Working as a heli-ski guide seems like the absolute dream job! Being in the mountains all day, skiing fresh powder and showing guests the beauty of New Zealand’s nature, it doesn’t get much better than this. Of course, the job requires a lot of experience, knowledge and sense of responsibility which is why there is a lot of training needed before one can carry the job title 'heli-ski guide.'
Tony McCutcheon who has been guiding with Harris Mountains Heli-Ski for over twenty years now knows the most important lesson of the process. “You have to be patient, the process of becoming a guide takes at least ten years and then probably another ten until you are working as a full-time guide.”
For anyone who wants to be a heli-ski guide the most important organisation is the New Zealand Mountain Guide Association (NZGMA) who provide the courses, training and certificates needed for the job. Before even thinking of becoming a guide applicants need to have significant skiing and backcountry experience. According to NZGMA, a minimum three-year personal apprenticeship in the mountains is necessary before considering guide training. As they put it, “guiding is not a nine to five job. It’s a way of life.”
Another part of the prerequisites for starting the guide training is an Avalanche Course Stage 1 certificate and a current Pre Hospital Emergency Care certificate.
The next step is to aim to become an Assistant Ski Guide. The necessary courses are a technical ski course exam, a 4-day ski guide training course, a 6-day snow and ice training course followed by a 14-day level 1 ski training/assessment course which finishes with an exam that includes field and theory-based assignments.
This year Harris Mountains Heli-Ski employed the first trainee in the history of the company. Jeremy is an assistant ski guide and worked along our guides this winter 2018. “For me, this is an amazing opportunity to get more experience. I wanted to be a heli-skiing guide for many years and working with the guides at HMH who have been doing this for so many years teaches me an incredible amount of knowledge. I will need another season to get more logged days as an assistant guide and then I can strive for the Ski Guide Qualification.”
The heli-skiing industry is traditionally one without a lot of fluctuation. Almost every single chief, lead and senior guide stay in the job until they literally fall off their skis which makes it difficult for new guides to break into the industry. “Even after extensive training and a long time in the industry, you don’t automatically get a full time guiding job”, says Tony.
For Jeremy the reward is worth the struggle: “I guess my reasons to want to become a heli-ski guide are the same as they are for everyone else. I love skiing and I love the mountains and I can’t think of anything better than spending my professional life in this environment.”
Before starting the process to become a fully certified ski guide, the applicants have to fulfil certain prerequisites. An avalanche level 2 pass, written recommendations from the chief and lead guides and a minimum of 20 days of supervised days ski guiding work are only a few points on the list that you can find here. After matching all these requirements, future guides have to complete a 14-day level 2 ski assessment course for the qualification as an NZGMA Ski Guide.
“The whole process usually takes up to ten years”, says Tony. “Of course money is an important factor as well, you need to have a steady income for all this time because guiding won’t be enough.” That is why many of the prospective guides in Wanaka and Queenstown work as ski patrol on the ski fields and try to get guiding jobs on their days off.
Let’s put it this way: A future heli-ski guide needs to a real badass. Patient, passionate, strong-minded, smart, these characteristics are definitely needed on the long road to the dream job. But let’s be honest, it wouldn’t be half as desirable if it was easy!