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How to become a Mountaineering & Climbing Instructor

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

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's attic somewhere. These slightly confusingly named qualifications were the ones which qualify holders to teach pretty much all things climbing and mountain in the UK, in summer (Award) and winter (Certificate). They have since been renamed to Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor add Winter to the front of that for... you guessed it, the winter version.

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.

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

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 MCI 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 MCI 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 MCI 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 MCI 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 MCI 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 MCI 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. Many MCI'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)

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 MCI: – Register for the Winter MCI, having done 20 days WML work and have logged 20 winter routes (10+ at II, 10+ at III), have your MCI – Attend an WMCI 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 WMCI 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 MCI'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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For more information about the above schemes, check out the Mountain Training site and the Association of Mountaineering Instructors.

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