As the local Hakuba backcountry ski season approaches I like to review past experiences and training. This gets my brain back into professional guide mode after being out of the game for the last 2 months in between north/south winters. A great place to start is to remind myself of what is expected of a professional guide, and think about times in the past when I hit the nail on the head, and more importantly, where I did not do well. Don't trust any guide who claims to never do a poor job! Guiding is a fun job with many nuances and challenges. Executing my job according to a defined set of professional skills is satisfying.
The following components of good professional backcountry guiding will be familiar to anyone who has undertaken specialized ski guide certification in countries like Canada, New Zealand, US, Japan and other IFMGA nations. I think this is what sets us apart from most untrained industry participants. When I am working, I am actively thinking of the following things, both in the trip planning stage, and then constantly when I am in the mountains with my customers following me. I thought some of you may be interested. I'll keep it brief, with a few vaguely relevant photos thrown in.
Client Care is a huge part of good guiding, and is all about making sure you are safe, comfortable, happy and having fun. And lets not forget GOOD SKIING, given the limitations of conditions. Your guide should also help you understand what is going on through clear communication, and should maintain control of the group. Control is important, and it can be lost very easily. There are so many ways to finesse client care, and many small things add up over a day.
Risk Management. It is absolutely mandatory that your guide be able to recognize hazards, analyse them and prioritize them. Then make decisions and employ strategies to minimize the risk for the group, within the objectives of the backcountry tour. And to have emergency procedures in place for when something goes wrong. In Hakuba, some of the hazards include: avalanches, glide cracks, cornices, uncontrollable slides on ice, open water and poorly bridged streams, tree bombs, rock fall, very deep snow, very poor storm visibility, hitting a tree, and environmental concerns such as intense wind, snowfall and cold.
Technical Skills. Different guided days call on different technical skills. Sometimes it is the basics like relevant, efficient and accurate snow science observations. Or navigation in an unfamiliar area, in a whiteout or in dense forest with endless rolling terrain and streams. Occasionally it is exciting stuff like getting customers into a line past a difficult entry using an appropriate rope system. It also includes very professional wilderness first aid skills (retrained every 3 years!!) and rescue skills in the event of an avalanche, or falling in a very deep snow hole or stream.
Professionalism. Different customers prefer different styles of professionalism. But there is a basic minimum of professional conduct required of a good guide. Beyond not getting into a heated debate about political ideology, this includes having the right attitude. Spending the time to plan and prepare a fun safe and appropriate tour for the group - with alternatives and backups. Having properly working equipment and carrying the right tools in your backpack. Very high levels of guide physical fitness is also included here, along with ski/snowboarding skills.
Terrain Assessment. This essential guide skill supports the whole day. Very briefly: your guide must be able to select a good route up and down the mountain, both in the macro and micro terrain scales. A lot more can be said on this topic! Poor terrain assessment, route finding and track setting leads to poor client care, poor safety, poor skiing, and an overall not-fun experience for everyone who paid for a better day out.
Application. This word means choosing the right tool or method of mountain travel at the right place and time. Your guide not only needs to be using the right application for the current situation, but also looking ahead in the changing terrain, snowpack and weather and anticipating what application might be needed next, and figuring out when he should switch. Examples: skinning, using ski crampons, walking in ski boots, walking in crampons, skis/boards on the pack or just carried, digging out steps, using an ice axe, using a rope for glacier travel, or short roping, or climbing a small section. In Hakuba's backcountry it is often pretty straightforward, but on some days, it is surprisingly easy to get it wrong, leading to poor client care, with an emphasis on diminished comfort and/or safety, time-efficiency and flow.
Some backcountry guided days simply do not work out very well. They are just tough days. Other days go very well, and I think that is due to the guide consciously doing their job with a mind to the elements listed here. Often customers new to guided backcountry skiing do not realize why the day went well. But the next time they have a poor guided day they will start to recognize and value the difference.
To ensure your backcountry guide in Hakuba is working as a thinking professional with training suitable to mountain ski touring, check their website for mentions of these organizations: ACMG, NZMGA, AMGA, JMGA, IFMGA. And then hope the guide you actually get on the day is not an untrained employee of the company.
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