Published on 07/04/2020
The current COVID-19 crisis is changing the world. It will also change our approach to outdoors and to the mountains.
How? To discuss this topic, we have organized a “virtual” round table with five mountain guides from around the world, to have their opinions on this evolving scenario.
Here they are:
Anna Torretta, Coumayeur - Italy, 49 years old, mountain guide since 2000, first and only female member of the Courmayeur Alpine Guides Association.
Damien Tomasi, Chamonix - France, 33 years old, mountain guide since 2011, member of the Chamonix Alpine Guides Association and teacher at ENSA (Ecole Nationale Ski et Alpinisme).
François Cazzanelli, Cervinia - Italy, 30 years old, mountain guide since 2012, member of the Cervino Mountain Guides Association.
Hans Zloebl, Lienz - Austria, 54 years old, mountain guide since 1991 and helicopter pilot.
Tomas Roy Aguilò, El Chalten - Argentina, 36 years old, mountain guide since 2007
1 - Do you think that the customer's approach to outdoor and mountain will change? How?
There are many and different practitioners of “outdoor” and mountain sports.
The only thing I can be sure of is that after this epidemic and the resulting period of confinement, mountaineers, climbers, hikers, skiers, will have only one desire: to go back to the mountains!
But in these practitioners, we must differentiate two categories: amateurs and those who climb with guides.
For the guides and their clientele, things will certainly take longer to recover… And not necessarily as before! In Chamonix, but like everywhere in the Alps, we have a clientele from all over the world: French, of course, but also English, American, Nordic, Chinese… Their return will not happen overnight and certainly not under the same conditions than before.
Everything will depend on the extent of the spread of the virus among them, how their states have dealt with the current health crisis and the economic crisis that will follow. Some states (notably in Europe) have chosen to support their economies by resorting to partial unemployment so that the economy starts again "faster", the level of social coverage is not the same everywhere either ...
Finally, the question of reopening borders is also crucial for guides, who have always exercised their profession without worrying too much about the geographical limits of countries.
Clearly, even if people will thirst for adventure, space and nature, the profession of guide will not re-enter immediately in a globalized world as it was until February ...
Yes, because our clients are not only mountain consumer, but way more partners on a journey. Our clients love the mountains just as much as we do, and are sensitized to the recent environmental changes. This COVID -19 crises will have an even stronger impact to those, who evidently see the negative changes in our nature and in the mountains day by day. The life-threatening virus, and the world wide shut down, is the opportunity to overthink and change in many aspects of our life. Soon a vaccine will protect from the virus, but the fundamental cognition that we have to change will stay.
The winner of the COVID-19 crises is the environment. Our client may ask in the next future for guiding with the smallest possible environmental impact. It can easily be a mountain in your backyard, not on the other side of the globe.
Certainly, when the doors of the mountains reopen there will be a great desire to go out into the open air especially in isolated and wild places.
I think, however, not everyone will be able to afford the “luxury” of hiring a mountain guide in the immediate future and this will be a problem especially in view of the summer.
Even shelters and cable cars are a question mark, I fear there will be restrictions and maybe some new rules to follow.
In conclusion, I believe that in the immediate term it will be difficult but since the economic situation will settle again there will be a significant increase in requests especially for more isolated and less famous climbs and mountains.
I think that in the short term, speaking of this year 2020, yes there will be a change.
First of all, no one knows when the situation will "normalize" worldwide. I mean that there will be restrictions with international flights, depending on the measures taken by each country, since not all nations are going through the same stage of the virus.
We as Guides will surely have less work.
Hopefully not everything returns to "normal". I would save many positive things from this Pandemic:
1- Insight moment, be self-critical, think that we can change and improve to contribute our grain of sand within society.
2- Family moment, the routine of this capitalist world has somehow distanced us from our loved ones, spending more time with our children and being able to educate them ourselves, is priceless!
3- The rest we are giving to Planet Earth! The low CO2 emission, and many other ways to pollute, that have subsided in these "quarantines”.
This Pandemic, in addition to giving us a great learning experience in many ways, has also sowed a lot of fear, and the reason is because of technology and Social Networks that bring us information from the world instantly.
The need to go out to the mountains, breathe fresh air, climb, ski, is not removed by any virus ... for us as guides and mountaineers, nor for our clients ...
Are we sure it is an "emergency"? Perhaps it would be worthwhile to analyze the meaning of this word and see where the emergency really exists, in hospitals, in intensive care ... The rest we can call it "high intensity collective stress" to which we were not at all accustomed ... The word emergency makes me think of a catastrophe, the Morandi bridge, the Vajont dam, the L'Aquila earthquake. More than an emergency, it is a hyper-rapid global change that has caused emergencies. I believe that as during and after any change, in the future that awaits us, prudence will keep us company. I think the whole world, not just the outdoors and the mountains, will be more careful. For anything there will be extra precautions.
There will be an enthusiastic return, as if running away from prison, outdoors, to life in the open air, I'm sure. But there will be limitations, and the return will be slow, because it will not be allowed to do it immediately, all together, at least in Italy. Because objectively in other countries, at the moment, sport is allowed with the safe distance.
I think the mountains will begin to repopulate with people who run away from the city. There will be more people who live in the mountains and take up residence, work telematically from home, there will be many small Chamonix, with managers who will try to live on a permanent basis, in small locations and with increasingly virtual business meetings. As a result, people will want to leave their homes, enjoy nature and face the mountains safely.
And therefore I see a complete change of trend in the outdoors conditioned by new global urban awareness, with a rebirth of community values.
The mountain will also be controlled and subject to limitations, because the huts will not be able to have more than a certain number of people all together, the dormitories cannot be overcrowded, the dining rooms neither, there will be maximum entry numbers, the climbs will be scheduled in time, regardless of the weather, as in part already happens.
It will be the boom of small mountain towns, good for secondary valleys, and for our region. And for many places, very beautiful but less known, to be redeveloped because someone else took the lion's share. It will take the courage of authorities and sponsors to build a new fabric, a new network and a new outdoor context.
2 - Do you think your approach to guiding will have to change? How?
No, I have changed for myself already some time ago. With age, now 54, I became a bit tired of traveling and especially driving. I became a so called modern “home cow”. Internet and social media gives me info and access to all places in the world, and what I see is over tourism almost everywhere. The worldwide guiding agencies are sending the guides including the guests to every place on this planet, but never to their home country. That’s why we have chaos everywhere, from the Mount Blanc to the Matterhorn, the Großglockner and in the Himalaya. I stay at my home country for guiding, and only on very special occasions I use the guest right of guiding abroad accordingly to UIAGM / EPC.
Certainly, if wilder climbs are back in fashion, longer approaches will have to be calculated and individual trips will take longer.
So, I believe that the number of days could decrease, but the quality of our work could greatly gain.
I always try to minimize not only the objective risks, but also the impact that my actions have on the environment. I think that we, as mountain guides, are important references of life, and we should be examples. Washing your hands, covering your mouth when coughing, are issues of respect and hygiene that we should always do. What is very difficult in Argentina is not to share the Mate!
A lot, probably everything will be seen from a different, more careful perspective. Mountaineering equipment and its correct use will play a very important role, as will certifications and their transparency. I think people will re-evaluate the importance of correct gear and its use, more than they did before. And mountaineering seen by many as mainly an individual activity, could return to having team characteristics. So, communities of climbers will form, narrower than before. But held together by larger "virtual partnerships".
As mountain guides, we can play the part as trainers of the new mountain safety.
Given the constraints that we are currently experiencing and that we will surely continue to experience for a while, the profession of guide will become more local for a while.
With French and possibly European customers and especially on French and then European mountains in a second time.
Obviously, we work in the tourism sector, that is to say in a "non-essential" sector. People must first find accommodation and food before thinking of going on vacation ...
Even if I am convinced that our job helps people to flourish, realize their dreams and live adventures that feed them to live better every day!
But, what makes me wonder the most, in the short and medium term, is the partial or total closure of the borders. It will not be as easy to travel as before and the constraints will increase.
3 - What will guides need to do, different than before?
More open-mindedness, more adaptation and more imagination.
Surely, we will have to find compromises. I see it difficult to imagine the queues at the stations or in the shelters so we will have to expand our views, exploiting those wilder areas that we were snubbing before because of laziness and because we had more "comfortable" alternatives.
I don't think that working as a Mountain Guide in particular has a significant change. We work precisely in the mountains, trying to alienate people from urban areas, from the rest of the people, which would be precisely the recommended "social distancing" to prevent infections, not only from COVID-19.
Perhaps in the Alps there will be a change, that the Guides begin to get out of the comfort zone (shelters and cable cars), looking for alternatives that allow them to develop their profession.
Here in Patagonia, as we do not have such an infrastructure, we will not have to look for those alternatives, but I do believe that we will feel the "crisis" this year.
There are still no accurate studies on COVID-19, on its actions and consequences.
Historically, clients have been asked to sign multiple papers before each activity, such as “assumption of risk” & “medical record”.
Nor can we discriminate against a person, because they have had COVID-19, HIV, etc.
As Guides, we will have to accompany our customers to discover the most remote corners of our territory, regardless of ease of access, making them understand the value of life, with training and culture, on paths that we will never have undertaken before.
As a professional trainer, the mountain guide is the first who must pass on the message of safety, for us and for our families, for the mountains, for the good of all. To convey the pleasure of safety. The mountain guide will no longer be just an adventure companion, the one who made you discover a different world, which led you to achieve goals that you didn't think of, which found for you powder in the driest season or ice in the warmer season, or that accompanied you to touch your first rock, to the route of desires, but she will first of all be an ambassador of safety. Because it is in this direction that one can live properly intense experiences.
I don't know if we will ask specific things from the High Mountain Guides.
What is certain is that in places where promiscuity is important (shelters, ski lifts, ...) barrier gestures will be required for a moment.
4- How do you plan to organize your work and preparation?
Safety and individual and collective responsibility, achievement of individual and collective goals, will be the new keywords of our adaptation to the new way of life.
The "risk" death activity will be prohibited, it will probably not be possible to go skiing off-piste with danger 4, as in reality already happens in the Courmayeur Mountain Guides Association. Many limits for our activity are already defined, such as the number of people that a guide can accompany for each climb, limitations dictated by the common sense that already exist and it would be enough to enforce all mountaineers.
We are all in a new situation and we are all moving towards the unknown ... And the unknown has something exciting and frightening at the same time. The world will change for sure ... But it is still too early to predict how it will be.
In the short term, I have no idea to what extent we will be able to exercise our profession this summer. What is certain is that we will have to adapt and invent "after COVID-19".
In this period of confinement, I find it complicated to train for two reasons: first, the outings are short and it is complicated to really push yourself, and second, without a clear objective, I find it difficult to motivate myself.
But the most important is probably to try not to lose too much shape.
Stay calm is for me now the most essential preparation.
As pilot I have trained and initiated over a hundred of autorotations. It’s a tough thing, up in the air with a hell of an rotating aircraft, and suddenly “engine OUT”……..
This is a very quiet and scary moment in the helicopter, only low rpm warning horn in your headset ... does this sound similar to somebody now? Stay calm, maintain aircraft control, Try to restart engine, land safe.
For the moment, I have asked to my customers to stay on stand-by until the end of April and then, based on the evolution of the situation, we will start planning the summer.
All my guiding and trips for this year have been cancelled. I have no certainty …
5 - Now make a wish for the future after the emergency. What do you hope for? What do you wish for? What would you like?
I hope that after this emergency, we will not return to normal!
I hope that little by little, there will be fewer borders ... that we think as a planet, as humanity, and not as countries indifferent to what happens to our neighbours.
I hope that after this emergency, we learn to value freedom, to have more empathy for others. That all these cravings for sports do not disappear at the end of the quarantine.
I hope we are more aware that excessive consumption in the end is bad for nature and our planet earth. Let's be more ecological, let's use the bicycle more, less cars. Let's recycle, separate the waste.
Let's support companies that care about the environment and their employees.
I hope that governments are more present, and that they prioritize the well-being of all their citizens.
I also hope that we return to the mountains soon!!!
I am positive because the guide always knows how to get by, thanks to our studies and repeated experience, our job is made of this, knowing how to find the way where you can't see it ...
First, we will have to train young people to safety immediately. And then facilitated by consolidated relationships of trust, update our loyal customers, who in turn will become our standard bearers and promoters.
We alpine guides can be the reflection of a whole society, we can be what people will have to be in the future in everyday contexts, we can transmit the qualities and skills that people will need in the most disparate contexts, the key holders of the safety. Although we know that zero risk does not exist, even after the so-called, emergency COVID19. The Corona virus or any other virus could be repeated indefinitely and we will have to adapt.
The guides have, in my opinion, an ambivalent position. The crisis we are experiencing is the result of the globalization of our world… However, we are guiding them, taking advantage of this globalization to exercise our profession in a way, I must admit, that is fascinating: our customers come from all over the world, we let's travel to climb, ski and discover other countries and other mountains.
But this “globalized” activity is also our weakness because it contributes to the degradation of our working tool: nature.
Globalization is causing pollution and global warming and we are in the best position to see its impact on the mountains, the glaciers and all this nature that we love and love to discover.
In a few weeks of confinement, we can see that without the presence of Man, nature re-appropriates the territory: the animals descend into the valley, the sky is clear without a plane, the air in the alpine valleys is clear, there is no there is more noise…
The crisis we are experiencing may mark a turning point in our way of life, our way of consuming and traveling…
Maybe men will learn from this experience ... Or not!
I wish that everyone comes out of the emergency stronger than before and is going to see the future more clear than ever.
I hope we understand the great chance of the « reset « button, and would like to invite everyone to do a first little step. If we are many, even the first step has a big positive impact.
On the mountain, I want to encourage people to greet each other, be friendly and respectful. Respect local roles and regulations, help if somebody falls, just step aside if a group is faster and give way. Look how the local mountain guides are managing their groups and their guiding procedures. It has a safety reason, why fully professional mountain guides are taking only one or two guest on the rope for the Grossglockner, the Mount Blanc or other popular mountains. Respect your own limits.
Less is more!
My dream would be to leave for K2. But staying down to earth I see it as complicated. So I hope I can start doing some activities again in May (running and climbing at the crag would be fine). Then from June go back to the mountains and in July go back to everyday life.
Interview by Oliviero Gobbi, Grivel CEO, April 7th 2020.
Ph Lorenzo Belfrond for Grivel