Follow the Lead
Four Swiss guides who carry on a proud tradition of taking skiers into the mountains
Published in POWDER Magazine (44.2) | October 2015
We hired him at the bar. He was sitting on the picnic table outside, watching the traffic pass on the road in front and the alpenglow fade on the mountains above. A patron pointed him out and said that he was the guide to hire, that he knew these mountains better than anyone.
The next day was glorious. He led us to places we never knew existed or thought possible. He was patient and kind and funny—a real charmer. Meanwhile, he skied like he was born to. At the bottom, he bashfully pointed out a line he sent last spring. You skied that? He smiled.
The Swiss have lived in the high country for centuries, yet no one had ever concerned themselves with climbing the mountains, unless out of necessity, until tourists, mostly British, arrived in the late 1700s with ambitions to explore the high peaks of the Alps. Chamonix, France, accredited the first mountain guides in 1821 with the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix. Switzerland followed suit soon after, implementing regulations for guiding at a local or state level in the mid 1800s. A century later, in 1965, guides in Austria, France, Switzerland, and Italy founded the Union Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagne (UIAGM, or in English, International Federation of Mountain Guides Association, IFMGA).
To receive a certificate from the IFMGA, the highest credential of mountain guiding in the world, candidates must pass a series of strict exams in rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering, and skiing. They must understand the flora and fauna, risk management, mountain medicine, and avalanche rescue and snow safety. Not only must candidates be physically fit, they must also “possess high moral standards.” After passing the entrance exam, candidates become an aspirant to gain experience for one year before becoming a guide. All in all, the process takes several years and costs thousands of dollars (about $26,000 in Switzerland), much like a college degree. There are 6,063 IFMGA-certified mountain guides in the world; the Swiss Mountain Guides Association counts 1,548 professionals working in the country. A third live in the Valais, the mountain canton in the southwest corner of Switzerland, where the following four guides live and work.
To be a bergführer in Switzerland is to offer a service. While many guides are exceptional mountaineers, climbing and skiing the biggest peaks in the Alps and beyond, their day-to-day work is taking tourists on a walk in the mountains, ensuring safe passage and return, if only to ski again tomorrow.
At 10,922 feet, Mont Fort is the culmination—and highest point—of the five ski resorts that make up Les 4 Vallées, which are Verbier, La Tzoumaz, Nendaz, Veysonnaz, and Thyon. From the top of the cable car, an endless sea of snow-capped peaks stretched to the blue horizon. Hubert Cretton listed off the names of the mountains in the immediate vicinity: Mont Rogneux, Mont Velan, the Petit Combin—off of which Cretton skied a first descent in 1957, now a popular heli ski destination—Rosablanche, La Ruinette, Mont Blanc de Cheilon. There were many more beautiful Alps to name, but it was time to ski.
Cretton, 79, grew up in a family of farmers in the valley below. His father skied only to hunt in the winter. Cretton learned to ski through lessons at school. Of the four boys in his family, three became guides. Today, Cretton and his younger brother, who is 77, are the two oldest mountain guides still working in Verbier.
When Cretton passed his guide exams in 1960, a boom in skiing had come to Verbier, and the Haute Route, which passes through on the way from Chamonix to Zermatt, was attracting more tourists—and guides—in the winter.
Cretton no longer guides the Haute Route. With his age, he says the packs are too heavy, and he adds, “You have to be 100 percent. You have to be able to handle it if something happens. Otherwise, you quit.” While many of his colleagues have stopped guiding, Cretton still takes clients skiing around the resort and on day trips in the backcountry. He is an old skier of beautiful, textbook style, arcing smooth turns to the bottom. After a long run that wound its way down the valley, and around and back to the lifts, he led the way to a restaurant perched above the town of Verbier, where he ordered cheese, bread, and red wine to share.
The Matterhorn, even at 14,692 feet, is not the tallest mountain in the Alps, but it certainly is the most celebrated. This year marks the 150th anniversary of its first ascent on July 14, 1865, by a seven-person team of climbers, an occasion that was written into history as tragedy. After summitting, only three survived the descent. British climber Edward Whymper and father-son Zermatt mountain guides Peter Taugwalder and Peter Taugwalder, Jr., were on the fortunate side of the rope when it broke. The other four climbers fell and died on the rocks below.
An hour before meeting Willy Taugwalder, I saw the suspect rope myself. Its frayed threads are preserved on a plush red pillow in a glass case in a museum in downtown Zermatt. Though he is not in the direct line of descent of Peter, Willy carries on the Taugwalder tradition of guiding visitors into the mountains surrounding Zermatt. The alpenglow projected a rose-pink hue onto the eastern face of the Matterhorn when Taugwalder opened the door to the Hotel Alpen Lodge, which he owns and runs with his wife, Rosemarie.
At 53, Taugwalder has guided clients into the mountains come winter and summer since he became an IFMGA-certified mountain guide in 1992, when he was 30. He has a head full of wavy blonde hair and a poof of bangs that often slip into his eyes. His skin is tan and he has long lines in his face that shape his wide smile like ripples in the water.
Taugwalder is a nice guide, the kind who could hold a conversation all the way up the skin track. But when things go wrong, when stress interrupts, he must flip the switch.
“And then I say, ‘Hey, fuckers, move,’” says Taugwalder. He dismissed his comment with a laugh and a grin, but then recounted a story about the time he found two skiers in the same crevasse. One was fine; the other hit his head on the ice and died. “If you know those things,” he says, “what can happen, then…” His voice trailed off. Taugwalder has watched these glaciers year in and year out. He has memorized where the crevasses are. He knows where to ski, and where not to ski. And in a place as riddled with death and accidents as much as beauty, well, “That’s why they have us,” he says.
It is one thing to become a guide as a female. It is quite another to become one as a mother of two, while also managing a full-time career. There is no deviation from the exam or process, not for age, nor for gender. Which is why Mélanie Corthay’s accomplishment of becoming the second female mountain guide in Verbier, joining 32 other female guides in Switzerland, at the age of 41, while also working as an architect, is such an impressive feat.
Corthay had always wanted to be a mountain guide. Raised the youngest of five children in Le Chable, the town at the bottom of the hill below Verbier, she was always one to ski all winter and run all summer. “I was not like the others,” she says. “It’s energy, good energy for me. I like to be up. All that is good is in the mountains.” Fifteen years ago, Corthay nearly went after the guide certification, but the death of a close friend and a father wanting her to get a desk job dissuaded her. Instead, she became an architect and taught her two sons how to ski. Then, on a family heli ski outing five years ago, Corthay spoke with their guide, Daniel Fellay, about picking her dream back up. Fellay offered to mentor her through the training.
Every weekend for four years, they went to the mountains to ski and climb, focusing more on the latter, which was Corthay’s weaker point. Corthay was one of two women in the class of 50. She was also the oldest. At one point, she almost gave up because she was not climbing well enough. But Fellay insisted they take another year to train. She passed her last exam in September 2014.
“It’s my life,” says Corthay. “I don’t do that to tell people that I am a guide. I want to give something to people, just one day of skiing or climbing.”
In March, the local newspaper published an article profiling Corthay’s accomplishment. Her son pinned the newspaper clipping to his wall. Now he’s dreaming of becoming a guide, too. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘You have two children and you do that?’” says Corthay. “That is a problem for people in the streets—a mother goes into the mountains and that’s dangerous. But how many fathers go into the mountains?”
Gilles Sierro drove his compact SUV fast on the road up to Arolla, a small ski area at the top of a valley nestled between Verbier and Zermatt. His family has lived here long enough to have their name on the flag for the village of Hérémence at the mouth of the valley. He passed large trucks on blind corners and slingshot switchbacks up to the tiny ski area at the end of the road. A slow and lonely poma took us the rest of the way into the mountains, where walls of ice, rock, and snow shot upward in every direction.
We hiked a short hump and skied to a vantage point. Sierro pointed east toward a pyramid-shaped peak named Dent de Perroc, elevation 12,060 feet. He skied a first descent off the top in June 2014, his line a near straight shot from tip to belly. Just beyond was Dent Blanche (14,295 feet), a shark’s tooth pointed toward the sky, which he has also skied. He indicated a few more routes, all big and seemingly impossible by the sheer logic of physics and gravity. Sierro is drawn to steep terrain like the rest of us are drawn to powder.
He is known as Gilles le Skieur, and he documents and promotes his pursuits on social media and a blog under that name. But there are many lines he won’t talk about—not even with his fiancé—routes he has sketched in his head, that he watches day in and out, waiting for the timing and conditions to align. A month later, in April, he skied another notable route off the east face of Dent Blanche, this one as vast and exposed as it was steep. Against the broad ramp of snow that granted passage to the ridgeline, Sierro was no bigger than a microscopic fleck.
There was a time when Sierro had thought of guiding as unattainable. He compared himself to the greats, like American Doug Coombs and Swiss Dédé Anzévui, a local guide who pioneered skiing in this valley. It wasn’t until Sierro saw some of his peers pass their guiding exams and realized he was just as capable that the profession became something closer to reality. Now, he guides full time, leading clients down runs steeper than they ever would have imagined skiing on their own. “To prove to yourself that you can turn there, it’s just something else,” says Sierro. “And then to work as a guide, it gives me a lot of confidence. I’ve guided people in some couloirs where few guides have been, and certainly no one with clients.”