Becoming a Mountaineering

I’ve been thinking about writing about this for a while. I just didn’t have the time but with being in lockdown, I’m running out of things to do, so here it is.

I don’t have particular audience in mind as it’s partially a mini 2 part biography but I hope it will at least provide an insight to what it takes to become a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor*; to inspire others to follow and provide some pitfalls to avoid for those going through the scheme, or it might just send you running.

When I first started climbing outside at university in 2003, I had no idea about the outdoor industry as a career option. I just wanted to go climbing all the time…and I did, well, when I didn’t have lectures or assignments to do. I knew even less about a career in teaching people to become a climber/mountaineer.

Getting involved with the University mountaineering club introduced me to the idea of climbing qualifications and the Athletics Union paid for me to attend a Rock Climbing Instructor (RCI) training and a first aid course. It was then I had the idea of progressing to the Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor (MCI) – that was a long way off, possibly too long, so I put it off.

University club climbing trip circa 2005

After nearly a decade of getting bored working in retail and going climbing in various places in the UK and Europe, I had a sudden realisation that I didn’t really have any career prospects… but at least I was good at climbing. By good, I obviously mean average.

I remembered that people do actually pay people to teach them things. So in 2011, I booked on to an assessment for the SPA. It was my assessor, the late David Hooper who, on looking at my logbook, encouraged me to go for the MCI but I was still a long way off – I still hadn’t even done the training for the Mountain Leader (ML) qualification (this is a pre-requisite for the Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor).

2 years after completing the RCI qualification, I did the ML training and shortly after moving to Wales a year later, I completed the assessment.

The next step was gaining the rest of the pre-requisites for attending the 9 day training course for MIA

For those that aren’t aware, The MCI scheme consists of a training course, a consolidation period and an assessment. The training course covers all aspects of “summer” mountaineering (i.e no crampons and axes) and is full-on for 9 long days and the learning curve is quite steep.

The pre-requisites weren’t too difficult to get as I had already been climbing long enough to have most of the actual climbing requisites – minimum 30 multi-pitch climbs at VS(4c), 2/3rds of which should be on mountain or sea cliff crags where access is more complex and involved. This is in addition to all the other routes that don’t fall into these categories such as climbs abroad or more road-side locations.

The major difficulty for me was the cost (nearly £1000). In the scheme of things this is not a lot of money for a training course that is 9 days long and delivered by some of the highest qualified instructors in the country, but it is a lot of money. This is not even including the work I’d be missing out on while in attendance. It ended up taking two years before I booked a training course.

Jerome showing the importance of a knotted rope on MIA training.

I really enjoyed the training course, and by the end of it my head was spinning with all the information. There was lots of stuff I was familiar with on the training course but there’s lots of content you don’t necessarily think about when all the climbing you’ve ever done is with your mates.

One of the biggest elements of being a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor is not an ability to climb hard, it’s decision making for someone you don’t really know. It’s different to climbing with your peers as you would tend to climb with people of a similar ability and decisions on route choice for example will tend to be collaborative. Decision making in the context of being a mountaineering instructor requires in-depth knowledge of your own abilities – being aware of what you don’t know and making sound judgments based on your experience. This only comes from specific experience in climbing with people less experienced, and ideally input from someone who is qualified. This is what the consolidation period between training and assessment is for – to put the training into practice.

Mike Raine showing us how to lower someone past a knot

The training gives you the tools you need, the consolidation teaches you how to use those tools effectively through being critical and reflective of how you implemented those tools. In reality, It’s just carte blanche to go out climbing while establishing what does and does not work and “what you would do if…”

Post training, you need to do a further minimum of 20 multipitch routes VS(4c) or above; 20 days mountain leader days in sole charge of a group and 20 days teaching climbing to a variety of different clients. You can conceivably do all this in a few months if you live in a mountainous area and don’t have any grown up commitments like a child for example. But, those numbers are minimums and there’s not just the climbing one needs to prepare for. The recommendation is to have at least 12 months before going for assessment

I gave myself 18 months to aim for assessment, which I thought would be ample.

The assessment is 5 days long and you are assessed on personal climbing, improvised rescues, mountain day (roped scrambling/mountaineering), teaching climbing and the last day is a navigation test. This is a simple break down of each day of the assessment – there are elements within each day that are also assessed such as the environment and historical knowledge of British mountaineering but the key focus of assessment is on the decisions you make and how you handle situations that arise.

On a workshop for teaching climbing

At the start of the week I was feeling rather confident. I’d been out climbing lots, scrambling lots, revising guidebooks and syllabus documents. I’d even attended a number of workshops to focus on elements I thought needed some extra input. I was excited but apprehensive. The unknown is stressful and I did not deal with the stress very well.

Day 1 is the “personal climbing day” with an assessor and another candidate. The scenario is: you’re the instructor (for half the day) and you’re taking two competent but not very experienced climbers out for a climb. We went to a sea cliff where you have to access the start of the climb via an abseil and climb out. I went first so I had to build the belay for the abseil. This is when my mind went to mush. It took me longer than it should to link three anchors together. The sea was rough and noisy and all I had on my mind was “do not abseil too far, the assessor will be less than pleased if they get wet”. I abseiled as far as I dared and as I was setting up a belay, a rogue wave drenched my legs. F**K hes gonna be pissed! Luckily it was a falling tide (something else to take into account!). It was all good, the assessor came down, inspected my belay and mentioned it was on the shit end of good and I should beef it up a bit especially if you’ve got 3 people on a hanging belay above the sea.
Sea cliff climbing in better conditions.

As I was the “instructor”, I took the lead and set off up the route to the first belay, paying particular attention to how my ropes were running etc to avoid tangles a twists which are easy to get when climbing as a 3. In my state of constant vigilance, I missed a crucial runner that would show my second where they needed to go – pro tip: you don’t always place protection just to protect you.

The second pitch was relatively uneventful apart from the communication problems as the belay was a bit out of ear shot, especially with the wind etc. For me, the pressure was now off as it was Richard’s turn.

Day 2 – Rescues day. Lots of rope trickery and hanging around with problem solving gradually getting more and more complex throughout the day. I remembered the feedback about my belays from the day before so I made sure all my belays were solid. It only occurred to me after a “are you ok over there?” from the assessor that I was taking longer than I should be!

Practicing rescue skills on MCI Training

The final task of the day was to abseil past a knot in the rope. This is something that can happen if a you need to isolate a damaged section of rope, so in this context, you will know it’s there which would mean you arrange your autoblock (safety back up) above your belay device to avoid having to remove it to place it below the knot you wish to pass. I assumed, wrongly, that the knot was unknown about and set up my abseil as I normally would, with the autoblock below the belay device meaning I had to do the extra step of swapping it around. This is less than ideal when you haven’t put enough wraps on your prusik (autoblock) so it begins to slip, creeping slowly towards the knot, putting the pressure on to get sorted quickly. Luckily I had practised for just this scenario and managed to rectify the situation before I got stuck.

Day 3 – Mountain day. Basically a scrambling day but with lots of decision making to be done. Exercising good judgement and slick movement over and across mountaineering terrain. This is the day I came apart at the seams. The anxiety I had from day one that had been growing, and the relatively minor issues I had on day two meant I was ruminating on what I couldn’t change leading to not sleeping well and barely eating. The words “don’t be shit” was something I kept telling myself but doubts were mounting, especially as the weather was sub-optimal too. This anxiety I had caused me to forget everything I had been practising for the last 12 months+ and I made a catalogue of errors leading to my turn as the instructor to be curtailed. The one thing I was able to get right was the environmental knowledge element – it’s something I have an interest in as a geography graduate and more recently with getting more and more involved in botany.

I knew I was shit and didn’t really want to listen to the feedback from the day because I knew I’d been shit; I knew I could have done better but anxiety got the better of me and made me do some random things that I cannot explain. I’m glad I did listen, however, as it was helpful, mostly to know that one bad day doesn’t necessarily mean absolute failure.

Day 4 – Teaching climbing day. It is what the name suggests – a teaching climbing day, not basics session but higher level- multi-pitch climbing skills. This was the one day I was looking forward to and also not in the same breath. Probably the most difficult day because you have no idea what type of person(s) you’re going to get as your mock clients. All the other days are just you, your peers and the assessor.

We met our climbers in the morning and had about 20 mins to work out their abilities and experience. We then made a plan on where to go based on the information we gained, the weather and also where everyone else was going.

I only had one client because the number of willing volunteers was lower than expected. Oh well, you have to play with what you get dealt and while this meant I would have the assessor as my second “client”, I only really had one person to teach anything to. Luckily he wasn’t a complete novice and had a fair idea of what he wanted to get out of the day.

Rock Climbing milestone snowdonia higher climbing wales
Practicing teaching Climbing at Milestone Buttress during consolidation.

I initially made a plan to go to Tremadog, a popular option for many, but there was a mix up with the transport meaning I had to change my plans. This wasn’t a major problem because I was familiar with the venues and knew that I could meet the aims of the day but the change of venue didn’t really help my anxiety much but I had to get on with it. The assessor was really supportive and kept apologising for the situation and said they would make sure to take it into account when giving feedback.

I do think its worth also mentioning the professionalism and reassurance I experienced from all the assessors. All the feedback I received was fair and although having someone watching you is stressful, they never added to that stress. It’s just a fact of assessment that additional stresses come from being watched. Self doubt will creep in, you will question your actions. The assessor will question your actions at points. This isn’t to catch you out, they just want to see if you understand what and why you are doing what you are doing. It certainly can seem passive aggressive to be asked this by someone more qualified but it’s not to catch you out. In some cases, you may actually do something they’ve never seen and just want to know about it.

I digress. In all, the teaching day wasn’t a complete disaster and despite getting in a complete tangle at one point, having to untie one of the ropes to sort it out, the assessor was happy with my teaching ability (phew! being a qualified teacher, this was a great relief.) I was given some really good feedback from this day – a much needed moral boost from my performance the previous day.

Day 5 – Navigation day (half day). By this point I am an experienced Mountain leader who’s done enough micro navigation, I don’t need to do any practice to get through this day… hahahaha, wrong. I had passed my ML a few years ago and everyone knows you don’t look at a map once you pass because we just use a GPS when we don’t know where we are, right? Skill fade is a genuine issue that I didn’t really address until the night before this day by going out on Moel Siabod in the dark to try and hit some tiny contour features with a couple of other candidates. I was glad I did.

The navigation standard for the MCI is not much different than ML, you just have to get to your given location efficiently – no hanging around coming up with a complex strategy. You might be asked how you would teach someone a particular navigation skill and you have to be aware of where you are at all times when it is someone else’s turn to navigate – they are being assessed too so the pressure isn’t constantly on you, except when it is.

The day started off with easy navigation tasks and gradually got more complex with each one of us being sent off in different directions with the expectation of being able to say where everyone else was on the map. The features we were tasked with finding varied in scale and because visibility was good, accuracy was paramount.

Features as small as the 0 in 500 i.e <10m

Having done a few legs each, it was my turn to take us to a different location. It was a subtle 90deg kink in a single contour about 200m away (see above image – below the middle zero). Throughout the whole morning, it was hard to know how well we were doing which added to the suspense and stress. I was certain I’d got most of my targets correct but I still felt this one was make or break.

I came up with a strategy, not 100% certain it would work but I knew I had to get moving so set off with the clear instruction of “when you get to the position, do not move around” I’m guessing because I kept moving around unnecessarily on each leg trying to confirm my position possibly because I doubted myself. This apparent doubt I had I think came from the realisation that if I mess this day up, I will probably have to re-do the whole assessment again as I had already messed up day 3 and my ropework on 2 separate occasions in the week, so I put it down to making sure I wasn’t wrong rather than thinking I was.

As it happened, I did find the location, and I was certain enough it was the location given to me but I was told i’d made it difficult for the others to follow. The question I was asked by the assessor was “explain to me how you got here”. In that moment, I couldn’t recall what I’d done but I knew I’d got it right – a great relief. I was then tasked to demonstrate to someone how to take a bearing as an exercise. Job done. Back to Plas y Brenin for debrief and cake.

I knew what the result was going to be from day 3 – at least 1 day deferral. The debrief was succinct and gave me the result – 2 day deferral 1 mountain day (scrambling) and a guided climbing day – to demonstrate the ropework I messed up.

I was given a written report of what I needed to do before going back for reassessment, which I didn’t read initially. I was reassured that it wouldn’t take too much to get me to the standard by the course director… I had every intention of trying to get the additional experience within the 6 months I set myself. This would turn out to be rather optimistic.

I feel as though this part has reached a logical conclusion and in the next part I will go through the deferral process and how I prepared for it and the challenges I experienced. I hope this has given an insight into the qualification and a few pointers to those going through the process currently.

* The MCI was previously known as the Mountaineering Instructor Award (MIA) and the RCI was previously known as the Single Pitch Award (SPA). Here’s a blog I wrote about the different qualifications in the UK you might come across

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