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High-Angle Engineering

Canada’s Global Mountain Solutions pioneers a new market for mountain guides.
by Kirk Kardashian | photograph Conny Amelunxen

Just north of Whistler, British Columbia, in the remote Upper Lillooet Valley, Westpark Electric Limited recently installed a power line connecting two new hydroelectric plants to the BC Hydro grid. The first five segments of line were fairly straightforward, but the sixth line had to get past a mountain; easy enough in most cases, but here the line couldn’t go over the summit (mountain goat habitat) and it couldn’t contour the valley floor (moose, salmon, and grizzly bear habitat). “So we ran the line mid-mountain, straight across rock bluffs and cliff faces,” says Shea Irving, the health and safety coordinator for Westpark.

Westpark hired professional tree fellers to carve 13 helipads out of the steep, forested mountainside in order to complete the project. But before the fellers could begin work, the company needed a way to safely move them through the sketchy terrain. For that, it turned to Global Mountain Solutions (GMS), a Canmore, Alberta, company with a staff of mountain guides and apprentice guides. GMS built connecting trails and guided the fellers, as well as Westpark’s workers and subcontractors, across the hazardous corridor for more than a year.

Founded in 2008 by Ben Firth and Sean Easton, GMS is built on the idea that mountain guides can do more than lead skiers through the backcountry or help climbers bag peaks. The outfit employs roughly 50 guides, rescue and rope access technicians, and office personnel year- round, on jobs as varied as oil and gas exploration in Oman; engineering remote avalanche control systems; executing helicopter long line rescues; and installing a communications tower atop a 16,404-foot peak in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountain range. For Firth, who founded GMS while recovering from severe injuries suffered during an avalanche, GMS’ goals are the same as most recreational outfits: provide interesting jobs in interesting places, while ensuring no one gets hurt.

For those in the field, hiring experienced mountaineers to oversee high-angle and high exposure work is a logical fit. “I hear more and more about guides being used to get rope access technicians into position,” says Jesse Williams, the manager of Petzl’s new Technical Institute in Salt Lake City. “It’s not surprising at all that GMS is getting a ton of work.”

And while that work might not be as fun as skiing powder all day, GMS Operations Manager Jeff Relph says the technical challenges and problem solving involved are just as rewarding. “The people coming through the guiding stream are like me,” says Relph, who lives in Golden, BC, and is also a certified mountain guide. “They’re going through the exams, working for GMS in the process, and thinking when they’re finished, they’ll take on greater roles in our company.”

To that, Firth adds a simple recruiting slogan: “Let’s go climb mountains.”

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