by Ali Haeri
Nine years ago I made a conscious decision to leave my comfortable job at a software firm on Peel St. a few months after graduating from university for a career that made no use of my brand new degree, which only lasts half the year, makes a third the money and made no sense to anyone I knew.
This is about how I am living a life true to my own beliefs and how I didn’t let anyone’s point of view or my own failures stand in the way of me ultimately doing what I want to do in life.
I grew up in a home with two loving parents who immigrated from Iran to Montreal when I was a year old. Like most parents, they had a grandiose vision of how their children would excel in university to become doctors, lawyers, engineers or scientists. After all they were now in a country where these opportunities are much more accessible and you’d have to be a fool to not take advantage.
I jumped through the same academic hoops many other kids did all the way to university. Much to my parents delight I graduated with a degree in Computer Science from Concordia, and shortly thereafter got a job at a software firm in downtown Montreal. I made good money, the company held promise and I was doing something that was related to what I had spent 4 years studying. More importantly I was on par with what my peers were doing and it’s what those around expected of me.
After a while I became discontent. Personal fulfillment, excitement, enthusiasm, energy and shear fondness for my job were all lacking. I dreaded going to work every day and daydreamed incessantly about the things I’d rather be doing. Something had to give.
For as long as I could remember I have loved downhill skiing. I have not stopped seeking the sensations it offers since my dad towed me up the lower slopes of Mt-Rigaud in a snowstorm when I was five. Skiing slowly began to consume me as I grew older. It wasn’t until I saw the Coast Range Mountains, which Whistler Mountain belongs to, with their bountiful snow and shear scale that I knew where I belonged.
While at work, I haphazardly stumbled across a website that was looking to hire ski guides in Utah. I knew ski guides weren’t ski instructors and they too got to ski for a living. As I found out more, I reveled in the thought of having found my calling. I made a choice in November of 2000 to quit my office job and move to Fernie, BC to become a certified ski guide. My parents urged me to continue working and ski around Montreal on the week-ends, but doing something twice a week is not the same as doing something for a living. You could imagine the feelings of despair they must have felt as they watched their son leave everything behind to seemingly move west for the sole purpose of skiing.
What is a ski guide? A ski guide is someone who safely leads a group of people traveling on skis through the uncontrolled winter mountain environment, referred to as the ‘backcountry’. They mitigate all the hazards involved with the venture, the major hazard being caught in an avalanche. Among the skill set required are snowpack analysis, mountain navigation, meteorological, terrain assessment, route finding, sound decision making, avalanche rescue response, glacier travel, rope handling and client care. All amount to an intangible skill called mountain sense (the equivalent of a ‘gut feeling’ that comes from years of experience). As a certified guide you can work for helicopter skiing companies, machine cat-skiing companies or ski touring companies. The perk is that you get to spend your days in some of the most awe inspiring Canadian wilderness skiing beautiful powder snow! The downsides are: the stress of keeping the group safe in varying conditions, high risk factor, witnessing injury and/or death, dealing with irate paying clients who can’t understand the reasons behind your conservative decisions, low pay, and a short work season. It is an industry where the answers are never black and white, where one can do everything correctly and still be involved in an accident.
I moved to Fernie, BC and got a job as a ski instructor. I then started taking courses that are pre-requisite to enrolling in the Canadian Ski Guides Association (CSGA) level 1 course. An 80 hour first aid course, avalanche courses and ski instructor courses culminated that spring with the CSGA level 1. They said I needed “more experience” backcountry ski touring and would have to return next year for a retest. Ski touring is similar to cross-country skiing, but differs in that one can go uphill in a mountainous environment with wider alpine skis (as opposed to thin cross-country skis) and can then ‘lock’ the heel down to an alpine ski mode to ski back down. It combines the cardiovascular exercise of cross-country skiing with the exhilaration of downhill skiing.
Experience is what makes a good guide, not courses. That’s what separates it from more mainstream jobs. Those who aspire to become guides will do anything they can to gain it; hundreds of personal ski trips, volunteering to lead trips with the Alpine Club of Canada, working at ski lodges chopping wood, shoveling snow and washing dishes for free as practicum students (aka powder slave) just for the opportunity to work with a professional ski guide.
The next year I did just that. I moved to Golden, BC got a job as waiter at the local diner and started building my backcountry resume. It was the words of a red bearded fellow from Wyoming whom I randomly met skiing one day that year, which would forever change the way I thought. He had asked me a few questions, in a thick surfer-dude accent (where ‘bro’ short for ‘brother’ is pronounced ‘bra’) about myself and the direction I was headed. I explained to him my decision to leave computer science to become a ski guide and he said: “You know Ali, you can do anything you want as long as you have the desire…everyone wants something, but to desire something is completely different. If you desire it you will go after it with all that is in you and there will be no stopping you.”
When most people went out of their way to express the difficulty of the road I was on, his words were the exact opposite.
That spring I re-took the CSGA exam and passed. Unfortunately, the CSGA I learned was only recognized by a handful of ski guiding (mostly cat-skiing) operations, all of which rejected me year after year of applying. If I wanted to be recognized by all operations (heli-skiing and cat-skiing) in Canada I would need to be accredited by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG).
The ACMG is the body in which guiding standards in Canada are set and taught. Getting into the ACMG Ski Guiding Program requires a minimum of 3 years of backcountry ski touring experience, which often due to the stiff competition is still not enough. In December of 2003 I got a job ski patrolling in Banff, AB and ski toured on all my days off for three years. Still I was put on the wait list in 2006. I was eventually admitted in 2007. Those whose guiding skills set are strong during the training courses get recommended to the spring exam. Those whose aren’t are told to wait a year to gain “more experience”. I was told to wait a year. Meanwhile, as I worked odd jobs to support myself, my parents kept hassling me over what I was doing, which would invariably turn into very heated discussions and leave everyone upset. They urged me to reconsider, to return and get a ‘real’ job. I couldn’t do it, this was what I wanted. Despite their worries, they never hesitated to offer to help.
By then I was working as an Avalanche Technician for the University of Calgary for a world renown avalanche researcher. I had applied for that job for four years before being offered the position. Not only was I working at the forefront of avalanche research but it also helped my parents wrap their heads around the fact that a career in the avalanche industry is very credible and valid.
In the winter of 2008 I trained some more with long multi-day ski trips far removed from civilization and I labored for free as a powder slave for weeks to prepare for the exam. An ACMG ski guiding exam generally takes place in April. It is a nine day long, $2300.00 practical exam out in the mountains. Much like a real guide would do if he were to take clients out; each day consists of getting up at 5:30am to record daily weather observations and forecast, discussing the groups objectives, routes and snow stability. The day is spent traveling in the mountains taking turns leading the group to the various objectives. All your decisions and actions are recorded and scrutinized by the examiner. At days end there’s an evening meeting to discuss the strong and weak points of each lead. Often these exams are held in remote mountain locations where your home is a tent. They are very grueling experiences that are incredibly mentally and physically taxing.
I had made some mistakes but I didn’t think they were enough to fail me. I was wrong and I had failed. Incredibly bitter, I resorted to placing blame on the examiners and on what I believed to have been an unfair judging system.
After seven years I had still not become what I had set out to do. Emotions of anger, failure, disappointment, self-deprecation, doubt and fear tormented me for the next few months. Telling everyone close to me I failed was hard, telling my parents was especially painful. Not only had I let myself down, I had let them down. I felt as though I had been wrong all this time and everyone else had been right. I should never have decided to do this I thought. I had blown it. When all my friends owned houses, had kids and careers, I had nothing. I questioned my path repeatedly but eventually returned to the words of the hippie from Wyoming. I knew that to be the truth and I wasn’t going to quit.
The late Dr. Randy Pausch said: “Brick walls are there to show how badly you want things.” It’s an optimistic statement but true nonetheless. By the end of that summer I had accepted my failure and made a decision to take the exam again in the spring of 2009. That winter I took part in a training regiment that was becoming all too familiar but this time with added stress.
The examiners don’t tell you at exams end if you passed or failed, they send that in with your report card, but I knew the outcome. Indeed I passed. There are few moments that can top the elation felt after accomplishing something that you have chased for so long. I am glad I felt that. I am now an ACMG certified ski guide.
I feel as though we’re not suppose to actually love what we do for work, we are only expected to tolerate it. I believe there is a bright fire that burns within us as children that’s fueled by our dreams and aspirations. As we grow old, our minds become cluttered with the countless opinions of parents, teachers and councilors telling us what is best, what we should do and what is possible ultimately suffocating the fire. We end up choosing a road that is more socially accepted, expected and convenient. We do not love what we do but accept the situation we’ve gotten ourselves into. We believe it’s too late to even consider a drastic change, to no longer even dare dream of what can be. Mortgage and car payments, kids and bills make it increasingly difficult to garner the courage to take that chance the longer we wait. The mistake however lies in believing that it’s too late, that we’re too old. It’s never too late. It won’t be easy but it can be done and it is possible but you have to have the desire.
If you’d like to experience the joys backcountry ski touring, take beginner or intermediate avalanche courses in western Canada or have any questions please contact me at crazycanuck20atyahoo.com
Canadian Avalanche Association
Association of Canadian Mountains Guides
Originally published inwww.stockthewarehouse.org