Isabelle Santoire belongs to an elite team of trained mountain guides at le Syndicat National des Guides de Montagne (SNGM). The SNGM includes 1600 individuals who have met the stringent criteria, and Isabelle is a role model as she represents one of extremely few women in this physically demanding line of work.
Can you tell me a bit about you and your family?
Isabelle was born in Montreal, Quebec. She is the oldest child, with two younger sisters. Her parents were both involved in the educational field as teachers. Teaching was also Isabelle’s field of study. As a youngster, she was involved in many sports including figure skating. Isabelle admits, as a first child, she is a perfectionist and quite competitive. Although she progressed in figure skating, she was not cut out for the perfect hair and skin-coloured tights.
Today, Isabelle lives in Chamonix with her husband Rick and their two small children.
How did you get from Montreal to Chamonix?
Well, it had a bit to do with work but mostly to do with following a boy. Although Isabelle had given up skating by the age of 16, she had spent lots of time at the arena where she met Mr. Lamoureux (seriously, Mr. Love) who was a talented hockey player. He was not quite up to the level of the NHL but was talented enough to land a position playing for a hockey team in Geneva, Switzerland. Isabelle had just finished university, at a time when jobs in Quebec were scarce, and decided that Geneva sounded intriguing. It was more than that; she found a well-paid teaching job and her beau’s position came with a car and apartment. At 21 years of age, Isabelle thought that life was pretty decent. Weekends were spent exploring the nearby mountains and enjoying life in Europe.
How did you move from teaching to guiding?
Her hockey player boyfriend was asked to move to another city to play, and Isabelle wanted to stay in Geneva. They spent a couple of years in a long-distance relationship that eventually fizzled. During that time, Isabelle was spending more time in the mountains and had established a group of friends, including a new ami, Rick. She met Rick by chance when he was in Geneva doing odd jobs, including gardening, to make enough money to afford his ski-bum lifestyle.
It did not take much convincing for Isabelle to give up teaching and relocate to Chamonix on a permanent basis. She continued to supply teach for a while, but her heart was in the mountains. As time passed, she established her credentials and abilities within the challenging guides’ community. One day, with a bit of coaching, she decided to complete the application – the first step – to becoming a prestigious guide for le Syndicat National des Guides de Montagne.
Isabelle has now been guiding for nine years, including two as aspirant-guide, an apprentice role.
Can you explain the qualification process to become a guide?
This testing process is not for the faint of heart. As a client, you should be confident that the guides who meet the criteria and pass the test are the best.
It took Isabelle two attempts to achieve her guiding qualification. The criteria are established in order to ensure that guides are not just accomplished at a specific sport but, more importantly, that they demonstrate they have the ability to evaluate the ever-changing conditions in the mountains.
The testing is both mentally and physically demanding. There are written and oral examinations. The outdoor criteria include skiing, ice climbing out of a crevasse, orientation in a boulder field and rock climbing. The testing is done in all seasons, as that is what the mountains provide on a regular basis, and the guides should be prepared to react accordingly.
Isabelle is quite modest; however, the reality is the second time around she aced the evaluation process and came out the top in her class of 235 and the only female.
How do you balance life with young kids and a busy schedule?
In the end, it is a matter of organization and dealing with disorganization when it arises. Isabelle’s husband Rick is also a guide, so at times throughout the year they are both extremely busy guiding clients for ski touring in the winter and climbing in the summer. Their two children are still quite young, so there is a lot of coordination to time the drop-off and pick-up from schools. The beautiful thing about a small community is that there are lots of people who are willing to help each other out as everyone is trying to juggle busy lives. Isabelle acknowledges that it is getting easier as the kids are reaching school age.
How do you describe your guiding style?
There are many guides who are willing to take clients who are seeking a thrill climbing the steepest ridge, skiing an extreme slope and seriously pushing the limits. Isabelle can do that, but she prefers to make sure her clients have a fabulous time within their ability levels. Isabelle’s nature is calm and relaxed. She always has a big smile on her face, even when the snow or visibility is not quite what she expected. Isabelle tells me that her desire when guiding a group, whether it is a family or a mixed group of friends, is to provide everyone with a little WOW in their day.
My husband and I have had the pleasure of skiing with Isabelle a few times and each time she has managed to find a steep and deep slope for Andrew and a safe, but challenging, line for me. The best part is that Isabelle knows where to find the best espresso or a great on-hill meal in the sunshine.
If you want a lovely, guided mountain experience near Chamonix, Isabelle can be found via her blog or her Facebook page.
Thank you, Isabelle, for taking the time to talk to me, and for getting us down some magnificent ski slopes at the same time.