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When work is your passion

Work is not always being seated at a desk eight hours a day. Some jobs allow people to cultivate their passions. One example; mountain guides. They mix their love for nature and sport with an unconventional job that requires years of specialisation, physical ability and technical skills.

A mountain guide is an adventure tourism guide who has developed a specific series of skills, which he or she employs to lead people into high mountain environments, and back again, in a safe and enjoyable fashion. “Becoming a certificated guide means earning International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) qualification,” says Jason D. Martin, operations manager of the American Alpine Institute (AAI).

“The IFMGA qualification is an international standard for professional mountain guides, accepted by 25 countries across the globe” confirms Betsy Novak, who is executive director of the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA ). The successful candidate has completed three courses in three disciplines: rock, alpine and ski. “Ironically,” says Martin of AAI, “only a small percentage of mountain guides are certified. This is because certification takes years, and a lot of money, to obtain”. Being accepted onto a training programme is difficult in itself.

Applicants need at least one, if not two years’ professional, as well as many years of personal, experience. Benjamin Gorelick, expedition director of the Mountaineering Training School, tells us that, “In the USA, the training program itself will take an average of between five and six years to complete, and will cost approximately 24,000 Euros. This does not include extras, such as the expenses for complusory personal and professional trips that form part of the certification process.

” That said, states Ben Gorelick, “The IFMGA doesn’t provide certification for less technical activities such as backpacking, or trekking or top-roping or rock climbing.” Moreover, “The IFMGA is stronger in some countries than others. In Europe, all technical guides must be certified, while very few American companies require IFGMA certification. For example, in all of Alaska, there are only two IFGMA certified guides”.

A mountain guide’s characteristics .To be a good guide, a person “needs to be physically strong and technically competent,” continues Ben Gorelick. Betsy Novak of AMGA simply describes a guide as “strong and smart”. Martin Chester, director of training of Plas y Brenin in Wales, which is also the British National Mountain Centre, states that that being a good guide means “being as passionate about people as you are about the mountains”.

Meanwhile, on the mountain, “Everything you do is risk management,” says Ben Gorelick, “There are many hazards. Guides must be able to minimize the dangers their clients – and they are exposed to.” A career as a moutain guide? Urban living makes many people yearn for the chance to experience life on a more elemental level. As a consequence, activities such as mountaineering and rock climbing have become increasingly popular.

Today, a fully-certified IFMGA guide can expect to earn between 200 and 400 euros a day, but Ben Gorelick underlines: “This varies from country to country, and from company to company”. Martin Chester says that a guide’s salary depends on various factors; “Guides have two work seasons: ski-ing from December to April, and mountainering from June to September.” A guide might be employed by a company or be self-employed. As in other fields, the latter option, especially if the guide has his or her own guiding service, could be more profitable.

Finally, stresses Betsy Novak, executive director of the American Mountain Guides Association, to calculate an annual salary it is important to understand that; “What one guide makes is determined not only by their certification level, but also by the level of their personal experience”. Trekking guide or a “Nepalese Sherpa”? Ram Prasad Ghimire, director of Nepal Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management (NATHM) in Katmandu, Nepal, explains that; “In Nepal, a trekking guide has to hold a valid licence issued by the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation”.

Some schools, like NATHM, organise trekking guide training both on their own initiative and upon request from the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal. Ram adds that the expression “Nepalese sherpa” or “Himalayan sherpa” is not synonymous with “trekking guide”, As Nigma Sherpa, a 30-year-old Nepalese Sherpa from Dolakha, explains; “The word Sherpa is composed of two words ‘Shar’ and ‘Pa’. Shar means east and Pa means people in sherpa language.

So Sherpa means people who live in the estern mountain region of Nepal. In the past most of the Sherpa people lived in the mountain region but nowadays they live in different parts of the country because of their job, business, study etc. To become a sherpa, it is necessary to speak sherpa language and be familiar with sherpa culture and tradition.”

He also quotes a couple of  definitions: In short Sherpa means:



E—-Ethnic group

R—-Really Remote

P— Person

A—Around Himalayas

S–Should be


E–Educated and



A–Around the world Safari Guide

Grant Hine, MD of the Field Guide Association of South Africa (FGASA), defines a safari guide as, “the link between the natural and the cultural surroundings and the clients”, someone, in other words, who leads people in natural surroundings, and adds value to their experience by interpreting the natural environment.

These days, there are many different types of guides who specialise in different environments; the best-known being those we might call terrestrial nature guides (field guides and trail guides) and marine guides. In South Africa, the Field Guide Association of South Africa (FEGSA) certification is the most common. This also constitutes “the basis for many different careers in the this industry,” says Corne Schalkwyk, marketing manager of Eco Training, which is based in Nelspruit in northeastern South Africa.

“To obtain certification a candidate has to pass a theory exam as well as the practical guiding assessment. Having registered with the South African Department of Tourism, they can work as a nature, or safari, guide”, says Grant Hine, a field guide with many years’ experience. Also if various countries can have their own certification criteria, usually connected with local tourism laws, it is possibile that neighbouring regions will recognise each other’s guiding qualifications.

A professional field guide course, costs between 10,000 and 14,000 euros and, depending on the school, might last from six to 12 months. As Corne Schalkwyk, from Eco Training, explains, “the professional one-year course is definitely the most popular due to its links with the industry and employment opportunities.” Usually, the courses include both theory and practical, on-the-job, training.

Dylan Panos says that, in his academy, “The training may be divided into morning and evening practical training sessions; such as bush walks and game drives. Moreover, if the student qualifies, he or she can be placed at a local lodge or reserve, in order to gain some experience in a real working environment.”

Nowadays in Southern Africa there are around 45 training providers offering guide training. What about the future? “Tourism is a very entrepeneurial industry, which basically means that your earnings will often be a reflection of your level of dedication, enthusiasm and passion for wildlife and people.

Working at a lodge or reserve offers limited possibilities, but most guides that are serious about a career in guiding eventually find themselves working freelance as specialist guides, or set up their own businesses,” says Dylan Panos. After a career as a guide proper, people can change work direction, using the field guide basic qualification as the basis for many careers in the industry.

These might include wildlife filmmaking, or writing about the environment. Corne Schlkwyk gives us some examples of careers undertaken by past students at EcoTraining: directors of environmental TV programs, authors, filmmakers and internationally-renowned guides. All jobs that are not only well-paid, but also offer the people doing them the chance to continue to cultivate their passion.

By Paola Bettinelli (originally published in TWSM magazine).

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