A poor deal for mountain guides

Hanniah Tariq finds that low standards in the Pakistani mountain tourism industry hurt both -guides and their clients

A poor deal for mountain guides
“Mountain tourism might be the last bastion of old-school colonialism” professes a TimeOut review of the 2015 documentary Sherpa. Indeed, their treatment as “human packhorses” is well documented by the film. Sadly, it is no different in Pakistan, with mountain guides and other high-altitude staff often treated as second-class citizens by many groups. Clients conversely often complain about the level of education, training and professionalism displayed. This mutual distrust and disrespect can be disastrous for expeditions as well as perceptions of the profession in general.

Christian Trommsdorff, President of IFMGA (International Association of Mountain Guide Associations), speaking about the history of his profession, once expressed to me that it was amazing how far guiding has come in Europe. Initially, it was just some locals acting as guides, part-time, to help aristocrats and the wealthy climb mountains and passes. Due to the socio-economic disparity between them, the guides were often treated with less respect than is needed for a successful expedition. His view is corroborated by Van Loocke in the 2015 Alpine Journal article “The Shaping of Nineteenth-Century Mountain Guiding”, where it is stated that till the mid-19th century “most tourists saw their guides more like servants than independent and socially equal mountain guides”. The problem with this attitude is not only the obvious classism but also the client’s own safety. While speaking to guides in Pakistan, I am often told that clients regularly push for camps or summits when the former, as locals, can clearly see that the weather is unfavourable. This causes guides and support staff to put their lives at risk even when they are better advised than the client on the situation. In fact, the world’s first mountain guide association was established in Chamonix, France, in response to the “Hamel accident” in 1820 on Mont Blanc, when three guides died. Common opinion on the cause of the tragedy is that Dr. Joseph Hamel pressed his guides to continue, contrary to their counsel on unfavourable conditions. The profession has evolved considerably since then, according to Trommsdorff. These days, mountain guides in Europe are well-respected professionals, where the guide can take care of the client’s every need – garnering some much required mutual respect. Various alpine clubs and guide associations also began to grow, following the establishment of the British Alpine Club in 1857. The formation of these associations supported the vocational development of mountain guides and the professionalisation of mountain guiding in Europe. The advent of British mountaineers to the Alps in the second half of the 19th century also helped also helped speed up the process. Today the IMFGA represents almost 6,000 guides all over the world (the number is likely higher with numerous national mountain guides associations not affiliated with the IFMGA).
Nepal or Iran, two of our neighbours, are miles ahead in mountain guide training

Taking all this in, I was sad to convey to him that Pakistan may still be in the early 19th-century European climbing world. Just earlier that week a guide from Skardu had laughingly informed me that obtaining a guiding license only requires a trip to the Department of Tourist Services (DTS) in Islamabad, your National Identification Card (NIC), PKR 2,000 and an F.A. exam certificate. “Or at least so it was in 2011” he sheepishly added. He hadn’t renewed his license in years because it needs to be renewed for PKR 1,000 each year in Islamabad, a journey that is prohibitively expensive – especially for someone from a remote village like Hushe or Shimshal, for example.

There are also currently no official trainings or tests to be cleared to be officially qualified to guide in Pakistan. So, all you need to validate claims of having the vast skill-set needed – including technical proficiency, first aid, rescue, geography, weather patterns and people/leadership skills – is a recommendation letter from a tour operator on their official letterhead and a certain education level. According to an Executive Council Member of the Alpine Club of Pakistan (ACP), the education level set at the beginning (F.A pass) was not largely available in the sample applying – so it was lowered to Matriculation (Matric pass) a few years ago. This fact remains unclear, however, as an official from the DTS confirmed that they were still capping at F.A, with some exceptions made for experienced guides being vouched for by their tour operator. Looking to break the tie I consulted a recently licensed guide from Islamabad who was simply amused by my question as to whether he was asked to furnish an F.A or Matric certificate. He claimed all he was asked for was the fee and his NIC card. The rest was history. Whatever the case may be, a survey conducted by High Altitude Sustainability Pakistan (HASP) and Khurpa Care Pakistan (KCP) on 88 working guides found that only 43% were F.A pass, 63% were educated at or above Matric level and 16% even claimed that they had no formal education whatsoever. Formal education is, of course, not the only hallmark of a competent guide and indigenous knowledge on weather patterns and geography cannot be discounted. However, competences like language skills (as foreigners are often interacted with), filling out various forms, permits and correspondence for logistics and planning – all get affected without some basic formal education and effective communication skills. This leads to further frustration from the groups and deepening of the gap between the clients and support staff.

Another problem is that there is no distinction between a mountain guide or trekking guide, with both receiving the same license for the very different skill sets required. Additionally, no medical evaluation is needed, even though a medical examination on a regular basis should be a major consideration for this profession. According to Mountain Planet “certified mountain guides are required to go through examination and evaluation of their skills and physical condition once in 3-5 years”. How far we are from this in our country is illustrated by the fact that only 28 out of the 88 guides surveyed even knew their own blood type!

Balti porters on the way to K2

Hence as the standard of guiding is not regulated, even the most proficient guides, with decades of experience, may find their respect drastically diluted in the mountaineering world. However, guiding as a profession in Pakistan is a precious source of extra income to those living in the northernmost areas, where other industry is minimal. A guide can get about PKR 1,500 to 2,500 a day because unlike porter wages (fixed at various amounts per stage by the Gilgit-Baltistan Council Secretariat) this is not predetermined. Up until 2005 this was fixed at PKR 1,500 but has not been officially set since, making earning a fair wage a matter of negotiation. The sample of 88 guides displayed an average yearly income of PKR 105,739 from guiding. Pakistan’s per capita income was recorded at PKR 171,656 in the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2016-17 – a difference of PKR 65,917 per year. Still, you will largely see mountain guides (and other high-altitude support staff) in the business despite the risks involved: not for the adventure or glory but because it is one of the only sources of income in their remote villages.

It is hard to estimate how many mountain guides are currently working in the north. According to Zahid Rajput, President of KCP, this is because many either don’t acquire their licenses to begin with or don’t get them renewed yearly. If he had to hazard a guess, it might be between 350 and 400. These individuals are more than just guides: they are often the sole ambassadors of our country and culture for groups that only fly in and out to climb. Mountain guides must be experts in every way – climbing, rescue, logistics and cultural/historical/geographical knowledge. But due to their low income bracket, they are often unable to avail themselves of opportunities for formal training and so they must learn on the job. They will need subsidised opportunities to attend trainings and discussions in more developed countries in terms of mountain tourism. Nepal or Iran, for example, two of our neighbours, are miles ahead in mountain guide training and their national guide associations are affiliated with the IFMGA, hence maintaining further international standards. The longer guiding as a profession remains unregulated in Pakistan, the more it risks becoming a joke. This fact was never clearer than while hiking with a friend in Hopper Valley, where we were followed around by a group of giggling kids for the entire day. When we finally reached our camp, each of them demanded PKR 100 for the services rendered – because they were our ‘guides’!

Mountain Planet’s “10 vital truths to upgrade skills and avoid deadly risks” for guides throws some interesting light on just what it takes to be in this tough profession. One of the most crucial points made is that “arrogance is the worst policy… clients won’t like it and will treat you accordingly. Do not pretend to know everything. On the contrary, ask for clients’ opinion”. This needs to be applied both ways for Pakistan to reach the standards expected in a country with so many climbing opportunities and unnamed peaks. Professional guides, as well as respectful clients together, help create an atmosphere of both safety and camaraderie – two things essential to a fulfilling and safe trip to the mountains. We, sadly, are not even close to that moment, given the mountain tourism situation currently prevalent in the country.