9th September 2016

How to become a Mountaineering & Climbing Instructor?

rock climbing llanberis pass wales

Whilst I was still at school I sent a letter off to Mountain Training requesting the scheme booklets for the Mountaineering Instructor Award (MIA) and Mountaineering Instructor Certificate (MIC), I still have them in my mum and dad’s attic somewhere. These slightly confusingly named qualifications are the ones which qualify holders to teach pretty much all things climbing and mountain in the UK, in summer (Award) and winter (Certificate). To me at the age of 16 or so and really only just starting out climbing and hill walking, they seemed almost unobtainable and the people who had these tickets were like mountain gods or something. The instructors I met seemed to have so much experience, with tales and annecdotes to back up the things they were teaching me when I went on a couple of courses at Plas y Brenin, that it sounded like they would take me a lifetime to emulate.

*** A 2019 edit, the awards have now been renamed to Mountaineering & Climbing Instructor and Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor ***

Loving climbing, Quasar E3 in the Pass

Loving climbing, Quasar E3 in the Pass

The actual process of how to become a Mountaineering Instructor Award holder is pretty simple:
– Register for the Mountain Leader (ML) scheme, you must be 18, have 20 quality mountain days etc
– Complete a ML training course, 6 days
– Consolidate your learning, making sure you have a bare minimum of 40 quality mountain days
– Pass a ML assessment course, 5 days
(ML assessment blog)

Once you’ve passed your ML you can lead groups hill walking in the UK and can then move forward to the next step:
– Register for the MIA scheme, have 20 days logged working as an ML, have done 30 multi pitch routes of VS 4c or above and 10 sport routes of f6a or above
– Complete an MIA training course, 9 days
– Consolidate your learning, completing 20 more days working as an ML, 20 more multi pitch routes at VS 4c or above and 20 days teaching rock climbing
– Pass an MIA assessment course, 5 days

As the above quantities are all absolute bare minimums, you can assume you’ll be doing more than that, but with those numbers that’s 80 days in the mountains walking / scrambling, 50 multi pitch routes and 10 sport routes, plus the courses themselves.

So that’s all pretty achievable right? Well yes, if you want it enough, it’s achievable by anyone who has the time (and money!) to commit to it. These days anyone that climbs a bit is capable of leading VS, the difference being an MIA is that you need to lead VS and absolutely cruise it, placing gear for the clients benefit rather than your own, whilst looking completely in control. This probably means having a grade or two in hand, so I guess most candidate passing their MIA are operating at HVS or above. You certainly don’t need to be a rock Jedi though, although some are, Calum Muskett had ticked Indian Face before his assessment (doesn’t count though as it’s single pitch..!) Someone said to me on my MIA assessment that “you’re no-one in North Wales unless you climb E5”, I hope that was tongue in cheek although I’m not sure. I’m no one, having just about scrabbled up a few E4’s.

I’ve seen some excellent instruction from MIA’s who “only” operate at a VS level and have been embarrassed to watch some awfully dull instruction from someone who climbs high E grades, and of course the other way around too, high grades don’t make someone a great instructor. But what does? Well, that depends who you ask! For me I think it’s pretty similar to any other sport or activity, the instructor needs to be professional, engaging, enthusiastic (psyched!), knowledgeable, experienced, empathetic, have a sense of humour, be a role model and generally be a people person. I’ve also recently heard they should be clean shaven or have a proper beard, sadly for me I’m somewhere in the middle.. They do need to be operating at a level above their clients too, for me the grade of VS is a little low, many of my clients can progress to VS very quickly, so I do think MIA’s should be climbing at E1 or above, beyond that it becomes a bit more self selecting.

It’s easy to get hung up on the climbing side of things, a lot of MIA work is teaching scrambling skills or working on ML courses etc, there’s even other things like film crew safety work or oil industry stuff. Most MIA’s will have a few strings to their bows to keep their mortgage company happy.

Then the winter comes… What do you do, get lucky with some instructor training work, go climbing in Thailand? At some point Scotland calls, the cold, the damp, the speed cameras on the A9.

Winter night navigation, type II fun..

Winter night navigation, type II fun..

Winter in Scotland requires some more qualifications…. Once you’ve passed the aforementioned ML you can:
– Register for the Winter ML, 20 winter quality mountain days
– Complete a WML training course, 6 days
– Consolidate your learning, making sure you have a minimum of 40 winter quality mountain days
– Pass a WML assessment course, 5 days (of navigating, digging, digging, digging)
(Winter ML training blog, Winter ML assessment blog)

The WML is a physical award, anyone passing it has shown they can navigate in some testing conditions and can look after themselves really well in the mountains whatever is thrown at them.

At this point you can lead groups hill walking in the mountains in winter conditions and move forward to the next step, if you’ve already passed you MIA:
– Register for the Mountaineering Instructor Certificate, having done 20 days WML work and have logged 20 winter routes (10+ at II, 10+ at III), have your MIA
– Attend an MIC training, 5 days
– Consolidate your learning, making sure you have 5 days climbing III or above and 10 day managing parties in the mountains
– Pass an MIC assessment 5 days

That’s another 60 mountain days, plus all the winter climbing

I haven’t started the MIC process (and I probably never will as I like sunny sport climbing in the winter too much!) so won’t say so much about it , but knowing many MIC’s it is clear that the decent ones operating at that level have a massive amount of experience working and playing in winter conditions, which is a big step up from summer conditions. They have a great level of “local knowledge” too, being able to read the snow pack and be able to make informed decisions based on experience.

Stirling Bridge, VI, in Scotland, it was hard

Stirling Bridge, VI, in Scotland, it was hard

I’ve absolutely loved the path I’ve taken so far, although the Winter ML was definitely type 2 fun, and would encourage anyone with a passion for the mountains to get involved. I guess in any industry there are those who may come across as a bit elitist and yes I could probably name a few I’ve crossed path with over the years such as E5 person, but really they are an absolute minority, the people I climb with and work with are super welcoming and keen to share their knowledge, helping other less experienced people.

It’s worth noting that these days there’s also a coaching scheme that runs parallel to the awards mentioned above. The coaching schemes are great and give you a whole new set of skills to deliver your knowledge in a more effective and modern way. The coaching stuff builds on your experiences of gong through the other schemes and the BMC Fundas workshops and have absolutely had a positive effect on my teaching style – I’ve done the Foundation Coach award and am currently working towards Development Coach assessment. If you can, get involved!

The real key for me to gaining all the experience that I looked up to so much when I was younger, is to just love what you’re doing. I love climbing, it was never a chore to log days, it’s what I’d have been doing anyway. I consider myself fairly experienced now (as a member of the AMI committee and approved MIA mentor for the Association of Mountaineering Instructors, it still feels odd sitting next to people I’ve looked up to for years!), but there’s so much more to learn and do, it’s never going to stop and never should it. That would make me sad! If you’re keen to start the instructor pathway, but haven’t yet, what are you waiting for? Get on it! It does require a level of commitment and rightly so, as much as my aim is to give my clients an enjoyable and memorable learning experience, safety is always number one and you’re operating in some spicy environments.

Hopefully this has been of a little interest, feel free to comment with any questions or acost me on the hills (or in Maccy D’s near Folkstone like one previous client did this summer when I was coming back from the Alps!)

Happy climbing & mountaineering!

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For more information about the above schemes, check out the Mountain Training site and the Association of Mountaineering Instructors.


  1. Leave a Reply

    9th September 2016

    A great read and really informative Jez. For someone on the long road towards MIA right now (i.e. me) it’s nice to hear that realistic, non-elitist perspective

    • Leave a Reply

      Jez Brown
      9th September 2016

      Glad you liked it 🙂

    • Leave a Reply

      Jake Pearce
      15th July 2017

      Jake Pearce

      A fantastic read – really nice to see it all broken down.

      Ive just started (and at a late age) but am super keen to smash through this and get to MIA in at least the next 3 – 5 years (probably much longer)

      Im walking every weekend and climbing most weeks. Its a long old slog but god I love every minute of it.

      Thanks for being an inspiration for all of use who hate sitting in an office everyday,.


      • Leave a Reply

        Jez Brown
        15th July 2017

        Glad you liked it Jake and thanks for the kind words!

  2. Leave a Reply

    Rachael Crewesmith
    9th September 2016

    What he said! It is definitely possible to be a “somebody” in North Wales whilst operating well below E5. Whilst the technical skills are essential, this should be as standard. What actually makes you a good teacher, instructor, mentor and guide is your personality and your ability to relate to people wherever they are on their learning journey. Nice article, Jez.

    • Leave a Reply

      Jez Brown
      9th September 2016

      Cheers Rachel! Hope you’re well 🙂

  3. Leave a Reply

    9th June 2018

    Really interesting read, and really informative and helpful rundown of the awards and certificates there are available. If I could ask some advice- as you mentioned, the work towards this is a lot of time and money. Do you have any advice to people aspiring towards completing their MLA and MIA for example in financially supporting themselves during the process? I’m a student in my final year at Uni, with so much love and passion for walking, climbing, and the outdoors, so now that I’m thinking about what areas I would like to work in I’m looking at what training I also need for it, such as MLA. However the cost is quite daunting! So to hear any stories of how other people have dealt with supporting themselves whilst gaining the training needed for working as a Mountain Leader would be inspiring, if anyone has any to share.

    • Leave a Reply

      Jez Brown
      9th June 2018

      Hey Sarah, glad it was useful!
      In terms of paying for courses, mine were a mix of out of my own pocket whilst working hard (my MIA, WML and Coaching awards), and work (when I was employed full time at centres) paying for others, such as my SPA and ML.
      You’ve probably seen instructor training schemes… There’s a variety of them, some balance work and training as apprenticeships, some are purely training, some are training that guarantee a job at the end of it. For some of these courses career development loans are available.
      Entry level jobs often pay poorly, but often come with a training allowance or similar.|
      Hope that helps a little!

  4. Leave a Reply

    Matthew Williams
    6th February 2019

    As somebody who has done their MIA training and is working towards assessment, it’s reassuring to hear that you still look around in awe of some of the people that are your peers! I suppose it’s easy to lose track of you’re own progress when you only see it incrementally, sometimes you have to really take stock and compare yourself to the instructor that you were 10 years ago to appreciate the personal progression you’ve managed to achieve.
    A great read Jez, it’s certainly helped get me psyched for the coming season and looking forward to an assessment….

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