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History of guides

The first guides

The first alpine tourists were 18th-century scientists or travelers eager to discover glaciers and to conquer peaks.

They hired peasants, shepherds or even crystal seekers or chamois hunter to accompany them. They became the first guides.


Jacques Balmat

French mountain guide from Chamonix (1762-1834).

Hunter, then crystal seeker, then guide. Most memorable ascent : Mont Blanc, on August 8, 1786.

Christian Almer

Swiss mountain guide from Grindelwald (1826 - 1898).
He was first to ascent : Mönch, Eiger, Gross Fiescherhorn, Ecrins, Grand Éornier, Grandes Jorasses (west face), Aiguille Verte, Jungfrau, Täschhorn.

Alexander Burgener

Swiss mountain guide from Saas Fee (1845 - 1910). He was first to ascent : Lenzspitze, Zinalrothorn, Dru, Zmuttgrat, Furgengrat, Strahlhorn.

Franz Biner

Swiss mountain guide from Zermatt (1835 - 1916). He was first to ascent : Lyskamm, avec Almer Grand Cornier, Grandes Jorasses (west face), Aiguille Verte.

Melchior Anderegg

Swiss mountain guide from Meiringen (1827 - 1914).
Shoe polisher and wood carver.
Most memorable ascent : the Brenva face of Mont Blanc (1865).

Hans Grass

Swiss mountain guide from Pontresina (1828 - 1902). He was first to ascent : Bellavista, Piz Pallü, Adamello, Piz Scerscen, Bernina, Roseg.

The first guiding companies

The tragic Hamel expedition (named after a Russian doctor part of the expedition) is the first mountaineering tragedy. In 1820, during a Mont Blanc ascent, an avalanche kills three Chamonix guides and creates a feud regarding the client-guide relationship and guides competencies.

Following this accident, in 1821, the Chamonix Guides Company is created. This enables members to manage an assistance fund dedicated to guides and to guarantee their abilities. In 1858, the Zermatt Guides Company is created and then many regions follow in their footsteps.

The Golden Age

From 1854 to 1865, Alps' highest peaks are conquered. Mountaineers define this period as the mountaineering Golden Age. Mont Blanc was the only summit conquered at the time, so there was lots of conquering left ! This period started with the ascent of Wetterhorn, on September 17, 1854 and ended with the famous Whymper ascent of Cervin on July 14, 1865. Most 4000s were climbed during this period.

The following mountain guides marked the Golden Age : Melchior Anderegg, Christian Almer, Hans Grass, Alexander Burgener, Franz Biner, Christian Klucker, Franz Lochmatter, Auguste Balmat and Michel Croz.

Evolution of the client-guide relationship and the mountain guide  « mythology »

The client-guide relationship has evolved. Until the early 20th century, the guide was almost a « specialized servant », a « bourgeois' accessory », an unpolished caracter defined by clients through his engagement and devotion.

In the 30s and 40s, the guide becomes a « lord-peasant», enobled by his wiseness and mountain know-how. Guides don't sleep, they rest. A guide never falls, and if he does, it's because he's hit by thunder or betrayed by a nasty crevice or maybe a bad grip. When we find a fallen guide?s body, his hand has still a tight grip on a last piece of rock?

It is also the period for great friendships : guides are hired for long periods (renewed year after year, sometimes even passed on to the next generation), which created deep, lasting friendships between the guide and his clients. Even if the formula is now rare, the friendship factor is still strong between guides and clients.

This representation of this « knight of the Alps » was most popular in the 50s. Still today, guides are given innate characteristics, such as invulnerability, inalterable physical strength, intuition, orientation skills, ability to forecast weather, etc., However, in the last 20 years, the general representation of a guide has become more realistic. The mythology of a guide has shifted  essentially to certification, an appreciated social recognition of the guide's abilities.

Today's guide has become a partner or a teacher, who can even choose his clients, which constitutes an unusual reversal of fortune. As technical skills are still rarely discussed, clients now expect more human skills from their guides.

More and more of today's clients ask for autonomy, something that did not exist before 1945, where mountaineering courses were considered a professional suicide by guides.

Finally, the relationship between a guide, a client and the mountain has become largely collective (group supervision and training).  Even if the guide's technical role has not changed much, there is a greater demand as far as organizing, socializing and availability. Now, the guide not only leads the way, but he also stands back to bring together the team as well as being among the group, center stage, as an advisor.

Today, relationship between guide and client is both complex and simple. Simple because of closer sociocultural realities. Complex because the guide can?t stand there, at the foot of the mountain and wait for clients to drop by. In today's fast-paced world, he must constantly propose new activities and new ways of doing things. Marketing has conquered the mountaineering world !

The mountain has become a consumer good. In the past, you needed both money and time. Now that time is money, clients have less time, but more money. Clients pay for security and that?s the guide?s responsibility to accept the consequences in case of fault.

Is it risky ?

A guide can do a lot of things but he can't guarantee 100% risk-free activities. He can't delete risk, but he knows how to choose between a « good risk » and a « bad risk ».  The participant has to accept that risk is an integral part of alpine sports. Mountains can't bend themselves to please consumers. Mountains are ignorant of lawsuits and lawyers. Man cannot influence mountains and that is why it teaches us so much.

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