctor learning even more about these facinating and mysterious beasts. One evening, Dr. Proctor, who specializes in the grizzly bears of Western Canada's Kootenay region, will lead an engaging discussion on his recent research and work to protect grizzly bear habitat, as well as sharing his wisdom and insight (not to mention humor) each day during hikes and walks in the pristine mountain terrain.
Renowned polar explorer Eric Larsen headlines the final trip of this speaker series with a 3-day heli-hiking adventure from the Bugaboo Lodge, August 23 - 26. Guests will have the opportunity to speak with Eric about his polar expeditions and passion for the snow, as well as his commitment to the environment. At the lodge, he will present "Into the Heart of Cold," detailing his 2010 accomplishment of journeying to both the North and South Poles as well as summiting Mt. Everest all within the space of a year.
The beauty of these CMH Summer Adventures is the added value - these trips don't cost a penny more to enjoy. Just book your space on one of these trip dates and you can hike, walk, climb, or amble along side these amazing and facinating keynote personalities.
Last summer I photographed a CMH Summer Adventure for Families in the Bugaboos of British Columbia. Even when compared to the spectacular Bugaboo Spires jutting from the ice of ancient glaciers, the kid’s natural way of having fun in the wilderness stole the show. Here are five surprising photos from the trip that reveal just how much fun kids can have out there in the mountains.
When this boy caught a fish with his bare hands, during a squirt gun fight at the lush meadow surrounding Dead Elk Lake, it surprised the boy as much as the fish!
During the winter, we watch our guests having a lot of fun skiing in the snow, but no skier ever had more fun in the snow than the kids do while sliding down cool snowfields under the warm sun and the watchful eyes of the mountain guides.
Sue Arlidge, one of the most inspired child education specialists you’ll ever meet and one of the experts CMH brings in for our family programs, brought a kit to make ice cream using the chill from the snow. The kids used their own hands and energy to make homemade ice cream while sitting in the sun-drenched tundra next to an alpine snowfield. Nobody complained.
Lunchtime on this rock demonstrated just how healthy it is for kids to spend time outdoors. The all piled onto this rock, helped each other to find comfortable spots to sit, were courteous to each other, shared without a word of displeasure, ate hungrily, and stepped off of the rock better friends than when they climbed on.
Every kid loves the helicopter. Some parents are nervous at first, but once they realize how reliable, stable, and confidence-inspiring it is to ride in the twin-engine Bell 212 with its top-notch crew from Alpine Helicopters, even the parents start to have as much fun as the kids.
The CMH Summer Adventure is perhaps the world’s most accessible deep-wilderness adventure travel experience. It is also about the only trip you’ll ever take where age, fitness and skill have no bearing on how much fun everyone will have. You can be a marathon runner, and bring your father, your grandmother, and your kids – and everyone will be able to exercise as much or as little as they want. Most importantly, the entire family will have the best vacation they’ve ever had – on the same trip!
This is my favorite time of year for hiking. I tend to wimp out in the rains of spring, melt down in the heat of summer, and I live in a place where the trails fill with snow in the winter. For cool weather outings, I’ve discovered a few tricks for getting the most out of this transitional time of year.
1. Check the weather forecast. There is no normal this time of year. A high pressure system can make your hike feel like summer, or a fierce storm can bring winter overnight.
2. Don’t trust the weather forecast. If the forecasters get it wrong, you don’t want to be caught out in the mountains in a pair of shorts and a hydration pack. For fall hikes I’ll usually pack a warm fleece with a hood or toque, long pants, and a water-resistant parka regardless of the forecast.
3. Use breathable shells instead of waterproof rain gear. This time of year, the sweat storm you create inside your jacket becomes a problem. What was a nice raincoat in August turns into a cold, clammy plastic bag in October.
4. Take a thermos of hot tea for your partner. Even if you’re feeling like a bottle of cold water is enough to keep you going, your hiking partner will be a lot more willing to follow in your footsteps if you’re toting a warm drink.
5. Make sure your camera has fresh batteries. Cold weather kills batteries like nothing else. Don’t miss a chance to shoot the brilliant low light, coloured leaves, and mountains dusted in snow just because you were too lazy to charge your camera battery.
6. Add a bit more fat to the picnic. Celery and carrots aren’t quite as satisfying in cool weather. Cheese, meat, smoked fish, nuts, and pretty much anything with some fat tastes better on a fall hike.
7. Carry a headlamp. It gets dark a lot earlier now - and it’s harder to get out of bed early. Even if you’re sure you will make it back by dark, carry a light so you can relax and enjoy yourself a bit more.
8. Pick a mellow hiking partner. It’s easy to get distracted by the spectacular visual displays of autumn in the mountains and the last thing you want is a hiking partner more focused on reaching an arbitrary milestone. What you want is someone who likes to leave the regular path to take in the view.
9. Consider a road trip. Changes in latitude are radical this time of year. Driving a few hours north or south, or changing altitude can give you exactly what you’re looking for.
10. Start dreaming about next year. Winter will be here soon and adventures in the mountains of the Northern Hemisphere will require snowshoes or skis. It’s a good time to plan next year’s hiking adventures. Plan that safari in Africa, that Grand Canyon hike in the United States, that Machu Picchu exploration in Peru, that heli-hiking odyssey in mountains of Canada. Take the time to make sure you get to live the adventures of your dreams.
Photo of enjoying a cool weather hike by Topher Donahue.
It was on a 10-hour bus ride across the Peruvian Andes from Lima to Huaras, the bustling town at the heart of the Cordillera Blanca, where my suspicions about hydration packs were confirmed.
The twisting mountain road and the banana pancakes from breakfast were already wrestling with my tummy. Then I looked across the aisle and saw a fellow tourist’s hydration pack tube. It snaked from his backpack, along the stained seat edge, and under the passenger beside him. My stomach churned, and from then on, I’ve referred to hydration packs as “germ samplers”.
Sure, there’s a place for hydration packs. They work great for some outings. REI has a good article on how to choose the right hydration pack.
I use them on occasion. But only in environments where I’m pretty comfortable ingesting almost anything the mouthpiece might touch and when I need my water bottle to collapse when it’s empty. Some manufacturers now put little covers over the mouthpiece, which helps a little, but dirt and nasties still seem to find their way under the thing.
Including the Petri dish effect of hydration packs, there are six major reasons I prefer old-fashioned water bottles:
- The Germ Sampler.
- I love stopping, taking off my pack, sitting down, looking around at a piece of wild splendor, sipping from a cool stainless steel bottle, and having a little chat with my adventure partner.
- There are few things worse than being miles up the trail and hearing your partner say, “My water broke...”
- In cold weather, even the fancy hydration packs with insulated tubes freeze much more quickly than wide mouth water bottles – as if a few millimeters of foam will keep water from freezing in a little tube.
- Sucking plastic, when you’re already sucking air, is highly unpleasant compared to chugging effortlessly as if from a glass.
- With a water bottle, every time you take a drink you get a pretty good idea of how much water you have left. With a hydration pack, you get thirsty, suck down all your water without paying attantion, and then when you run out you beg your adventure partner to share their water.
Now I use stainless steel water bottles whenever humanly possible. Even if you doubt the potentially harmful effects of storing water in plastic, or prefer using old soda bottles for environmental reasons, water from a stainless steel vessel just tastes better.
Photo of enjoying a water break at while heli-hiking at CMH Bobbie Burns by Topher Donahue.
The easy answer is: NO PACK AT ALL.
For anyone who doesn’t bring a pack, CMH lodges provide daypacks that are small enough to hike or climb unencumbered, but big enough to hold your lunch, water, sunhat, and jacket. With a helicopter to provide easy escape from the mountain elements, we have a lot of options and you don’t need to carry too much.
If you want your own pack for heli-hiking and other summer adventures, that’s great. Using your own pack is nice. But don’t fret it. That’s why we call it HELI-hiking. It’s not about the pack.
Even a trusty book bag works, but a pack with a little more space makes packing - and then later finding your sunscreen in the bottom of your pack – that much easier. If you prefer your own, here are a few things to look for in a good heli-hiking pack:
- Around 25 litre capacity - buy your friend the bigger pack.
- Roomy exterior pocket for easy access to cameras and trail favors - tight pockets look cool in the store, but are a pain to use.
- Lightweight material and design with no frame or super-light internal frame - heavy helicopter should equal light pack.
- Hydration system is handy but not necessary – why not just stop and look around while drinking?
- Ventilation along the back area – it gets warm heli-hiking under the bright alpine sun.
- External strap system of some kind in case you need a little extra space - adventure travel doesn't happen by the litre.
Touching mountains as wild, vast and un-developed as the Columbias of British Columbia with only a small daypack on your shoulders is a treat that only heli-hikers get to experience. The light-footed sensation of moving easily through such terrain, surrounded by untouched wilderness the likes of which few modern humans ever see, is alone worth the price of admission.
Heli-hiking-as-good-as-it-gets photo by Topher Donahue
The most common myth around heli-hiking, CMH Summer Adventure's core activity, is that it is either too easy or too hard. The term conjures up...well, nothing consistent in the minds of travellers.
In reality, heli-hiking is just as hard, or just as easy, as you want it to be. Here's why:
1. Our guests, not our guides, set the gait.
We're not kidding when we say this. At the Bobbie Burns lodge, for example, we accommodate a maximum of 44 guests and we have 7 guides available. That means we can have 7 different levels of walking, hiking, and trekking groups. We've been working on this formula for over 30 years now and rarely do we have a guest leave without getting exactly the hiking experience they are after.
2. We cater to non-hikers.
Whether it's a hike, walk or amble, each heli-hiking day is tailored to each guests' fitness, experience and wishes. Frankly, we'd be crazy to drag you out on a hike that's way too ambitious and send you home feeling battered and miserable. After all this is your hard-earned vacation, not boot camp. If you want to cover very little ground, but really take the time to appreciate the magnificent, awesome scenery, we've got a guide for that.
3. We challenge experienced hikers.
Last summer I hiked in the Bugaboos with a couple from Toronto in their mid-40's. At the start of our hike on day one, Karen looked our guide Kevin in the eye and said 'I want to hike until I cry.' She wasn't kidding. Kevin wasn't quite sure what to make of her but he and his mile long legs set off and she was right on his heels. They hiked all day, stopping only for water and snacks and lunch along the way. I dropped back to join a less-ambitious group! At the end of the day I asked Karen how her day was. "I had the best day of my life." Funny thing, two other people in the lodge told me the same thing that night at dinner - a Grandmother in her 70's, and a 17-yr old travelling with his Mom and sister.
4. We have a helicopter.
The glory of using the helicopter to access the remote ranges of the Canadian Rockies is that we eliminate days of bushwacking (because there are no trails where we hike, and few other people have been here) to get you to the kind of hiking you want to do. If you aren't keen on uphill, then you and your guide and group will fly to a high mountain ridge that you can meander along, or to an alpine meadow where you can wander through the brilliant colours of our wildflowers. If uphill gain is your thing, then start in the valley bottom and climb, climb, climb to your heart's content. We've got a guide for that, too.
Whatever kind of outdoor, walking experience it is that you desire, we guarantee that you will find it on a CMH Summer Adventure. You can choose your adventure - mountaineering, adventure trails, zip lines, via ferrata, yoga, painting retreats and Girlfriend Getaways. All of it as hard, or as easy, as you would like.
I just read one of those books that could change the world. Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, is a best seller of such magnitude that its implications will send ripples through families, universities, and - hopefully - our entire culture.
In it, Louv coins the term “nature deficit disorder”, and gives the reader a shocking view into the wide range of issues today’s children face and how many of the issues can be blamed – at least in part - on how little direct contact with nature they have compared to earlier generations. The book opens the floodgates of contemporary studies that are in the process of proving that our electronic, indoor, hyper-compartmentalized lifestyles are liable for issues including ADHD and obesity – and that time in the natural world has therapeutic potential to help with the very same issues.
The other day I watched my twin three-year-olds grow hyper and irritable as a spring snowstorm prevented even a short play in the garden. It seemed obvious that the time outside was crucial to their learning and happiness as I reread a few of Louv’s best lines:
“Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear – to ignore.”
“As far as physical fitness goes, today’s kids are the sorriest generation in the history of the United States.”
“They (researchers) say the quality of exposure to nature affects our health at an almost cellular level.”
“Pediatricians now warn that today’s children may be the first generation of Americans since World War II to die at an earlier age than their parents.”
“The CDC found that the amount of TV that children watch directly correlates with measures of their body fat.”
“A study of Finnish teenagers showed that they often went into natural settings after upsetting events; there, they could clear their minds and gain perspective and relax.”
“There is a real world, beyond the glass, for children who look, for those whose parents encourage them to truly see.”
“Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle maintains that each hour of TV watched per day by preschoolers increases by 10 percent the likelihood that they will develop concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders by age seven.”
“I was intrigued by the way children defined play: often, their definition did not include soccer or piano lessons. Those activities were more like work.”
“Typical Americans spend 101 minutes in their car daily, five times the amount they spend exercising.”
“Time in nature is not leisure time, it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).”
“Two-thirds of American children can’t pass a basic physical: 40 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls ages six to seventeen can’t manage more than one pull-up; and 40 percent show early signs of heart and circulation problems.”
Louv reveals that even our playgrounds, parks, and arenas are not providing the experience in the natural world that has nurtured children’s development since the beginning of time. And the Internet, while a gateway to the world in so many ways, is entirely devoid of the very same sensory experiences that nature supplies in abundance: the smell of a pine tree; the deep vibration of a wave crashing into a rocky shore; the tickle of a cool breeze blowing off a snowfield.
For adventure travelers, skiers, mountaineers, hikers, farmers, gardeners, sailors, surfers, people like us in the business of providing exceptional experiences in the natural world, or anyone who finds time in nature is essential to their health, "Last Child in the Woods" puts to words something we have been feeling for a long time.
Photo by Topher Donahue