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a bluebird day. We’re at 12,000 feet, a few miles outside Crested Butte, Colorado, and sharp white peaks are lined up like waves in every direction. I’m watching Jean Pavillard ski below me. His feet are together, his body tall and relaxed. He hops into the fall line, lightly touching both poles to the snow. Inbounds, Jean is a striking skier, but here in the backcountry he’s not exciting to watch. His skiing isn’t reminiscent of the skiing of Seth Morrison or Kent Kreitler or Jeremy Nobis. But it is efficient. Jean can ski a 3,000-foot, 50-degree couloir, climb up, and do it again. Without tiring. And then, in case you can’t do the same, he can rig your ass like a UPS package and haul it down. Like you hired him to. Because Jean is a guide.
And not just any guide. Pavillard is shaking up the world of U.S. guiding and, by extension, backcountry skiing. Backcountry skiing is still a small sport here. The country is rich in awesome descents, yet most skiers never venture outside the ski areas. And until now, most guides have been part-timers whose fees barely covered their mac-and-cheese dinners.
That’s changing, and Jean is a big reason why. He’s attempting to bring European-style career guiding to the United States. He runs a highly regarded school for guides in Crested Butte. And as the recently retired technical director of the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), Jean is at the forefront of a movement to sell American guides on an international system of certification. The question is, will they buy it?
Not all guides are excited about importing European standards. The skills needed to pass the certification tests can take years to acquire, and the tests themselves are time-consuming and expensive. If certification ever becomes important to clients-or even required for guiding on public lands-American guiding companies could be thrown into a tailspin.
Most days, Jean doesn’t think about the controversy. He just plies his trade. Like today. It’s a hot afternoon, and my head is baking in the sun. We’ve been climbing most of the day. Tonight we’re staying at the Friends Hut, and tomorrow we’ll ski over Pearl Pass and into Aspen. Jean’s skiing does look familiar now. It’s like footage I’ve seen of Patrick Vallençant, the pioneering French extreme skier.
A cool breeze comes up, a blessing. I tighten the straps of my pack across my chest and follow Jean. My own turns owe little to Vallençant and a lot to the mountain gorilla: hunched over, feet and hands spread wide. Redemption comes when the pitch flattens a bit and I can nestle a series of tight, fast turns next to Jean’s tracks, my skis splintering the thin, glassy crust.
Soon, we’re at the hut. Jean prepares tea, cheese, and wine and tells me about his youth, spent scrambling after two older brothers and the elite mountaineers of the Swiss Alps.
With the future of American guiding at stake, the debate Jean has engendered is a heated one. Mike Hattrup, for one, thinks certification is just what America needs. “Right now, you can just write ‘guide’ on a business card and hand it out,” says the famous extreme skier. “The AMGA is a way to ensure a baseline level of knowledge, so you can find a safe, competent guide.” After all, lawyers, accountants, and EMTs need to pass a test in order to work. Why not mountain guides?
Last spring, Hattrup joined Pavillard for a grueling weeklong AMGA ski-mountaineering test in the Bern-Oberland region of the Swiss Alps. Hattrup was the only one of half a dozen hopefuls who passed.
As Jean explains, the testing for AMGA certification is stringent. Among the concrete skills: Find three buried transceivers in a 100-by-100-meter area in seven minutes, on the first try. Here’s another: Perform a crevasse rescue in under 25 minutes. That involves arresting the skier’s fall, climbing down into the crevasse to rig him for evacuation, climbing back out, rigging up a pulley system, and hauuling.
According to Pavillard, though, the purely technical skills are the easier ones. “Risk management is what gets people the most. That’s where people quit,” he says. “You can be a good climber, but this is a different thing. People don’t see at first what’s involved-weather observation, avalanche forecasting, time management. If you trigger a slide, you can potentially kill six people at once.”
The fact that U.S. guiding is changing is only partly due to the AMGA-and Hattrup isn’t the only famous skier to become a guide. These days, your mountain guide is likely to be a celebrity. Doug Coombs, two-time winner of the World Extremes in Valdez, Alaska, has a heli-skiing company that brought 1,100 skiers into the Chugach Range last winter. Among his competitors is H20 Guides, run by Dean Cummings, another winner of the World Extremes.
“People want to rip,” says Coombs. “It used to be people who wanted wine and cheese on some mellow terrain. Now, people want to ski steep, sustained terrain.” For instance, Coombs is ready to lead clients on ski descents of the Grand Teton. Last winter, he had three skiers ready to go, but the Park Service wouldn’t grant him a permit.
Coombs isn’t certified, and his clients don’t care. But in addition to the helicopter operation, he leads his Steep Skiing Camps in the Alps, in places like La Grave and Verbier. There, he employs certified European guides. “They have to go through much more rigorous training,” he says. “If two European guides say something, I know they’re on the same wavelength. That’s not true in America, where everyone was taught differently.”
Besides, says Coombs, “They lay it on the line. They’ll stand at the edge of a cliff, so if a skier falls, they can push them toward a safer area. That’s pretty hairball, really.”
In fact, all guiding is hairball. Want the job description? Be the grown-up. Help the clients push their limits while staying well within yours. That sounds nice, but it gets weird. People pay you to bring them somewhere they otherwise couldn’t go. Often, to a place they never knew existed. But sometimes your job is to say, No, you can’t do that. It can be tough to do.
Lou Kasischke knows that firsthand. A client and friend of Jean Pavillard’s, he’s been climbing for 20 years and has climbed Denali unguided. On May 10 for the past two years, Kasischke has been with Pavillard in the Alps. But on May 10, 1996, he was on Mount Everest, surviving the brutal storm that left eight climbers dead. The storm became the subject of the book Into Thin Air and dozens of articles and movies. Among the dead was Kasischke’s own guide, Rob Hall.
What Everest made clear, Kasischke says, is the need to think for yourself-even on guided trips. Trapped in a traffic jam high on the mountain, Kasischke looked at his watch and realized that he couldn’t make the summit before the prearranged 1 p.m. turnaround time. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done was to make the decision to turn around,” he says. “Yet if I hadn’t stopped and thought about it, I would have been dead.”
For whatever reason, the guides didn’t turn the clients back down the mountain. Kasischke descended and lived. Others ignored the turnaround time and died.
When it comes to independence, Doug Coombs says Americans have an edge. “In Europe, clients will 100 percent follow the guide,” he says. “Americans question more-the guide is not God. You should trust your guide, but you know, your guide can go down. In Europe, the attitude is, the guide will never go down. They’re very bullheaded on that.”