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Guides explore flower power in the Alps

Watch that birdie - students on an ornithological tour

(swissinfo.ch)

The job of most mountain guides is to get you up the mountain - but a new breed of guide will let you smell the flowers along the way.

The goal of these guides, called "mountain leaders", is to explain the rich alpine flora and fauna.

Armin Christen, one of the managers of the mountain leader school, picks and eats the leaf of a humble plant usually trampled on by hikers as they walk along mountain trails.

"Locals here in the Val d'Anniviers still use it in recipes," says Christen. "They call it the 'bear's paw'."

Christen is standing outside a 350-year-old wooden house burnt black by the sun. It is a rustic inn in the Val d'Anniviers hamlet of St Jean, canton Valais, and doubles as the mountain leader school.

Founded a few years ago, the school is the only high-level training available in Switzerland for such guides that is recognised on a European level.

It is based on the "Accompagnateur en Montagne" school of guiding, which has been in place in France for more than 30 years.

Unlike certified mountain guides whose job it is to lead groups in the high Alps where the focus is on orientation, climbing technique and safety, mountain leaders keep to well-marked, lower altitude trails.

Myths and legends

The mountain leader courses cover such subjects as botany and bird watching, geology and ecology. But graduates are also expected to become storytellers by studying local mountain myths and legends.

"The most important job of the mountain leader is to give people an insight into the history of an alpine area as well as its flora and fauna," Christen explains.

"It's also his or her job to tell you when you have to get up in the morning if you want to see wild animals, and where to find them," he adds.

Created originally for French-speaking Swiss guides in 1996, the first course in German has now begun in an effort to provide German-speaking Switzerland with certified mountain leaders.

Many of the guides already certified lead tours in English (see links). Marlyse Rauber, a student at the school, says there is definitely a market for such guides.

"I worked at the tourist information centre in Fribourg and I realised that a lot of people would like to do these kinds of excursions but there is nothing on the market," she says. "That's why I'm taking this course."

Bird watching

As part of the course, the group of 12 students spend a day following a biologist for a bird watching excursion above the neighbouring village of Grimentz.

The instructor dissects what to most human ears is only a subtle difference between the calls of various songbirds, describes the amazing survival strategy of the nutcracker and explains how the long-eared owl hones in on prey.

Marian Lempen, a professional nurse, watches incredulously as the biologist is able to identify immediately the birds of prey circling high overhead, and discerning the male from the female.

Lempen says she would like to share her newfound knowledge with potential clients.

"I would like to open people's eyes to all that there is to see, as well as their spirits and souls," she says.

In half a morning, the group only manages to cover a few hundred metres but they see and learn more than most hikers do in a week of walking in the Alps.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

The hiring of a mountain leader is only possible at the moment in canton Valais.
Qualified mountain leaders have a basic knowledge in alpine flora and fauna, local history and myths and first aid.
The course for aspiring guides lasts about three months spread out over three years.

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