"Hard Ice Guide" (HIG) is a certification created by the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association to recognise a Guide who has the ability and specialist skills required to provide a safe, informative glacier guiding service. Recognised internationally, a Glacier Guide with this qualification under their belt is amongst the best in the industry. So when I was asked if I wanted to try for HIG, I was a bit nervous.
To gain this prestigious qualification candidates must show they are completely competent in all areas of their trade. Client care should be second nature, step-cutting almost an unconscious act along with route-finding, ice climbing and crevasse rescue. These skills (and many more) are assessed over a 4 day period on both the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers by an IFMGA Guide. None of this made me nervous. What did make me nervous, were the horror stories I had heard from guides who had taken the exam in the past. The assessors were brutal. Any weakness would be quickly identified and encouraged. Guides are expected to be informative, so a broad knowledge base is essential. But by all accounts, nothing less than encyclopedic knowledge of all things Glacier would be sufficient to pass this course. The history of Guiding had always interested me, but I wasn't a massive fan of flora and fauna... and I knew the Franz Josef like the back of my hand but where would I take somebody Ice Climbing on the Fox? What exactly is trentepohlia? Despite feeling very unprepared, I had to at least try. I accepted, and became a Higlet. (HIG trainee.)
Most of the training was fun. For me anyway. For Bex, my girlfriend, probably not so much. I needed a volunteer to play victim in crevasse rescue scenarios, so weekends leading up to the exam were spent lowering her into deep moulins and crevasses on the Fox Glacier just to pull her back out. To brush up on our Ice Climbing skills, me and fellow Higlet Dean tackled the Pinnacles Icefall on the Franz Josef and made an attempt on the lower Icefall of the Fox. A walk out from Chancellor Hut was something I'd wanted to do for a while too, so a helicopter and a day off work was organised under the pretence of training. I also read obsessively, trying to commit important facts, names and dates to memory so I could handle any question an assessor might throw at me. I probably put more effort into preparing for HIG than I had for any other exam in my life yet when the assessment date rolled round, I still felt completely unprepared. I really wanted to ace the whole thing but without knowing what to expect, how would I know if I was ready enough to even pass? It relived me a little to know that soon enough, I'd find out.
With a fresh hair cut and a clean shave I walked into the guide base and introduced myself to the assessors and other Higlets. Most were already friends from work and I'd met a few of the Fox boys before on various first aid/SAR courses. After formalities and a little bit of paperwork, we got straight into it. I was familiar with the style of assessment the NZMGA conduct- basically one person carries out a task in front of everybody else and when finished, everybody gets to say what was good about it and then what could be improved. Knowing the first task would likely require a volunteer, I had already decided to be the first- just to get my nerves out of my system. The first task: "Weather Presentation". I drew a rough Isobaric Chart (weather map) on a whiteboard and then timidly discussed what was going on with weather, how it would likely affect us locally and the forecast for the next few days. I sat down, and I waited. I wouldn't know how well I had performed at "Weather Presentation" for another 4 days- the assessors are annoyingly gifted at giving nothing away. Notes are silently taken, and a final mark is revealed to you at the end of the exam. This can occasionally lead to stress for a Higlet...
Over the next 96 hours each Higlet was asked to explain, discuss and demonstrate a variety of skills and topics while the assessors studied and judged us, making no attempts to hide their observations. Having an assessor watch you perform a task can be intimidating, especially if something negative happens. I was aware that while I had been asked to demonstrate a practical task, the assessors would no doubt too be looking for the soft skills that are natural characteristics of a good Guide- confidence, professionalism, leadership skills, reaction under stress, enthusiasm. Each day I found it increasingly difficult to figure out if I had was performing well or if my choices at some stage had already cost me the exam. Every demonstration was met with a perfect poker face that could not be interpreted. On one particular assignment I was asked to stop by an assessor only 5 minutes in. This is usually a bad thing. Nothing more was said, we simply moved on to the next task leaving me feeling a little paranoid. I remembered the advice I was given, that no matter what happened you had to carry on trying your best. Ice Climbing was one of the more enjoyable assignments, and is one of my favourite trips to guide. The best method of teaching is to demonstrate, so we spent the afternoon climbing on the Fox Glacier- something all Higlets enjoy!
It was a relief when the last day was over. The first half of the day was more assignments and the other half was an agonising 5 hour wait while the assessors prepared our individual reports and decided if we had passed or failed. It did not relieve me a little to know that soon I would find out- I was nervous. We spent the afternoon discussing the course and what we had learnt. I enjoyed seeing the Fox guys do their thing- seeing different guiding styles and techniques lets you pick out things you like and can use yourself. Having an IFMGA Guide to discuss skills and best practices with was also a great opportunity to learn. I decided that I didn't care if I had passed or failed; at least I had learnt something and had tried my best. That obviously wasn't true. I cared, very much. I wanted HIG for a lot of reasons, but mostly- I wanted the cool badge you get to wear on your uniform. That and to be recognised internationally as a highly skilled and professional Glacier Guide. The hours crawled by and eventually we all gathered at the Franz guide base. One by one, we were called in to be given our result. I waited for my turn, congratulating each Higlet who had graduated to "Hard Ice Guide" as they came out from the room. Eventually my turn came. I passed!