How does this sound for a job? For weeks on end, you live in remote British Columbia where your groceries are delivered via helicopter. You get to ride some of the steepest lines and driest powder in North America. There’s a hitch, of course–you leave your family and friends behind for weeks on end and you’d have to train for ten years or more to get this position, spending nearly $30,000 in the process—but in exchange, you get a dream job as a mountain guide, getting paid to go heli-skiing 120 days a year.
Welcome to Craig McGee’s life. He’s the lead guide of CMH Heli-Skiing’s Nomad program, a premiere heli-skiing operation in British Columbia. He also doubles and triples as a member of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides’ (ACMG) technical board, helping to evaluate mountain guide certification courses while administering the exam in his spare time. Needless to say, he’s a busy man, but he sat down with The Inertia to give us a take on the real sacrifice it takes to live this lifestyle. In short, you have to want it.
As lead guide of the Nomad program, on any given winter week, his watchful eyes are honed on four to ten guests who’re looking to ski the best powder of their lives, whether it’s in chutes and steeps, gentle rolling glaciers, or perfectly spaced glades. He’ll ski anywhere from six to sixteen runs, netting 20,000 to 40,000 vertical feet a day. Conditions permitting, he and the rest of the guides at CMH Heli-Skiing can choose from thousands of runs on three million acres of helicopter accessible terrain – that’s 27 times all the ski resorts in North America combined. If it sounds too good to be true, it kind of is; these mountain guides are only afforded the opportunity through decades of experience, training and testing.
In the 1960s, when the ACMG was first established, only 10 to 15 percent of candidates became fully certified. Today, 70 to 80 percent of candidates pass and it’s not because the standards have gotten any lower. It’s actually the opposite – standards are stricter, but candidates have a better sense of the demands. The program’s grueling reputation is only preceded by its prestige – once completed, you can guide anywhere in the world.
To become a mountain guide, you have to earn three separate guiding certifications: skiing/snowboarding, rock climbing, and alpine climbing. There’s a course offered for each, but they’re not intended to make you an advanced climber or skier – they’re designed to measure a candidate’s abilities and provide them with specialized skills that are harder to attain, like the proper way to work alongside helicopters.
“We do a pretty good job of determining who’s ready from the get go,” McGee told The Inertia. “We see a lot of people with good aptitude, but not experience and they might make it through, but most people have ten or more years of experience before they even start the guide program.”
Take, for instance, the ski guide track (the ACMG recently added a snowboard track and many guides use split-boards to complete the program). If you have the prerequisites – a CAA Professional Level 1 Avalanche Course and an 80-hour wilderness first aid course – you’re allowed to enter the three-week training program where you’ll spend a week learning rope rescues, roped glacier travel, cramponing techniques and other skills. Another week with mechanized training includes helicopter and cat guiding, downhill techniques, avalanche and cliff rescues, and hazard management. Finally, one more week of touring training where they review material from the previous two courses, this time with a focus on your uphill abilities – how well you can skin up a mountainside, demonstrating proper pacing, navigation, and client care in the wild Canadian winter.
Even if you excel here, the Apprentice Guide Exam is a strenuous, nine-day excursion in remote glaciated terrain where you’ll be doing simulated guided ski tours and mountaineering trips out of tents. It’s an exhausting process, both mentally and physically, with the long exam format offering numerous opportunities for failure, but equal opportunities for redemption.
After the apprentice certification, you can only guide under supervision. You’re not a fully certified guide yet – you’re just a “baby guide,” as McGee puts it. He said about himself, “I thought I knew everything, but I didn’t know anything – I was going out into the world to learn.” As an apprentice guide, you might be guiding from the front of the group, you might be in the back, you might be running ‘snow safety’ with your own helicopter and pilot, checking the snowpack and skiing runs to help your fellow guides get a sense of the conditions and relative avalanche risk before taking guests out.
After a few years of apprenticeship, you can take your full ski guide exam, which is similar to the apprentice exam, but more demanding. Your reactions need to be smoother, your decisions need to come faster, and your solutions need to be more creative. (Plus, you’ll need to have the next level in avalanche training.)
The entire process takes about three to five years, effectively earning you a Masters degree in skiing. To become a full-fledged Mountain Guide, you need to repeat this two more times with Alpine Climbing and Rock Climbing. You’ll be expected to scale 5.11 traditional and sport multi-pitch routes on any kind of rock while also excelling in ice climbing, with the minimum proficiency level set at Waterfall Ice Grade V. But, you need to be comfortable climbing and skiing significantly above the minimum requirements. “If you have to think about your skiing or climbing, then you’re not taking care of the guests or paying attention to the hazards,” McGee said.
After completing all three tracks, you’re a fully certified Mountain Guide, having spent ten or more years of your life to effectively earn a doctorate in mountaineering. And unlike most day jobs, this is a lifestyle as much as a career.
Candidates come to this grueling program from all walks of life. Something calls them to the mountains, whether it’s skiing, snowboarding, or climbing, and they pursue their passions. Like Pierre Hunger, another guide for CMH Heli-Skiing, and a former opera singer who yodels for guests to follow as he guides down the mountain. Or people like McGee who came to the mountains to ski, only to start climbing to access more interesting terrain and discovering that he enjoyed climbing as much as skiing. One thing led to another and he found himself getting paid to ski 120 days a year while climbing in the off-season. If they can do it, why can’t you?
Well, like any dream job, the competition for employment is fierce. CMH Heli-Skiing recently had their biggest hire in years – a whopping ten guides. In a typical year, they hire three or four out of close to a hundred applicants. When they’re fully staffed, they have about 120 guides between ten lodges. Often times, the only way to secure a spot is to hope that another guide retires or, worse, gets injured. And unlike an office job, injuries are commonplace.
“I’m 38,” McGee told us, “and my body hurts. Your knees take a pounding, your back takes a pounding. You’re skiing every single day and you’re usually carrying more of a load [on your back]. You’re digging trenches and profiles in the snow, you’re digging helicopter landings. It’s physically demanding.” Even so, having the skills to negotiate complicated terrain and dangerous situations is only half the battle. As a guide, you’re working with guests; having an agreeable personality is essential.
As McGee told The Inertia, “If you only want to go climb, get another job and just go climbing. You’ll probably climb more and climb harder. It’s more important to love being out with people and showing them the mountains – showing them what you love.” But if the mountains are what you love, it’s tough to imagine finding a better job to feed your passion.