One of Sweden’s certified, female mountain guides, Eva Eskilsson, is someone I have been curious about for a long time. A woman who is devoted to the mountains. In addition, a humble and engaging person with an interest in entrepreneurship I discover when I get a chat with her.
Eva has several mountain environments as her home and has long been commuting between the European Alps, the mountain scenery in Scandinavia and the cliffs in Greece. Together with her life partner and mountain guide colleague as well as their 1-year-old son, she chooses to head to where the climbing or skiing is best for the season. And with a warm heart, she is passionate about giving other people a fantastic mountain experience and a mental boost. Over a raspy phone line to Chamonix I get some words with Eva during her evening walk.
You said in an interview once that the climbing and the variety of different climbing disciplines is a lifestyle for you, what do you mean?
“To be comfortable in the mountains, and to deliver a safe and good job for the clients, you have to spend a huge amount of time in the mountains. Therefore, I cannot have it as an eight-to-five job. In addition, it is a lifestyle compared to, for example, gymnastics. It is something I can do with my friends, parents and with my child, and something we can feel a great affinity around. It is simply a way to hang out together” Eva says.
With a past as a gymnast, an adolescence in Sundsvall and an engineering education in the luggage, being a mountain guide is not the first career choice you would think of. And although Eva has been skiing since she was a kid, she started climbing later in life.
“I did a season in Chamonix after high school, which was the start of climbing for me. Have always been a gymnast, so I still identify myself partly as that. But the mountains are my life and my profession today, and what I devote myself to both during work and during my free time.”
Eva spent one of the years at university in France. Again, she got a lot of time in the mountains, and that was when she met her life partner and principal mentor in mountaineering.
“We have done a lot in the mountains together. Eventually I started helping him with his guide company. I am a person who is looking for the next thing when I have finished something, so I never got myself a civil engineering job. Instead, I regarded it as a proper challenge to become a mountain guide” Eva says.
But it is a long journey to become a certified mountain guide. Eva began with the education to become a rock-climbing instructor, which in France is a comprehensive education over several years. Thereafter it was natural to continue with the mountain-guide education, but she chose to accomplish it in Sweden.
“There are many advantages with the Swedish guide education. Among other things, the courses are located at many different localities, so we got the opportunity to explore a large variety of mountain environments. It is not as common in the French education system. It has increased the possibilities and given me a broader perspective.”
What are the clients getting when they hire you as a guide?
“For me, it is not about dragging people up at different peaks. In the end, my daily task is to find an activity that suits the current mountain conditions and people’s capacity and wishes. It sometimes means to identify wishes that they are unaware of themselves” says Eva.
“My goal as a mountain guide is to inspire people to spend more time in the mountains and in nature, and to make them feel more connected by experiencing personal, mental gains. I have experience of analysing what the guests need in order to get a good experience, and to create a satisfying arrangement. When the guests are open for what to do, I can do my job at best. As a guide, I lay a puzzle to obtain the overall picture” Eva continues to consider.
Eva feels that the guests’ wishes have changed over time.
“In the past it was more common to hire a guide for accomplishing the ‘dream trip’. It was often a rather experienced guest. Nowadays, there is a wider spread of guests regarding experience and capacity. It spans from doing a walk on the glacier or to try out ski touring for the first time to create experiences for experienced specialists and climb Dru, for example.”
“As a guide, it is about noticing and taking care of people, prioritizing and making quick decisions. Often, the work is not so technically difficult, especially not in the beginning of the career, because you need to have a good safety margin” Eva continues.
What do you think the mountain adventure means for the clients you work with?
“They get the opportunity to do something they would never have done on their own, and in some cases did not think they would ever experience. They get a chance to cross their mental and physical borders together with me. I am looking for the fine line between giving them something they did not think they would manage, and still being a positive experience.”
How was it as a woman to do the mountain-guide education?
“It went very well! I give a tribute my instructors during the education. They gave me fair treatment all the time without prejudices. Of course, it helped that I was extremely well prepared. I waited quite a while before I started the education and had spent nearly 10 years in the mountains beforehand. I was well above the level required for climbing, for example. It probably made it easier for all parties to include me and accept my presence during the education.
“One should not have to be more prepared as a woman than as a man, of course. Everyone benefits from being well prepared and having done more than just the obligatory list of requirements.” Eva is thinking a little further, then she adds:
“It is Swedish men we are talking about here. There is a different attitude to equality in Sweden compared to in France. Here in France, you may sometimes be treated with ‘you are a girl so you do not have to do this’. As a woman, one wants to feel equally qualified and hence not be treated in such a way.”
The guide training is long and challenging, and there are not as many female as male role models among the guides, how did you solve that?
“Actually, I do not have any female role models. I know of some female mountain guides in the Alps, but I have never had any major problems identifying myself with men. Since I have had my partner as a mentor, I have not felt that I need additional role models.”
Are there any differences between female and male guides?
“We reasoned about this at home when you sent the question. I think it is about different personalities, environmental and social conditions rather than about gender. We talked about that women often have less enforcement needs, but then we concluded that we know several examples of women who have a need to assert themselves all the time. So, I believe there are larger differences in personality, and there are not so many skills that are naturally male or female. I think it is environmental or social conditions that create differences.”
Do you see any challenges in combining the guide life with the parenthood?
“I am fortunate because we are both self-employed and mountain guides. We can share all the parental responsibility, because it does not matter whom of us staying at home and whom that is working. Right now, we are mobile and can spend a few months at a time in France, northern Norway or Greece.”
“In a few years, when our son gets older, we may have to decide where we should be more permanently. But it is a great advantage that both of us are self-employed and thus equally flexible. We both seek freedom rather than safety. Right now, we are both working a little less. Both of us feel that we have already succeeded with our careers, and now wish to spend more time with our son and less time with work.”
What is the most ‘nut’ thing you have done in the mountains?
“The mountains are the environment where you should not do clumsy stuff. Thanks to having such a good mentor, I have managed to avoid the mistakes that many others have made. For me it is important to make achievements with good margin and in good style. When I am bouldering I can push, but when I do alpine climbs I climb safely. Of course, I have also ended up in some unplanned overnight stays in the mountains at times, but typical epic stories are not for me.”
“You must have experience of the mountains, but you can acquire that without doing it in a dangerous way. There are several different types of week courses, for example avalanche- and climbing courses. There are more options than just renting a mountain guide if you cannot afford it. The whole idea of mountain activities is to do them safely.”
What are you most proud of?
“Oh, I have never been to a job interview, so I have never thought in that way before.”
It is a great achievement to be a mountain guide, isn’t it?
“I am not comfortable with expressing it like that, saying that I am proud of being a mountain guide. However, I am proud of that I try to do a good job every day. That I am good at handling group dynamics and taking quick decisions. I am analytical and want all data before taking a decision, a control freak. It is probably the biggest challenge for me in the job, and therefore I am proud when I manage it.”
What advices would you give to all mountain-loving women and men who dream of becoming a mountain guide and who wish to be able to live their passion one day?
“First, you do not have to become a mountain guide to live your mountain passion. The guide profession is a job first and foremost, while the climbing is a lifestyle. The guide profession is about handling people, so there is a big difference between what we do as guides and how we use the mountains privately.”
“You must enjoy working with people. I chose to become a mountain guide because of my life situation in general. I could have ended up working as an engineer, and never had the mountain-guide profession as a dream job, but for me it is an opportunity to get an income and to be self-employed. Others dream about this profession, but I never did.” Eva ponders for a while and continues.
“You need to spend a lot of time in the mountains with people you can learn from and improve together with in a safe manner. And then consider how it fits into your life situation in general. The mountain-guide training is comprehensive and requires a high level of competence in all disciplines. That is why so much experience is required before the education. Once you are finished, most people niche themselves. In my case, I focus on rock climbing, powder skiing and ski touring.”
“During the education, already, it is smart to have an idea of what to focus on afterwards. The classic mountaineering business does not suit me, since I am so small and light. I am not guiding on the Matterhorn because I would only be able to bring ‘small Japanese women’. It is about the weight you counter-balance with during short-roping. You must, of course, be extremely stable on your feet when walking with crampons. But the body weight is still crucial in the end. I can guide one or two very light clients, while my partner can do the same type of short-rope trip with two normal-sized guests.
“Analyse what your business idea should be about. If you are short and light, and you need to earn money as a guide, irrespective of being a woman or man you may want to invest in a niche that you are physically more suited to than traditional mountaineering. The classic summer season may therefore differ for a short and light guide compared to a regular-sized guide. Having a concrete business idea beforehand is important, because the guide profession is something you often get into later in life, when a stable income becomes more important.”
“For all guides it is important to consider their family situation. Being a fresh mother, breastfeeding and being a mountain guide is not difficult in this context. It is the family situation after the first years with children that is the big challenge. There will be a lot of traveling and absence from the family if you are living far away from the mountains like in Stockholm, for example.”
Eva’s walk is soon coming to an end, and I hear that her family wants her attention. A final question.
What do you predict for the future?
“The possibilities for mountain guides are good also in the future, I think. There is a shortage of guides, and people have more and more money but less time. They do not want to spend half the holiday in lift queues.”
“The climate change implies that it may become difficult to work at the same locations as we work today. It will not be possible to do the same tours in 10 years as we do today. It may not be possible to ski anymore. Personally, it will not be a problem in terms of my income. We are so flexible that we can handle such changes. But everyone who guides in the mountains will face new challenges when the glaciers melt and disappear.” Eva reflects further.
“Climate change is on the agenda both among Swedish and French guides. There are many guides who try to do something concrete. I myself try to create an interest and a commitment to the problems among my guests by informing them about the traces of environmental pollution and the shrinking of the glaciers.”
“In addition, I set personal climate goals for my travels, for example. I try to improve myself as a way to handle my climate change anxiety. We try to travel less and stay longer in the same place. But our guests still travel for a week or a weekend, of course.”
“There are many people here in Chamonix who feel that something needs to be done at the political level, but they do not act so much at the corporate and individual level. No one carried out any ‘carbon footprint’ plan. Within the SBO (Swedish Mountain Guide Organization), we discuss to develop a climate policy to support the guides in how to handle the issue in the future. However, some Swedish mountain guides have already changed their activities and have a more sustainable approach.
We are on the right track!”