Becoming A Mountain Guide | Susi Süßmeier | Part 1
‘The most beautiful job in the world? To be out in the mountains. To do what others pay money for, and earn money in the process. Sounds like a dream, doesn't it? But what do you have to do for it? And does the fun really come without a down side?‘
In part 1 of this 4-part series, certified mountain and ski guide Susi Süßmeier, introduces us to (for her) the most beautiful job in the world.Words by Susi Süßmeier. Cover photo by Boris Textor.
Becoming a Guide Part 1: Who is actually allowed to guide?
In order to be able to guide in the Alps for a fee, there are various training courses you can take, depending on the country and what one would like to guide in (other rules apply to clubs, but this does not fall under “Leadership for a fee” but as an association activity). Often I notice that my clients are completely unfamiliar with how the profession is managed. Anyone who accompanies you in the mountains for a fee is called a "mountain guide". There are differences in training and skills that are worth knowing. It is important that many countries require training in leadership. Because the mountains are not a golf course and the line between exhilaration and unhappiness is often fine. In general, there is always a residual risk in the mountains, but this can be significantly reduced through experience and knowledge.
But back to the question, in most countries, training as a mountain guide is necessary for mountain hikes that are possible without additional aids (crampons, ice axe, etc. with the exception of snowshoes) and safety devices (rope, via ferrata set, etc.). Mountain guides are allowed to lead on easy and moderately difficult mountain trails in summer and snowshoe hikes in areas that are not at risk of avalanches in winter.
For everything beyond that, i.e. difficult mountain paths, climbing tours, via ferratas, classic mountaineering and alpine tours, ice climbing and ski tours, you need training as a state-certified mountain and ski guide.
Note on Germany: There is only a mountain and ski school law in Bavaria, which provides rules for mountain guidance.
For both training courses, some level of experience and personal skills must be attained before the training begins. The aim of the training is to convey a confident and good leadership style. So if you want to train as a mountain guide, you have to be a good mountaineer, climber and skier. Good physical fitness and the ability to move safely in alpine terrain are also required for training as a mountain guide. This can only be achieved with a lot of experience.
📷 The IFMGA mountain guide badge (Images: Eva Winter, Susi Süßmeier)
Becoming a hiking guide
While in Germany “suitable people” often lead hikes, there are legal regulations in other Alpine countries as to who can lead what and where. In Austria, for example, different regulations apply in the individual federal states and each has its own training process. However, these degrees are often not recognized in other (federal) states. The UIMLA (Union of International Mountain Leaders Association) provides one of the most extensive and internationally recognized training courses. It is offered, for example, by the Association of German Mountain and Ski Guides (VDBS), begins with an entrance test, and comprises 42 days of training and 20 days of internship.
Becoming a mountain guide
A very high level of personal skill and a lot of experience in the mountains are the basic requirements to be able to become a mountain guide. Usually only someone who likes to spend all of their free time in the mountains, or at least has spent it in earlier years, has the necessary skill and feeling for the mountains. So it is not enough if you can climb high grades indoors. The higher your level, the less you have to concentrate on yourself during the training and the more attention you can devote to learning leadership techniques.
Where does the training take place?
The mountain guide training process differs greatly between the individual countries, but in most countries around the world it leads to the same qualification, the mountain guide badge of the IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations) or, in German, the IVBV (International Association of Mountain Guide Associations). So it doesn't really matter which country you are completing your training in.
If you delve a little more into the training courses in the various countries, you will find advantages and disadvantages to each. Most of them do their training in their country of origin, provided there is training there.
I did my training in Germany, or rather, at the Association of German Ski and Mountain Guides (VDBS). The courses took place in the entire Alpine region. In the following I can tell you a little bit about the process at VDBS:
Tour report and entrance exam
If you want to register for the mountain guide entrance exam, you have to submit a tour report, i.e. a list of completed tours. A certain number of tours in certain categories is required, for example 20 different alpine rock tours, including five tours with a wall height of at least 250 m and difficulty level VII.
If the tour report fits, you can take the entrance exam. This consists of two parts, a winter part and a summer test. Both exams take almost a week each. If everything is passed, you can start with the training. If you fail, the relevant part of the exam has to be repeated in the next year.
The training comprises over 90 training days, which are thematically divided into blocks. Mountain rescue, sport climbing, leading in the rock, theory, avalanches, ski tours, and leading in high mountains are the courses that you have to successfully complete in order to get the status of "aspirant" and to be able to carry out the first internships and guided tours. A course lasts between 6 and 13 days and sometimes only includes training, sometimes individual exams and sometimes you are assessed over the entire course. The exam mode naturally has an impact on the course, the best are the courses without exams or with only individual, explicit exam parts. In my experience, these courses are much “livelier”, there are a lot more questions asked and discussed. The apprenticeship is completed by four state exams; theory, ski mountaineering in winter, as well as alpine tours and rock tours in summer. The exams check not only whether the prospective mountain guide has a feeling for the necessary safety measures, but also their ability to impart knowledge. The latter is tested using so-called teaching samples. There are also tests in mountain rescue techniques.
Duration of training
The training lasts at least 2.5 years, but does not have to be completed during this time. Course repetitions, injuries or no time / vacation on the course dates are possible reasons why the training can take longer.
📷 The training also includes snow cover examinations, crevasse rescue and guiding on a short rope. (Photos: Eva Winter, Boris Textor, Susi Süßmeier)
Those who study alongside their training will probably find it easier to find the time they need for the training courses, but this raises the question of how to finance the expensive training. A course week costs between 400 and 500 euros in course costs plus accommodation, food and other ancillary costs such as mountain railway tickets. So you can count on just under a thousand per training week. With 91 days of training plus 18 days of examination, this starts to add up. It may be financially easier if you work on the side - but then you need an understanding boss and lots of vacation days. Working people therefore often take a little more time for training and do the courses over multiple years. As soon as you are an aspirant, there is some money in the coffers: Per day of the tour you could expect an average of 250 € / day (gross!) In the last few years (as of 2021). Some mountain guides or mountain schools pay better, others worse.
When you are done, the VDBS recommends charging a daily rate of € 450 plus expenses. If you work for mountain schools, the daily rate varies depending on the tour and the mountain school, between € 280 and € 350 is a common range. Many colleagues work part-time as mountain guides with the great advantage of not being solely dependent on guiding.
📷 Susi hiking, ice climbing, climbing and skiing (Photos: Susi Süßmeier, Julian Resch, Bernhard Hangl, Boris Textor).
During my studies I had the opportunity to train as a “Tyrolean mountain guide”. I sometimes financed my studies by leading alpine crossings and hikes for a tourist association. In my private life I found more and more pleasure in all different mountain sports disciplines and was lucky enough to be included in the expedition team of the German Alpine Club. In 2016, I easily had all the tours that you had to complete to prove your skills before the mountain guide entrance exam. Since I really enjoyed guiding hiking, it made sense to expand my area of expertise. In 2021 I completed my training as a state-certified mountain and ski guide. More about Susi