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Interview with a mountain guide

Ski tours & mountaineering
Interview with a mountain guide
“Every moment on the mountain is incredibly intense”
Fotos by Leo Luminati
Fotos by Leo Luminati

Leo Luminati’s workplace is in a class of its own: magnificent views, surrounded by dramatic 3,000-metre peaks. His job? “Enabling our guests to have unforgettable experiences in these beautiful mountains,” says the young mountain guide from the St. Moritz Ski School with pride. Discover his tour recommendations and expert tips in our interview.

The training to become a mountain guide is no walk in the park, as we all know. What conditions does an applicant have to meet?

It certainly isn’t a piece of cake, that’s for sure. The training lasts 3 years, and even the beginning is pretty intense. The admission test alone takes several days, including a climb of 3,000 vertical metres in one go. Every two weeks you work intensively on specific themes such as avalanche awareness, ski technique, ice climbing, rock climbing, meteorology, medicine, ski touring and so on, in theory and practice. Providing you pass the exams for each of the modules as well as the end-of-year exam, in the second year you accompany an experienced mountain guide as an aspirant, during which you have to do 40 excursions. In the third year, you do further winter and summer modules, to a deeper level, before finally taking the federal examinations.

Leo Luminati
That sounds like an exciting and above all challenging mix of activities. Do your clients already have to be advanced skiers or mountaineers in order to go on a ski tour or mountain ascent?
No, not at all. We find an appropriate ski tour or ascent for anyone who enjoys being out in nature. Whatever appeals – from a gentle climb with a leisurely ski down to a thrilling steep descent on powder snow – our region has ideal options for everyone. With beginners, we only ever go on routes along which we can turn back at any time – there’s no “point of no return”. We mountain guides know all these different possibilities. Just ask us – don’t be shy! The most important thing for visitors who are interested in a ski tour or mountain climb is exclusivity. By that I don’t mean anything elitist, I mean an experience of nature far from the busy pistes and mountaineering routes. Clients are looking for tranquillity and also to some extent solitude. We can give them this experience on easy and difficult routes alike.
Foto by Leo Luminati
The choice of equipment in sports shops is constantly growing, with new innovations – especially regarding safety – filling the shelves. What do I absolutely need to have in my rucksack for a ski tour or mountain climb?
That depends – especially with climbing, because of the different route requirements. For any trip, you always need functional clothing and climbing boots, maps or navigation devices (nowadays usually your mobile phone), a climbing harness, climbing rope – the route dictates what length is required, sometimes you even need a double rope – and a helmet. Depending on the route, you may also need climbing shoes, a belay device, plus sufficient quickdraws, carabiners and “friends”. As you can see, there isn’t a definitive checklist for all mountain climbs, unfortunately.
And what does a packing list for a ski tour look like?
That’s already more set. No one should set off without an avalanche transceiver, which should be tested before every tour. A probe, shovel and first aid kit should also be in the rucksack. Before starting the tour, you should find out what mobile phone reception is like along the route, and have a fully charged phone with you. Your mountain guide will of course have a radio communication device that can contact Rega or mountain rescue services from anywhere. If you have a 30-litre rucksack, that should be plenty for the equipment, also for warm clothing and if necessary a change of clothing, food and drink, sun protection, gloves, helmet, etc… in other words everything you would need anyway for “normal” skiing.
“Every moment on the mountain is incredibly intense”
“Every moment on the mountain is incredibly intense”
What about an airbag?
That depends on the particular ski tour. For freeriding it definitely makes sense to have one, but not necessarily for a straightforward ski tour. The airbag also means an additional volume of about 10 litres, which many people find a hindrance. The mountain guide will usually have one, as they need to coordinate any necessary rescue operations.
“Every moment on the mountain is incredibly intense”
“Every moment on the mountain is incredibly intense”
The effects of climate change are becoming more and more noticeable and also visible; the snowline, for example, is no longer where it was 15 years ago. To what extent do these changes demand a new code of conduct in the mountains?
The problem is that the retreat of the permafrost makes a mountain less stable. As we unfortunately found just recently on the Matterhorn, when a whole section of rock broke away, the safety of routes has to be re-evaluated. Of course this depends a great deal on the kind of rock: the granite of the Val Bregaglia, for example, is wonderfully stable as a rule. But here, too, the rockfall on the Pizzo Cengalo showed how much destructive power nature can have. Perhaps in future we will need to adapt more and more – for example, in high summer, no longer scaling 4,000-metre peaks for safety reasons but tackling 3,000-metre summits instead, in order to climb on stable rock.
What appeals to you most about your job? About the mountains?
In the mountains I’m away from everything, I experience something exclusive and unique. When I get up at 2 in the morning, set off, see the sun rise… it’s an incredibly intense feeling, every moment on the mountain is incredibly intense! The great thing about the job of mountain guide is being able to make such fabulous adventures possible for others, too; being able to show someone a place on this earth that they would probably never be able to experience without us. That’s fabulous. I also work as a ski instructor, but now and again I find myself thinking on certain pistes: “Anyone can get down this piste on their own, I’m not really needed…” But certain mountains, such as the Piz Bernina – well, many visitors would not be able to reach them without us. So with our help, it is possible for them to experience something really special.

Can you reveal your top 3 ski tours and mountain climbs?

Of course! For ski tours, I’d say:
  • the Gemsfreiheit starting from the Diavolezza – a straightforward but spectacular ski tour. After two hours of climbing, you already find yourself surrounded by 3,000-metre peaks, a 4,000-metre summit and a glacier. The Piz Bernina towers above you, along with the Piz Palü … the snow conditions are usually superb, too!

  • the freeride tour from Trais Fluors down to Spinas. From the top of the chair lift, you climb to Fuorcla Valletta for a descent full of variety down to Spinas. Open slopes, steep forest sections – this run has everything.

  • the ski tour into the Val Forno near Maloja. Granite peaks, dramatic cliffs, welcoming mountain huts and characteristic rock pinnacles like the famous Ago di Cleopatra – a beautiful and secluded valley!

And my personal summer favourites take you to:

  • the Piz Badile in the Val Bregaglia: the quality of the rock is superb, not at all brittle. Truly one of the finest ascents I know!

  • the Biancograt, popularly known as the Stairway to Heaven, high up on the Piz Bernina. The route is full of variety, and combines rock climbing with passages on snow.

  • last but not least the Piz Palü, of course, one of the most beautiful snow-capped peaks I know. All the routes here are tremendous – whether via the Ostgrat (the eastern ridge) or the normal route from the Diavolezza summit station. The views down into the green valleys of the Valposchiavo or over to Samedan … simply wonderful!
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Ski instructor Leo Luminati

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Ski School St. Moritz