Have you ever wondered what it's like to work as a Mountain Leader? We've asked three MLs for their take on the job, from the challenge of qualification to the rewards of guiding groups in the hills. Their responses reflect the diversity of the ML, but there's one thing they all agree on - it's as much about the people as the outdoors.
Kate, 38, has been a Mountain Leader for nearly ten years. Based in North Wales, she owns and runs RAW Adventures alongside her partner (and husband ) Ross.
"We enjoy working with small and large scale groups of all ages and abilities and work with qualified and trusted Mountain Leaders and instructors to offer a range of activities" says Kate. "This includes our popular Climb Snowdon days as well as supporting all aspects of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Expedition section. We are now also a provider for Mountain Training’s Lowland Leader award, the Expedition Skills Module and their new personal skills courses: Hill & Mountain Skills."
UKHillwalking: What background did you have in hillwalking prior to ML-ing?
Kate: I have been enjoying hillwalking since I was three years old. I guess I didn’t proactively have a choice in that one, being so young, but I continued to enjoy holidays 3-4 times/year to ’the mountains’ from our home in NW London. This was down to the sheer love my parents had of walking and mountainous terrain, and this definitely rubbed off onto my brother and I. My mum first introduced me to a compass and my dad loved helping me scramble and looking at maps together. I have so so many happy memories of adventures in the Lake District, Wales, Scotland and country walking by the coast, the Chilterns and the Surrey Hills. I was very much at home in the mountains from a young age and would cry as we returned to ’stinky, hot London’. The suburban streets felt very closed in, I remember thinking. I continued to develop my own confidence at planning routes and trips away, with friends, partners, walking clubs and also on my own. I was happy walking on my own from about 17. A very gradual and pretty natural progression ensued.
How long have you been working as an ML?
I have taken on a ‘leadership’ role with friends/groups since university club days/personal trips with friends – so that’s about 18 years ago! In 2005 I was very involved in organising trips for a London based walking group, with responsibility for planning routes and weekend away, as well as leading on the sharp end. It wasn’t until 2006 that I started formalising this as ‘work’ with a company called Adventure Café. I took responsibility for heading up their UK expeditions programme – what a fantastic role that was to utilise my new Mountain Leader qualification, that I gained in 2007.
What inspired you to take it up, and what were you doing before?
In 2006, I took on a job at an expeditions company in the Lake District, where I met some really interesting people all working in the outdoors. Quite honestly, I can put some of this down to meeting (now IFMGA Mountain Guide) Rocio Siemens as I then saw a strong, active, vibrant female working hard in the outdoor environment (and towards her Mountaineering Instructor Certificate at that time) and I thought I would like to be working in the mountains, with people…this has to be something I can do! Before taking this decision more seriously, I was looking at a potential career in primary teaching. And this study and training had come off the back of working as an office manager in London – living the high life in Putney - as well as other administration roles, a school library assistant, many jobs in pubs/catering/retail and pretty much anything that I could turn my hand to. A ‘broad work experience’ I think it’s called.
What are the basic differences between summer, winter and international mountain leader qualifications, and roughly what proportion of your working time is taken up with each?
Simply put: ’summer’ is walking in mountainous terrain, any time of year, but without any planned crossing of snow and ice. ‘Winter’ means walking in mountainous terrain that is covered by snow and ice. ‘International’ is trekking and walking in international locations in summer conditions as well as easy ‘rolling nordic’ terrain in winter conditions. Most of my work falls within the remit of my Mountain Leader award (summer) but I have been able to extend the amount and type of work I can do by attaining my Winter Mountain Leader award, for sure – although this is still limited to a small window of appropriate conditions in North Wales. And I have yet to embrace the idea of ’seasoning’ in Scotland for the winter; that would be unsustainable for home and business life! I have also worked with youth and adult trekking/expedition groups in Borneo, Tanzania, Peru and Nepal. I am registered on the International Mountain Leader award scheme, but I prioritised the attainment of my Winter Mountain Leader award.
Once you’d got your summer ML, how long was it before you moved on to the WML?
My Mountain Leader assessment was in 2007, Winter Mountain Leader training in 2011 and assessment in 2014. That's a pretty standard progression, and I gave myself time to prep for the WML assessment, although this is also quite a common occurrence amongst females: prep and prep until you ’think’ you are ‘just about’ ready, when in actual fact you’ve done a hell of a lot of work to reach and go beyond the required assessment standard. Perfectionist.
"Hours can be long and the work is physically demanding. Being able to manage yourself and this dynamic is very important, in order to stay balanced, positive and healthy"
How much more rigorous was the winter assessment?
Yes the Winter Mountain Leader award is rigorous, in relation to the Mountain Leader award – which does not mean the Mountain Leader award is not rigorous in its own right, but the Winter Mountain Leader award is layered with more knowledge about the environmental conditions you’re moving within and how this affects your decision making as a Leader. I found the whole process fascinating really and it’s why I really like being out in winter because there is SO much to engage with and react to based on the weather and snow conditions, route planning and safe travel techniques with regards to avalanche awareness and avoidance, group management, more kit and equipment to understand and utilise, coping in the winter environment – the list just goes on and I keep learning each time I’m out on my own, with friends or with clients. My brain and my body are alive! When I took my WML training course at Glenmore Lodge I do remember an Instructor saying to our group, “this training course will also make you a better Mountain Leader in summer conditions, too”. I firmly believe that and have taken a lot of worth from the process.
What sort of work do you prefer - big or small groups, bespoke days out, team building, kids, adults...?
All of the above - and having a mix of it, too. I feel lucky to have been able to amass some good work experience with all of these client groups and I have sought that out on purpose as it has enabled me to utilise and perfect different hard and soft skills based on who I’m working with. There’s also a difference between working on your own with groups and working collectively with other Mountain Leaders, or managing bigger teams – and I enjoy both of those elements in my work, too. Toes: I’m firmly kept on them!
What do you find most rewarding and enjoyable about working as an ML?
Supporting the development and experiences of a wide range of people in an environment that constantly engages and inspires me.
Can you tell us a bit about starting RAW Adventures: what attracted you to the idea of having your own company? Was it a hard thing to establish?
Having our own business seemed to make more sense after our daughter Libby came along, as this gave me a little more flexibility in my own ways of working and meant I could take on different sorts of projects, consultancy positions, freelance work and building our own client base, which all worked under an umbrella of ‘RAW Adventures’ initially - and it was myself who was operating as a sole-trader initially. I would say our move to North Wales also enabled us to develop the business and find a ‘desire line’ to develop, which utilised our personal set of skills and experiences. Hence RAW Adventures is a ‘mountain activities’ business – we do not offer multi activity packages, we stick to land and mountains as this is what we know and do best. We’re now nearly six years on from when we moved to North Wales. It does take a considerable amount of time to develop ideas, goals, business connections, good relations, trust, knowledge, respect and an understanding of how to weave in and out of a very prolific area full of inspiring and high performing individuals, instructors, businesses and outdoor providers in such a small area.
Since you and Ross both work in the same field, how do you both juggle family life with the long hours outdoors?
With continual turmoil, misjudgement, good humour, meticulous organisation (that’s me), concerns, missed appointments, compromises and humility. We don’t both get it right all the time but we are damn hard workers at it! With no income other than what we’re pulling in via RAW Adventures, we are now absolutely committed to making the business perform for us, both financially and practically, so we can still balance our personal and family lives around the business. It can be difficult to do.
Nothing’s perfect, surely, so are there any downsides?
For the amount of ongoing training and CPD the industry recommend Leaders go through, and the fact that you are the first port of call for people’s safety in a potentially hazardous environment, the financial rewards aren’t as profitable as they should be. Being asked to work ‘for free’ because the group who would like to contract you to work are raising money for a worth charitable cause and want to conserve their fundraising resources. I know there are a great many Mountain Leaders who will be happy to donate a day or so of their time over a season for an outcome that feels worthy to them, but it’s a common conversation I have with potential clients about how I can’t just ‘cut my costs’ or ’not charge’ for a day’s work. For Mountain Leaders and Outdoors Instructors who are working with groups day after day in educational or outdoor centre environments, or on back to back skills courses, the hours can be long, the work very physically demanding and you will reach a mental and physical exhaustion point. So being able to manage yourself and this dynamic is very important, in order to stay balanced, positive and healthy.
I imagine the outdoor profession was once a bastion of hairy males: are women equally well represented nowadays, do you think?
Are you saying the ‘hairy male’ is a good representation?! According to membership figures from the BMC, he female/male split is currently 25:75 for over 24yrs and 35:65 for under 24yrs. Within the BMC’s volunteer structure, for example, there’s a 20:80 split (which is not great). Maybe because I’m moving within circles that are proactively talking about and supporting an increase in female participation (the BMC, Mountain Training, Facebook groups and forums and seeing and speaking with female industry colleagues etc) I do feel there is a ‘forge’ ahead in this area currently. Things are going in the right direction, at least, although I know some will argue, quite justifiably, that there is still not enough being published in the outdoor press that has been written and produced by women. Within Mountain Training award holders, for example, 19% are female. This will increase, I have no doubt. Especially with the BMC committing to raising the profile of what women are already doing within walking, climbing and mountaineering and developing strategies to support the increase of lifelong participation, for women, within these sports and activities and, thus, the outdoors industry as a whole too.
It strikes me as very much a people-oriented career: is that fair?
Totally. If you only want to be in the mountains on your own, you may find the reality of ‘leading’ others a complete contrast to how you like to spend your time. Of course, you can gain pleasure from both, and many people I know do so.
Can an ML make a good living at it?
Yes, and people do. But there will be compromises to make and long hours to work, train, prepare, travel etc. There will be benefits and flex in your schedule and you can choose to work as much or as little as you want, or need to, depending on your personal situation. Everyone’s situation is different.
Is there any advice you’d like to offer to someone who was thinking of giving ML-ing a go?
It can be challenging continually gaining and keeping your own clients. There’s something to be said for choosing a path that suits you and your skills and being a true freelance Mountain Leader who has the enviable ability to travel to where the work is, be flexible and work away from home when they need to. Working for different companies and providers will allow you to grow your experience massively without necessarily getting too involved in the pre-organisation and administration of that particular job. Certainly do your best at offering up the best version of yourself to potential employers, act proactively and professionally. Give weight to well-written emails and letters when sending information to prospective employers. The ‘outdoors industry’ may well have its own quirky personality but we all need to act with integrity, professionalism and dignity when working within it – and that should be directed towards the clients you work with and the employers you work for as well as the colleagues you work with. It will be an amazing journey!
Dan, 31, divides his time between ML work and journalism, both on a freelance basis. His home in Cambridgeshire is, he says "a tremendously illogical place for an ML to be based. But this is where my life is. To make the mileage worth it my mountain trips often combine ML and journalistic work."
For more on his work see danaspel.com
What was your hillwalking experience before you embarked on the ML?
I've always been outdoorsy, but with almost all of my mountain adventures being abroad. I got into British hillwalking (starting, inevitably, with Snowdon and then Ben Nevis) shortly before starting a job on a hillwalking magazine. I then spent four years making the UK's mountains my daily life, with more-or-less monthly trips to the hills of England, Wales and Scotland. I'd always loved trekking and camping, but I quickly got into more adventurous things such as scrambling and bivvying - and all in a fairly short period of time.
How long have you been working as an ML?
Although I got the qualification in November 2014 I didn't first use it until the summer of 2015. So only around nine months so far.
What inspired you to take it up, and what were you doing before?
Every professional that I'd met in the outdoors, whether scrambling in Langdale with an MIC or climbing Mont Blanc with an IFMGA Guide, was a truly sound person. More than any group of people that I've worked with I trust mountain guides. When you get such a powerful and consistent impression from a group of people it's difficult not to want to be one yourself. I was working full-time as a writer and editor in the publishing industry, but had been thinking for a long time of becoming self-employed. When I finally decided to go freelance the ML qualification was just another skill I could rely on to help pay the bills and facilitate my love of the outdoors.
"Whether they're school kids or adults it's really satisfying to get somebody up a mountain and into a tremendously beautiful place that they may never have known existed. I get so excited about mountains that I just want everyone I meet to share that passion"
Can you talk me through the process of gaining logbook experience and fine-tuning the skills prior to qualifying – did it take a long time, and was it enjoyable?
I used to practise my ropework at lunchtimes outside the building at my old work. This was very important as I'm not a climber, but I wanted to be able to deploy a confidence rope without thinking about it if necessary. In terms of mountain experience I was in a very fortunate position, in that my role working for an outdoor magazine allowed me to go to the hills very regularly and undertake a really broad range of walks, scrambles and overnighters. Even then I still needed to up the number of scrambles and wild camps in my log book in the year between undergoing the training and the assessment. It didn't take more than perhaps four individual trips to Snowdonia and the Lakes, bagging important scrambles (such as Sharp Edge, Bristly Ridge, etc...) and spending some more nights under the stars. I combined it with taking friends out to the hills who had long wanted to, but never had the opportunity. We all got to have a long weekend away in the hills, they got the benefit of my experience and I got to "lead" them on whatever we did. It was great fun!
How did you find the assessment?
I honestly really enjoyed it. I worried a lot that my knowledge of flora and fauna would let me down, but I picked up some good books and found it easy to remember a broad spread of basic (but interesting) information because I'm so keen on the subject matter. I loved the expedition part of the assessment, as being out in the hills for three days+ is more or less my idea of heaven. There were moments when the instructor's blank face in response to every request for a current grid reference made me question myself and become mildly anxious... but all-in-all it was just another week in the mountains with the opportunity to learn from more experienced people. I think you'll know if you're ready for the assessment, and if you are then you'll find it very satisfying.
What sort of ML work do you tend to do, and in which parts of the country?
So far, exclusively Snowdonia. I've mainly been working with large groups on Snowdon - whether they be school kids or charity teams - and race event marshalling. North Wales is where I spend most of my hill time, and I feel I know the main routes and the best days out very well now.
As a free agent, how do you go about finding the jobs?
I started working for companies local to Snowdonia, such as RAW Adventures who have been fantastic for me and are a big employer of MLs on the big-scale events that they oversee. I haven't needed to work for many people beyond them yet, but I'll simply approach providers individually when I do. Either that or start advertising myself as a Leader independently.
What do you find most rewarding and enjoyable about working as an ML?
Helping people see things they've never seen before. Whether they're school kids or adults it's really satisfying to get somebody up a mountain and into a tremendously beautiful place that they may never have known existed. I get so excited about mountains that I just want everyone I meet to share that passion. Leading people up them is a good place to start!
Are there any downsides – bad weather, income insecurity etc?
You may feel like you'd rather be walking every day than wasting away behind a desk, but it can definitely get tiring! The cumulative fatigue of spending your working life climbing up and down hills while remaining constantly switched on and being responsible for every single person's safety can get to you. And I don't even do it full-time. It's also the same as any form of self-employment: you'll have all the freedom in the world, but there's no guarantee you'll make any money at all from month to month, and if you get sick and don't work... you don't get paid.
What are some of the running costs – gear, insurance and the like?
A lot of alpine Guides have to replace their entire wardrobe every season as it takes such a battering. Likewise the boots of anyone that regularly wanders on the Cuillin's abrasive Gabbro. But if you're only a part-timer like me then there aren't really any terrific costs. Just the fuel to get to the hills, renewing your First Aid qualification and joining the MTA and BMC if you think it's necessary.
ML work is only part of what you do for a living; roughly what proportion of your time and income does it represent?
My ML work is only seasonal, as I can't work in winter conditions, and even in the summer months it might only represent a third of my monthly income. But it gets me into the hills and I love it.
In theory could you make enough at it to do it full time?
It actually pays slightly less well than journalism (which is saying something). But that doesn't mean you couldn't do it full-time. Plenty of people do. It's possible to live relatively cheaply in one of the smaller towns in North Wales or Cumbria.
Would you want to?
For a young, single person with no commitments it's an excellent choice. I'm only one of those things.
What would you say to someone considering training as a Mountain Leader?
54-year-old Ian lives in Wilmslow, Cheshire. "It’s an ideal location as I can be in any of the main areas in which I work within a couple of hours" he says.
Since quitting his desk job of 30 years for life as an ML Ian has worked for Striding Ahead LLP, a company specialising in providing bespoke walking events for corporate clients looking for something different in their events calendar. "We can organise almost everything for them" says Ian, "from a full breakfast and all food and water on the event, to boots and walking kit if required. We have worked with some fantastic clients over the years – many of which are household names - and are very lucky in that many of them return year on year for further events with us."
What experience did you have in hillwalking prior to ML-ing?
Walking was really a hobby beforehand. I started walking in The Peak District whilst at school, climbed Ben Nevis at 13 while in the Scouts, and enjoyed getting outdoors whenever time allowed on an ad-hoc basis after that. It was only really from about 2008 that I started getting more obsessed with the outdoors world. I had thought about the possibility of working in the outdoors but had never really considered it more than a pipe-dream. I just kept thinking I was too busy with “real work” to do anything about it.
How long have you been working as an ML?
I joined Striding Ahead LLP shortly after leaving my previous job in late 2011 and have been leading walking groups since then – initially as an assistant leader alongside a qualified ML and then as a full-time ML since qualifying in March 2014 – I now work both for Striding Ahead and as a freelance ML for other providers on their events.
"Preparing for the assessment was hugely enjoyable – what’s not to like about taking yourself up into the hills, practising navigation skills, camping in wild and wonderful places, leading and showing others what the mountains have to offer?!"
What inspired you to take up ML work, and what were you doing before?
A drunken dare! A charity with which I was involved through work asked me to do a fundraising challenge and, after a glass of red wine (or perhaps two..) I agreed. Twelve months later I was walking through the Andes towards Machu Picchu. It was such a pivotal moment in my life that I signed up for another - in Morocco the following year. That one was equally inspiring – and made me realise, after several long talks with the Leaders who were with us, that a professional life in the outdoors was possible. In fact both were such life-changing events for me that within a month of returning from Morocco (and admittedly with a small inheritance as a short-term cash buffer) I had resigned from my 30+ year Banking career and enrolled on an ML Training course!
How did you go about gaining logbook experience and fine-tuning the skills prior to qualifying, and did you find this process rewarding in itself?
I did my ML Training in July 2011 and then set about building experience and skills for my assessment. It was hugely enjoyable – what’s not to like about taking yourself up into the hills of the UK, practicing navigation skills, camping in wild and wonderful places, leading and showing others what the mountains have to offer?! It took me another 12 months and plenty of miles (and mistakes – it’s inevitable) to get to the point I felt I was ready for assessment. The guidance is to have 40 “qualifying” days and some wild camping experience too. In reality this really is a bare minimum and I think I was at 50/60 and many nights under canvas around the country. I was lucky that I wasn’t having to fit it all in around a 9-5 job and could head out on any day of the week. I was also getting regular group leading experience through Striding Ahead’s walking events too.
How did you find the assessment?
The assessment can feel stressful at times – they are pretty full-on weeks and you are constantly “on the go” and under appraisal. The fact that the whole group is in the same position means a good camaraderie builds up quickly.
It is important to remember though that the assessors are trying to give you an opportunity to demonstrate the skills you have learned and will need as an ML, and not just to catch you out. If you have developed to the right level then you should be okay (and will - dare I say it – even enjoy it at times). Having said that I tore my calf muscle early in my first assessment and had to withdraw; no ills preparation can cover being unable to walk! It took me over 12 months to fully recover from the injury – although I also used the time to endeavour to be even better prepared for the next time. A I got there in the end…
What sort of work do you tend to do?
My “work” (I still find it hard to call it work when it’s so enjoyable) consists of a mixture of event types – from bespoke days with small groups as a sole leader or with one other, to large “mass-participation” charity-style events as one of many leaders, and everything in etween.This year I will also be leading a multi-day overseas expedition in Iceland (see what I mean – that can’t be work!).The thing that ties them all together is helping people develop themselves, overcome obstacles and achieve goals – be it summiting a mountain such as Scafell Pike or Snowdon for the first time or completing a multi-peak challenge like the Yorkshire Three Peaks. That’s what gives me the real buzz. Despite the hills and mountains around us during an event, this is a people-skills business as much as an outdoor-skills one.
Which parts of the country do you tend to work in?
The Lake District, Peak District, Snowdonia and The Yorkshire Dales are the most common. I have however in the last couple of years also worked on events in Scotland, The South Downs, Hadrian’s Wall, The Pembroke Coast path and The Brecon Beacons. The beauty of this work is that there are just so many areas to explore in the UK!
"The scenery and surroundings are often spectacular, but every time I do something like the Yorkshire Three Peaks it is the people immediately around me who make it memorable"
What do you find most rewarding and enjoyable about working as an ML?
Best rewards? Without doubt the feeling of having helped people achieve something for themselves beyond their expectations. Having the opportunity to see the joy on their faces afterwards and know I have helped in some way. It is a privilege to be able to work like this – I know from my own experience that these things change lives – and that is not intended as a pompous statement, they really do.
Most enjoyment? People people people! I have met and feel lucky to become firm friends with a huge number of amazing people since making the move to working as an ML – both those who also work in the outdoors, and those who have participated in events. During any event, the banter and wit often makes me laugh out loud, and the feeling of positivity during a charity event as people strive to succeed to help causes close to their hearts is indescribable. Yes the scenery and surroundings are often spectacular but every time I do something like the Yorkshire Three Peaks it is the people immediately around you who make it memorable.
Are there any downsides? I imagine it can be a bit of a drag having to be out every day in spells of foul weather for instance – or is there always something worthwhile about it?
There are a couple of well-worn statements along the lines of “a rainy day on the hill beats a dry day in the office” and “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing”. They are clichés but both are also true!
There is always something worthwhile to be found in a day in the hills –they are never the same twice. From brief, spectacular vistas during breaks in testing weather, to long sun-drenched ridge walks; from suddenly climbing out of a cloud bank to find yourself standing above a temperature inversion, to seeing entire ranges of hills covered in winter snow.
Even after five years away I am still able to compare walking to the summit of a mountain in any weather with a day in the bank – and with all respect to my former colleagues I know where I would rather be.
What are some of the running costs – gear, insurance etc?
There are inevitably some costs. Personal walking gear cannot be expected to last as long (time-wise) when it is in use almost daily. A pair of walking boots might last a couple of years at most – often less. Waterproof shells will wear out more quickly and I get through one a year typically (same for waterproof trousers) – unless they are damaged by barbed wire, rocks etc before then.
Insurance is another cost, although thankfully the brokers acting for Striding Ahead are very good and the costs reflect the fact that we have never had a claim and also that we are a mountain-walking company not an adventure-sports provider. I also have insurance for my private work as a freelance leader and this cost, if you shop around, needn’t be excessive.
Other costs include travel (a major consideration), first aid courses (every three years) and, as with most small businesses and self-employed people the cost of any professional services – accountants, bank etc.
Do you earn a reasonable living at it?
It is certainly true to say that no one starts working as an outdoors freelancer for financial gain! It is arguably a lifestyle choice rather than a job, and whilst with hard work you can keep yourself busy, the money will never be excessive. Many become “multi-taskers” combining ML work with other things such as watersports, cycling, climbing and ski instruction – earning further qualifications to allow this. Many will combine it with working for related organisations such as YHA, Outdoor Centres, Education boards etc. or to supplement existing income streams. The bottom line is that working as an ML will certainly enrich you in any number of ways if you love what you do, but that enrichment will not necessarily be financial!
What words of wisdom would you offer someone considering a change of career to Mountain Leader?
“You’re never too old to be who you might have been” – George Eliot
“A person is not old until regrets take the place of dreams” – John Barrymore
If you have a genuine love of wild, remote places and a curiosity to explore them; if you are a genuine “people person” and can put others’ needs above your own ego; if you are realistic about what to expect once you take the plunge and have considered the financial impact, then I would thoroughly recommend giving ML work a crack.
If I might add one more quote (not sure who it’s by but it’s absolutely true) - “You only live once”
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