When the folks at pathyouchoose.com reached out and asked me to write a blog about becoming a guide, I really didn’t know where to begin. After all, this is a website designed to help people find some direction with their career post-college; I didn’t figure it out until I was in my thirties. But what better way to learn than through some else’s story? At least that’s what I’ve found to be true in my own life.
So why guiding, how did I get here? Being outdoors has always been a priority for me. When I was younger I often skipped school to go hiking, biking, skiing, etc. But the family and societal pressure to follow the normally accepted path in life: high school, college, office job, house, wife, kids, retirement, was too great. I wrestled with my passion and my family’s expectations. After college, I moved to Colorado and ski bummed for three years. Then I finally decided to ‘get my act together’ and go back to school. After getting a Master’s degree in engineering, working in an office for just over five years and a break up with my fiancé; a trip to the French Alps was the turning point. It was the point in my life where I finally realized that life is too short to not do what you love and finally got the courage to take the plunge and fully commit a career in the outdoors.
First, there are a few things that you need to know about life as a professional guide; ponder profusely on these points prior to taking the plunge. Starting out can be very discouraging. It’s a very competitive field and requires a high level of fitness and dedication. The certification process is long and expensive. It is hard to make a living when you’re first starting out; there is a reason why so many aspiring guides and outdoor enthusiasts live in vans…
The nature of guiding is very sporadic and often requires a lot of travel to be successful. You might have three months with barely a day off and then no work at all for a while. Or, you might find yourself in Japan for three months, then Alaska, then New Zealand. Many people find this exciting at first, and it truly is, but I can tell you from experience that living out of a duffel bag and calling a storage unit in Colorado home can wear on you after a while. It’s all about finding a balance. Last, but not least, the sporadic work and travel makes it nearly impossible to have a relationship. I do know several successful guides that have families, but I also know that it can be really challenging to make it work. Again, it’s all about finding a balance between work and home life; but, this applies for most professions.
There are lots of different types of guides but, I’m going to speak about becoming and working as a professional, certified, ski guide since that is what I do. A great way to start out is as a ski patroller, preferably at a big ski area with a lot of avalanche terrain. You’ll get a lot of great experience administering first aid, and exposure to avalanche forecasting and mitigation. Having excellent first aid skills and a solid understanding of avalanche hazards is imperative to becoming a guide. Becoming fully certified under an American Avalanche Association program is another requirement to becoming a certified guide. It is recommended to start climbing and mountaineering as doing this will expose you to technical rope systems. This knowledge will come in handy when things go wrong and you need to perform a rescue.
If you decide to become a professional rock, alpine, ski guide, or all three, I highly recommend that you start preparing and saving up to take your American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) guide courses. AMGA certifications are currently not required in the United States, yet… But, more and more guide services are demanding them and the U.S. is moving in that direction. Having your guide certs will also make you more appealing to potential employers and open more doors for you. Most other countries do require guide certifications, so if you want to work internationally, you’d better get your certs.
Despite the challenges mentioned above, guiding can be a gratifying career. There is something extraordinary about sharing your passion with others. You get to spend a lot of time outdoors and helping someone else achieve a goal is a pretty rewarding experience. It doesn’t always have to be about climbing the tallest peak or skiing the steepest line. Seeing the look on someone’s face, and feeling their excitement after they have accomplished something that they’ve been wanting to do for a long time is great, and its why I love guiding.
Paul Schmidt is an AMGA Aspirant Ski Guide and Assistant Alpine Guide. He lives and works in Summit County Colorado where he is a ski patroller, guide, and teacher of avalanche courses. If you’re interested in learning more, want to schedule a guided day or take an avalanche course feel free to shoot him an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Instagram: pschmidt76