says one mountain guide to another—meaning, “Take it easy, you’re not lining up for the Aiguille du Midi.”
It’s nice to know that Canadian guides even have a reputation—a few decades ago, they wouldn’t have—and nicer still that, among other things, it is a reputation for playing it cool. In reality, though, in the 46 years that have passed since CMH invented Heli-Skiing, mountain guiding has become one of the modern economy’s most internationally friendly professions. Guides from all over the world treat each other with mutual respect and understanding, and routinely work on each others’ most precious turf, but it wasn’t always that way.
When the Chamonix guides began regulating the profession in 1821, their idea was to protect the turf for local guides so that guides from other countries and regions in France could not just roll into town and lead their guests up Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak, or across the icy splendors of the Mer de Glace. Other European countries followed suit, and as late as 1960, many still required foreign guides to hire a local guide to go along on any commercial mountain adventures. All that changed in 1965 when guides from Switzerland, Austria, Italy and France started the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA).
The purpose of the IFMGA was part standardization of training, part lobbying power, and, as the IFMGA puts it, “to arrange closer comradeship and the exchange of ideas amongst the mountain guides of all nations.” In the Alps, where it in not uncommon for a climb or ski tour to begin in one country and end in another, guides needed to be able to cross borders easily and have confidence in fellow guides regardless of their nationality.
In Canada, however, a different engine was revving. The profession of Heli-Skiing was just cutting its teeth, and its founders, Hans Gmoser and Leo Grillmair, needed help. The interior British Columbia mountain ranges that gave birth to Heli-Skiing were more vast, remote and snowier than anything in Europe, and Heli-Skiing was quickly becoming bigger than Hans and Leo could manage on their own. While the guides on the other side of the Atlantic were just learning the merits of sharing their turf, Hans and Leo had more turf than they could handle—even with a helicopter for assistance.
Emigrating from Austria to escape the ravages of post-war Austria, the two young men knew there were plenty of European mountain guides with the skills to join their team. They began recruiting guides from Switzerland and Austria to lead skiers out the door of the helicopter and through the snowy wonderland of the Columbia Mountains. Their effort built not only what we know as CMH Heli-Skiing, but also brought North America into the fold of the IFMGA. As the first president of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, Hans helped Canada to become the first non-European country to join the IFMGA.
Today, mountain guiding is one of the world’s most internationally versatile professions, and it is not uncommon for mountain guides to work in three or four different countries over the course of a year. IFMGA guides can, and do, guide almost anywhere the standard is recognized.
With a staff of 110 guides representing eight different countries, CMH Heli-Skiing is the single largest employer of mountain guides in the world, and as such, it is the ultimate melting pot for the profession. For mountain guides, who traditionally work alone or perhaps with one other colleague, immersion into the fast-paced, communication-intensive, teamwork world of CMH Heli-Skiing is a chance to share experiences and techniques from all over the world.
IN THE EARLY DAYS OF HELI-SKIING, European guides were recruited because they had a similar basic training level. Today, guides train in multiple countries and all learn similar skills, so the biggest differences in guiding technique are often more personal, and the cultural differences now just add to the flavor and spirit of the profession more than as a hierarchy based on nationality.
An early CMH guide once famously stuck up his nose and told a girl who asked for help with cleaning the Bugaboos Lodge, “I am not a servant, I am a Swiss mountain guide.” These days, guides tend to be a little more humble, and the jokes are more often on them. An old favourite at CMH is “What’s the difference between a mountain guide and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four.” (But never let it be said that our guides are not versatile. Another joke still goes, “How do you know there is a mountain guide at the bar? Don’t worry, he’ll tell you.”)
With 11 areas and average size guide teams of four or five, there are 40 to 50 guides working at any one time. The background and culture of the teams is literally all over the map, and in such a tight work environment, the opportunities are rife for both professional development and gut-busting humour.
The diversity of experience that is represented at each morning’s guide meeting is astounding. Sitting around the table at the Gothics you might find Fridjon Thorleifsson, a handsome 36-year-old ski guide from Iceland. English is his fourth out of six languages, but you’d never guess it based on his fluency. Although an experienced guide in difficult conditions, having guided ski tours across Greenland and Heli-Skied in Iceland, Fridjon represents the new school of mountain adventurers who possess world-class training and take decision-making seriously, but don’t take themselves too seriously.
Even for rookie guides who generally have an earlier group’s tracks in front of them, Heli-Ski guiding in Interior British Columbia’s deep snows and deeper forests takes some getting used to. Fridjon describes part of the adjustment from European terrain to CMH Heli-Skiing terrain: “In the beginning of my time here in Canada I had to adjust to guiding in the trees. I had to look at terrain with a new eye and figure out how to give the best possible line to the guests, though it didn’t take too long for the trees to become the thing I love most about skiing in Canada.”
Sitting at the guide table in the Bugaboos you might find Lilla Molnar, a charming woman with a quick smile that belies her inner drive and serious approach to mountain adventure. Born in Toronto to Hungarian parents, Lilla is a full alpine guide with a resume that includes the first ascent of a granite spire in Pakistan, Europe’s legendary Haute Route, and enough Heli-Ski laps in the Bugaboos to know the place better than her living room in Canmore.
With much mirth, Lilla recalls guiding on Mt. Blanc, and watching two climbers approach. She was playing a little game with herself, trying to guess the nationality of the other climbers on the mountain, when two guys walked up speaking Hungarian. One said to the other, in what they presumed was their own private language, “Hey look, it’s a female mountain guide.”
Lilla nonchalantly shot back in kind, “Yeah, and what are the chances of her speaking Hungarian?” The two climbers almost caught their tongues on their crampons.
WHILE EUROPE HAS HAD A DIRECT and significant effect on CMH Heli-Ski guiding, the vast majority of Heli-Ski guides are now Canadian. Erich Unterberger, the Manager of Guiding Operations at CMH, explains the transition to the mostly Canadian work force CMH has today. “It used to be that the European guides all had ski instruction or racing background, and the Canadian guides came from more of a mountaineering background. Now the Canadian guides are really good skiers too. It makes the job a lot easier if you don’t have to think about the skiing and can focus on the rest of the job.”
Erich is a strong proponent of keeping the international element in guiding even if the foreign guides are no longer essential to fill the ranks. He describes skiing in La Grave, France recently and being, “blown away with the level they take freeriding there.” After a storm, tracks appear on every square metre of snow, in terrain where only technical climbers would normally venture. Learning in that environment gives European guides a different way of looking at the mountain, Erich notes in awe. “There were tracks everywhere, over crevasses, along crevasses, into crevasses. That would never fly here.”
While North American ski guides tend to give the crevasses a bit more breathing room, they too have brought the freeride mentality into their home mountains. “In the old days,” continues Erich, “the European guides always had the more aggressive line selection, but now it’s different. Now I think the young Canadian guides have the most aggressive line selection. The combination of both is important—it sort of keeps each other in check.”
In the end, it’s not so much about nationality as it is about personality—and familiarity with the mountains. At CMH, that includes people like Peter “PA” Arbic, who knows the Columbia Mountains well enough that he has lead-guided in six different CMH areas during a single season. Or guides like Dave Cochrane, the Manager of the Bugaboos who commits every ounce of his prodigious energy to the satisfaction of his guests, every day, every winter, and has done so for decades. For young guides, such longevity speaks of a level of skill and passion that they can only hope to emulate. The late Thierry Cardon comes to mind, who was just as enthusiastic about the mountains at age 60 as he was at 20.
But one thing is far more important than all the collaboration between guides of different nationalities over the last 46 years at CMH: People from all over the world come to CMH and set aside cultural differences to share a fantastic experience together, and invariably leave as friends. As Erich Unterberger says, and CMH skiers from any country would agree: “Hans Gmoser should have won the Nobel Peace Prize.”