Comparing European Alps to North American Mountain Guiding Styles
The threadlike uptrack scaled the face across the valley, its crudely direct switchbacks attesting to the many arduous kick-turns laid in by the guide. Long, steep, exposed to more than one avalanche path beneath towering Alps relief, and ending in an abrupt transition to valley floor, it could have served as a terrain avoidance photo in a Canadian avalanche course. From my Swiss guide, it elicited a shrug; one aimed less at needless danger than wasted effort. “Ja, there’s a hut down the valley behind the saddle they climbed to,” commented Paul Degonda. Few ever touch the slope we were looking at, however. “The normal route is from the back.” Had the guide wanted to bag his ultimate target safely and efficiently, he could have ridden the ski lifts of nearby Disentis as we had, then followed a well-travelled ascent. In barely two hours he’d have gained access to a choice of stunning peak-to-valley runs dropping up to 8,000 vertical feet. But, explained Paul with a smirk, “This was a French guide from far away. He wanted to show his guests a real tour.”
Not for the first time was I confronted with the contrast in mountain guiding and decision-making styles between the Alps and North America. In North America, I’ve long noticed close attention to if not obsession with weather and snow science – especially profiles and stability tests. Guides make decisions collectively, provide guests with safety training, follow a formalized approach to terrain, and seem to labour under ever-more conservative terrain selection. In the Alps, mountain guides make their own calls. They compete more than cooperate with other guides. They often practise aggressive if not envelope-pushing terrain selection. Except in actual courses, they don’t train guests. And over my more than 35-year span of skiing in the Alps, I’ve never seen a mountain guide or off-piste ski instructor dig a snow profile. European guides, if anything, snort that their North American counterparts have to dig a hole at the top of every run.
I have a foot in both camps. I grew up skiing in the Canadian Rockies and I’ve taken my avalanche courses in North America. As a ski writer, I’ve visited 100 or so ski areas and racked up hundreds of days with mountain guides at dozens of heli-skiing, snowcat skiing and ski touring operations. My recent professional-level industry involvement as a part-time snowcat tailguide also takes place over here. In the Alps, I’ve racked up over 1,000 off-piste skiing and ski touring days. The Alps have delivered my most interesting lifetime runs plus millions of vertical feet of “ordinary” big-mountain skiing. Plus most of my close calls – often while being guided.
The differences are jarring. When I arrive in the Alps I steel myself for terrain selection that would seemingly fail North American avalanche courses. The approach taken by most guides, and many friends I ski with privately, is to hit the steepest, biggest terrain that we can reasonably get away with. When I come home and ski with a heli or snowcat operator, I feel safe but, quite often, deflated. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll get to ski even one interesting run. Unless it’s plastered in trees, the terrain is typically gentle and devoid of technical challenge. The sort of terrain I’d routinely ski in the Alps forms the scenic backdrop.
I’ve long been curious about if not bewildered by these differences. Are European guides crazy-ass lone wolves, a tiny and doomed sub-culture of contrarians in an over-populated, over-regulated and risk-averse society? Or an elite corps of superbly trained technicians, going right to the line but, knowing exactly where the line is, not crossing it? Does the North American guiding approach hold the key to safety and sound decision making? Or, risk-averse and leery of liability, do these guides build in so much margin that their job has become cushy? Am I just experiencing deep cultural differences in risk tolerance and personal responsibility? Or do guides in the Alps just benefit from a less tricky snowpack, with fewer sliding layers and snowfalls that quickly settle and transform, creating huge playgrounds that, in North America, might wipe out whole groups?
To tackle these issues, I sought out several top mountain guides on both continents. One of them was Marc Ledwidge, President of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG), based in the Rocky Mountains at Canmore, Alberta. The 58-year-old Ledwidge has extensive experience in both continents, racking up hundreds of backcountry rescues in Banff National Park and guiding many of the classic ski tours and mountain climbs in the Alps. When I asked him whether I’d been imagining things or had identified some genuine differences, he replied, “Yes and no, but it’s not all black-and-white.”
Ledwidge pointed immediately to the vast geographical difference between the two mountain environments. The Alps may have it over North America when it comes to the vertical scale. Horizontally it’s a different matter. “In Switzerland you can stand in certain spots and on a nice day see basically every major peak in the country,” says Ledwidge. “At a typical backcountry lodge in Canada, your guide and group will be the only people for many miles.”
The Alps have far less terrain than western North America’s numerous mountain ranges, but what there is can all be climbed and skied. The region’s dense population and developed infrastructure provide ready access to hundreds of peaks topping 10,000 feet and offering a mile-plus of vertical. A guide like Degonda, operating in his home region around Disentis, Switzerland, has myriad choices of terrain and exposures, including ascents leading towards separate cantons of Switzerland, overnight hut tours, linking of multiple ski areas, and descents into remote valleys ending in distant villages requiring return trips by train, bus and/or taxi. Yet when viewed on a map and considered in terms of square miles, it’s dwarfed by the tenure of even a small Canadian heli-skiing operator.
The geographical gulf explains the divergent emphasis on snowpack evaluation. Guides in North America generally have to be their own avalanche forecasters. “Except in a few limited areas, our avalanche centers don’t have crews out gathering data,” says Ledwidge. “The data for the public bulletins by guides and commercial operators.” The forecasts, however, are synthesized to cover a broad area, making them too crude to support guiding decisions. Guides therefore need to be both observers and forecasters, says Ledwidge, “to provide confirmation or identify differences.” Backcountry operators do their first snow profile with the first snowfall, maintain a season-long snow and weather study plot, and perform innumerable on-mountain profiles. The nature of commercial backcountry operations also means that many guides will deploy to multiple operators over a season, and will often push out into terrain that hasn’t been skied for week or months, creating additional reasons to gather raw data and generate on-site forecasts.
In the Alps, guides can rely on centralized forecasts. “Switzerland’s meteorological zones are very small,” points out Degonda, 41, who at age 23 became one of the youngest-ever fully certified Swiss mountain guides. “Our close measuring stations include at least 150 observers providing daily data from fixed locations, plus 50 or more mobile observers submitting data via app. The dense network creates a precise picture that supports highly accurate forecasts.” In Switzerland, that is the work of the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF), a world-class scientific facility based in Davos.
This straightforward difference has led to huge differences in training curricula and guiding practices. A guide’s mental heavy lifting in the Alps lies in applying rather than generating the avalanche forecast, transforming the wealth of received information into appropriate route-finding, terrain selection, travel decisions, guest management and dealing with residual risks. Personally performed snow science is, if anything, receding as the past practice of basing decisions on individual snow profiles and stability tests was invalidated by recognition of spatial variability. Degonda will still do a profile when he thinks it could add critical information. “Looking into the snow is important if I’m in an area that I don’t know,” he says. “But typically I’m out on the snow in the terrain every single day, enabling me to build up a season-long history of the snowpack, the instabilities, and the avalanche activity.”
Like many Swiss guides, Degonda structures his decision-making process using the 3X3 Filter and Reduction Method developed by Swiss avalanche researcher Werner Munter. Munter’s is a protocol-based decision-making system using a rubric covering multiple factors and providing aspect and incline recommendations for each hazard level. It pays particular attention to the northwest-northeast quadrant, the toedliche Ecke – the deadly corner. “We have the tools to make good decisions and reduce risks,” Degonda says. “In the end, most accidents happen not because of insufficient data regarding the snow, but because of how people behave, what we call Verhalten. For example, a group is told to ski one-at-a-time, but the last few guests ski at once.”
In Canada, backcountry travel decisions are channelled through the Avalanche Terrain Evaluation System (ATES), which uses a number of criteria to classify terrain as Simple, Challenging or Complex. Forest cover is an important element of risk avoidance in ATES, and recommended decisions often include staying out of alpine terrain. While it makes sense in heavily forested British Columbia, I find ATES next to useless in the Alps, where one is constantly in the alpine. In 75 ski days last season, I’m not sure I ever skied Simple terrain. It often seemed as if we warmed up on Complex terrain, dialled it up to Psychotic sometime before lunch and wrapped up the day on Apocalyptic. ATES wasn’t so much wrong as simply inoperative.
The ACMG’s Ledwidge thinks Munter’s approach also has shortcomings. “Munter’s was originally meant to be a go/no-go decision tool, but it ended up basically telling people not to go until the slopes were virtually moguled,” he says. “Most freeriders aren’t looking for tools that tell them it’s OK to ski something that’s 23 degrees.” The ATES, he says, was developed to help people make clear-headed backcountry decisions without feeling dictated to. “ATES works well for us in Canada in terms not only of decision-making but of education, shaping people’s mindset in understanding the commitment level of a given piece of terrain,” Ledwidge. Could it be that each approach is best-suited to its own milieu?
Another profound difference between the two cultures is that most of North America’s guided backcountry skiing comprises commercial operations, largely lodge-based and mechanized, operating in government-regulated tenures. Even the smaller operations have multiple guides, and larger operations have dozens. By collecting multiple guides under one roof, Canada’s nascent commercial backcountry industry 40-50 years ago created the opportunity for team-based decision-making. The coincidental needs to satisfy insurance providers, lawyers and government bureaucrats, all demanding a massive paper trail to document every decision and event, generated much of the impetus.
The early years of heli-skiing (snowcat skiing came later) were very different. The genre had been invented by a handful of Europeans exploring the vastness of British Columbia. Each guide would go off in the morning, do what he wanted and swap tales with his colleagues at the end of the day. “Our current system was developed over decades,” says one veteran Canadian mountain guide, who asked that his name be kept out of this article. “In the early years, we just went out and skied. We had some great winters with big snowfalls and consistent snowpacks, and so we got away with it. In the 70s and 80s we had some huge accidents with multiple fatalities, and we realized we had to change big-time.” The evolution, once begun, altered guiding forever.
Today’s team-based guiding approach includes daily morning meetings, operations plans and terrain selection guided by objective parameters, including run lists classified as to complexity and hazard potential. Guides may not have to dig a hole before each run, as some of their European counterparts claim, but they are forbidden from straying outside their employer’s operational risk band and the team’s daily operations plan. If a run is “red-dotted”, nobody is allowed to ski it, irrespective of personal judgment. If avalanche conditions prove better than forecast or improve over the day, terrain selection and travel decisions cannot become more aggressive. In the Alps, far from being locked into daily plans and externally imposed risk bands, guides not only pick their own terrain but routinely loosen up once they’ve tested slopes.
In contrast to North America, the Alps have virtually no mechanized backcountry skiing, let alone large heli-lodges. Heli-skiing is banned in some countries, tightly restricted in others and normally limited to single-run experiences. Snowcat skiing is unknown. The main focuses of mountain guides in winter are ski-touring, mountaineering and off-piste skiing. Guides are highly respected for their knowledge and experience, and operate basically as soloists, as they have done for 120 years or more.
My friend Paul Degonda’s small company, for example, comprises just two senior guides plus several “aspirants” or guides-in-training. “Perhaps we’re a bit more individual over here,” Degonda says. “Our weather, snow and terrain vary over a small area, so that every guide has to be able to decide, on the spot, what is reasonable to ski that day, in that area, and with their particular guests. Our working conditions don’t lend themselves to deciding everything in advance, in the office, using a team-based approach. We still have the freedom to make independent decisions, and to ski terrain that perhaps differs from what other guides have done.”
The Munter system’s multi-criteria verification approach also enables the professional to fine-tune or localize the avalanche forecast. An experienced guide can, for example, judge that the day’s “Considerable” hazard rating is Considerable Plus or Considerable Minus where he or she is standing. That can enable customized travel decisions – which is why many European guests hire guides to begin with. “Look, I do love to ski steep stuff when I have suitable guests,” Degonda admits. “I do like to go at full-throttle and deliver first tracks. Being in the terrain every day does give me an advantage. When I go to new places or I haven’t been skiing for a few days, I’m much more conservative.”
European guides also benefit from a much longer time series and greater density and detail of observed avalanche activity – up to 300 years versus as little as 20 years for the more remote heli operators in Canada. Knowing what tends to slide, how big and at what time of season creates a huge advantage. So often in the Alps I’ve talked to some grizzled old local and been told, “Always ski that slope before noon,” or “We don’t ski that valley until mid-February, and only after it has had its big avalanche.” Replicated in village after village, these collective memories serve as a proxy for one of the most complex aspects of snow science, creating a non-scientific way to deal with deep instabilities such as depth hoar, basal facets and deeply buried surface hoar. And, in fact, I’ve known of multiple young skiers getting killed after ignoring the seemingly simplistic local lore.
A heavily regulated, legally exposed industry in a litigious North American environment on one side. Individual practitioners with broad freedoms on the other. It’s no surprise the one would appear more risk-averse. Not everyone thinks the Europeans have the right approach. Despite their smaller size, the Alps cover multiple countries, with significant cultural differences, at least six working languages, and historically little sharing of information between national avalanche services. “Even up in the huts, historically guide ‘Hansi’ would barely even talk to guide ‘Franzi’,” recalls one Canadian mountain guide who has spent quite a bit of time in the Alps. “They’d just go out and do their own thing. It’s a dysfunctional decision-making system.”
Among the thousands of European and North American mountain guides, few have received nearly equal training and accumulated deep experience in both settings. The only veteran mountain guide I know of who has is John Hogg. Now 69, Hogg began working in 1975 as a heli-skiing guide in B.C.’s Bugaboo Mountains with CMH, the world’s largest heli-skiing operator, becoming a full ACMG mountain guide in 1981. Later he began visiting the Alps, was mentored by a famous mountain guide in Andermatt, Switzerland, and was inducted as a Swiss mountain guide. Hogg has guided summers and winters for 42 years, skiing virtually all the classic off-piste lines throughout the Alps and climbing nearly all it major peaks, while returning to Canada for a few weeks each winter to guide snowcat skiing. Hogg has had only one avalanche incident with guests, with no injuries or fatalities.
“When I first went to Europe, I had to learn how to guide all over again,” recalls Hogg. “I looked at the terrain and said, ‘What? They’re skiing that stuff? With guests?’ My eyeballs were popping out of my head.” Hogg says European guides simply become accustomed to leading guests down 40 to 45-degree alpine slopes – something almost unheard of outside the trees in North America. “Most North American guides never have to step out of their comfort zone,” Hogg believes. “The true mountain guides over here, they know what snow has fallen, they know what has slid that winter, they know what each terrain feature looks like in summer, and how much snow has blown in so far that season.”
Like Degonda, Hogg relies on central avalanche forecasts, freeing him to focus on his central tasks: intelligently planning and leading routes that can roam across multiple aspects and exposures, enormous relief, variable snow, thousands of vertical feet, mile-long slide paths, plus numerous physical risks beyond avalanches. “My guests know that we’ll go out, find the best snow we can and ski the steepest shit that’s safe,” he says. Hogg guides only small groups, helping him to limit each individual’s exposure.
Even more controversial is the issue of whether the two regions’ snowpacks differ broadly enough to justify any general statements about them, such as the rate of snow settlement – and whether this might help to explain the difference in guiding styles. The ACMG’s Ledwidge has a clear opinion: “No.” As in North America, he says, the climate varies, from maritime in southern France to continental in eastern Austria and Slovenia. And so does the snowpack, with all its attendant uncertainties and hazards. Agrees another veteran Canadian guide: “Wherever you go, slopes that can slide, will slide.”
Hogg and Degonda, however, think there’s something to the idea. “The Alps have some bad winters, but in general there’s less depth hoar and surface hoar that gets buried by 2-3 metres of snow and remains for the season,” Hogg says. “The higher moisture content of the snow, the latitude, the warmth, all contribute to the snow settling more quickly. Often we can ski half a metre of powder the morning after it falls.”
“We do tend to have higher moisture content and humidity than in most of North America’s mountains,” agrees Degonda. “There are of course exceptional winters, but we have fewer sugary basal layers and fewer persistent, winter-long instabilities.” Whatever one may think of this issue, Degonda says there the Alps do have a clear snow-related advantage: the greater amount of skier-compaction. “Every standard off-piste line and the main ski tours in my region get skied after every snowfall and every time the wind blows in snow,” he says. “The risk level on this terrain is a full step lower than on unskied terrain.” So what might seem like envelope-pushing to the uninitiated is simply reaping the rewards of intimacy with the terrain.
I should make clear this article is about different guiding styles and approaches in each milieu as actually encountered. It’s not about the innate quality or intelligence of European vs. North American guides. It’s not about what decisions a guide from each background would make if placed side-by-side. Nor is it about the decision-making of recreational backcountry alpinists. North America sees lots of envelope-pushing, with plenty of radical stuff getting done at Jackson, Whistler, Snowbird, B.C.’s Rogers Pass, Colorado’s San Juans, and so on. And among the guided-skiing scene, North America has one big exception to everything I’ve written: Alaska, where heli-guides exploit the maritime snowpack to take guests to some of the planet’s most radical lines.
Nor, in noting that European guides generally push harder and deliver more steep skiing experiences, am I saying this approach is superior. I do, in fact, feel safer skiing in North America. While roaming the Alps has delivered the most satisfying descents of my life, I’ve been in groups that were pushed too hard or needlessly exposed to danger by guides who, though technically at their profession’s pinnacle, were so out there they didn’t even notice that their guests weren’t ready for the itinerary. And not every practitioner over there is necessarily competent. Years ago my group was nearly wiped out when our guide decided to exit by traversing a slope of hard slab that was only slightly faster than a 100 percent safe alternative. Having warmed in the sun all morning, the slope released above us, careered in chunks over a cliff and took the guide and two of us for rides. All managed to ski out, which was doubly lucky for it turned out the guide hadn’t bothered to bring a transceiver or shovel.
The Alps are, in fact, the scene of recurring, fearsome accidents with multiple fatalities, often totalling 100 per winter. The often heavily-travelled routes mean that numerous skiers have been killed not through their own missteps but by the errors or recklessness or of others who brought avalanches down on them. In one particularly bad year in France, 12 mountain guides were killed. “There’s simply a different acceptance of risk in the Alps,” says one Canadian mountain guide. “For sure, guided operations in Canada are more risk-averse, although recreationalists here do things I’d never do as a guide. Historically, guests in the Alps accepted more risk, and there was little recourse if something went wrong.”