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What It Takes to Become a Fully Certified Mountain Guide

Skier Chelsea Sullivan has been training for her IFMGA guide certification for years now. When she’s done, she’ll be one of just a handful of female guides at that level.

Chelsea Sullivan admits she’s easily obsessed. “When I get into a subject, whatever that subject is, I’m there against all odds,” she says. “It’s all or nothing.” Her obsessions for much of her life have tended to be focused on one single thing: skiing.

Sullivan is currently an apprentice ski guide for the ACMG | Photo by Alex Wigley

Sullivan is currently an apprentice ski guide for the ACMG | Photo by Alex Wigley

As a kid, it was all about ski racing. Growing up in the farmlands of Buckham’s Bay, Ontario, along Canada’s Ottawa River, Sullivan’s parents would drive her about 45 minutes away to ski the 285-vertical-foot drop of Mount Pakenham, her closest ski area, which had a T-bar, a rope tow, and a couple of chairlifts—as well as a Nancy Greene ski league to promote kids’ learning how to race.

“My parents put me in ski racing, but it was more to find babysitting for me and my brother on weekends,” Sullivan says. “They had no expectations.” But, turns out, Sullivan was talented from the get-go. While her peers had posters of Brittany Spears and the Backstreet Boys on their bedroom walls, Sullivan had posters of Canadian big-mountain skier Hugo Harrisson. “My friends would come over to my room and say, ‘Who’s that guy?’” Sullivan remembers.

When the family took a ski trip to Whistler, British Columbia, when Sullivan was 15, she became obsessed with the mountains out West and hatched a plan to move to Whistler once she was old enough. Back home, she gave up ski racing because it was too costly, got her first pair of twin-tip skis (the Salomon Pocket Rockets—this was the early 2000s), and started traveling to Mont Tremblant in Quebec, several hours away, to ride the park, her latest fixation. 

When the family took a ski trip to Whistler, British Columbia, when Sullivan was 15, she became obsessed with the mountains out West... | Photo by Christie Fitzpatrick

When the family took a ski trip to Whistler, British Columbia, when Sullivan was 15, she became obsessed with the mountains out West... | Photo by Christie Fitzpatrick

At a ski camp at Whistler in her teens, Sullivan was coached by none other than Sarah Burke, the pioneering women’s halfpipe skier. One day, when Sullivan was determined to ride a specific rail feature, Burke skipped lunch to help her do it. “If there’s one thing I strive toward, it’s being the person who’s constantly trying to achieve the next goal,” Sullivan says. “The work that Sarah put in, the grit, the drive, that’s what I learned from her.” When Burke died in a tragic halfpipe fall in 2012, her death hit Sullivan hard. She vowed then to work as hard as Burke did and never give up on her goals.

Sullivan has another decade or so before she’s IFMGA certified. | Photo by Amanda Romanchuk

Sullivan has another decade or so before she’s IFMGA certified. | Photo by Amanda Romanchuk

By 19, Sullivan moved to Whistler, wearing baggy pants and dew rags around her neck, part of the jib culture of that era. She got a job working at a ski shop, where her bootfitting coworkers convinced her to sign up for a Freeskiing World Tour contest. That’s when she became obsessed again, but with big mountain skiing this time. For a solid decade, Sullivan competed in a half dozen big mountain contests each year, but a series of knee injuries eventually broke her streak.

She decided to go back to school for an adventure guide program at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. “That changed my thought process,” she says. “It made me feel like I was learning and experiencing things for the first time again. That’s where these obsessions come from.”

This March, Sullivan will take her ski exam, which, if she passes, will make her one step closer to eventually becoming certified by the IFMGA. | Photo from Zenith Mountain Guides

This March, Sullivan will take her ski exam, which, if she passes, will make her one step closer to eventually becoming certified by the IFMGA. | Photo from Zenith Mountain Guides

Now 35, Sullivan is currently an apprentice ski guide for the ACMG, the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. That means she is working as a backcountry ski guide, logging hours, teaching avalanche courses, and continuing to add to her education in the mountains. Each guide-in-training spends three full years as an apprentice before they can begin taking exams to earn their full certification.

This March, Sullivan will take her ski exam, which, if she passes, will make her one step closer to eventually becoming certified by the IFMGA, the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, the most elite level of mountain guide certification around the world. It’s not an easy process, nor a quick one. Sullivan has another decade or so before she’s IFMGA certified and by then, she’ll still be just one of a handful of North American women at that level. (There are currently around a dozen women in Canada with IFMGA status, and, in the U.S., of the roughly 150 American guides who hold the certification, less than 10 percent are women.)

“I tend to believe that it’s all about being an individual,” Sullivan says. “I am capable of becoming a mountain guide. I don’t think being a woman is going to have much of an effect on that. For me, it’s a constant grind to try to keep moving forward.”

Ten years from now, Sullivan sees herself owning her own guiding business | Photo from Zenith Mountain Guides

Ten years from now, Sullivan sees herself owning her own guiding business | Photo from Zenith Mountain Guides

Ten years from now, Sullivan sees herself owning her own guiding business, teaching people about glacier travel and avalanche safety, and helping others experience the wild beauty of the mountains. “That’s the biggest drive for me: Passing on things I’ve learned to make life easier in the mountains for others,” she says. “My favorite thing about the mountain environment is there’s always something to learn. I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m having limitations on new experiences. I’m constantly learning new things in the alpine.”

Chelsea Sullivan is a Flylow athlete based in Whistler, British Columbia. One other thing she’s infatuated with: “I’m obsessed with my Foxy Bibs,” she says. “They have these two pockets on the legs that are just big enough for my field book. The chest pocket is just the right size for my radio. It fits exactly the things I need in exactly the right places.” You can follow along on Sullivan’s journey here.

Foxy Bib

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Features

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  • 2 mid-thigh pockets, 2 chest pockets, 1 thigh pocket pleated
  • Powder gaiters
  • Seamless cuff reinforcements
  • YKK waterproof zippers
  • Barn door zipper for easy entry
  • Inner thigh vents
  • Average weight: 650 grams
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