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Dream Jobs: Backcountry Guide

Exum Mountain Guide Zahan Billimoria landed his dream job. Find out how.
posted: 12/09/2013
DJ: Mtn Guide

Many of us had childhood dreams of becoming a superhero. Zahan Billimoria of Exum Mountain Guides dreamed of becoming a backcountry guide, helping people safely enjoy the world’s most technical mountains.

How’d you get into backcountry skiing?

I grew up in the Alps. The mountains have always been a part of my life, and I’ve always skied. I was always attracted to a wilderness experience, so combining that with skiing was natural.

When did you decide you wanted to become a guide?

As early as I can remember, guiding was my dream. When I was 17 or 18 my parents finally acknowledged my passion for the mountains. They hired Christophe Profit as a guide. He was totally comfortable when moving through the mountains, and I inspired to do that: be proficient, adept, and in-tune with the mountain. It synthesized what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. So I moved to the Tetons to be a guide.

What are your favorite parts of guiding?

The only parameters are the natural ones: the stability, and the weather. It’s dictated by what’s going on around you and how your guests are feeling. It’s very free form. There are no manmade parameters. You go into the mountains on your own terms and chart your own course for the day. Plus, there is powder. Powder is an incredible sensation.

What is the best part of working as part of the Exum team?

You must have a deep well of personal experience. You’re guiding where you have skied before and in terrain you know. Exum has the best guides in steep skiing terrain. I have incredible peers that I learn from each day. When I’m guiding, I’m not operating in the context of myself, but in context of Exum guides and that field of collective experience. I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of many people who have been doing this for a very long time.

What is the most important thing you have to realize when guiding?

You have to live with the decisions you make. I’ve always been very conservative. I have two kids, and I’m a parent first. I pride myself on turning around when things aren’t right. I respect that I’ll never be able to fully understand snow. You cannot be right 100 percent of the time. You don’t want to live so close to the edge that, if you make a decision where you’re a hair off, you lose everything. The avalanche equipment is critical, but it only comes into use when other mistakes have been made.

How do you learn about snow?

Snow is not intuitive. You can’t just look at the surface of the snow and make accurate assessments. Avalanche education is a necessity. I learned a lot from Don Sharaf, one of the owners of the American Avalanche Institute. He has dedicated his whole life and intellect to snow—not only from an academic perspective, but also as a skier. That mentorship in the world of avalanches is really critical. I’ve gotten to take formal classes, ski with him, and bug him with questions.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to become a guide?

The most important foundation is to just have a lot of personal time in the mountains developing your passion, your skills, and your mountain sense. Also, find a mentor. I think that’s so important. It’s such a complex environment that we work in. The times I’ve furthered my career are the times I’ve spent with mentors or people who are further along in this than I am, such as Christian Santelices, and they are open about the mistakes they’ve made. If you’re going to pursue being a guide, you’re going to move to a mountain town where you have great access to the mountains and the people.

What are the biggest challenges of the job?

The biggest challenge is the high level of risk that you undertake in your job. As a guide, you make your life making high-risk decisions. It can lead to fatigue for sure. Mistakes can have very serious consequences. It’s a challenging thing to handle.

What don’t you like about your job?

Skiing crusty snow isn’t much fun, but we hardly have any of that in the Tetons. You’re certainly not going to get rich guiding, and it can be a bit of an unsettled life sometimes. I think that’s changing, and it is becoming more of a career.

What is your best ski descent so far?

It would be hard to pick just one. Some of the more memorable descents are when I moved to Wyoming in 2003. That first winter started out really strong. After a few preliminary outings, my friends and I went to ski Buck Mountain. That was such a good day at the mountain because it marked my beginning of skiing in the Tetons. It’s the day I’ve wanted to go out and replicate. I remember standing at the top of the peak and thinking, “Yes! This is what I want to do with my life, and this is where I want to be.”

Guiding skiers on 50-degree slopes in gnarly conditions not your thing? Check out other dream jobs in the ski industry.

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