As far as most of my family and friends are concerned, I've been a mountaineering instructor for over 20 years. This is technically incorrect, but is very much the way that most members of the public see us outdoor folk, without really understanding what our professional qualifications actually mean.
Up until this autumn, my qualifications were:
- Mountain Leader (summer), gained in 1996
- Mountain Leader (winter), gained in 2004
- Single Pitch Award, gained in 2004
But most people have no idea what these qualifications really mean, or what they entitle the award holder to actually do. On November 1st this year (2017) I passed an assessment for the MIA (Mountaineering Instructor Award), and that's when family and friends started telling me that they thought I'd done this years ago.
So, what do these awards stand for? What do we go through to gain each one? And what activities can a holder of each award actually do to remain within remit of the award?
First of all, let's start by saying that all of these awards (and more) are governed by Mountain Training UK. Let's go through my awards chronologically, and try to make sense of it all.
Mountain Leader (summer).
The summer ML is a mountain walking award. It is for anyone who wants to lead walking groups in the UK mountains during summer conditions. That means at any time of year when there is no snow or ice on the ground (it doesn't mean during the calendar summer!). Although the ML involves basic ropework, the intention shouldn't be for the award holder to go out expecting to use the rope. It is for emergency use only, should someone in the group get a bit scared and need a bit of help down the odd rocky step. It is not a rock climbing, or even scrambling award, although many MLs will happily take people they know onto low-grade classic scrambles such as Crib Goch or Striding Edge (which is fine, as they are unlikely to need to use a rope if they know the people they are leading are good with heights). To gain the summer ML you have to have some experience of summer mountain walking in the UK before you register for the scheme. Once registered you can then go on a 6-day training course. After the training course you then enter a consolidation period, where you spend as much time as you need practicing all the skills you've learned so far (this consolidation period will typically take between 6-months and 5 years, but some do it quicker, and some take a lot longer). And then, when you're ready, you have a 5-day assessment, and if all goes well, you become a summer Mountain Leader! I did my own summer ML training course at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms, and my assessment at Lane Head Outdoor Education Centre near Coniston in the Lakes.
Mountain Leader (winter).
Winter ML is also a walking award, for those who want to take people out into the UK mountains in winter conditions. Often, this will mean the award holder has to give some technical advice to their group members, and usually will have to teach them how to walk safely using an ice axe and crampons. It may also mean making use of a rope, either to give confidence to a group member, or perhaps to get the group and yourself safely down a snow slope that is not technical, but where the consequences of a slip could be disastrous. It is not a winter climbing award. It's a hard award to achieve. First of all, you have to be a summer ML before you can register for the winter ML, so you need to go through the full training, consolidation, and assessment process for the summer award. Then, you can register for the winter ML, and go through the whole training, consolidation, and assessment process again, only this time in winter conditions. I often hear people saying that all you need to do to gain a winter ML is go on a couple of courses, and that a winter ML doesn't need much experience to gain the award. This is absolute nonsense. Any winter ML should have gained a huge amount of experience along the way, and have worked throughout the year with groups in all the major mountain ranges of the UK. It's not an award that you can achieve just by going on a couple of courses. I did my winter ML training course with Plas y Brenin in Glencoe, and my assessment at Outward Bound Loch Eil up near Fort William.
Single Pitch Award.
This is a rock climbing award (and it's soon to be renamed, the Rock Climbing Instructor Award). A single pitch is where the crag is short enough for the climber to be able to get to the top in one rope length (rope lengths do vary, but traditionally this might be 50m). Any higher than that, and you have to climb the crag in stages. This would then be a multi-pitch climb. This, of course, is an over-simplification, and in practice most Single Pitch Award holders would only operate on much smaller crags. The SPA is not a walking award, nor is it a mountaineering, scrambling, or multi-pitch rock climbing award. For an award holder to be within remit for the SPA the crag must have easy, walkable access to both bottom and top of the crag, so it can't be a mountain crag or a tidal sea cliff. An SPA can also work on indoor climbing walls, although there are also specific awards for indoor instructors. For the SPA there is the same registration, training, consolidation, and assessment procedure as for the walking awards, but currently the training and assessment courses both run over a couple of days. I was trained for the SPA (well, actually, it was known as the SPSA, Single Pitch Supervisor Award, back then) by Terry Nicholls on the North York Moors, and I did the assessment at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms.
Mountaineering Instructor Award.
The MIA is what Mountain Training call a 'higher award'. To register for the MIA you need to already hold the ML summer, and to have kept a log of multi-pitch rock climbs you've done, ideally with the bulk being on high mountain crags or sea cliffs. So, by the time you come to do the 9-day training course you're already a very experience mountain walking leader and rock climber. After the training course, it's back to the old consolidation period again, and then, when you're fully prepared, you can put yourself forward for the 5-day assessment. The assessment typically involves one day of personal climbing on multi-pitch Very Severe climbs, looking after yourself and two 'clients' throughout, then a day of problem solving and self rescue techniques, then a mountaineering day, which is typically moving quickly and safely over grade 2 and 3 scrambling terrain in ascent and descent with two 'clients'. On day four you're likely to be assessed on 'teaching rock climbing' where you meet two real clients in the morning, then after a quick chat with them you can formulate a plan for the day where you will teach them whatever skills they've come to learn, and give them a good, valuable rock climbing experience, whilst keeping them safe throughout the day. And finally, day five is a speed navigation test. If you get through the assessment you become a Mountaineering Instructor, which enables you to walk, scramble, climb, mountaineer, or whatever, with paying clients in summer conditions throughout the UK (although many MIAs also do a lot of work abroad too!). MIAs can also be course directors and course providers for ML summer and SPA courses, so it is a highly coveted award. I did all of my MIA training and assessment at Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia.
So, as of 1st November 2017, I became a Mountaineering Instructor Award holder. Surely that's it then, no further training or assessment courses for me? Well, beyond MIA there is the winter equivalent, the MIC (Mountaineering Instructor Certificate), for which you need to hold the MIA and the ML winter awards before you can register. I'm already there with these two awards, so if I do decide to take it to the very highest award available through Mountain Training UK I need to tick a few more boxes before I can register for the MIC. Post MIA you need to teach or lead on 20 more days, and post winter ML you need to gain 20 winter Quality Mountain Days (QMDs). I'm way above that number with the winter QMDs, as I've been working as a winter ML for the last 13 years, but as I've only just gone through the MIA assessment gaining 20 more teaching days on rock before the winter kicks in might be too much to ask this year. However, that's where I am now. Very happy to be an MIA, and to be thinking positively about whether or not to become an MIC. If I do go for it, I'll then be fully qualified to instruct and guide on all mountain activities throughout the UK (and in most countries abroad) in all seasons, and in any weather conditions. Surely that's something worth working towards?