China to get Frenchman-trained mountain guides
China’s first batch of guides trained by a Frenchman will soon graduate to ensure safety procedures are practiced in the mountain-climbing industry.13 May 2008
SIGUNIANG MOUNTAINS - As mountain climbing booms in China, the first group of guides trained by an expert Frenchman will soon graduate - part of a government drive to boost safety standards.
The scenic peaks in the north and west of the country, once home to Taoist mystics, were declared off-limits to the public in 1949 as the new communist government set up strategic military outposts across the rugged landscape.
Today, as China's rapidly expanding economy leads to a higher standard of living and the development of a market for outdoor leisure activities, the mountains are teeming with climbers - but many of them are inexperienced.
In 2006, the China Mountaineering Association set up the China Mountain Development Institute to offer two-year courses for 10 guides, all men from the mountainous areas of western China, including Tibet - home to Mount Everest.
As technical director, they hired a French guide, 40-year-old Olivier Balma, with more than 15 years of experience, who was a climbing instructor at Tibet Mountaineering School in 2000.
"The Chinese government decided to open a training school for professional guides who will be able to provide support to pleasure seekers who want to climb in the mountains -- and make sure they get home safely," he told AFP.
"The real challenge for the government is to ensure these mountains are safe, to create trained rescue teams... to have reliable rescue procedures that can be implemented quickly so people can climb in good conditions."
In February, the trainee guides moved to the Siguniang range in southwest China's Sichuan province, which in recent years has become a hotspot for ice climbing.
The guides, all between the ages of 20 and 40, take orders from Balma in English - or in Mandarin from his assistant, 36-year-old Kang Hua.
"Whatever you do, never forget, 'Safety and effectiveness!" Balma barks.
Kang, 36, left a high-paying job as a computer engineer in Beijing to dedicate his life to his passion.
"I love mountaineering. At my old job, there were never any surprises. Ten or 20 years from now, it will still be the same. But with climbing, especially in a place like this one, you discover new things every day," he said.
Guides at the school - which has private funding from sponsors - receive both practical and theoretical training on safe climbing, skiing, rescue and first aid procedures.
One of Balma's students, 40-year-old Li Weidong, is already working for the mountaineering association in western Qinghai province, but said he was thrilled to get some pointers from the French expert.
"Even if I'm already in the climbing business, I never learned some of these techniques in such a systematic way," he said.
"This is the first time that this kind of training has been available in China."
Once the new guides earn their certificates in August and return home, they will play a key role in a sector that holds much promise for local economies.
Serge Koenig, who runs a Franco-Chinese cooperation project in the Sichuan provincial capital Chengdu, said the development of the climbing industry could bolster Beijing's plans to develop the economically backward west.
"The authorities are looking for a way to keep the local populations from moving to the big cities. Tourism could provide them with a real opportunity to create jobs in the mountainous zones," he said.
"It could also help boost sustainable development, as it's a safe bet that tour operators will take care of the environment, which is at the heart of their business."
[AFP / Expatica]