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How I became a self employed Climbing & Mountaineering Instructor (written 2015)

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

I got into the outdoors when I was 15 and my brother took me up to Snowdonia. I remember it well, getting dragged up the never ending, scree covered South ridge of Pen yr Ole Wen wearing my Ron Hills and a brand new Lowe Alpine ruck sack. I was sweaty, out of breath and repeatedly asking “is that the top there?”

It got better the next day and I was hooked on scrambling after the classic N Ridge of Tryfan, Bristly Ridge and back down y Griben ridge after briefly getting stuck somewhere on Castell y Gwynt. Day 3 on the Snowdon Horseshoe finished off a great weekend of walking, scrambling, bbq’s and camping.

Life was never the same again. I’d always loved the outdoors, making dens, walking the dog, fishing, mountain biking but the mountains had really excited me. Over the next few years I made a few trips with friends to the hills, mostly Wales and then went on a week long ‘Intro to rock climbing’ course at Plas y Brenin. Life would never be the same again.

I am pretty obsessive about climbing, I climb a lot and train a lot. I love all forms of climbing be it Trad, Sport or Bouldering and I couldn’t see myself working in any other industry, I’d be bored in an office – shown by a brief foray into estate agency….

At school my 6th form tutor was a legend, he got me a weeks work experience with the equally legendary Nigel Dennis at his centre on Anglesey. I helped out with a corporate group doing all sorts of activities before getting completely wasted at their Christmas party. I loved every minute and every aspect of it. I applied to uni and got a place to do Outdoor Ed at Bangor Uni and got work with Acorn Adventure as a multi activity instructor in France for part of my gap year. Here was the beginning of my career and also an eternal paper chase of National Governing Body Qualifications.

Working in France was a blast and a very steep learning curve. It was here my illusion of what an instructor does was shattered. I thought we instructed sessions and looked cool, especially with my long bleached blonde hair! In reality we did do that, but we also cleaned toilets, helped serve meals to the clients, supervised washing up, sang embarrassing songs, oversaw evening entertainments such as “mini olympics”…. You get the idea, it was hard work and very poorly paid – £40 a week plus food and accommodation (in a tent with stinging nettles growing inside).

All this said, I loved it! I had a great laugh with some cool people, lived in sunny France and went climbing and riding. I also thought I was a great instructor which was nothing more than young, cocky, arrogance. In hindsight I was awful! By this point I was SPA trained and ML trained. Unfortunately I don’t enjoy kayaking so I didn’t pursue the BCU tickets – something I always tell young instructors is to get a good spread of experience and qualifications because it makes you so much more employable at the start of your career.

After France I realised that Uni wasn’t for me, something that was expected of me by friends and family, I’d gone to expensive school where everyone goes to Uni. I don’t regret not going and again I’ve told countless people over the years to go to Uni if you can, but go for something other than Outdoor Ed, something to complement your NGB awards such as Geography or Geology.

The winter is hard for instructors starting their outdoor career, there are jobs available, but not so many. Some choose to do a ski season, some work in Cotswold, I got lucky, or so I thought and got a job with Kingswood for the winter. This was pretty unadventurous, essentially child minding type work, we did all sorts of sessions from caving in a pretty dire man made cave system to ICT lessons in the computer lab. Every thing was on site, most of the staff were just there to fund getting drunk on their days off, I was constantly trying to find something “better”, though they did  pay for my SPA assessment. Thing’s have changed there now, they invest in their staff and have a much more professional image. I then went to work for Acorn Adventure again, this time in Italy.

And so life went on, a few different centres, working long hours, still doing all the other stuff like endlessly cleaning mini buses and helping serve meals. I then got a job as a senior instructor in Dorset, work was year round and became a lot more enjoyable and I got the time to do loads more climbing, of which there was plenty just 5 mins from the house. This was when I really got super psyched for climbing. I finished off my ML and went and did my MIA training.

The work in Dorset was great, taking school groups climbing at Dancing Ledge, team building on the High Ropes course and also teaching some basic field studies. As senior instructor I also got to do more interesting work, being involved in staff recruitment, staff training, dealing with AALA, heading up a building project, rebuilding the climbing tower, developing sessions and lots more. I needed this because after years of doing very similar work, things were becoming a bit stale and that is one of the worst things for an outdoor instructor, if you’re bored you wont be at your best and won’t be delivering exciting sessions. Whilst there I also started doing some freelance work for other companies and got involved with delivering D of E stuff, becoming a supervisor and assessor. This was important because it got my name out there with other companies and got me lots of good experience, it made the break into the freelance circuit much less of a gamble already having these contacts.

Because I’d got my ML I’d started freelancing with groups in the mountains. Even just taking groups up Snowdon wasn’t really like work, it was fun being able to enthuse groups about the mountains and just have a nice time. I then got my big break. The hardest part of freelance work has to be the winter, so when I got the opportunity to run part of an instructor training course over the winter I knew I could commit to going full time freelance.

Although “only” SPA & ML assessed, I was more experienced than most instructors with those  tickets. I still really enjoy this sort of work and it was great to spend a lot of time working with adults who were keen to learn, it was great to be able to take a more relaxed approach and not have to put on an act which I tend to do with kids. Using the skills I’d learnt on my MIA training I started to take friends and friends of friends out multipitch climbing, I’d wanted to be doing this sort of work since I first entertained the idea of instructing. I still have the MIA handbook that I got in 1999, it was always the long term goal, the group work with kids was a means to an end.

Getting my MIA was a big deal, it took a lot of time and hard work to get and I’m not too proud to say that I got deferred the first time round on one of the five days, which was a completely fair result. I was ready for assessment but got ‘assessment fever’ and didn’t perform as well as I should, as soon as I could. I repeated the day I needed to with Tim Niel – top guy and passed. That was the highlight, so far, of my outdoor career. The work this enables me to do is fantastic, I get to go climbing and teach people exciting stuff whilst thankfully earning bit more that the £40 a week I was earning in France! It’ll never make you rich but the other day I was leading a client up Milestone Direct in the Ogwen Valley and I had a genuine moment of “wow, I’m being paid to do this, the kind of route I might do with a mate on a day off”. My MIA work is pretty varied, teaching on ML & SPA courses, coaching lead climbing, scrambling, navigation etc, plus I still do some residential type work and a fair bit of D of E teaching.

Being self employed is great in many respects, it is varied work and it’s especially rewarding when you take private bookings so your genuinely your own boss. 99% of my clients are just great fun to be with too, they’re keen to learn, hang on your every word and sometimes even pay you a tip!

It does have it’s issues though… Where is the next pay cheque coming from? Why is that week free and all my mates are working? Can I afford to go to the Alps that week? Can I afford not to take that work? Must remember to do my tax return, pay my national insurance. What happens if I get ill? I do end up travelling around quite a lot for work, so my fuel bill’s pretty big. I have a lot of days off, out of choice, I want that time off to climb, when the crag’s empty midweek and the sun’s out, that’s my favourite time to climb! I get to climb over 200 routes a year, this year I’ve been abroad too, to Chamonix and Majorca, last year it was Chamonix and the Dolomites. If it’s wet, I’ll end up climbing indoors or maybe get out running instead.

So many people these days want to freelance straight away, I don’t think this works. You need a good few years experience behind you, you need to have proven yourself and made contacts. It takes some skill to be able to walk into any venue, with any group and deliver a great, fun, safe session. Freelancing is hard, there are thousands of instructors out there with their SPA, ML, Level 1 kayaking, what makes you stand out? If you can answer that truthfully, you’re on the right track.

In my experience freelance wages start at about £100 a day (don’t forget to save for your tax bill etc) and some companies make you work very hard for that. As your client base builds and you develop you skills and qualifications, you can maybe start to be a bit more picky, getting the higher level NGB awards like the MIA helps massively plus you’ll get paid a bit more (MIA will be around £150).

As I said at the beginning, I got into all this because I was inspired by the mountains. Lot’s of people these days decide they want to be an outdoor instructor before ever setting foot in a kayak or even touching real rock. I find this a bit strange, the reason I haven’t pursued any kayaking tickets is because I’m not psyched by it, I could, with some training deliver a safe session, but if I’m not excited by it, how can I excite others about it – being psyched about it all is in my opinion key to being a quality, higher level instructor.

This year (2015) I’ve done some pretty cool work that’s been a bit different to the normal MIA stuff as well and I love the fact that the MIA opens up so many cool opportunities. I spent a couple of month working in Kurdistan as a mountaineer for an oil company on a seismic project. The short story of what this entails is that as a mountaineer you are looking after people on steep ground as (in a massively over-simplified way) people look for oil. Lots of risk assessing, lots of managing people in challenging surroundings and a bit of rope work. Throw in the risk of unexploded bombs, lots of people with AK-47s and IS terrorists just over the border meant the work and experience was really interesting! I hope to get the opportunity to work on more of these projects in the future. It was awesome to see a potentially fantastic country and meet loads of cool people – expats and locals alike. Check out my blog page for a bit more info.

You know I said earlier I thought I was a great instructor straight away? I’m much better these days! However, it’s a continual learning process, I learn loads from just working with other more experienced people but I also attend CPD events. Next for me is cracking on with my winter ML which I should have done years ago. I think I’m a pretty good instructor and facilitator these days, but I’m also aware that with more time and learning I’ll be even better, it’s a never ending experience.

I hope this gives a little insight into one way of becoming a Mountaineering Instructor, definitely not the only route, but the one I took. Remember, there’s lot’s and lot’s of different areas within the outdoor industry from working with kids on taster sessions through to delivering NGB courses, providing safety cover for film shoots, coaching the stars of tomorrow… the list is as long as your imagination.

See you out on the crag sometime!

Not sure what it takes to become an MIA, take a look at this: Mountaineering Instructor blog

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