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Wimbledon Clinics

Off piste and personal… with Richard Mansfield, mountain guide

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How did you get into mountain guiding?

It’s slightly ironic as I originally come from Essex, which is as flat as can be! But at the age of ten, I went on school trip to Harrison Rocks in Kent, which is this tiny little rock climbing centre, and I thought that it was the most amazing thing I’d ever done. From that point on, I became fanatical about rock climbing, and went as often as I could. In later life, I spent five ski seasons running a bar, in Sauze d’ Oulx, in Italy. It was a great job because it allowed me to ski every day – and the money that I earned enabled me to climb in the summer. For the past ten years, I have been running different skiing and cycling trips through my company Mountain Adventure Guides – these trips take place throughout the year, and we employ qualified guides to host them. This year will be my 38th season.

Can you describe your day job?

Every single day is completely different. So far this winter I’ve skied off piste with clients, I’ve done lots of winter mountaineering, and I’ve been ice climbing. Next week I’ll be heli-skiing with a group of clients in Italy and ski touring. Ski touring is great fun – it’s where you put skins on the bottom of your skis, to enable you to hike further up to past where the lifts stop. Then you take your skins off and ski down. Later in the season I’ll do ski touring endurance, which is when you travel from hut to hut. The best route is from Chamonix to Zermatt – it’s what’s known as a high level or ‘haute’ route as it takes six days to do.

How do you assess clients for ski touring?

In the ideal world, I would get them to come out to ski with me for a weekend – otherwise if that’s not possible, we have to resort to emailing back and forth. I’ll put them in touch with a training coach if I think it’s necessary, and realistically it’s a good idea if they have done at least one overnight stay in a hut.

What happens when snow is scarce?

I actually cancel the majority of my work. I have an awful lot of clients who come back regularly, come of whom I’ve skied with for 20 years – it’s important that I don’t want to give them a bad day. However, you can normally find something to do: it might not be what you had originally planned, but you can always find decent conditions elsewhere, or travel to places where the snow is better. The great thing about ski touring is that your training is your experience – and exploring an area that you’ve never been to before with clients is such a thrill.

How do you deal with injuries on a ski tour?

If you cannot deal with an injury yourself, then you have to call a rescue helicopter. More often than not, an injury tends to be a twist or a sprain – but it’s better to get someone to safety and get ice on the injury, than have them ski on some thing that’s getting progressively worse. Most people tend to be quite sensible when it comes to injuries, but if there are any doubts, I do remind them that I’m in charge. If it’s a serious issue and the weather is too bad for a helicopter to get in, the only other resort is to make a stretcher out of skis, then trek with the rest of the party to the next hut. It happened once before, and it was three days before the helicopter could get to us. Fortunately the hut has a reputation for good food – and a brilliant wine cellar!

What’s your most trusty piece of equipment?

A first aid kit. British guides have to do a first aid certificate every three years if they are ski touring – and I always carry a small repair kit in case of small issues, like a broken binding. It means that we can normally cobble a solution together – at least until we reach the next town.

Favourite resort?

Gressoney, in Italy. Not too many people know about it, so there aren’t many queues, and it’s in the middle of the Three Valleys, so there’s lots of skiing. Plus there’s fantastic off piste skiing straight off the lifts – and ski touring for all sorts of levels, heli-skiing too. It’s a real adventure.

What’s your own injury history?

I had a half knee replacement not long ago. Before the operation I was in a lot of pain – it was Jonathan Bell who gave me some fantastic advice. He said, “you will have a summer or a winter reason which is so testing it will make you realise that you won’t want to go through that pain again”. So I struggled through a summer, decided to go through with operation in September, and was back skiing in January. It took three months to recover. The difference now? There is no pain in my knee at all – skiing walking, cycling, whatever it is that I’m doing.

How did it affect your skiing?

I had a great physiotherapist, both before and after my operation, which was immensely helpful. But psychologically, the first time you go out on skis is very difficult. You need to start off on a gentle slope, and just do a few runs, then you can slowly build it back up. The first time that I was guiding off piste, I worked alongside a friend, and simply guided at back of group. Once you’re back skiing to the best of your ability, your quality of life changes enormously though.

How does one best prepare for the ski season?

Do as much training as you can. I work with a physiotherapist clinic, which has an online training programme that you can join. What’s tricky though is the altitude: you can’t train for it; the best way is to go out to the resort a few days beforehand, and get acclimatised. The best training you can do at home is road biking – it uses a lot of similar muscles to skiing.

What do you do when you’re not skiing?

I love rock climbing and road biking. Where I’m based in Chamonix there’s some stunning cycling to be done – big hills and great descents. And I spend time with my family – my daughters are 9 and 11. I can still beat them off piste, but probably not for much longer!

Best form of injury prevention?

The most important thing that you can do is to warm up with some gentle exercises before hitting the slopes. You want a very gentle movement of the knees, but don’t just limit it to this – you also need to engage the whole body; you use all of it when you’re skiing. On the piste, avoid bumps, moguls and icy tracks if you have any knee issues, and look for soft snow. And pay attention to your body. Even if you’ve paid for a whole day with a guide, it’s good to know when to call it a day.