A Day in the Life of a Mountain Guide

As normal, yesterday in our house there was no need for an alarm clock because my youngest daughter Florence arrived at our bedroom door at 5.30 am telling everyone rather proudly that she had slept well and therefore everyone in the house should get up and play.

I pressed the kettle to make some tea.  Tea is the drink of mountaineers. At least British ones and despite over ten years of living in France I would never willingly give it up.  I still have my favourite pint pot from Pete’s Eats café in Llanberis.  Like most expats I suffer from nostalgia.

There is a serious side to tea drinking because it is important to drink as much as possible before heading out of the door.  This is because of the dry atmosphere in the Alps (especially in winter) coupled with the physical nature of my work means it is imperative to stay hydrated.

I got dressed and put on my avalanche transceiver and switched it on (one less piece of kit to think about).  Next I went and checked the weather forecasts and avalanche bulletins.  The ice axe may be the symbol of the mountaineer but one of the most important tools of the modern Mountain Guide is the Internet.  Up to date weather and avalanche information make the job safer.

Next I packed my rucksack

What I tend to do is lay out the contents the night before.  I used to pack the evening before but I found that I just spent the first hour of the day wondering what I had forgotten to pack.  At least this way I can double check.

For breakfast I ate muesli with a banana milk-shake.  Like most of my colleagues we are great advocates of supplements such as cod-liver oil and glucosamine which are supposed to keep the joints well “greased.”

Yesterday’s plan was to go on a ski tour called the Col des Crochue. The weather forecast was good and so I went to collect my clients John & Mike from their hotel.  We had skied together a great deal over the last few years and they know the form but it is always worth checking that everyone has everything (especially Mike who has been known to arrive at the top of the lift without his skis).  Next it was over to the Flegere ski lift which we used to get up into the lift system.

From the top lift we fitted our climbing skins to the soles of our skis and started the steady ascent towards the Col du Crochue where we left the busy pistes well below us.  Towards the top of the Col the slope steepened and it became necessary to take skis off and strap them to our ruck sacks in what is known as an “A frame.”  I tied everyone to the rope for extra security and then lead the way kicking bucket steps in the snow for the others to follow.

Heading for untracked snow in the other side of Col Crochue.

Everyone was happy to reach the Col and the lads were relieved that the other side was not as steep as the one we have just climbed up. 

We had a quick bite to eat and a drink while simultaneously getting the skis on for the next part of the trip, which was a long traversing descent.

We were now in the Aiguilles Rouge National Park and very much in an untouched wilderness.  The skiing is not often straight-forward. Yesterday was no exception, with patches of breakable crust and as the traverse developed it got a little icy in places making us all concentrate.  Mike misjudged his speed and came flying along the track; smashed into me and sent us both sliding down a very steep slope towards a cliff.  Fortunately I had my ice axe stuffed down the shoulder straps of my rucksack.  I grabbed it stuck it in the snow and stopped both Mike and me. 

As I sorted myself out I reflected that my job is not without its moments.

The difficulties were soon over and we again stopped to put our skins on again before the start of the final ascent to the Col du Berard.  We were now in the full glare of the sun and so it was important to get across the slope before the snow started to melt and avalanches became a concern. It was thirsty work so were pleased that we all had Camel-Backs (I tend to put an electrolyte drink mix in mine not only because I find water boring but because the electrolyte drinks keep you better hydrated).

After about half an hour we arrived at the Col du Berard. Before us was the beautiful Berard Valley full of untracked snow waiting for us to ski it.  The first time my wife Jane did this trip we arrived at the col to find two Frenchmen sitting in the snow eating fresh oysters and drinking a bottle of Chablis.  They were happy to share them with us.  This experience made a lasting impression on Jane who now always believes that a good picnic is the basis of all good ski tours.

Yesterday we had no oysters. Instead I ate my staple picnic lunch of oatcakes and cheese.  Easy to carry, very filling and I don’t have to fumble about making sandwiches in the morning.

After our lunch we skied down the Valley through untracked snow, taking our time so that we could absorb our extraordinary surroundings.  Eventually we arrived in the hamlet of Le Buet, which is not very big, but it has two important features: a bar and a railway station. 

We were able to sit in the sun with a drink and wait for the train back home.

I reckoned that I would be in time to fetch our girls from the school so I said my good byes and rushed over to get them.  It was and is always quite surreal standing outside the school gates with parents in ski boots and Guides carrying ice axes and coiled ropes slung over their shoulders.

Once home we all had tea and cakes (for me pints of tea), then I spent an hour going through the inquiries (all which seem to come via e-mail these days).  Then I checked the weather and avalanche forecasts for the next few days.  I phoned a Guide friend to find out what he had been up to.  This is a way to build up a picture of where conditions are good and safe.

The girls reluctantly went to bed about 7:00 pm after having had several books read to them.

We ate dinner at about 8:00pm . How much I eat depends on the time of year.  At the height of the season the portions are huge, but during the off-season I have to be careful not to over eat.  Finally I sorted out my equipment for the next day before going to bed around 9.30 pm.


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