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Profession is vocation

Mountain guide Sepp Karlinger:

The “alpinist knowledge and skills of the mountain & ski guides” were included in the national list of Austria’s intangible cultural heritage. In Ötztal, parish priest and tourism pioneer Franz Senn developed mountain guiding into a profession some 150 years ago. One of the valley’s longest-serving mountain guides clearly shows that this work was and still is something special.

Mountain guiding as a family heritage

Sepp Karlinger from Sölden is one of the older, still active mountain guides in the valley. After all, four of his mother's brothers were also mountain guides. Countless family stories bear witness to the fact that the profession was and still is often passed on in Ötztal. Like many of his generation, Sepp Karlinger grew up in a family of mountain farmers and herded goats and cows from an early age.

Walking, moving, climbing on the mountain was part of everyday life, a matter of course. Sepp came up with the idea of becoming a mountain guide while in the army, where he was assigned to the high mountain company. It was clear to him that he did not want to remain in the army - and so he completed his civilian mountain guide training at the age of 22 in 1972.

Sepp Karlinger
High Alpine Hike Ötztal

150 years of tradition

Karlinger thus chose a profession that, in addition to the family one, also has a tradition that is typical of Ötztal. In the middle of the 19th century, mountaineering became fashionable in rather wealthy middle-class circles as an urban public suddenly longed for dramatic alpine landscapes and spared no effort to hike through these landscapes by climbing also the eye catching peaks. As a result, a new profession emerged. The local farmers, previously hardly noticed by the landlords, now enjoyed respect because they knew the alpine regions and many of them showed skill in guiding the non-local guests.

Ötztal pioneer

Franz Senn (1831-1884) from Längenfeld made a significant contribution here. As a parish priest in Vent, he instructed local men on how to behave as mountain guides and endeavored to provide them with a short basic training. From 1880 onwards, there was actually the possibility of mountain guide trainings in Innsbruck, with official identification by badge and guide book. As a result, mountain guiding gained considerably in prestige.
High Alpine Hike Ötztal
High Alpine Hike Ötztal

A profession in the course of time

The profession of mountain guide has existed for 150 years. Sepp Karlinger has been practicing it for 50 years, a third of that time. He has experienced many exciting and fabulous moments, but also a constant change in the profession. In order to pass the mountain guide exam, years of training and a comprehensive and expensive four-year education are now necessary. New sports such as canyoning or ice climbing have been added to the job profile. Over the decades, the demands and requirements have grown steadily.

Guides for every season

While many mountain guides once had farms at home, today people work full-time and in all seasons. In winter, many mountain guides work as ski guides or ski instructors. Sepp Karlinger thinks this makes Sölden a truly unique place: “Fortunately, we have the glacier in Sölden. The ski school season runs from October to Easter. You can still go on ski tours until mid-May. And then summer starts again. So, we are really in a golden place.”
High Alpine Hike Ötztal
High Alpine Hike Ötztal

Guests of yesterday and today

Even in the 1970s, mountain guides were often companions for many days or even weeks, and guests often booked in advance for the next summer. Over the years, Ötztal mountain guides have also taken their regular guests to other alpine areas, such as the Dolomites or the Western Alps. Sepp Karlinger remembers the stories of the old generation of mountain guides: “Sometimes the guests also had two mountain guides. You just went off with them in July, once to Switzerland, then to France. And a few weeks later you came back. Not very family friendly but well paid.”

Unbroken fascination

The constant in the mountain guide profession is prestige, as evidenced by the list of intangible cultural heritage in Austria. Sepp Karlinger says that mountain guide training has meanwhile become prestigious. And yet there is a lack of young talent. Because the profession of mountain guide dominates everyday life, family life, and it is dangerous. Sepp's conclusion: "There is certainly no better job. But everything has to be just right: fine people, not walking too fast, nice weather, a good mood, two or three glasses of wine in the evening. But of course, it can also be the most horrible job. If you are with guests somewhere on a ridge in a thunderstorm, then it's no longer nice."
High Alpine Hike Ötztal


The certified local hiking & mountain guides make high altitude and glacier tours a truly unique experience in the Ötztal mountains. The guides also prove to be knowledgeable and instructive & entertaining professionals on guided hut hiking tours. From half-day tours to multi-day expeditions – you are guaranteed to find the right companion at the mountain guide offices in Ötztal.

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Edith Hessenberger

Author: Edith Hessenberger

The ethnologist and geographer is the head of the Ötztal museums. She also does research work and publishes - as a freelance cultural scientist - on the history of mountain agriculture, tourism and alpinism. Her work further focuses on narrative research and oral history.

This article was first published in July 2023.