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

author photo
Ros Walford

0. 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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