Reaching new heights: what does it take to be a mountain guide?

For anyone who loves the outdoors, being a mountain guide might seem like the world’s coolest job – in both senses of the word. To find out what it’s really like to make a living at high altitude, Ros Walford travels to Argentina to meet one of the guides of Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak.

The garden gate is flung open and I receive a typical Argentinian welcome: un abrazo (a big hug with a kiss on each cheek) and a steady stream of encouraging words.

Adelante, come in, come in…”, says guide Daniel “Roger” Cangiani as he ushers me towards the front door of his house on the outskirts of Mendoza.

Inside, I’m greeted in a similar fashion by his family and we settle down at the kitchen table to drink maté (traditional Argentine tea that’s drunk through a straw) and discuss life in the mountains.

“I’ve been guiding in el Parque Nacional de Aconcagua since 1995,” says Roger.

“It’s a way of life for me and a big passion – I know every corner of those mountains and feel very comfortable there.”

Roger has the appearance of a man who has spent a lot of time outdoors, with a tanned face and an established beard.

There’s a sea of mountains below you – on a clear day, you can see as far as the Pacific Ocean more than 100km away

He spends the summer season taking groups of 8–10 clients to the summit of Mount Aconcagua. At 6960m, it’s the highest mountain in the world outside Asia.

All the guides and porters on Aconcagua spend long periods at base camp, 4200m above sea level and a two-day trek from the nearest road.

The environs are harsh, all rock and scree. But there’s still a relative level of comfort here, with beds, showers, toilets, a big mess tent for group meals and supplies brought up by porters and mules. As guests relax or sleep, staff work hard behind the scenes to keep the camp clean and well stocked.

“The day usually begins at 6am,” Roger explains.“We collect water by melting snow and start preparing breakfast for the guests. Meals must be easy to prepare. At high altitude, boiling point is lower so food takes longer to cook.

“We don’t want to leave anything that could damage the environment, so we take everything or burn it. Even waste from the latrines is flown down by helicopter. Facilities are much more basic at higher camps.”

Compared with some other of the world’s highest peaks, Aconcagua is not a difficult ascent. The 18-day trek doesn’t involve climbing, so it’s manageable for people with a good level of fitness and for those who may take their time to acclimatize.

When I ask what it’s like to reach the summit, Roger cracks a big smile. “It’s hard to express how you feel.”

“There’s a sea of mountains below you. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Pacific Ocean more than 100km away.”

“Some people have to turn back, due to strong wind that can make it too dangerous – so to reach the summit with someone who is doing this for the first time, it can be quite emotional.”

The atmosphere in the dining tent after a successful summit is electric. People from all over the world come here to climb, so there’s usually some interesting cultural exchange using “the international language of the mountains”.

Long periods are spent at base camp, 4200m above sea level and a two-day trek from the nearest road

“At Christmas, it’s like a fiesta at base camp,” Roger explains. “We bring wine and even champagne up by mule. People stay up late and are constantly toasting. It’s not like that higher up where it’s cold and there’s no alcohol.”

Conversation turns to the latest mountaineering news. In Pakistan, local boy Mariano Galván and Spanish Alberto Zerain disappeared, presumed fatally hit by an avalanche, while tackling the Nanga Parbat, aka “the killer mountain”.

Such is the reality of mountaineering  – and unfortunately there are one or two deaths per year on Aconcagua, usually associated with heart problems.

But Roger assures me that the risks on Aconcagua, in his experience, are low: “Thankfully, we don’t get avalanches here, but nonetheless there are places where you have to take care.

“If someone does have an accident, we keep in constant communication with the park rangers so we can quickly get help from passing guides. Luckily, this doesn’t happen often – it’s our job to keep people safe.”

And though there are tragedies, there are triumphs too.

One of Roger’s colleagues, Ulises Corvalán, completed the Seven Summits challenge, successfully guiding a female client to the highest peak of every continent.

It’s certainly not the first time it’s been done, but it is still one of the greatest achievements in the climbing world today.

And, though hearing bad news is sobering, for those that complete years of intense training to become a mountain guide, these rewards outweigh the risks.

A Rough Guide to being a mountain guide

Becoming a mountaineering instructor takes years of rigorous – and expensive – training. If you think you’ve got what it takes, read on.

What types of guide are there? 

You can train to be a guide in many disciplines, including high-mountain guiding and skiing, lowland trekking, ice climbing, climbing wall and rock-climbing.

Which qualifications do I need? 

The International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA) provides the most prestigious mountaineering qualification. It is the only one that enables you to work anywhere in the world.

However, it takes around seven years of intense training and practical assessment, and it’s a complicated process – so it’s not for everyone. Once you’ve read the selection criteria, you’ll look at your mountain guide with even greater admiration.

Most countries also provide certificates for leading at lower levels, tailored to their own terrain. These qualifications only enable you to guide in the country where you took the course, though.

Some countries (including the UK and US) are unregulated, which means that you can learn on the job too.

Certification varies in each country that provides training. For courses in the UK, see British Mountain Guides and Mountain Training.

In the US, the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) provides rock instructor, rock Guide, alpine guide, and ski guide certification courses.

To work in the Alps, IFMGA is the only valid qualification. 

What does training involve?

1. Pre-registration: Before you register for training, check that you meet the course requirements. These include medical evidence, a first-aid certificate plus evidence of previous outdoor experience.

2. During training: You’ll need to complete a specific number of treks, climbs, wild camps or off-piste skiing trips, logging them in a digital logbook. Depending on the course, you may also study problem-solving, emergency and rescue skills, and environmental issues.

3. Consolidation: Between training and assessment, you’ll be expected to gain further experience practising your chosen discipline.

4. Assessment: Once training is complete, there’s an intensive assessment session – typically lasting a week or two – in a mountainous region. After that, you’ll receive your results.

Can I fast-track through the training?

It’s possible to apply for exemption from training from some courses, if you’ve already got a lot of experience, and go straight to assessment. See the specific course you’re interested in for details.

Your need-to-know:

For an 18-day trek to summit Aconcagua expect to pay around US$3500, including park permits.

Roger works for Argentina Extrema; other reputable guiding companies include Fernando Grajales and Inka Expediciones. Book as far in advance as possible for Aconcagua – 10 days at the very least.

Images from top to bottom (left–right): Christian Kober/Alamy; Griselda Moreno; Ros Walford; Griselda Moreno; Griselda Moreno; Griselda Moreno; Ros Walford; Ros Walford; Pixabay/CC0; Pixabay/CC0; Pixabay/CC0; Robert MacDonald/Flickr.

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