“Did it work?” Erich Unterberger asks me.
We’ve just skied down our first pitch of the day and are both stopped in our tracks as the incredible Bugaboo Spires and the Howser Tower come into eyesight. Watching the rest of the group ski down the pitch he asks me this simple question. We are halted by the beauty and history of this place. So many incredible mountaineers have stood in this exact spot before, planning first ascents and climbs up these incredible rock faces. I’ve always had a weak spot for the history of a place and combined with skiing like, a fresh dusting of champagne power under my twin tips, have me weak at the knees.
“Did what work?” I ask in response.
“I wanted you to feel the magic again, so I brought you here. I wanted to remind you why it is you don’t want to give up becoming a ski guide.”
With few words CMH’s Head of Guiding Operations as rendered me speechless.
Yesterday we’d been talking while taking up the rear of our ski touring group on day two of a week up at CMH Bugaboos Lodge. We’d spoken at great length of my ambition to become a ski guide; we’d met early on in the season when I began working for CMH as Assistant Lodge Manager at CMH’s Bobbie Burns Lodge and I’d expressed to him my ambition. Despite having only crossed paths a few times throughout my first season, Erich remembered my story. But after a season watching the Bobbie Burns guiding team, I’d found myself genuinely unsure if I wanted to continue to pursue ski guiding. Would guiding be possible if I wanted to have a family someday? Would I lose my love for skiing if I spent my days leading others in the mountains? Did I really have what it took to become a guide? I had doubt. Genuinely one of the most passionate guides I’ve ever met, Erich and I spoke frankly about my future as we’d ascended our final pitch of the day and he’d reassured me that after his lifetime guiding his love for the mountains and skiing had only grown deeper. That certain sacrifice has been entirely worth it.
Now, speechless and awestruck under the spires, whether he’d brought our group here just for me or for the group didn’t matter. What mattered was this incredible gesture – he’d brought me to the historical heart of ski guiding in Canada to remind me that the most important factor in becoming a guide is passion. A gesture that showcased not only his listening to me but his understanding of me. An understanding that my love for the mountains and the exploration of them would always be why I would never give up on chasing my ACMG dreams.
I’m the first to admit that I’m a dreamer. It took me a long time to accept that what I wanted to do with my life was be outside. It seemed impossibly simple … and impossible. But the truth was no matter which way I cut it, when I closed my eyes and dreamt of my future, I saw myself out in the mountains every day. On skis everything makes a little more sense, everything is a little brighter for me. Since I started living in ski towns I’ve laughed a little more each year and laughter tends to be my happiness meter. I realized this living in Whistler several years ago, that what I wanted more than anything was to spend my life sharing my love and passion for skiing with others. I didn’t see myself turning pro, so I asked myself, How do I ski for a living?I’d heard of ski guides but I’d never skied with one, I’d never been backcountry ski touring and I certainly didn’t have any clue how you became an ACMG ski guide. This is where my journey to become a guide began. And with each year I’m learning a little more that it’s nothing I imagined and more than anything I could have hoped for.
Becoming a guide is an immense undertaking. It is also an immense responsibility. But it may also be one of the most romantic ways to spend your life, each day spend on skis out in some of the world’s most remarkable winter landscapes. If there are different tribes on this earth, guides are definitely one of them. They are a diverse bunch but are woven by a common thread of love for the mountains, for exploration and of a deep appreciation for time spent outdoors with others. The past five years I have spent slowly developing my skills. Becoming a fully certified Canadian Ski Guide has been referred to as a veritable PhD in the school of rock and snow. The Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) is one of the most respected guiding associations in the world. The list of prerequisites to gain acceptance into the training branch of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) to certify all Canadian guides (be they rock, ski or full mountain guides), is a grueling accomplishment in itself. The list includes advanced avalanche education, advanced wilderness first aid certification, extensive snow and weather observations, a skiing resume of diverse backcountry ski touring experience, several letters of reference as well as evidence of advanced skiing and leadership capabilities. Just getting into the program is an accomplishment. From admission into the program it takes, on average, 5-10 years to become a fully certified Lead Ski Guide. It requires time, dedication and a good chunk of change.
A guide I respect immensely once told me that one of the best parts of being a guide is becoming one. This simple and yet profound statement will never be lost on me. Becoming a guide takes great dedication and perseverance. You cannot rush the process. Some days you will feel more joyful than you ever believed possible, standing atop a mountain you’d longed to summit. Other days you will cry and feel broken. Some days you will literally be broken. The mountains can be unforgiving and winter’s storms and terrain are forces not to be reckoned with. This is the truth, for me anyways. But what I’m learning is that, true to these words, becoming a guide is about dedicating yourself to the mountains, giving your time and energy to the study of mountains and safe passage through them. To stand humble under their peaks, ever present, never assuming.
In working towards my goal, I have been lucky to ski alongside and learn from some world-class guides. Even luckier I have been blessed with incredible female role models, who’ve shown me that the gentle of spirit and passionate of heart can make it in this predominantly male-dominated industry. Women like Lindsay Andersen, Shannon Werner, Erica Engle and Helen Sodvat. They’ve shown me that following my love for the mountains is what will get me where I want to go – that I don’t have to change the core of who I am to become a ski guide because what I truly need is great passion for the mountains and a commitment to time within them. There’s a social perception that it should be harder for females than males to be great skiers but really that’s the exact thing that makes it more difficult for woman than men. What’s so great about guiding is that the mountains will never care what gender you are. Ski guiding may be the great equalizer of the skiing world. I’ve come to learn that becoming a ski guide may be the great equalizer amongst men and women in the ski world. I take pride in the fact that the mountains are a place women and men can work together as equal partners, striking a necessary balance, sharing their knowledge and expertise in creating a safe and special environment for exploration of the World’s mountain ranges.
The guides I’ve learned from and continue to learn from have taught me invaluable lessons about my pursuit. Here are a few I’d like to share; I’ve learned that the road is much longer and undulating that my younger self would have liked to believe. I’ve learned that the road to becoming a guide is long because timein the mountains is the best teacher. I’ve learned to pay attention to the mountains, for they will teach you more than you could ever imagine if you’re listening, watching. I’ve learned never to assume. Never. Because each and every day will be different out there. I’ve learned to wake to a new day with no preconceptions and a fresh set of eyes. I’ve learned to be brutally honest and open – with myself and with those I choose to ski with, be they touring partners, fellow guides or clients. I’ve learned that you must be adaptable as change is the only constant in the mountains. To not get too caught up in how you wish the day would go, to let it be, to let it flow, to accept the things you cannot change and move forward. I’ve learned that becoming a guide takes hard work and that being a guide requireshard work. So learn, constantly. They’ve taught me to be humble in my pursuit and remember that my actions will always speak louder than my words – so speak less and ski more. And finally, their own passions I’ve seen out there each and every day have driven home the truth that my passion for skiing in the mountains really will be the most important factor in my success.
Sitting down at the Bugaboos bar after our day touring under the Bugaboo Spires, Erich and I found ourselves staring at the spires from the other side of the mountain.
“You have what it takes,” he said to me with a smile, “You really love being in the mountains, I can see that, and that’s what will take you there, through all the hard work of becoming a guide.”
I’ll never forget these words. Erich is a man whom I respect immensely and whose child-like spirit in the mountains reflects my own joy in their presence. Despite the hard days and the long road ahead it’s people like this who remind me how lucky I am to pursue this grand dream. And that it’s not just a dream – that one day after another I can make it my reality.