So, you want to be a heli ski guide…

January 16, 2015 Katie Marti

As far as jobs go, we’ll admit this one’s pretty dreamy. Being paid to fly around in a helicopter and scoring first tracks on every run is not a very tough day at the office by anyone’s standards: however, it’s not all fun and games out there. Guides need to be educated in everything from snow science to first aid because they’re the ones on the front lines if/when things go sideways, and such an education doesn’t come cheap or easy. Thinking of becoming a heli ski guide? Read on…

Someone's Got A Case Of The Mondays... Photo: Caton Garvie
Someone’s got a case of the Mondays… Photo: Caton Garvie

Obviously, step one is being comfortable on skis and wandering around the backcountry for hours upon hours and for several days in a row. Fitness and technique is what makes the job look so easy to the rest of us. Guides have got their systems dialed, from layering clothing according to the weather to organizing their pack for convenient access to the things they need the most quickly or often. This kind of skill set can only be honed and perfected through experience: time on snow is crucial.

Like The Back Of His Hand Photo: Caton Garvie
Like the back of his hand Photo: Caton Garvie

Criteria vary by employer, but at Last Frontier Heli Skiing we require every single one of our lead guides to hold ACMG or UIAGM certification. This is the industry gold standard in terms of training for mountain guides in Canada, taking several years and several thousand dollars to complete. Our guides have gone to school for their trade and their level of expertise is recognized internationally. Courses include technical aspects such as backcountry skiing or glacier travel as well as things like customer service and group management tactics. It’s a wide-ranging program with apprenticeships and practicums to round out the hands-on experience.

Not The Good Kind Of Toboggan Ride Photo: Jun Yanagisawa
Not the good kind of toboggan ride Photo: Jun Yanagisawa

For many, the apparent thrill of becoming a heli ski guide trumps the challenging logistics of working seasonally in a job that can be as emotionally demanding as it is physical. Many ski guides find themselves working in forestry or field positions throughout the summer to supplement their income and keep them afloat in the off-season. Often times, this means being transient, moving from winter home to summer home and back again year after year, which sounds exciting and romantic but tends to get old once relationships and the urge to nest take root. For such reasons, being a heli ski guide is more than just a job: it’s a lifestyle.

He Actually Knows What This Slab Of Snow Means Photo: Steve Rosset
He actually knows what this slab of snow means Photo: Steve Rosset

If it sounds like I’m discouraging you from pursuing your dream of wearing the bright jacket, I assure you I’m not. Skiing for a living and delivering the dream to would-be powder cowboys and girls is a gift and certainly something to write home about. Not going for it is the kind of thing deathbed regrets are made of. And, to further put your mind at ease, the heli ski industry is clearly doing something right based on lead guide retention rates. Every operation has a white haired, wirey veteran ski guide who still insists on skiing stick-straight Elans circa 1982 and wearing a fully un-ironic onesie on chilly bluebird days. In fact, it may just be that the biggest hurdle you encounter on your road to becoming a heli ski guide is finding a company who’s actually hiring.

Dream Weavers At Work Photo: Hugh Barnard
Dream weavers at work Photo: Hugh Barnard