8March 2019

Riding Shotgun: How To Become A Heli-Ski Guide

Watching your guide charge ahead, laying first tracks into the pow again and again, can make a person wonder:

“How did they get this job?!?”

Are they just ski bums that were in the right place at the right time?

Well, they’re still usually ski bums at heart, yes, but they’ve put in a lot of time and training to earn their spot in their chosen profession.

Since many of you have asked us many times:

This is the path they take.

The guides you’ll meet at Purcell are certified by either the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG), or the International Federation (UIAGM).

The path through the ACMG is what’s available here in Canada, and allows folks to certify as an Apprentice Ski Guide, then ultimately a full Ski Guide.

Ski Guides can work in heli-skiing, cat-skiing and ski touring.

How does one start?

The prerequisites to applying for the Apprentice Ski Guide training and exam fall into two categories: training courses and backcountry experience.

First thing? First aid.

Your guide is your primary safety resource, and they need to have the know-how to be a first responder in a remote setting. That mean learning how to get an injured person off the mountain and delivered to the hands of medical professionals.

Beyond the typical weekend course, aspirant guides need to attend a two-week training, pass a day’s worth of tests, and then maintain that certification (in week-long re-certs) for as long as they work.

Then comes avalanche training.

That starts with AST 1 (a weekend course), then AST 2. Lots of folks that venture into the backcountry on their own have taken these courses too (as they should – good work).

After the ASTs are complete, candidates move on to the more in-depth, week-long Operations Level 1 course with the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA).

They start to develop the knowledge that will allow them to assess the snowpack, how it might behave, and how to keep their group out of dangerous terrain.

Pits, profiles, facet layers, propagation, surface hoar, shearing, wind loading – all part of the language that becomes their own.

These courses could be completed in a winter, but getting to the first exam also requires references from current certified guides (that say they think you have what it takes) and a backcountry ski resume.

You need to prove about five years worth of experience – day trips, weekend trips, tent-based, hut-based, and a certain number of five- and seven-day traverses, all tent-based and self-propelled. Big and small missions, in all kinds of terrain.

If you’ve already been racking up these kind of trips for many years, great – but some people have to take one or two winters completely off to beef up the resume and focus entirely on training.

So, here we are, likely at least a few years later, and a candidate is ready to apply to the Apprentice Ski Guide training and exam.

If a candidate is accepted, they’ll attend a week-long training/screening course, that’ll give a thumbs up or thumbs down on going to the exam.

The exam itself is two separate week-long trips, with a group of other candidates and examiners, where the pressure is on to demonstrate adequate competency in client care (which is VERY different from skiing with your buddies), good communication, leadership, terrain choice and where to draw the line and back off.

The exam weeks will test technical skills like rope handling, crevasse rescue, advanced transceiver use, data collection, pre-trip planning, group management and evaluation in different contexts, from ski mountaineering to mechanized downhill.

A pass means an Apprentice Ski Guide title is earned! Yahoo!

That new guide will now work under the supervision of more senior guides for 2-3 years.

During that time, the next course to take on is the CAA Operations Level 2, which has three week-long modules spread out over a winter.

Finally, the full Ski Guide exam.

Another two weeks, under intense scrutiny, demonstrating not only the skills to be a strong recreational leader, but to handle being the ultimate decision-maker, taking responsibility for your group and maybe multiple groups.

All Apprentice Ski Guides MUST attempt the Full Ski exam within three years; otherwise they lose their ticket.

Earning a Ski Guide certification is a major endeavour. Depending on how many years of serious backcountry experience you have at the start, it could take a candidate 4-7 years to get there.

At that point, there’s still so much learning ahead.

The progression is about skills, for sure, but it’s also about experience.

You learned the rules, now you learn how all that seemed hard-and-fast is really grey.

The years of fine-tuning to come dials BACK the confidence, as you see how many exceptions are possible, how many variables are still unknown.

The grizzled, veteran guide is usually the one who never forgets what they DON’T know. What they can’t know. They build margins around their guests – a margin that is made of respect for the mountains.

And their training is never “done,” because learning is a lifetime kind of job.

Rudi always says that as soon as you think you have it all figured out, that’s precisely when you’re missing something. That’s when you’ve closed your eyes.

Guides put in all that time, training and commitment so they add value to your trip. Value that’s really hard to measure.

They give you access. They keep it safe. They share local knowledge. They add meaning and depth to an already amazing adventure. They bring out your potential by setting the next challenge.

The experience of guiding teaches a person many things – bigger ideas that follow you through life.


Feel like you might have what it takes to be a guide yourself? Contact the ACMG to get started. You’d be joining a roster of highly educated ski bums, who feel pretty lucky to call the wild outdoors their office.
It’s a long way to the front of the group, but the road is paved with life-changing adventure.




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