Thursday, January 31, 2013
In 1961, Peter Fuhrmann, a German climber working in
Banff, arranged to take his professional mountain guide’s
exam with Walter Perren, the Swiss mountain guide heading
Parks Canada’s public safety program.
At the appointed rendez-vous, Fuhrmann learned Perren
was conducting a rescue. Driving to Castle Mountain, he
scrambled to where he could see Perren climbing solo up
“He yelled down, ‘come up, give me a hand and bring
my pack,’” Fuhrmann, now 80, recalled. “So I put his
pack on top of my pack and then I climbed up the right
hand ridge of Eisenhower Tower.”
Reaching the summit, he found Perren with three
climbers who, although uninjured, lacked the skills to descend.
Perren suggested that Fuhrmann descend with one of the climbers
as an examination exercise. That task completed, the following
day Fuhrmann climbed Mount Victoria, backdrop to Lake
Louise, with Perren, who declared him certified.
Today, candidates hoping to earn professional certification
follow a more structured and rigorous program through the
Association of Canadian Mountain Guides
outdoor experience is required to gain acceptance; on average
the multiple exams take seven years to complete. This year, now
850 members strong, the association formed by Fuhrmann and
eight other guides in 1963 celebrates its 50th
Among those founding members was Hans Gmoser
who had established
himself as western Canada’s preeminent guide since
emigrating from Austria in 1951. Like Perren, who certified
him in 1956, Gmoser advocated for a Canadian association.
The group—the majority Europeans —
elected Fuhrmann as the
ACMG’s first president. Those already holding licences were
In Europe’s alpine nations, the guiding profession is long-established
and highly respected. Historically, people feared the alpine
as home to evil dragons, but by the first ascent of the Alps’
highest, Mont Blanc, in 1786, attitudes began changing. Rail
travel brought tourists eager to view peaks, glaciers and wildflower
meadows. Among them, wealthy Brits and Americans hired
locals to lead them safely to claim virgin summits. Chamonix,
France claims guiding’s oldest professional association, established
In Canada, the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway
(CP) in 1885 lured mountaineers west. In 1897, friends of Phillip
Stanley Abbot, who died climbing Mount Lefroy the previous
summer, hired Switzerland’s Peter Sarbach—the first professional
guide to work in Canada. In 1899, CP began employing
Swiss guides to lead its hotel guests to summits in the Rockies
and Selkirks, a program that continued until the early 1950s. Perren
was one of CP’s last guides.
As chair of the ACMG’s technical standards committee, Gmoser
set the qualification bar high. As his helicopter skiing business,
Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) flourished through the
1970s and ’80s, demand for professional guides increased. While
the ACMG certified a growing number of Canadians, dozens of
European guides eagerly worked in the exciting new industry.
Many of them stayed.
In 1973, two of those Swiss guides, Hans Peter Stettler and Rudi
Gertsch (a second-generation guide) attended the annual meeting
of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations
(IFMGA) in Liechtenstein, intent on demonstrating that
Canadian standards matched Europe’s. In 1974, the ACMG became
the IFMGA’s first non-European member.
Since then, the ACMG has steadily evolved, expanding to encompass
mountain, hiking and climbing gym programs. In addition
to safely guiding mountaineers around the world, today’s
ACMG guides work as highway safety technicians, avalanche
experts, coroner’s consultants, army instructors and as riggers for
Hollywood productions. Under the direction of Fuhrmann (who
succeeded Perren) and Jasper’s Willi Pfisterer, they also developed
Parks Canada’s world-class public safety program.
“Standards are usually minimums, and in Canada we had the
chance to set higher standards from the beginning,” said Gertsch,
whose own son, Jeff, is an ACMG ski guide. “We can be proud.
Canadian guides are leaders, some of the best in the world.”
While climbing for a living might appear glamorous, mountaineering
days can easily last upwards of 12 hours demanding that
guides evaluate rockfall and avalanche hazards at every step;
glacier traverses involve consecutive nights in tents eating dehydrated
dinners. Seasonal employment means irregular schedules
and incomes. Injuries are costly; physiotherapy visits essential.
Still, for those who pass the gruelling and expensive examination
process, few imagine doing anything else.
A Calgary native, Jen Olson earned her ACMG mountain guide
certification in 2008, one of eight women in Canada with that
qualification. She’s guided clients in Italy’s Dolomites and Argentinean
Patagonia as well as her backyard Rockies and Selkirks.
Internationally recognized certification allows her to explore
new wilderness areas while providing her clients an adventure
far beyond what they could manage on their own.
“I like teaching, I like to travel and I like introducing people to
a lifestyle I value,” Olson said. “To travel as a guide really makes
Even at 70, when Ferdl Taxbock is not hiking, backcountry skiing
or rock climbing recreationally, he guides part-time. Every
summer he runs the Alpine Club of Canada’s 55 Plus Summer
Trekking and Climbing Camp out of Stanley Mitchell Hut in
Yoho National Park.
“I still really enjoy guiding,” said Taxbock, who emigrated from
Austria in 1967. “It’s fun to be with other people who also love
the mountains and to help them enjoy the scenery or to help
them move on exposed rock safely.
“And,” he added, “It gets me out too!”
From traversing the Wapta Icefields to backpacking in Jasper to
climbing in Mongolia, ACMG guides are trained and eager to
make your adventure dreams reality.
~By Lynn Martel
Top photo from the 1967 ACMG guides course includes, back row, from left, Don Vockeroth, Ottmar Setzer, Bob Geber, John Gow, Charlie Locke and Bernie Royle. Seated in the front row, from left, are Leo Grillmair, Lloyd Gallagher, Hans Gmoser, Peter Fuhrmann and Hans Schwartz. Credit: Chic Scott collection.
Bottom photo: ACMG Hiking and Ski Guide, Félix Camiré (front left) leads two Alpine Club of Canada amateur trip leaders on a backcountry ski touring skills course in the popular Rogers Pass area of BC’s Glacier National Park. Photo by Lynn Martel.
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