Conundrum Press

Jean Pavillard and the Profession of Guiding

January 28th, 2014  |  Published in Blog

Here, once again, is the ineffable Dave Rothman with an essay on Swiss-born Jean Pavillard, “one of the greatest guides in the world.” If travel and adventure are even remotely interesting to you, whether or not you’re a great lover of skiing, Jean Pavillard may just become your new hero.

To read more essays from Dave Rothman, check out his latest book Living the Life: Tales from America’s Mountains & Ski Towns.

Jean Pavillard and the Profession of Guiding

by David J. Rothman

I published the following profile of legendary Swiss guide Jean Pavillard in Couloir almost 20 years ago, and much has changed since then. Pavillard has gone on to become one of the greatest guides in the world. Among many other achievements, he was the first guide (and perhaps still the only one?) to lead clients to the summits of the highest peaks on all seven continents. He has stuffed his life full of adventures few will ever begin to match. Partly because of his influence (he helped to design part of the guide-training and certifying procedures for the AMGA that led to tremendous advances here), American guiding has begun to come of age even as the numbers of those who go into the backcountry only continue to grow exponentially. He has had a lasting impact on our sport, patiently teaching so many of us what we didn’t even know we didn’t know.

It was an honor to publish the first portrait of Jean, and I look back on my days with him in Crested Butte as part of my own informal apprenticeship into the world of serious alpinism. I republish it here to honor him as a friend, and to show how far we have come, partly because of his commitment and hard work.

If you want the experience of a lifetime with one of the best, check out Jean’s website for his guiding company, Adventures to the Edge. It just might change your life. It changed mine.


Most Americans who climb rock and ice, ski the backcountry, or climb big mountains got into these sports because a good friend or two invited them along on an excursion one sunny day. We get hooked, then discover that there’s an underground high alpine society in this country, a web of interconnected enthusiasts who love the mountains so much that they contrive all sorts of plans, scams, vocations, and vacations to allow them to live the mountain life at least some of the time. That’s how I was introduced to the telemark turn and all of the other wilderness sports I’ve ever tried, and short of the wealthy patrons of heli-skiing or international climbing expeditions, that’s the way most of my friends have always approached the outdoors and the wilderness. Most of the time, we guide each other.

There’s something wonderful, and typically American about this – if you’re serious about any of these sports, you become part of a small, closely knit group of people who share a deep love for something about as sensible as jazz or poetry (funny, I like both of those things too). But there are disadvantages to this way of doing things. There are Americans who know a lot about climbing rock and ice, mountaineering, skiing and ski mountaineering, avalanche science, route finding, crevasse rescue, and alpine weather. We have even begun to see a growing cadre of professional guides who can do a good job at teaching and leading in a number of areas; the Earn Your Turns Guide published each year in Couloir is testimony to that. And some places, like Denali National Park, have a true high alpine guiding community.

Even in these places, however, there are precious few souls who can confidently claim to work at an international level across the full range of alpine skills. By “at an international level” I mean good enough to trust as a guide one day climbing a wind-swept, granite knife-edge at 6,000 meters, and then, the next day, descending on skis across a crevasse-ridden glacier, and then, the next day, climbing a multi-pitch chimney of ice. Even America’s best guides tend to specialize in mountaineering or backcountry skiing, ice or rock.

So, at a certain point, no matter how dedicated any backcountry skier in the US may be to the mountains and the alpine way of life, we have to realize something: despite our awesome mountains and magnificent snow, we are not an alpine nation. Unlike Switzerland, Austria, France, and Canada, we do not belong to the 12-nation UIAGM (Union Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagnes), and as a result we have no internationally accepted standards for mountaineering or alpine guiding in all its diverse facets. Most of us don’t even have much contact with professional guides of this caliber. There are no more than a half-dozen UIAGM certified guides working in this country, and even Canada has only 60. The closest thing that we have to a certification program is run by the AMGA (American Mountain Guide Association), which has achieved a high international standard in rock climbing, and has been working hard in mountaineering as well, but which is still struggling with ski mountaineering. With the phenomenal success of hut systems like the 10th Mt. Division Huts in Colorado, and the booming interest in telemark and Randonnée skiing, that is beginning to change, and Couloir is part of that change. But the fact is that we’re not there yet.

A day or two with Jean Pavillard would probably convince most of the doubters that what I have said is no exaggeration. It humbled me pretty quickly. Pavillard, who runs Adventures to the Edge, a ski mountaineering guiding business based in Crested Butte, Colorado, is one of the few internationally certified guides working in this country (he was born and trained in Switzerland). The things he does for a living are the stuff of alpinist dreams: he usually guides the Eiger, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc every year; he has skied McKinley; next year he will lead a ski ascent and descent of Muztaghata-Shan, a 25,000+ foot peak in the Karakorum; at the ripe old age of 36, he has not only climbed, but guided on rock, ice, and snow literally all over the earth, from Europe to North America, from the Andes to the cliffs of Wales, and on and on. He is internationally certified in every skill I mentioned above and more, although his specialty is ski mountaineering. He even takes good pictures of his clients.

What does it mean to be a fully certified guide? All 1,200 guides in Switzerland are tested, according to international standards, in skiing, climbing (rock and ice), mountaineering, ski mountaineering, rescue (avalanche, snow analysis), mountain environments (botany, geology, the history of climbing), and route finding, among other skills. The UIAGM sets the rules, but each country has its own national association, so each one is organized in different ways, and emphasizes different areas. Switzerland tends to push ski mountaineering, and as a result, Pavillard is one of the observers of ski mountaineering skills for the aspiring US certification program.

And now, the big question: what does it mean to travel with a guide of this caliber and experience? I went out with Jean on a beautiful late spring day in Crested Butte in 1994. He, his wife Mary, and I started at dawn and headed for Gothic Mt., a 12,600 foot peak with many challenging lines, notably a steep southeast facing pitch called The Spoon. The day was calm and the sky azure, but as we climbed even I could tell that it was getting warm too quickly, that we should have left earlier. The difference is that Pavillard had a much more finely honed sense of just what was happening to the snow, and how quickly. Most importantly, he knew when to stop, and was quite comfortable – professionally comfortable – with giving up the summit to avoid even the possibility of a wet slide. I knew things were getting a bit tricky; Jean knew exactly how tricky. Most of us tend to forget, when we’re off the snow, how big an environment it is, and how difficult it can be to read, especially when a little case of peak fever hits. When Jean talked about what was happening to the snow, it was with a sense of experience that I felt I would ignore at my peril. He also picked by far the safest line out, pointing out the structural dangers that lay in a beautiful bulge of 40-degree corn I was aching to ski.

Pavillard was also aware of all sorts of little details that applied to this particular excursion that he would bring up as we climbed, and he could teach them as easily as he performed them. Throughout the tour he kept on offering little pointers that made the going easier: on how to make better uphill turns when climbing in Randonnée gear; on a more efficient technique for climbing in A-T boots across a firm, steep snowfield; and so on. At the same time, he was both relaxed and fast – I got the sense he was leading me as quickly as I could go that day, but that he could have gone much faster. I’m not sure, but on a couple of occasions I think he was whistling as he climbed. Maybe that’s a Swiss Guide School thing. I was making much less musical sounds.

Most importantly, Pavillard led without the slightest trace of machismo that clings to hardcore skiing in this country. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a difference between the gnarly mountain-man mentality that characterizes so much of American backcountry skiing, and the calm athleticism of someone who has grown up in a country where alpinism has been a way of life for many centuries. There’s no juvenile daring, no braggadocio – just steady, skilled joy at being in the mountains, which is probably the best recipe for a long, successful career (and life) as a guide.

As Pavillard puts it, “to be a guide you have to use all your senses in a way that most people do not. For example, you wind up looking at things in a very different way than most climbers, as you always have to anticipate your route, the possible dangers and changes not only to yourself, but all the members of the party, always taking their ability into account. The wind, the snow, the cornices, the clouds, the feeling of the snow under foot – you have to have a sense of what a client can and will do.” At this point he told me a story of being on a windy knife-edge on Mt. Blanc, and having the intuition that a client was going to fall off one side in the heavy wind. Pavillard had to decide to jump off the other side of the ridge to balance the rope, and if he’d been wrong, both he and the client would have gone to the bottom. As Pavillard understates it, “the sense of anticipation is one of the most important skills in the job.”

How do you become a guide at this level? There is literally no way to do so yet in this country, so Pavillard’s life is instructive. He was born in the Jura Mountains, on the border with France, in the town of Orbe, in 1958, went to school until he was 16, then completed an apprenticeship as a plumber (the Swiss government has sensibly decided that if you want to become a guide you must have another certificate or a degree first, to prove that you can earn a living outside of guiding). Fortunately for Jean, his boss was also a climber, and so Jean garnered bonuses he could use, like a couple of ropes at year’s end. A weak economy meant less work, so as an apprentice he had eight weeks vacation a year, which he spent almost entirely in the mountains.

At the age of 19, done with his apprenticeship, Pavillard quit the glamorous world of plumbing (he says he has amnesia and can’t even fix the pipes in his own home), became a ski instructor at Leysin, and an apprentice mountain guide. Just to enter the apprentice guide course in Pontresina (near St. Moritz) involved passing a demanding test. On the first day the 60 people who showed up had to climb three pitches of 5.7 rock, both up and down, with no rappelling. They also could not use rock shoes, but were required climb in heavy mountaineering boots. The next day they were tested on ice, in both French technique and vertical climbing, where the only tool they could use was a guide axe (which has no teeth, as it is designed to cut ice), and crampons. They were also tested on cutting different kinds of steps in the ice, and crossing boulder fields and steep snow fields against the clock. Half of the students dropped out by the end of the first two-week segment, while those who remained went through another seven weeks of intense training in all the alpine skills.

Those who pass such a course are apprenticed to a full guide, with whom they subsequently work for two years. As an apprentice to Gerald Vaucher (now a national examiner for the guide test in Switzerland), Pavillard was required to keep a guide book, and during every trip the master guide would write in it, keeping a detailed record of each outing. Every year the Swiss government reads each guide’s book to make sure he is professionally practicing and staying up to speed. Pavillard was paid 70% of a full guide’s rate, and was allowed to lead a rope, but not the whole group. As he describes it, it was a true apprenticeship system in the European tradition: he learned not only skills, but the mentality of the entire profession.

After the two-year apprenticeship, the aspiring Swiss guide takes another five-week course and test which, for the successful applicants, leads to full certification. Until recently, aspiring guides also had to go through a stint in the army (take a physical and medical test, then get placed in one division or another, such as the infantry or the mountain troops) before they could take the guide’s aspirant test. Through various twists of fate, Pavillard finished his time in the army younger than most, passed his guiding tests, and became a fully certified alpine guide at the age of 21, making him the youngest aspirant and then guide in Switzerland for many years. In other words, by the time he was the age of an American college senior, he had been through a rigorous training and apprenticeship that qualified him to lead paying clients, with the blessings of the Swiss government, anywhere in a country that makes the Colorado mountains look a bit dull.

Pavillard began working as a full guide in 1979, in Pontresina, and says that, in retrospect, he was lucky to wind up as an independent (not affiliated with any school or organization), because it meant that he worked with a wide variety of groups, climbing schools, the Swiss Alpine Club (90,000 members), and so on. He also taught skiing in Leysin, which is where he began to build a base of foreign clients (mainly Dutch and Belgian at that time).

Most certified guides understandably stay in countries where that certification can be turned into a livelihood, but, luckily for us, Pavillard came to Yosemite to climb, then worked in Telluride for a season to learn English. He was here for the usual reasons men rush wildly across the earth: he’d met Mary Cain, an American, who eventually became his wife.

Back in Leysin, he got involved with the International School of Mountaineering, a co-op of guides from New Zealand, England, and Switzerland. His main interest was always private guiding, and he worked with schools on an occasional basis. He slowly built an international client base, and eventually came to Crested Butte in 1984 for the winter, to teach skiing. As it turned out, Robel Straubhaar, a German Swiss, was the Director of Ski School, and Pavillard took over that position in 1988. The Pavillards’ initial goal was to open a climbing school in this country, but they found that was harder than they had expected, because of Jean’s lack of experience with the American mentality and system, neither of which are exactly oriented towards international standards of mountaineering, even in Colorado. He became more and more involved in the ski school at Crested Butte, although he hadn’t planned on becoming Director. It turned out, however, that it was what he needed to come to understand how to run a business here, and deal with the Forest Service and the legal issues involved in setting up the esoteric business of ski mountaineering in this country. During all this time he continued to guide on a private basis in Europe, and his client base became mostly American, even when he went back to Europe for the summers. In 1992 he began guiding in Colorado and California, and by 1994, business had become good enough, and he understood the American system well enough, to allow him to become a full-time guide, both in America and Europe. This is the circuitous route whereby he has become one of the most experienced and highly qualified ski mountaineering guides regularly working in this country.

To go into the backcountry with someone like Jean is to enter another world. He’s not the most famous skier or climber in Crested Butte, nor would he pretend to be. The astonishing thing is how well he does so many things, and how relaxed, professional, and justifiably confident he is in the role of professional guide, a career that only exists stateside insofar as we can cobble it together out of various parts. Climbing and skiing with him I realized that, despite many years of training as an alpine ski racer and a backcountry skier, I knew a lot less than I thought I did. Compared to Jean, my experience was truly provincial; the single area in which I could truly keep up was in making an alpine turn.

There is a moral to this story. American ski mountaineering is at a crossroads, where more and more people are undertaking expeditions that only a small number would even have considered a decade ago. The development of better and better high-performance lightweight gear (particularly Alpine Touring gear), along with the growth of world class hut systems and guiding services is leading to a rebirth of the sport, even as many of the lift-served areas become more and more homogenized. One important step to insure the intelligent growth of backcountry travel is to encourage not only international standards of ski mountaineering in this country, but to recognize that backcountry skiing is part of a much larger alpine experience. We need to educate the public, and also to promote a serious, coordinated, national approach to guide certification. This means that we need to work more closely with climbers and climbing organizations, with avalanche schools, and so on, to bring our standards up to those of the Europeans in all areas.

This may rub some of us the wrong way. There is a wonderful tradition of independence and anarchic energy in American ski mountaineering and alpinism. I hope we always keep that spirit alive. But if we don’t also get serious, the image of our sport is likely to have more to do with the Aspen 7 than with the UIAGM. If we do get serious, everyone will benefit, and the next generation of aspiring alpinists in America will be able to turn to an even larger group of professionals to teach them.


This article first appeared in Couloir 8.2 (Dec. 1995/Jan. 1996): 10-15.

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