To Guide Or Not To Guide.

I get asked a lot by different folk if I’m a mountain guide or if I want to be one in the future.  It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot in the past few years and with the application deadline around the corner I’m thinking about it again!  I’m sure I will be thinking about it again in the future too. I wanted to put some of my thoughts, feeling and influencing factors down to try and rationalise my choice of not starting the scheme yet and to offer an explanation to others too, if they care, which I’m sure most won’t.  Perhaps no one cares but hey it’s my blog…my diary… and one day I might look back (as a guide or not) and want to read this. I’d welcome any thoughts or feedback from guides or anyone else in the comments section at the bottom btw.

The Cosmiques Arete

Smiles and Psyche from some friends on the Cosmiques Arete.





A few years ago all I wanted to do and be was a mountain guide. I worked my whole life around ticking off the routes that the British Mountain Guides training scheme asked for. I took a 6 week trip back to the UK especially to tick off the remaining multi-pitch rock routes.  It was the reason for getting on my first big routes (the Ginat and the Colton MacIntyre) and if I’m honest it was a great way of staying focused and having an objective or end goal to aim for.  It’s a great tick-list to work through and I’d recommend any climber to use it as a way to grow into a better Alpinist/Mountain person.

However after a while I began to think that it might not be for me.  Don’t get me wrong I love the idea of being in the mountains most of the time and I must admit it would be great to be able to make a decent wage from my passion.  Having not actually been a guide I can’t really say whether or not I would be any good at it or if I’d actually enjoy it but I just have a feeling I wouldn’t.  I think for the time being I’m just too selfish.  I do love taking psyched friends into the mountains and giving them rich and fulfilling experiences. For the most part I want my time in the mountains to be for me and my objectives.  I’ve got a lot of good mates who have either been part way through or are still on the scheme.  It’s interesting talking to them about what it’s like to be on the training scheme and hearing some positive and negative feedback from various people (not naming any names).  By all accounts it sounds like a tough scheme to make it through and kudos to those who have.  I’m always keen for a challenge but when a mistake might cost you and a few thousand pounds and a year off your chosen career then I’m sure the pressure is huge even for the coolest of applicants. Not something I’m that motivated for at the moment, if I’m honest.

One of the biggest factors for me is the cost.  I don’t have a way of paying for it other than putting it all on credit cards/loans, which I really don’t want to do.  Having been in debt for most of my adult life already it’s not something I enjoyed, I don’t ever really want to do again if I can avoid it.  Sure it’s an “investment” of sorts but what happens if you make it half way through and decide it’s not for you, which has happened to a few of my friends.   If I could easily pay for all the training and assessment modules no problem and comfortably be able to take the time off to train specifically for the tests then I would be a lot more psyched to start the scheme.  I’d also need to be able to pay for the travel from here (France) to North Wales/Scotland which adds up quickly especially if you fail any of the tests.  I’m not saying it’s impossible to finance and if I were to sacrifice some of my mountain time to work more in rope access for example I’m sure I could pay for it quite easily.  Right now though I don’t really want to sacrifice my time in the mountains to work a job I don’t really want to do. I do enjoy rope access work though. I just didn’t enjoy doing 7 days a week living out the back of my Citroen Berlingo in London.

Another factor is the type of work you’d get when you’re actually qualified.  If I could guarantee good fun clients who wanted to climb or ski interesting objectives whilst keeping the standard (Mont Blanc and Vallee Blanche) routes down to a minimum I would also be a lot more motivated.  Most people want (and please correct me if I’m wrong) to climb or ski things that other people have heard of.  Hence why we have ‘honey pots’ such as Everest, Mont Blanc, Vallee Blanche, the Hornli ridge….etc.  Most people want to climb these types of objective as a tick in the life box.  That’s fine and I’m not saying it’s the worst problem in the world and for most ‘real climbers’ it’s beneficial to have the hordes heading to these routes as it keeps the rest of the mountains quieter. For me I’d want to give clients a taste of what a climber’s life is actually like. Why we pick the routes over the summits and what actually makes a really memorable experience in the mountains.  I think it would be hard to convince most who have the money to pay for a guide to aim for the lesser, quieter summit via the better route over objectives that have a real standing point for their non-climber friends and peers.  Is it possible to find enough clients who are willing to go further or harder or to different, more adventurous places? I’m undecided on this one. I’m sure some have found the right balance but could I?

For me it’s a question of where my motivation really lies.  If I had all the money that I needed to pay for the guide’s scheme in my hand right now I think I’d choose to spend it on a series of greater ranges expeditions or maybe the deposit on a house.  I think to embark on the guides scheme you need to be 100% committed to getting the badge. You need to be able to bounce back from a failed assessment quickly and easily and basically really WANT to be a guide.  I’m personally just not there right now.  I’m not saying that I won’t be in the future but right now I’m happy enough pursuing my own goals in climbing and skiing, and one day, maybe even next year, I might apply.

8 thoughts on “To Guide Or Not To Guide.

  1. Hey Dave, I am not a guide but an IMl and the cost of that is enough let alone the guide scheme which probably comes in double. Also I have set up my own little company and do not want to compete with the big boys on the honey pot/tick trekking tours but as you say that is what ever client wants, or almost all. One of the other things I have found that by being in the mountains all the time for work, when I am not working I actually find it harder now to get the motivation to get into the mountains for myself. Also just having the badge does not mean you will just get loads of work, that comes down to networking and marketing yourself and company and so when you are not on the hills working you spend the majority of your time at a desk in front of the laptop trying to drum up more clients. I think with everything you have said in this blog you are behaving very level headed and are making the best decisions for you at the moment, good luck for everything in the future.

  2. Hi Dave. We met briefly in the lift line for the Midi on Easter Sunday. I would say that you are thinking this through logically. When, or if, you decide you want to guide, it will probably be clear to you, and all the sacrifices, economic or otherwise, the chance of failure, the consequences, and so on, will be worth it–or not. I would even say that, if you do choose to guide, you have the beginning of a marketing strategy, your “niche” so to speak, which would be to share a small part of what a climber’s life is like, the bivies, the routes, the rewards to be found away from the trade routes and so on. I would add two things. First, I think that the people skills, warmth and openess, being able to get along with a wide range of personalities, genuinely wanting to share your world with clients, are at least as important as the pure climbing skills for a guide. Only you know weather you really have these attributes. Second, people who do not simply want to climb trade routes with guides do exist. Each time I have taken a step forward in the mountains I have worked with a guide–when I began leading on rock, when I began leading on ice, when I first climbed in Chamonix, when I started climbing harder (for me) mixed routes, when I first skied the Valle Blanche, and so on. In this way, I was able to gain skills and experience with a margin of safety. Personally, I have never worked with a guide simply to get to the top of a peak, or to tick a particular climb. So people like me do exist. Perhaps you could gain a small foothold by offering this kind of guiding, although you would almost certainly have to combine your work as a guide with other trades, such as rope access work, as do many guides. Good luck! Bruno.

  3. I think that it would be a big challenge to fill a full year’s guiding schedule with the kind of people you want for clients. The guides I have hired strive to fill the busy season with repeat clients who share the love for a good route, but the bulk of the trade appears to be split between first timers and people who just want to get the the top of Denali/Mont Blanc/ The Matterhorn etc. The last guide I hired was used to clients on Denali demanding to make summit attempts in bad weather because they cared more about ticking off a summit list than about safely moving in the mountains. This is one of the reasons I like to have a clear discussion on expectations with a guide I have not worked with before. I like to push myself, but I do not view retreat as failure. This appears to be unusual in clients in the US. The guide I work with in Chamonix seams to have a pretty good set of clients for skiing and touring, but the climbing clients sound like a random mix of experienced climbers looking for good routes and people who have no business being 3 feet off the ground. Just my 2 cents. Good luck figuring out what you want to do.

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  5. I live in Austria now, and I wouldn’t even think of doing a british guide course where I had to travel back to the UK. What’s wrong with doing the local French guides course? I know the Austrian one is well thought of and possible much better than the UK one as the locations are better suited.

    • I hear that the french scheme is very difficult to get on. The ski test is very competitive and so is the rock test. Also I’m ashamed to admit my french isn’t good enough either.

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