Hiring a guide – what you need to know.
Being aware of one’s limitations in a particular activity usually requires stepping over your pride and accepting that, to enable you to progress, you might require instruction from someone more qualified than yourself. I am sure that many of you out there will seek some form of formal instruction from the qualified people I mention. I, of course, endorse that notion to the fullest extent but there are a few things to bear in mind if and when you engage an instructor/leader/guide which I will discuss here.
There are a number of providers to choose from, from the big, well established Multi-activity Centres and National Mountain Centres, to the sole-trading privately run companies, which are the main focus of this article. Bigger companies tend to have more regulations to follow than the sole-trader mountaineering instructor and so it’s very unlikely you will be sent out with someone without adequate qualifications or experience if you go with them, but you should still be aware of the following so you can ask the right questions when booking.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that according to UK law, there is no requirement for someone offering instructional services to hold a formal qualification (discussed below). This means anyone can charge for instructional and/or guiding services regardless of their experience and/or qualification to do so. Also, with the ease of producing a flashy website and lack of awareness among their client-base, it’s easy to attract unsuspecting customers.
Now, I’m not saying that because they don’t hold a formal qualification they aren’t any good. I am sure there are many who operate without qualifications safely and do very well, but should they end up in court because of an incident they would have to demonstrate their competence. The most robust method of demonstrating this is through gaining a formal qualification. This is because in order to get formal qualifications, it takes years of personal experience and numerous training and CPD (continuous personal development) courses all at considerable cost and time. It is this fact, and the stringent assessment process outdoor professionals choose to go through to prove their competence that makes it almost pointless to employ someone who, by their own admission hasn’t met those standards.
So, what are these formal qualifications I keep mentioning?
The career pathway for any outdoor instructor in hte UK is quite diverse, especially as many in the outdoor industry have more than one discipline they instruct. With this in mind, I am only going to cover land-based qualifications pertinent to climbing and mountaineering and, starting with the highest qualification, what they are assessed as competent to deliver under those qualifications. I will also include the website of the professional associations where you can search for those individuals to which they may be members of (just click on the link).
If you are looking to hire a guide to climb Mont Blanc or any technical alpine mountain then you’ll probably be looking for someone who is an IFMGA Mountain Guide. Mountain Guides hold the highest internationally recognized qualification for providing mountaineering services and is a standalone qualification in that you don’t necessarily need to have other lower qualifications to put yourself forward – the selection process is based purely on considerable experience over a variety of different mountaineering disciplines all around the world.
Bear in mind that anyone can call themselves a mountain guide so it’s important to make sure that they are actually a Mountain Guide (note the capital letters) using the above link.
Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor – WMCI (formerly MIC)
If you are thinking of hiring an instructor because you are thinking of getting into technical winter mountaineering (Ice climbing etc.) then you will need to be looking for someone who is an MIC (use the above link and filter your search). The WMCI is the highest UK only qualification for mountaineering. Though the WMCI is ultimately a winter mountaineering qualification, anyone who holds the WMCI is also by definition, a ‘summer’ Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor (MCI), Winter Mountain Leader (WML) and Summer Mountain Leader (SML). As such an WMCI may offer mountaineering instruction year-round.
It’s worth pointing out that winter is not defined by the date (or dates) – it is defined by the conditions underfoot and the weather that may be experienced.
The judgment required to teach people winter skills cannot be understated and being an experienced winter climber is very different to being an instructor. All Mountaineering Instructors spend considerable time climbing a large number of routes even before they go on a training course. This is of course after they have time-served as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor (MCI).
Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor – MCI (formerly MIA)
For when it’s not winter, it’s obviously summer and you want some instruction on rock climbing or scrambling (roped or unroped) or even just a guided mountain walk. You can hire a WMCI to do this but there are fewer WMCI’s than MCI’s around and you’re not necessarily getting an inferior experience with an MCI as they have been assessed to the same high standards as each other.
The MCI is the highest UK award for teaching all aspects of ‘summer’ rock climbing and mountaineering. Again, considerable personal experience of multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of locations and rock types is a pre-requisite before even attending the 9 day training. Further personal climbing experience and teaching climbing skills to others is required once the training is completed before attending the 5 day assessment.
International Mountain Leader – IML
If you are looking for someone to guide you on international treks and up non-glacial or technical mountains anywhere in the world where a rope is not required then you should ideally be looking for someone operating under the UIMLA carnet i.e. an IML. As mentioned, the planned use of a rope is outwith the scope of what an IML can offer as this is the preserve of the IFMGA Guide (or WMCI/MCI if operating in the UK) but they can offer snow shoeing treks on non-glacial terrain.
Anyone who is an IML has already gained the Summer Mountain Leader award as this is one of the many pre-requisites for attending the training. They may also be the holder any of the other awards too but these are not pre-requisites for this award. The award does not cover the use of axes and crampons either so it’s worth checking what you require before engaging an IML.
Winter Mountain Leader – WML
If you were thinking of going up to Scotland this winter and fancied walking up one of the many great mountains there, but were unsure about your own abilities to do it safely then you can either hire the services of an WMCI or A Winter Mountain Leader.
The WML is the highest award in the UK for mountain walking in the UK and covers a wide range of services they can offer and they are by default already a Mountain Leader (ML) with considerable experience.
The difference between the remit of an WMCI and WML is vast as WMLs are not assessed on the use of a rope or placed protection on technical mountaineering mountaineering routes other than in an emergency. They also should not run snow holing expeditions nor instruct specific skills unless it is part of the greater journey as a duty of care. Therefore, it’s important to work out exactly what you want from the day(s) and the limits of your own abilities to determine if those requirements are best served by a WML or someone with an WMCI.
Mountain Leader – ML
When there is no snow or ice on the ground and you want to explore the UK’s mountains or learn some navigation skills or just walk up a mountain without the stress of knowing if you’re going the right way, then you might consider hiring a Mountain Leader. The (summer) Mountain Leader award is the foundation of all the above qualifications (except Mountain Guide) and itself takes significant personal experience in mountain and hill walking and navigation to achieve.
If you wish to progress from hill walking to scrambling then consider hiring a mountaineering instructor as the ML only allows for the use of a rope in emergency situations. That said, depending on your ability a suitably experienced ML would be able to guide you up the North ridge of Tryfan, for instance.
Any good ML should be aware of their own limitations and be prepared to pass on the job to a more suitably qualified person should your requirements be something they cannot meet. They should be asking you questions about your previous experience to ascertain if a rope is likely to be required and if it is then it would probably be wise to pass it on.
Rock Climbing Instructor– RCI (formerly SPA)
If you are looking to do a climbing taster session for you and your family or a group of friends, or want to learn the basics of climbing such as following (seconding) an experienced climber up a route, then you can request the services of an SPA holder. These sessions should only be run on short (single pitch) non-tidal crags and is limited to top-roping (belayed from the top of a route) and bottom roping (belayed from the bottom via a rope anchored at the top). If you are looking to learn lead-climbing or multi-pitch climbing then you will require the services of either an MIA or MIC.
Seeking instruction from someone more experienced is possibly one of the best things you can do where mountaineering is concerned (or any adventurous activity for that matter) and you don’t necessarily need to spend any money doing so as there are willing individuals who like to impart their knowledge for nothing more than knowing that it is potentially keeping you safe.
Because there is no legal requirement to have a formal qualification, quality does vary. Those that have no formal qualification cannot easily say they have demonstrated they possess the skills they wish to teach to a particular standard. That standard in the context of the above awards is pretty high and very expensive to achieve which begs the question – why bother spending all that money and time if it’s not required by law? Quite simply, the paying clients deserve the assurance that the instructor has been through a robust and measurable process at some point. Also, going through such a rigorous process gives that individual access to competitive insurance premiums and subsidised CPD courses.
The above qualifications have very clear remits but there are many people on the pathway to becoming qualified that try to push the boundary of that remit and charge for things that they haven’t been assessed to deliver. This has quite serious implications for the instructor, client and the industry as a whole should the worst happen.
So, if you are looking for a qualified kayaker, skier or climber to give you some instruction, the advice remains the same. Check they are registered with the relevant associations and that they have adequate insurance for the activities they offer. Any bona fide professional should be very forthcoming with this information and some may show you without you asking – they are proud people and want their clients to know just how much time and effort they have dedicated into giving them a safe and enjoyable experience. Therefore, for anyone who doesn’t display affiliation to any professional associations you should be asking why that may be!