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Selecting an Alpine guide & what qualifications to look for

Knowing what qualifications are required is a bewildering minefield for clients. You can technically be guided to the summit of Everest by someone with no qualification, whilst trail running in the Alps is highly regulated with all leaders carrying Carte Professionelle and carnets. In the UK there's also no legal requirement for qualification. Here we unpick all the jargon, and outline how we rise to the standard, and often better it.
In the Alps the highest qualification that is recognised for leading groups in the glaciated terrain of the high mountains is the IFMGA Mountain Guide, and they are the only people who lead any of our skiing or climbing courses in the Alps. IFMGA stands for the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations.

All our IFMGA Guides hold the International Mountain Guide carnet (use of IFMGA logo authorised by named course directors), and have been selected for their leadership style, personality, and sense of humour, not to mention the fact that they aren’t too bad at climbing and skiing either!
Alpine trekking / trail running / snowshoeing courses are run by UIMLA International Mountain Leaders (use of UIMLA logo authorised by named course directors below). These instructors also run a lot of our avalanche awareness courses. Our itineraries are planned with guide to client ratios within the guidelines of the IFMGA and UIMLA.

Each course itinerary states these daily guiding ratios. These two qualifications are your guarantee of the highest standards and professionalism, and the holders of these qualifications wear their badges with pride. Rest assured that you are being led in the mountains by the best.
We strongly believe that a badge or qualification does not make a good leader, which is why we carefully hand pick our guiding team. However you have our guarantee that all our courses are led by verified highly qualified professionals, as this is a legal requirement in the Alps.
Elsewhere on the internet you will find disillusioned individuals stating that the qualification is everything, yet nothing could be further from the truth. You all remember good and bad teachers from school, and they all had the same qualification. We avoid narcissism, and focus on personality.
Photo: climbing on the Cosmique Arete above Chamonix
As a reputable leading guiding outfit, we see it as part of our greater social responsibility to help market and explain the various qualifications, some of which we do not even use, as they are not valid in the Alps.
The qualifications of different mountain instructors may at first seem bewildering to someone new to the sport, especially all the differences between the UK and the Alps, but this page sets out to explain them.
All the information below is summarised from the UK Mountain Leader Training website (www.mltuk.org) website, for your ease of reference. To read more about the qualifications, click on the link above.
The table below, outlines the key differences, selection, assessment, responsibilities, and limits imposed on the different levels of instructor, and ranks the qualifications from lowest to highest.
Single Pitch Award
This qualification is only valid in the UK only, and is for one pitch climbs only. It is often used by as the key award for climbing wall staff. As well as previous experience, it involves one weekend training, and 2 days assessment.
Walking Group Leader
This qualification is only valid in the UK only, and is designed to teach navigation and group management skills for a person leading groups in non-mountainous terrain (e.g. Dartmoor). No steep ground can be crossed.
Summer Mountain Leader ML
This qualification is only valid in the UK only, and is the mountain version of the WGL. In addition it covers group security on steep ground. It involves extensive previous experience, 1 week training, and 1 week assessment of which a 3 day expedition element is a key element.
Winter Mountain Leader MLW
This qualification is only valid in the UK only, and is the winter version of the Summer Mountain Leader award. The use of crampons and ice axe is necessary, and further winter experience is required before a 1 week training, and a 1 week assessment with a 3 day expedition involving snowholes.
Mountain Instructor Award MIA
This qualification is only valid in the UK only, and is limited to the leading of groups on multipitch rock climbing and for hillwalking in summer conditions. All holders of the MIA become members of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI). Rate of pay is c.£180 per day.
Mountain Instructors Certificate MIC
This certificate covers all activities included in the MIA, and also covers UK winter mountaineering and climbing, and winter hillwalking. All MIC qualification holders are also members of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors. Neither MIA's or MIC's can work in the Alps. Rate of pay is c.£120 per day.
Trainee Mountain Guides
These are people who have enrolled on a Mountain Guide training scheme. In addition they have passed the first test in the training scheme which is the rock test. At this stage they can Guide independantly in their own country on rock climbs, equivalent to the MIA award. Rate of pay is c.£180 per day.
Aspirant Mountain Guides
After completing the trainee stage, and passing several more tests, a future Guide gains the Aspirant status. In the Alpine countries, Aspirant Guides can work alongside senior fully qualified mountain guides, but within tight guidelines as to the grade and altitude. Pay is c.£250 per day.
International Mountain Leader
To lead trekking, trail running, or snowshoeing groups in the Alps, it is a legal requirement to be qualified as an International Mountain Leader (IML). To gain this award, you require your ML award, significant international trekking experience, and then three weeks of training and assessment in the Alps, both in summer and in winter. Some of the training specialises in avalanche awareness, altitude sickness, the environment, and physiology. This award does not involve any climbing. Holders of this award hold a UIMLA carnet and that of their own country (e.g. British Association of International Mountain Leaders, BAIML). In the French speaking parts of the Alps IML's are often refered to as Accompagnateurs or Mid Mountain Guides. Only the IML and IFMGA Mountain Guide schemes hold carnets. Rate of pay is c.£200 per day.
International Mountain Guide
This qualification is the highest possible in the mountaineering world, and whilst the qualification is enforced as a strict legal requirement in the Alps, many leaders choose to train to this standard to lead groups in other corners of the world, to offer a good guarantee of providing the highest levels of professional and safety standards. Any full Guide can lead groups for rock climbing, off piste, mountaineering, ice climbing, anywhere in the world. In addition there is no maximum grade that they are restricted to. The majority of the countries with IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations) bodies are in the Alps and Europe, and there are seventeen member associations globally. In addition to the IFMGA carnet, holders may also use the logo of their nations association. The rate of pay is c.£300 per day.
Photo: view up the Vallee Blanche icefall from beneath the Requin hut
About the Icicle guiding team & key safety policies
Icicle only uses Aspirant and full Mountain Guides to lead all the climbing and skiing Alpine courses, and International Mountain Leaders for trekking, trail running or snowshoeing elements of courses.
In addition to their guiding qualifications, many of our team hold other key qualifications such as being ski instructors or personal trainers, and we firmly believe that these extra skills really add to the quality of guiding. The extra experience all leaders have, in part comes from the rigourous CPD that all qualified IFMGA and UIMLA guides go through both via formal 'recyclage' and independently selected CPD.
On each week we generally have a head guide, supported by a number of other guides. Whilst we may know the pool of guides selected for a week, the specific guide leading each person is not decided until the week or even day, as a factor of the guides preference, current conditions, and client performance. Guides may even change during a week in case of force majeur, injury, or even fatigue (highly unlikely!).
If there are less than the maximum numbers, you benefit from better guiding ratios. If you have been on a course before, and have a favourite Guide, you can request that they guide you during your next course.
We have a regular team of over 40 mountain guides and leaders, details of whom you can see published on the guides & staff page of the website. Some are very good teachers (great for Intro level courses), whilst others are inspirational leaders on hard climbs (for advanced level courses).
We are incredibly lucky to have some very good all rounders working for Icicle. One of our key strengths is that we are never going to be complacent about our team, and will evolve with the times.
Team flexiblity gives Icicle a great advantage over other operators with a static approach, or groups of guides trying to market themselves as a company, and we urge any potential client to consider this point carefully.
Flexibility gives our courses great versatility, and a far better product than independant guides can offer. You need to consider this point very carefully when choosing an operator, as it could affect your summiting chances.
We check out the qualifications of all the Guides and instructors working for us. This is done in three ways, firstly we confirm if the Guide is listed on the published lists of the BMG / BAIML / SNGM / UIMLA, secondly we check the carnet (qualification card) of the Guide and its insurance date stamp, and thirdly we scan the carte professionelle (for Alpine courses) to ensure they are registered for local compliance.
On many routes and activities there are recommended guiding ratio limits, such as 1:1 for the Matterhorn or 1:6 for glacier travel. We always adhere to these limits and often are far below them. For example on Gran Paradiso 4061m, a Guide could take up to six clients, but how fun would it be if you were at the back? We limit our ratios to generally 1:3 for this type of ascent.
Icicle guide Alain on the Rochefort Arete
How do you select a guide team?

Personal recommendation, climbing with them, experience, personality and style. We use over forty IFMGA Mountain Guides and UIMLA Leaders, some of which are featured in the section above. We carefully match the guides to each course, so that their skills are optimised. Icicle guides are chosen for their drive, experience, knowledge, and professionalism. We believe that your guide, as much as the route, enhances your experience.

Are there international differences?

No, the IFMGA and UIMLA qualifications are international, and so you can rest assured that a guides from any country have been tested to the same highly rigourous standards. The IFMGA member countries include the UK, France, Germany, Holland, New Zealand, Norway, Italy, and the USA. UIMLA member countries include Andorra, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Spain and Switzerland. We verify every single one of our guides qualifications annualy.

What are British guide associations?

The UK association of the IFMGA are the British Mountain Guides or BMG, and of UIMLA the British Association of International Mountain Leaders or BAIML. The IFMGA and UIMLA ensure that each country branch qualifies guides of an internationally agreed standard. It often takes guides over five years to qualify.

What differs IFMGA and UIMLA?

IFMGA guides can lead groups on glacial terrain, climbing or skiing, while UIMLA guides lead groups on moderate mid-mountain terrain, either trekking or snowshoeing.
  Does everyone speak English?

Yes, both English and French / Italian is spoken by all our guides working in the Alps. Both are essential for the Alpine courses, as the guides can speak French / Italian fluently to tell the hut guardians of any requirements you have, to get advice from other guides on the conditions they encountered, and to get you onto cable cars quickly (often avoiding queues).

How is English fluency assessed?

Speaking fluent English is a tested element of the French and Italian guide schemes, as it is seen as the international rescue language. All the guides who don't speak English as their first language, are vetted for their communication skills and vocabulary. Similarly, all guides with a language other than French as their first language are vetted for their extensive ability and knowledge of French / Italian and English.

Do most guides live in the Alps?

The vast majority of our guides are local residents, as they know the area and the current conditions better than those guides who visit the region from other areas to work for a week here and there. This doesn't mean they are all French - far from it - there is a good mixture of British, French, Italian, American, Canadian, Argentinian and even Slovakian guides working with us, to name but a few.

How do you become a guide?

There are many stages and different approaches to becoming either a IFMGA or UIMLA guide, depending on which scheme. If you want further information on these processes, click here.
Expedition guides & ethics

Outside the Alps, the qualification of guides is less strictly legally regulated, and so standards do vary from area to area. We always aim to match or better the local standard, and each course itinerary will outline the level of guide that leads the trip. Local laws are always followed, for example on Kilimanjaro where locally registered guides must be used. On trips where we consider local standards need to be improved to offer a better level of safety and support, such as on all of our Aconcagua trips which are all led by IFMGA guides. Other trips, such as Elbrus, are led by local guides in line with the local custom, as the mountains are less technical in their nature or they are at a far lower altitude.
Many of our trips are to destinations in remote mountain areas, within under-developed countries, where events are less predictable than is usually the case in, for example, Western Europe or North America. Whilst every effort will be made to adhere to the planned itinerary, it must be realised that in this type of adventurous travel, changes to the itinerary may occur for which Icicle accepts no responsibility, however caused. We will make every effort to inform you of any change, if we know of any change before departure. Your final itinerary may differ in respect of the places where you stay overnight. In particular it may be necessary to alter your itinerary at short notice due to adverse weather, force majeure, mountain conditions, client or leader illness, road conditions, or to operating conditions imposed by owners and operators of accommodation, facilities, aircraft, vessels and other forms of transport. Should such conditions involve clients in extra costs such as accommodation, transportation and meals, such costs are borne by the client.
Local guides possess the detailed local knowledge we need to achieve our goals and support our teams. Local guides are not 'guiding' or qualified in the same stringent way as IFMGA International Mountain Guides, but work in a far more traditional sense as route finders and assistants to our expedition members. We encourage our groups to work as teams, helping to support and assist each other throughout the duration of the expedition. On an expedition you should ensure that you carry your full travel paperwork, permits, passports and visas with you at all times to ensure there are no avoidable delays or changes. With adventure travel, the unexpected is the norm in these areas and, despite painstaking planning and organisation, our adventure holidays can never be taken for granted like regular holidays. Many of the places that we visit do not have the same quality of emergency health and safety services that we are used to in the developed world. Internal flights can be cancelled, road transport is generally uncomfortable and unreliable, and hotels and any star ratings often do not approach the equivalent standards of the West. If you are not prepared for this, you should not travel with us.
The unpredictability of adventure travel also means that the itineraries that we put forward for each of our holidays should be seen as statements of intent, rather than contractual obligations. A variety of factors, including weather, transport difficulties and political instability, might dictate that we change any itinerary. The trip leader will make any changes that are necessary. Only rarely will such changes be significant, and we will always do everything within our powers to minimise the effects of the enforced changes. We cannot be held responsible for the results of changes or delays, irrespective of how they are caused.
Pitfalls to look out for...
Ski instructors - Qualifications such as BASI are great, but they cannot lead on glaciated ski terrain. Consequently we only use IFMGA ski guides on our off piste and ski touring trips.

Running coaches - Tickets such as FLiRF / FCiRF / REPS etc, have no legal standing or equivalence in the Alps. Trips must be exclusively led by a UIMLA guide. Watch out for 'celebrity' runners who are 'accompanied' by a guide. Either the UIMLA guide is leading it, or the named runner needs to be fully qualified themselves.

Consolidators - Some companies advertise others trips, and pool the clients with a leader. Generally these trips are not specific about the qualification of the leader. If in doubt, don't book it.

Work experience - The only people who can accompany any group in the Alps as an assistant, are aspirant level IFMGA guides or UIMLA leaders. These people are part qualified, and working towards their final assessments.
Any further questions?
A key part of choosing a company is being able to come and talk about your plans with an experienced course advisor face to face. In an increasingly virtual world, we know our clients value speaking to real people, getting open and honest advice. The vast majority of our clients are British, and our office and outdoor store is based in Windermere in the English Lake District.

Get in contact to arrange a meeting, and come in for a coffee to discuss your course in person with a trip advisor.

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