Mountain Guides

Last summer there was a big controversy in the Alps over guides and their legitimacy to be operating in France due to the qualifications that they hold. The debate continues for the coming season and it’s something that has generated a lot of comments from Singletrackworld readers.

My view is that really it’s not surprising that the French Authorities are tightening up on this. In France cycling is the third most popular sport (12.9 million visitors in 2002 (Mignon & Truchon)) so the internal market for mountain biking is massive. The big draw is the Rhône-Alpes Region which has over 160 resorts, 1 600 000 tourist beds and over 120 000 jobs related to tourism. Mountain Biking is now a significant summer industry in Alpine resorts with rider numbers growing year on year. This looks set to increase as the snow seasons become shorter through the effects of global warming and less predictable weather conditions.

This puts greater odds on a major incident in the mountains. In summer 2007, because of several weeks of poor weather (it rained a lot) many French tourists cancelled their holidays and many French guides were out of work. Of course the British guides remained quite busy because most British riders don’t mind getting wet (although one or two found out about hypothermia by being unprepared for alpine rain) and were happy to destroy disc pads on a daily basis getting all muddy. The fact that many UK riders refused to cancel a trip they’d paid for in advance because of something as mundane as the weather might have had something to do with it as well…

As I understand it, although there are efforts to establish internationally recognised qualifications for Mountain Bike Guiding in Alpine regions, there are still not specific qualifications that are agreed across Europe, let alone outside the continent. This initiative needs major buy in from tour operators. If this kind of discussion is already happening, I’m not aware, but I’m sure that there are enough people with an interest in this thread to clarify? If you were being cynical you’d say that the factor behind the news in article is the authorities tightening the rules to the benefit of French workers – It could be argued that the French are policing guiding more than any other country possibly due to the poor season French guides had last year.

Nonetheless, the recognised qualifications that allow guides to legally take groups are regulated. In the case of the IML this is by BAIML who are participants in a broader Union of International Mountain Leader Associations. Getting the qualification isn’t easy – read more here. Even with an IML qualification there are limits to the type of terrain a guide can take you on (e.g. IML holders are not covered for guiding over glaciers without additional qualifications on top). Holders are required to effectively re-train every year once they have the qualification to keep it valid and pay an annual membership fee. Training takes place in Upland areas, with specific work in Alpine environments (generally Switzerland). The number of deaths in Scottish and Welsh Mountain areas demonstrate that you don’t need to train solely in the Himalayas or the Alps to experience life threatening conditions.

Beyond the regulation, there is the big issue of the amount of time and experience that have to be invested in securing these qualifications. In response to some comments it is not the length of the course that is the significant factor, but the number of hours/days logged as participating in mountain environments (so a bit like a pilot logging flying experience). It is therefore time consuming to get qualified to the required standards, but should ensure a consistent standard. This doesn’t mean the current system is the best fit solution in all cases. There are different levels of mountain biking in Alpine regions and so it would in theory make sense to have a range of Mountain Bike Guiding qualifications to suit these. There is a difference in the potential risks in taking a family group on rigid hardtails for a valley floor trail ride and guiding loons on 6″ all mountain bikes down the Champery DH course. Factors such as group size, distance from established population centres, grade of trail being ridden (i.e. off piste equivalent) might all affect the qualification a guide needs to take riders out. As has been stated there are significant risks in high alpine environments and the ability to make decisions based on skills developed over many seasons are important.

I’m sure we’re all keen to make sure that we can all continue to enjoy riding in the real mountains of Europe and therefore support all tour operators in ensuring that there is a high standard that governs companies operating in these areas and qualifications for guides that are “suitable to task”.

Author: Cris Bloomfield

Usually mountain biking in the North.

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