Whilst I dislike having to turn the bedroom light on in the mornings when I wake up, it’s quite exciting to notice a little chill in the air!
Although winter is a little way off yet, it’s hard not to start thinking of winter climbing and mountaineering. We are running a few courses up in Scotland this winter and I hope to get lots of personal stuff done too.
Scotland is transformed in the winter to an absolute playground for people who like the white stuff. There are additional challenges to playing in the summer, avalanche risk, different equipment such as crampons and ice axes, even harder navigation, shorter days and the cold. To be self sufficient in the mountains in winter conditions is quite an achievement.
We may even get lucky in Wales this year and have a really cold one, that’d be ace!
But I don’t want to get carried away! I have a couple more months of trad climbing and training to be done before I head off to Spain for a few weeks of sport climbing in the sun, psyched!
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 ***
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 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.
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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The theme tune to The Littlest Hobo starts playing, I love that tune and the lyrics seem to resonate with me, so it’s been the ringtone on my phone for years.
“Er hi! Is that Jez”
“Are you available for some private guiding during the week after the Bank Holiday?”
“Let me check the diary, I am, what have you got in mind?”
“I’d like to get some climbing done, but I’d really like to get a little more familiar with Lliwedd, especially Bilberry Terrace…”
At that moment I had flashbacks to my Mountaineering Instructor training, we did Bilberry Terrace, it was wet, green, involved tricky route finding and is on one of the biggest cliffs in Wales.
“Sounds good! I’m up for that!”
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I meet with Shane who was the man on the other end of the phone, who’d ended up booking three days with me and the focus of day one was to guide Shane up as much rock as possible getting him used to the exposure of climbing and getting used to tying nots, clipping in to belays etc., so we headed to Carreg Wastad on a beautifully sunny day.
Shane had climbed a bit in the past and has lead up to VS, but that was before work and kids put a stop to it for a while, so most of the stuff we covered was just a reminder really. I lead Shane up some cool routes working through the grades – Wrinkle a three pitch V Diff, Crackstone Rib a super classic two pitch Severe, Skylon stepped it up a bit to HS 4b and after that I asked if Shane was still in his comfort zone “well it’s had to get scared on the second isn’t it he replied”, so I took that as a challenge! Next up was Lion, a pretty stiff four pitch VS 4c, Shane had a couple of falls on the crux but battled through and on reaching the top he admitted his comfort zone had definitely been stretched a lot!
On the second day we went to Tryfan Bach looking at lead climbing skills before a quick visit to the slate quarries so we could get some footwork thought going on, ticking Equinox at VS and Solstice at HVS.
Day three was the main event – Bilberry Terrace.
A slightly earlier start was required for this one so we could get parked at the Pen y Pass car park and I think we pretty much got the last space at 0800.
The walk in to Lliwedd is about an hour, it’s pretty easy going until the final scree slope up to the start and we didn’t have too much kit to carry as the weather was once agin brilliant and we only had a small rack of kit fo the route, I took a set of nuts and a few cams, along with the usual few slings and krabs plus a skinny 30m rope. On the walk in we stopped to look at the cliff and guidebook so we could work out the route, this always gets harder the closer you get and I made sure Shane was involved in this as well as it was part of his goal to be able to come back and do it without a guide at some point, the route takes a devious line though some really impressive terrain. The Stevie Ashton scrambling book (jokingly known as the little book of death..) has a really good description for this route, which I was super useful considering this wasn’t a route I had much memory of in terms of route finding.
The start is a steep, tricky rock step so Shane put me on belay for this bit and I placed one runner on the way, a red nut before getting to the first of many direct spike belays. From here you follow the terrace easily enough so we moved together for a little bit until there’s a cheeky corner with a chockstone to thread as a runner, this was the only other bit I pitched during the route and to save faffing with a sling a chucked a gold cam in before reaching a nut belay.
So far so good, we hadn’t got lost yet, the rock was bone dry and although there was plenty of vegetation and some loose rock, it was nowhere near as grim as I remembered! The key now was route finding so we looked at the book regularly and to my surprise were able to follow obvious signs of wear from other people who had prevuoisly adventured this way, in the form of cleaner rock and worn away steps in places. Don’t be fooled though, this is not a polished path like many scrambles and the weather was being extremely kind to us..
Before we knew it we were at the half way point and for virtually every section I went ahead leaving shane attached to a spike belay before finding another spike to belay from, mostly scrambling about 20 metres each time. The route takes in some absolutely fantastic positions and the views to Snowdon, Crib Goch and back East towards England were absolutely breath taking. Shane was loving it all, really soaking up the atmosphere, the only near miss being him dropping his phone which thankfully only went a few metres down on to a ledge!
The rest of the scramble went nice and smoothly and I think I was enjoying it just as much as Shane was, two hours after starting the scramble we were stood on the summit bathed in sunshine. A celebratory handshake and a few photos later it was time to make our way back down, I decided to carry on a bit further on towards Snowdon before heading down a quiet grade one scramble called y Griben so we needed to concentrate a bit longer before reaching the super highway of the Miners Track, which always proves a bit of a slog back to the Pen y Pass.
Shane had wanted to do Bilberry Terrace for about 20 years after someone mentioned it to him all that time ago, so I was really psyched to have been able to help in facilitating this adventure. Lliwedd is a great cliff and you’re guaranteed solitude even though you’re in the shadow of what is apparently the busiest mountain – Snowdon.
If I’m lucky enough to guide anyone up there again I’d take a similar amount of kit, even though I used very little of my rack, in worse conditions I expect I’d place more kit and you never know when you might need to run away! If this has inspired you to go and do Bilberry Terrace take care, it’s a serious place to be and you need to be well versed in roped scrambling, if in doubt seek instruction!
To cap the day off I went climbing after work and ticked Mabinogian E2 5c in the Llanberis Pass.
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We’re now into our third year of running these and we’ve just finished another Original Mountain Month, as always it was a great success.
Over the month the four participants got loads of climbing and hillwalking done.
Highlights include a great little mini break camping in Cwm Glas after a traverse of Crib Goch in stunning weather and climbing great routes like Grim Wall Direct (E1 5b) at Tremadog. We got loads of other stuff done too, scrambling over Tryfan, night navving in the Carneddau, staying in the Cwm Dulyn bothy, lead climbing loads of trad and sport on the coast and in the mountains.
At the end of the month they did their SPA training and ML training courses too.
Over the month we had five other highly qualified visiting instructors joining me to give a really good breadth of instructional knowledge and experience.
The next course starts in September and there’s just one space remaining… (for more info click here)
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This winter I’m spending quite a bit of time in Scotland logging days towards my Winter Mountain Leader qualification and this means I’m spending a fair bit of my time living in the van with my 7 month old spaniel Oreo. Queue mornings waking up to frost on the inside of the windows! As much as I enjoy van living I can get a bit fed up trying to clean pans full of porridge and it’s a little depressing when the coffee is already cold by the time it has brewed in the cafetiere…
I’ve already made a few improvements to the van and hope to get a few more done before I head back up.
I have been climbing too, but I’m trying to be strict with myself so I’m fully prepared for the upcoming assessment. I followed Stu up a VI, 7 on Aonach Mor called Stirling Bridge (It was absolutely nails! It was super thin for the feet, with slightly rubbish ice, it was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done..), Mynd am Aur which is a 7a sport route in Llanberis with a tough head height rock over and Goose Creature at E3 6a in Llanberis where I got lucky, just beating the rain!
The conditions in Scotland have been a bit mixed so far, currently there is shed loads of powder lying around which makes progress a little slow going and hard work, plus it’s lead to lots of “considerable” avalanche forecast making route choice a bit more limited. It could all do with a bit of a thaw and a refreeze to bring the climbing into really good nick.
I started off in Aviemore with a couple of decent days in the hills, including a really challenging weather circuit on the Cairngorm Plateau where me and Russ practiced what we taught walking accurately on long bearings for a good few legs. After being valley bound for a couple of crap weather days I had a stella day going over to Ben Macdui in almost perfect weather conditions (unfortunately for Russ this was the day he had to head home!)
Oreo has been getting out with me some days, when the routes and weather have played ball, he’s done the traverse of the Grey Corries and even got up the Carn Mor Dearg Arête on Ben Nevis! He loves being out and about on the hills but looks a bit grumpy in this shot ‘cos I made him sit still for more than 30 seconds!
After a couple of weeks away I’ve come home to Llanberis for a week and this weekend was the Association of Mountaineering Instructors AGM which was a great event and I was voted on to the AMI committee too. I’m pretty excited about being able to do my bit for the association and hope I can do the role justice!
I’ve got back into the training already at home, I don’t want to let all the hard work over the last couple of months fade away with all the snow plodding, sadly decent walls are few and far between in Scotland, although there is an awesome project going on in Fort William, so hopefully there’ll be a great facility later this year.