WHAT IT TAKES: Forget skiing for the fun of it. Sign on to be a guide, and you take on huge responsibilities. "You're basically a weather-forecaster, avalanche-hazard analyst, psychologist and doctor, says Mike Hattrup, an American Mountain Guides Association—certified ski-mountaineering guide. "You're responsible for someone's life, so if you can't deal with stress, you're in the wrong profession.
Guides must be phenomenal skiers—comfortable descending 40-degree slopes with a 40-pound pack. The good ones read terrain with ESP-like accuracy, leading clients away from hazards and toward the powder they're paying for. They're also natural leaders and students of human nature, capable of managing large groups of skiers with differing abilities, personalities and egos. It helps to be charismatic and a good conversationalist. Some guides consider it their duty to have a ready repertoire of good jokes. But most of all, guides must possess the ability to remain calm at all times.
Ski guides must have at least Level II Avalanche and WFR (Wilderness First Responder) certifications. The best are Level III Avalanche-certified and have international certification—an exam so rigorous that most who take it fail. They're also uncommonly fit—strong enough to break trail for an entire week—have innate mountain sense, and can improvise in emergency situations. In a pinch, they can construct a rescue sled if someone gets hurt or an emergency shelter if the weather turns foul. They're connoisseurs of ski-touring and route-finding, experts in the fields of crevasse rescue, glacier travel, short-roping and first aid—and they do it all with professionalism and monk-like patience. And one of the best things about being a guide: You improve with age.
HOW TO GET THERE: Spend a great deal of time in the mountains, exposing yourself to different terrain, snow and weather conditions. Patrolling at a resort can offer experience in dealing with stressful situations, as well as access to medical and avalanche training. Work up to a Level II Avalanche certification and practice rescue scenarios. Hire on to train with a reputable guide service or snowcat operation. Some ski areas—such as Jackson Hole, Wyo.—now have backcountry guide services. When you're ready, the American Mountain Guides Association (amga.com) offers courses throughout the country.