the life of a mountain guide

There is a light breeze from the east as the crampons creak on the snow under my boots. It’s cold, but considering the altitude it’s not too bad. My headlamp illuminates the steep, sharp snowy ridge that we’re climbing, offering just enough light to guide us.

There is a palpitating star within the Milky Way which behind us cuts the sky in two. We have hard legs, shortness of breath and are slowing down. We’ve been walking in the dark for five hours, alone. The distant torchlights are the only sign of company. The shimmering lights of the houses down in the valley on the left have us dreaming of a bed with a pillow to sink deep into.

The rope that binds us tightens, and as I turn around John looks at me in fear: ‘I don’t know if I can do it,’ he says. We are at 4,700 metres above sea level, on the standard French route of the Mont Blanc. Behind us lies the Bionnassay ridge. John is a client of mine from New York who I met in the Dolomites two summers ago. The lights on the left are the houses of Chamonix.

But the summit is just over 100 metres away. It is one of the toughest – one that makes you think I can’t do it, I want to go back, but also one you want to conquer. One of the most beautiful, the most exciting. One you will remember forever.

I know these feelings very well. I also know the sacrifices John made to be here to make his dream come true. But above all, I know John’s skills, so his sentence doesn’t bother me. We stop to eat a bar and drink a little water. I hate these bars, I spend whole summers eating them. I manage to calm John. We rest a little, I encourage him, and we decide to continue.

The sky finally begins to slowly tinge, first purple, then pink, yellow and then red. The snow paints an orange so bright it looks like there’s a fire. We are at 4,810 metres, on top of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, and we are witnessing one of the most beautiful shows in the world. A fireball begins to rise from the horizon and the shadow of Mont Blanc’s pyramid peak invades the French side. As the sun rises the shadow reduces, giving the first rays of light over the valley.

John looks at me with wide eyes and we hug each other. ‘We did it!’ he says. ‘I didn’t think I could do it. This is one of the best moments of my life.’

My name is Carlo Cosi, I’m 32-years-old, I have a degree in sports sciences, I am an adventurer. For eight years, I’ve been making my greatest passion the most beautiful job in the world: the mountain guide.

It all began with the dream of a boy who, on a bright February day, came out with this phrase during the Carnevale holidays: Daddy, when I grow up I want to ski every day of my life. I was 10-years-old, under the wall of the Roda di Vael in the Dolomites. The art of sliding down a slope was the thing that pleased me most. Although I was a city kid, there were no soccer balls that distracted me. I thought only of the snow, the mountain, the skis.

I spent hours at home in Padua wearing boots and skis on my feet, imagining my living room carpet as a blanket of snow, constantly dreaming of skiing. At 14, I added a passion for climbing to my love for skiing. As always, this desire had come from my parents and above all from my father who, one fine day in August, took me to the top of Cima Grande, within the renowned Cinque Torri (Five Towers) in Cortina, Dolomites.

The years passed and my passion grew, fuelled by my Grandmother Ida’s stories about the legendary adventures of my Grandfather, one of the strongest mountaineers in Padua in the 1950s. Unfortunately, Grandpa died in a road accident when he was still in his prime, but Grandma’s stories kept him alive in my eyes. She made him almost mythical.

Although I enjoyed playing rugby and hanging out with my school friends, it didn’t satiate my desire to escape the city and conquer the mountains, just as my grandparents did in their stories.

The turning point came at 16, when my parents enrolled me in a climbing course with the mountain guides in Padua’s climbing gym. It was there that I immersed myself into their world. I learned practical skills – how to use ropes and carabiners – but just as importantly I learned how to lead climb; requiring leadership, composure, organisation, control.

Combining skiing, climbing and travelling, every day of my life? Make no mistake, I had found my dream job. At just 16, I decided my future.

Three years later, I had completed the minimum mountaineering criteria which allowed me to take the mountain guide course. But before I could begin this new adventure, a setback arrived on my birthday, November 15, 2006, when a ski accident had me hospitalised with two broken legs. Fortunately it was nothing too serious, and after two operations and a year of physiotherapy, I was back on track and fit to realise my mountain dreams.

The qualification process is a long and arduous one. You need time, willpower and passion. You need to be adaptable, and you need to make many sacrifices along the way. Your desire must outweigh any doubts.

First comes the selection stage, which requires applicants to have completed a variety of climbs: on rocks, on skis, in high mountains, on ice falls. Then you must demonstrate your technical skills in skiing, ice climbing and rock climbing to a commission of national instructors.

Should you pass, a 90-day course spread over two years begins, in which there are training and exam modules on everything from downhill skiing to ski mountaineering, from ice falls to self-rescue (in avalanche, rock and crevasse scenarios). There are also exams on mountain medicine, law, weather, flora and fauna. Completing all of this attains the title of Aspiring Mountain Guide, before two further years of practice and exams follow.

After five years striving to my goal, and at the age of 25 I was able to drop aspiring to become a fully-fledged mountain guide. I had used my passion to make a living. And for that I’m extremely fortunate. But the challenges continue.

Sometimes you have a client that comes with an itinerary that would be the envy of any climber, and they request to climb a hard route, yet they can barely stand on the path. Or there’ll be times a customer wants to try a via ferrata (Italian for “iron way” and referring to a route equipped with fixed anchors like steel cables and ladders) because a friend of their’s made it, but they don’t have the slightest idea of what it means to walk on an exposed ledge. Some may even suffer from vertigo.

These are the times that I perhaps would not regret an office job. It’s in these moments that, as a mountain guide, we understand how important patience, passion for your work and the ability to relate to any type of climber is important in this job.

Sometimes, being able to shatter dreams is as important as being able to realise them. Try telling a customer who has travelled from Australia and has trained years for this moment, that the weather is getting worse and – just 100 metres from the top of the Matterhorn – we have to go back.

These are choices that are not easy to make and manage, particularly when the decision is being influenced by the disappointment of the customer. The risk here is that you lose the clarity of the situation in an effort to please. But it’s in these moments where the years of training and the instincts we have honed take control. When safety comes before popularity.

In an office job, you could also lose focus and make an error. You may even be fired. But you always have the chance of finding another job. Making an error within sight of the Matterhorn’s peak means never returning home. The responsibility that a mountain guide has is therefore often underestimated.

But then there are the days to frame, of which fortunately there are many! The smiles of the customers who reach their dream, who overcome their fears, who descend a powder slope on their first track – these are priceless sensations that give me the satisfaction of knowing I made the perfect lifestyle choice.