History of Mountain, Ski, and Hiking Guides in South Tyrol

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Our history

Two centuries of ascents and descents

Until the 19th century, mountains were nothing more than the frame of the picture that mountain dwellers saw every day. Nobody climbed them unless they absolutely had to: the ascent and descent were too dangerous, the weather too unpredictable, the walking and climbing too strenuous. Climbing mountains "because they are there", as an end in itself and as a sport, only began at the beginning of the 18th century. From this point onwards, however, mountaineering developed rapidly - and with it the profession of mountain guide, which was regulated for the first time in Tyrol (and therefore also in South Tyrol) in 1871. And since then - if I may say so - no stone has been left unturned.  

The first mountain guides in South Tyrol were shepherds, chamois hunters and crystal collectors. They knew the way into the mountains (and usually a little way up too) and shared this knowledge with British mountaineers in particular. At that time, mountaineering skills were still inadequate and the easiest route to the summit was sought anyway. However, much changed in this respect by the middle of the 19th century. From the 1850s onwards, mountain guides played a key role in opening up the peaks in the Ortler region and the Dolomites. They were no longer just human signposts, but led their "masters" up to the summits on ropes - and were sometimes paid princely wages. 

First real mountain guides

Because money could suddenly be earned by guiding mountaineers (and not just a little), more and more young and not-so-young lads were entering the profession, which at that time was not yet a profession. Anyone could call themselves a mountain guide, there were no criteria. This changed for the first time in Tyrol (and therefore also in the southern part of the province) with the mountain guide regulations of 1871, which not only defined the entry requirements for the profession, but also the rights and (above all) duties of the guides.  

As the standard was still not standardised, the first South Tyrolean "Guide Instruction Course" was held in Bolzano in 1888. From then on, attending the course was a prerequisite for practising the profession of mountain guide and guaranteed that guests were hanging on the rope of a well-trained professional (by the standards of the time).  

At the same time, regulated access to the profession also controlled competition, which was increasingly necessary as the mountain guide profession became one of the most prestigious of its time at the end of the 19th century. The 1890s and early 1900s are not considered the golden age of mountain guiding in South Tyrol for nothing: with increasing numbers of guides and mountain guides occupying all the key positions in the development of tourism in the mountains. 

The golden age ended abruptly when the First World War put an end to the development of the mountain guides, who were wiped out in the mountain war on the Austrian southern front. 

New state, new beginning

The First World War marked a turning point for South Tyrol and its mountain guides. At the end of the war, the country was annexed to Italy and the mountain guides lost their organisational structure and support, which had previously been guaranteed by the German and Austrian Alpine Association (DuOeAV): from training to pensions. It was replaced by the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI), which would oversee the fortunes of South Tyrolean mountain guides over the next few decades - with a not always apolitical eye. 

The fascist regime regarded the mountain guides, the "splendid sons of the mountains", as Benito Mussolini called them, as symbolic figures of the homo novus, the new, fascist man who lived from and for action. Accordingly, much attention was paid to the guides, for whom new legal foundations were constantly being created. Mountain guides were also forced into fascist syndicates and the fascist PNF party. The lack of a party membership card meant the end of their career. 

However, while the interest of the regime was relatively great, that of the mountaineering (Italian) public was considerably less so. The interwar years were therefore hard for the South Tyrolean mountain guide scene, which lost more and more ground and, after the option of 1939, the Second World War and the National Socialist occupation of South Tyrol in 1943, came to a standstill. 

Another new beginning

Even after the end of the war, the mountain guide business was slow to recover, due to a lack of tourists and local mountaineers who could (and wanted to) afford a guide. It was not until the mid/end of the 1960s that alpine tourism worthy of the name began to develop - and with it a new foundation for mountain guides. 

Because they are a reflection of society, mountain guides in the 1960s and early 1970s were also involved in ethnic disputes. And were themselves the subject of ethnic disputes in the form of the Alpine Association of South Tyrol (AVS) and its Italian counterpart, the CAI. Both were vying for access to the mountain guides, and both were setting up corresponding organisations, but the CAI had the upper hand thanks to its support from Rome.  

What's more, German-speaking mountain guides (and most of them are) found it difficult, as guide courses and examinations were held exclusively in Italian. Although South Tyrolean politicians protested, no solution was found at that time. 

Autonomous mountain guides

A solution was not found until the Second Autonomy Statute of 1972, which transferred responsibility for alpine activities (and thus for mountain guides) to the province of South Tyrol. At the same time, the development of South Tyrolean mountain guides accelerated massively in the 1970s. For the first time, they also opened up the mountain world outside the province and offered tours throughout the Alps.  

As their profession became increasingly complex and demand in the region increased dramatically, mountain guides joined forces to form the first Alpine schools. The pioneers are the Col Raiser Alpine School run by Luis Schenk and the South Tyrol Alpine School run by Reinhold Messner. The alpine schools bring a boost in quality and professionalisation, raise the South Tyrolean mountain guide scene to a new level, open up new groups of guests and still set the tone in the South Tyrolean mountain guide scene today. 

Another milestone is set in 1978: the first South Tyrolean "Mountain and Ski Guide Regulations" (external link: Lexbrowser - B Mountain and Ski Guides (provinz.bz.it)), which still forms the foundation on which South Tyrolean mountain guides are legally based today - with the necessary adjustments over the years, of course. South Tyrolean training courses have also been offered since then. The instructors are mostly South Tyrolean, which also means that German-speaking mountain guides can complete their training in their native language for the first time.  

The mountain guides themselves took a final, but above all fundamental, step towards autonomy. In 1980, they founded the Association of South Tyrolean Mountain Guides and this foundation marked a double breakaway. Firstly, South Tyrol's mountain guides were now legally assigned to the province and no longer to the state, and secondly, they cut the rope that still bound them to the two Alpine associations AVS and CAI.  

Since then, the South Tyrolean mountain and ski guides have watched over the fortunes and development of their profession through the association on the one hand, but above all through their provincial professional chamber. And thus also over the development of the mountain guide sector in South Tyrol.