By Erik Leidecker, First Ascent Ski Guide
When my two clients and I arrived at the Cabane d’Orny, a mountain refuge on the Swiss side of the Mont Blanc massif, the hut keeper, Patricia, welcomed us with open arms. This was a huge relief, because for days I’d been sweating the details—our hut reservations, tram timetables, taxi shuttles and inhospitable French guides. This was day two of a seven-day climbing itinerary in and around Chamonix. It wasn’t my first time in Europe, but it was my first time guiding in Europe, and I was nervous!
Europeans invented mountain guiding. Chamonix is the original mountain town and the birthplace of alpinism. For me, tying into a rope with my clients in Chamonix and guiding them on the storied peaks was a rite of passage in my guiding career.
Years earlier, in 2002, I took an American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Ski Mountaineering Guide Course in the Berner Oberland region of Switzerland. Among the instructors were two Swiss guides who were living and working in the States. During a first-night meeting, all the participants introduced themselves and told a little about their skiing and guiding backgrounds. I said, “I’ve been guiding for 11 years,” at which point one of the Swiss guides interrupted and said in his matter-of-fact English, “You are not a mountain guide, not until you have this.” He pointed to his chest at his “pin,” which is the merit badge, so to speak, that confirms a guide has completed formal training and examination in a member nation of the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA). I tried not to let his comment bother me, and over the next six years I completed the certification process and received a pin of my own in May 2008. I’ve continued to guide since then and have owned and operated Idaho-based Sawtooth Mountain Guides since 2002.
It was fitting—eight years after a Swiss mountain guide told me I wasn’t one—that I found myself in a Swiss hut, in the midst of a gathering of guides. For the “guide aperitif,” as Patricia called it, she collected all of us into the kitchen a half hour before dinner and poured us white wine in shot glasses. Each guide introduced him or herself, and said where he or she was from. This night at the Orny hut, there were about 10 guides from places like Zermatt, Chamonix, Saas Fe, Courmayer, and of course Sun Valley, Idaho! We toasted each other, “santé,” and then chatted about our itineraries, our clients, the weather and conditions. The Chamonix guides weren’t xenophobic and, like me, several had never been to the Orny hut before. We were all doing what we were trained to do, which is to guide our clients in any mountain range in the world.
I’ve been working in the mountains since 1993 but looking back, it wasn’t until that night at the Cabane d’Orny that I finally became a mountain guide.
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