[Editor's note: Jobs are hard to find these days. But that doesn't mean your dream job in the ski industry isn't still out there waiting for you. In this interview series, we talk to folks in the ski industry who have seemingly glamorous gigs, filled with big adventures, powder skiing, and more. Read on for advice on how they got there and how you can find your way in, too.]
The romance of backcountry skiing -- removing yourself from chairlifts and crowds, floating through untracked snow -- comes with risks. Hiring a backcountry guide significantly helps ensure your group a safe and successful adventure. We caught up with Francie St. Onge, a chief guide and co-owner of Idaho's Sun Valley Trekking. We wanted to learn the ins and outs of planning a backcountry ski trip as well as how she got that sweet job.
First big, obvious question: How did your experience lead you to backcountry guiding?
Out of high school, I worked as a horseback-riding instructor at a summer camp on Lopez Island, Wash. Working in the outdoors, with livestock and kids in a remote, rustic environment was the first step. Then, I worked for an Outward Bound-style company called Wilderness Ventures, guiding high school kids throughout the intermountain west. When I was in grad school, I spent a summer in Denali National Park working as a naturalist guide for an eco-tourism company. These jobs taught me a lot about logistical planning for extended expeditions, navigating through both the urban and wild environments and client care. I really feel that all the jobs I had prior to this have been preparing me for this position.
What's a typical day for you?
As a small business owner I find myself some days processing reservations or working on marketing projects, sometimes I'm running supplies up to a hut on a snowmobile or prepping food for a 10-day expedition. Some days I'm prepping to teach an avalanche course. It is highly variable which keeps it stimulating and interesting.
We can typically find powder skiing all winter, in part because our guides are good at sniffing it out and go to places less-traveled.
”-- Francie St. Onge, backcountry ski guide
You have masters degree in environmental education from Utah State. How important has that been in helping you with the job you have now?
Academia opens doors for you by opening and expanding your mind, knowing people and exposing you to a broader world. The only thing I should have done more of in my education was taken some business classes. Both my husband and I started working here with no prior experience working in an office. We've learned a lot these past 12 years, and continue to learn about how to be administrators as well as guides.
Last year was the worst winter in recent memory, and yet when I took a Sun Valley Trekking trip to Bench and Tornak two weeks after the last snowfall, we still had great snow and great skiing. Is there ever such a thing as a lousy winter for a backcountry skier?
It is not uncommon for our area to experience a drought mid-winter and not receive snow for six weeks sometimes. Yet, we can typically find powder skiing all winter, in part because our guides are good at sniffing it out and go to places less-traveled, and also because our cold nighttime temps preserve the snow surface.
Avalanches are a constant danger in backcountry settings. How do you keep inexperienced guest safe in risky conditions?
Our guides have a lot of experience and great judgment. They evaluate the slopes on a case-by-case basis and do not endanger the clients if they deem conditions to be too risky. We are truly blessed in this area to have a lot of mellow terrain that provides great powder skiing even when avalanche hazard is high. So, we have a lot of options to take people skiing in safe places.
How often do you ski in resort, and when you do, where do you like to ski?
We used to ski a lot in Utah and Crested Butte, Colo., which provided us great steep skiing experience and a lot of downhill miles on our skis. Nowadays we ski in-area a little bit each season, mostly on powder days at
Baldy, our local hill. But we are pretty busy in the backcountry, so that is our primary focus.