Bettina Sulliger Perren

Sometimes she just has to let rip through the pow. That's when sceptics realize that there's no underestimating this woman. Like when Bettina Sulliger-Perren worked in Canada as a heli-skiing guide; the first woman in the company. The boss was from Switzerland and knew that there was no better candidate for the job than the mountain guide from Zermatt. But the others all asked whether she would be able to ski fast enough? Whether there was even proper powder snow here if we are heading up the mountain with a woman? How long has she been working as a mountain guide anyway?

"Every Monday when new guests arrived it was the same," remembers Bettina. The slim Swiss guide was treated with suspicion. Then she would suddenly take off down the slope, leaving the others in a cloud of white; colleagues and guests who questioned her ability to seek out adventure in the powder should have known better. It was obvious: here is a woman who really has what it takes, who is not only a skiing instructor but a mountain guide as well. Somebody who has even skied down the 50 degree east face of the Matterhorn.

The first woman — as Bettina has been so often — not only heli-skiing in Canada; in 1995 she was the first woman to qualify as a mountain guide in Wallis and in 2004 was elected as president of the prestigious Zermatt Mountain Guides' Association. A woman as boss in the men's world of mountaineering attracted a great deal of attention from the media, reaching far beyond the borders of Switzerland.

Originally she wanted to be a sports teacher and even has the diploma from the University of Lausanne. However, she did not enjoy teaching in school: "I always had to try and motivate these teenagers who just weren't interested in moving," she says, shaking her head. Such reluctance is incomprehensible to somebody who is obsessed with sport. "What am I going to do now?" the young teacher asked herself. Because she has climbed and scrambled up everything her surroundings offered her ever since she was a child, she decided to register for a mountain guide course. "At the time I didn't realise that I was the first woman in Wallis to do that, and when I did I still decided to keep quiet about it." The idea was to see how far she could go, because the training is challenging and many a contender fails exams or simply gives up. Both men and women have to achieve the same level in all mountain sport disciplines, from sport climbing and ice climbing through to skiing in every type of terrain.

Each year they take around five courses to improve their knowledge and skills in all mountain sport disciplines — ski mountaineering and avalanches, for example, plus they learn everything a business owner has to know: purchasing, accounting and insurance are also part of the program. Bettina moved on from course to course. Soon there were rumors that a woman was trying to become a mountain guide. "Nobody talked directly to me, maybe they thought it'll take care of itself, she's not going to manage it anyway," says Bettina. But that didn't happen of course, and following three years' training Bettina at last found a profession that was also an obsession. Even after 17 years she is still the only woman among the 65 active mountain guides in Zermatt.

We wanted to know from the 43-year-old mother of two boys whether it has got any easier for women in the men's world of mountaineering: Is it more accepted today — compared to 17 years ago — that a woman leads a climb?

No, women are still regarded with some suspicion in the profession today. The proportion of women has remained low; with around 1,500 men working as mountain guides throughout Switzerland, there are only 22 women. I am still the only one in Zermatt and in Wallis there are now five or six. When we arrive at mountain huts, people still look at me like I'm an alien when they realize that I'm in charge. Over time the stares can really get on your nerves. At the beginning of my career I was proud to wear my mountain guide's badge on my chest, but I was under constant scrutiny as a consequence.

How does she rope up? How does she treat customers? Does she do everything right?

You can see the questions written on people's faces. I don't wear my badge anymore because I don't like being analyzed in that way the whole time. When I was president of the mountain guides' association, there was also a lot of noise about feminist issues. I kept on having to give interviews, although I'm not the slightest bit interested in the subject. I don't feel like I am something special; I just get on in peace and quiet with taking customers up and down mountains. I do my work and that's it.

And how do guests react?

There are some who say straight off that there is no way they want a woman. But in the meantime there are also those who ask especially if there isn't a woman with whom they can go on a tour.

Why do you think that is?

I think the main reason is that they hope a woman has more patience. Looks after them better on the mountain. There are a few slave drivers among the mountain guides. They probably also expect that a woman has more feelings and understanding and that they are better listeners. Our job has changed a great deal; mountain guides often used to be rustic types who kept themselves to themselves. In mountain huts they would prefer to sit in the kitchen rather than with their guests. They brought the guest safely up the mountain and back down again. Today you are expected to be an entertainer, motivation coach, biologist, climatologist and psychologist. People want to know a lot about nature, climate change, the weather, and so on.

And you are a patient psychologist as well?

On the mountain guests talk a lot about themselves. They normally spend the whole day in the office and suddenly feel the freedom of the outdoors and have to push themselves in a completely different way. That is such a powerful experience that it releases a lot of emotion. Many people start talking about things they would never normally discuss.

Problems and worries they need to get off their chests, things that stress them in their everyday lives. Whether it is sad or exciting, I listen. Sometimes they ask me: "What do you think?" They want advice. Things often look quite different viewed from the top of a mountain, or later back in the bothy. Normal problems sometimes turn into fairly insignificant issues.

We have to ask how a petite woman like you can hold a 90–kilogram bloke on a rope?

The classic question. Honestly, it's really not a problem. I think ahead, often placing more protection than male colleagues, I'm used to that. And like everybody else I try to find out in advance what the visitor can manage. I ask how much sport they do at home. Which tours have they already done. What scares them.

If somebody says, they suffers from vertigo, for example, then before we get to the ridge up to the summit I'll get them to concentrate at least once on walking in a straight line and try to prepare them for the challenging section.

Why do you think women don't want to be mountain guides? Because it isn't a family-friendly job?

Like in any job, that is a question of organization. Dennis and Cèdric know that in summer mummy is in the mountains. During the high season in July and August we have an au pair, so I can work six days a week. And they love the mountains themselves: now that they are nine and ten they are big enough to manage quite a lot on one of our family tours. When I was nine, I climbed our easy four-thousander, Breithorn, for the first time; my kids were seven when they did that.

What advice would you give young women who want to be mountain guides?

Live your dream, but find a second source of income as well.

Working as a mountain guide depends on so many things, including the weather. If it rains for the whole of July, then business is bad. I am still involved in our family business with my husband in an optician and photographic shop. On top of that I have to be aware of the fact that my own projects often take second place. When the conditions are right you are normally out on the mountains with visitors. I used to climb the Matterhorn up to twelve times a year. I often looked at the very steep eastern ridge and thought that one day I would like to ski down it. My project had to wait because looking after visitors is more important: it took a while before I had time to do it. But then the day for my dream descent really came.