Thinking of turning your love of mountains into a job? In this interview with Elke, a qualified international mountaineering and ski guide based in New Zealand, Brooke finds out what it’s really like to be a guide and how to become one yourself.


A few years ago, I took part in a mountaineering course in New Zealand. I learnt how to use an ice axe, rescue myself from a crevasse, and tie knots that would stop me from plunging to my imminent death. 

Three years later, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned (thanks COVID), but one thing that did stay with me was the memory of my guide, Elke Braun-Elwert. I distinctly remember how she made me feel confident and capable, even when I struggled to remember how to tie my shoelaces, let alone a bowline.  

Elke is an International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) Mountain and Ski Guide, NZSIA/ISIA Ski Instructor, and assistant director at Alpine Recreation in Lake Tekapo, New Zealand 

So, when I knew I needed a mountaineering guide to interview for this outdoor careers series, I knew she’d be perfect.


Oh, and she’s a climber too, naturally

Elke’s Family Adventure in Mountaineering

From a young age Elke knew that mountaineering would be in her future, and as if on cue, she ended up following her father’s footsteps into guiding. 

‘My father was a mountain guide, so guiding has always been a feature in my life’, she says. ‘I was 14 when I was asked what I wanted to do when I ‘grew up’, and I said ‘mountain guide’. I was encouraged to pursue other options first, which meant I spent some time working as a software tester in Dunedin after studying for a Masters in Applied Science, but it was always just a gap filler.’

A quick aside: If you want more proof that the mountains were in Elke’s blood despite the academic detour, her dissertation topic during her studies says it all – it was on the biomechanics of skiing.  

It’s been a wild ride since Elke became a qualified guide and she has some epic expeditions under her belt. Some favourites include guiding up Mt Sefton from sea level to summit (and back) with no aircraft and leading an Aoraki Bound / Ngai Tahu trip up to Caroline Hut and over Ball Pass.

But perhaps the most epic was following in her late father’s footsteps on an expedition called Symphony on Skis, which she’s now guided six times (and filmed a movie about). The trip traverses NZ’s Southern Alps’ major glaciers, covering 40km and 4,000 vertical metres, from the heart of the South Island to the West Coast.


Ok, we’re starting to see the appeal

Managing and Mitigating Risks on the Mountain

It turns out that there are typically two modes when you’re a mountaineering guide, especially if you run your own company. For Elke, mode one is in-the-field guiding, and mode two is in the office helping run Alpine Recreation in various roles.

‘I wear a lot of hats at Alpine Recreation’, says Elke. ‘Chief guide, providing supervision and mentoring of other guides, co-director, website and bookings database management, and plenty more. There’s never a dull day.’

One skill that’s constantly under development when you’re a mountaineering guide is the ability to assess and manage risk, especially when you’re working with clients of different skills and confidence (after all, not everyone can be as good with their shoelaces as I am).


Up we go!


‘It wouldn’t surprise me if people make the assumption that I take a lot of risks (which I don’t!) or that they think the job is really dangerous’, reflects Elke. ‘It certainly can be, but our role is to understand, avoid, or mitigate the risks. Risk management would probably be a better descriptor, and I personally feel at greater risk driving on the roads during peak tourist season and public holidays.’

Some of the risks that need mitigating are mountain weather, avalanches, crevasses, ice and rock falls, steep terrain, and of course, people themselves. Each of these risks requires different management strategies, and you’re often dealing with many or all of them simultaneously.

‘We do a lot of training, not just our assessment courses, but regular guides training each summer and winter season and CPD events through the NZMGA and MSC/NZAA’, says Elke. ‘There’s also a lot of pre-trip planning focussed on people’s ability, equipment carried, looking at weather forecasts, and having different route/activity options.’

Spoiler Alert: You’ve Also Gotta Love People

It’s not just technical skills you need to be a mountaineering or ski guide, but customer service skills too. Elke emphasises the importance of managing guests’ expectations as well as the ability to read between the lines when it comes to their ability.


Fashion never rests, even in the mountains


‘Sometimes their expectations simply do not match up with an achievable objective, and we need to ’steer’ them towards an easier adventure that’s a better fit for their current abilities’, she explains. ‘Within our company, many want to climb Aoraki Mount Cook simply because it’s New Zealand’s highest summit, but they don’t realise it is quite a technical and dangerous peak.’

Having the patience and understanding to guide them to something that pushes them but is still achievable, or helps them to work towards a bigger goal is integral for safety and to make sure they have a good time. 

My key takeaway from chatting to Elke, and having taken part in an Alpine Recreation trip is that a love of mountains isn’t enough to be a mountaineering guide. You also need a love of people too.

A love of helping them realise their potential, a love of helping them feel safe even in the face of risk, and a love of helping people explore the beauty of the mountains. 

Given that people exhaust me…I think I’ll stay as a guest and leave the guiding to Elke.


Damn New Zealand, you beautiful!

FAQs About Becoming a Mountaineering Guide

What qualifications and experiences are typically required to become an international mountaineering guide?

When it comes to qualifications, it depends on which type of guiding you want to do. Elke holds the internationally recognised IFMGA qualification, which typically takes five years of intensive training and assessment courses with the NZMGA (New Zealand Mountain Guides Association) to achieve.

‘And that doesn’t include all the experience you need to gain beforehand to be eligible to start the qualifications pathway’, says Elke. ‘You need many years of personal experience – the prerequisites to be accepted onto your first course are high for a reason. This includes submitting a log of all your technical ascents and expeditions.’

Are there any challenges or aspects of the job that you don’t particularly love or wish you’d known before embarking on this career path?

Cue the dreaded admin. Even mountaineering guides can’t escape doing paperwork, which isn’t the most enjoyable part of any job, but is still super important.

‘That’s probably something that most guides may not realise when they set their sights on mountaineering’, says Elke. 

Is it possible to make a sustainable living as a mountaineering guide?

‘That’s a tricky one! Many guides supplement their guiding work with a secondary part-time job, especially in the off-season’, explains Elke. 

It’s not all bad though, Elke explains, as for many guides, the variety of different roles is a good thing as guiding can be so intensive. Having more than one option gives the body and mind a bit of a break. 

Many guides are also somewhat nomadic, moving around the world with the seasons to where the work is. For example, for a ski guide, it’s common to go to Japan during the New Zealand summer and Canada in the New Zealand autumn.

How can someone find employment opportunities as a mountaineering guide?

Elke advises reaching out directly to mountain guiding companies, the NZAC, and other outdoor recreation providers. You should also reach out to the NZMGA to get industry contacts.

At We Are Explorers we take great pride in presenting content that is fact checked, well-researched, and based on both real world experience and reliable sources. As a B-Corp we uphold high ethical standards and strive to create content that is inclusive, with an an increased focus on underserved communities, Indigenous Australians, and threats to our environment. You can read all about it in our Editorial Standards.