4 Traits of a Good Mountain Guide
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.