People often ask how I got to be a mountain leader, and I’m often asked what I did before I made the leap into this line of work. This year (2016) it will be 20 years since I passed my summer Mountain Leader assessment, taken at Lane Head OEC near Coniston in the Lake District, with Andy Brown as my assessor. So, to celebrate what has been a glorious 20 years I thought I’d give a bit of an insight into what brought about my career choice in the first place, what I’ve done during the last 20 years, and what the future might hold for me.
When I left school I didn’t know that being a mountain guide or instructor was a possibility. I’d been hillwalking with my older brothers Richard and Dave since the age of about 8 or 9, then with the scouts from the age of 10. I’d done a bit of rock climbing and abseiling with the scouts, and from my mid-teens had been on a few backpacks around the Lakes and Snowdonia with friends. However, actually making a living from walking and climbing just wasn’t on my radar. I knew I wanted to work outside, but other than that I didn’t really have a clue about a career choice.
I was given an opportunity to study horticulture at my local college, Bishop Burton College of Agriculture, and while I’d never thought of becoming a gardener, it seemed like an OK sort of thing to do. 8 years later I was still working in horticulture, but really felt like this was a means to an end, the end being each weekend when I would head for the hills after work on the Friday. We’d cram into a couple of cars and head for the Lakes usually, but sometimes for the Cairngorms, Arrochar, or Snowdonia. I was also helping out as a volunteer with my local venture scout unit at this time, and this helped, in a roundabout fashion, to steer me towards a new career path.
Back in the 1990s GoreTex Ltd used to run a Mountain Leader Training programme each year. They would select 12 people who were active in the outdoors as a leader in a voluntary capacity, and would pay for them to take part in the Mountain Leader Training course, held at Glenmore Lodge. In 1995, I was one of the lucky 12 chosen. And that was the start of my new career as a Mountain Leader. During my debrief at the end of the course, the trainer, Jaz Hepburn, was full of praise for how I had performed during the course, and basically told me to crack on and get an assessment booked. I was understandably thrilled.
At about the same time I began approaching a few of the outdoor magazines with feature ideas. A handful of my features shortly began appearing in TGO, High Mountain Sports, and Climber, and I started to think in terms of leaving my job in horticulture to pursue a combined career as a mountain guide/outdoor writer.
1996 saw me go for assessment as a summer Mountain Leader, but still I was reluctant to give up the security and salary of a full time job in horticulture. Unfortunately, I became a less than enthusiastic employee, and the next 18 months or so were hard for me, and I am sure were even harder for my colleagues at work. I only wanted to be on a hill or on a crag, and gardens and plants just held no attraction for me anymore. Eventually, I struck lucky with a contract to write a book on the mountains of Wales. I decided on the spur of the moment to hand in my notice at work. I think everyone involved was relieved!
In April 1998 I set out on a 2-month walk to backpack all of the 2000ft peaks of Wales in one continuous expedition. It was a very wet summer, and the journey had a lot of ups and downs. The resulting book, The High Summits of Wales, was not a great success. It was very badly written, was self indulgent, and I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of sitting at a desk bashing out 100,000 words, but it did teach me a lot about the mountains of Wales, about dealing with publishers, editors, and critics, and about making plans for future books and channelling my efforts into projects that I believed in.
More outdoor qualifications came in 2004, with Single Pitch Supervisors Award (now the SPA), and winter Mountain Leader assessments passed. I was rock climbing four or five times a week to get through the SPA, and had moved to Scotland with Olivia, my partner (now my wife) so that I was well placed for making the most of every wintry day to get through the winter ML.
Work in those days was mainly with a new company, Wilderness Scotland. I worked on week-long walking, sailing, and winter skills trips for the company as their Senior Guide – holidays that took me to most of the wilder parts of Scotland, including the Cairngorms, Knoydart, the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, Wester Ross, and Sutherland. I was also running my own programme of guided mountain walks, as well as navigation courses for walkers, so was pretty busy.
Olivia and I moved around a lot, jumping from one corner of the UK to another as work opportunities arose for either one or the other of us. We lived in Garve in Easter Ross, then Hesket Newmarket in the Lake District, then Brampton just east of Carlisle. Olivia got offered a job in Swindon, so yes we moved there too, then on to East Anglia before we headed north again to live on the island of Canna off the west coast of Scotland. Canna was both sweet and sour for us, and we left after only one short summer to make a new life in Shetland. More work offers in Wales then took us to the slopes of Arenig Fawr just outside of Bala in south Snowdonia, then in 2014 I was offered the job as winter Fell Top Assessor on Helvellyn in the Lake District. We made this doable from our base near Bala for that first winter season, but it became clear that if I was going to continue as Fell Top Assessor for the 2015/16 season we’d have to up sticks and move to Cumbria, again. So, October 2015 saw us arrive in the Eden Valley in east Cumbria.
And now, mid June 2016, and 20 years after starting the journey as a mountain leader I’m preparing for the next big leap – the Mountaineering Instructor Award. I did the training course for this award last August, and all went pretty well. With hindsight I wish I had booked the residential course, rather than as a day attendee, as the other lads on the course all spent the evenings re-evaluating the stuff we’d learned during each day, whereas I shuffled off home for a comfy bed. I do think that I missed a small but essential part of my training through doing this. During the debrief Dave Rudkin, the course director from Plas y Brenin, gave a glowing appraisal of my current status in the scheme at that time, noting that I should just book an assessment as soon as possible, but to make sure I was climbing consistently at the grade required beforehand. I’m generally happy with this, although I know that I do have a tendency to occasionally let the doubts creep in, and I can fairly easily convince myself that I’m not ready for assessment. These self doubts in my own personal climbing is something I have struggled with before, and I know deep down that I can do it and I do have the skills and experience to pull me through. Just occasionally I forget that and find myself telling myself how crap I am. I guess a lot of people find themselves doing that in all walks of life though.
So, right now I’m climbing whenever I can. My assessment is later this autumn, so I’m cracking on with personal climbing two or three times a week, and am putting in about the same amount of effort with my climbing instructing. I’ve built up a team of really keen ‘mock students’ to help me with this. They’re all great guys and girls, and are all super enthusiastic to get out on the crags for me to practice on. So, thanks to Jim Wardrope, Megan Walker, Adrian Swift, PB, Andy Barton, Andy Kelly, Chris Avery, David Stringfellow, and my regular mates from Snowdonia Dave Neville and Ben Wells, I am getting some good quality instructing in too.
Most of my work these days is for myself, through my own businesses Graham Uney Mountaineering, and Lakes and Pennines Walking, but I do also do the occasional bit of freelance work. I’m still involved in writing books (16 to date), and work on occasional magazine features when the fancy takes me too.
People often ask me about the ‘other’ outdoor qualifications I can offer. It seems to come as a surprise to them when I tell them that I am a mountain instructor, and that I’m not remotely interested in gaining qualifications in kayaking, power boating, horse riding, caving, mountain biking, skiing, archery, etc., etc., etc. As far as I’m concerned they are all different sports, whereas my heart, and my past experiences, are in the mountains. You wouldn’t expect a rugby coach to also be a table tennis coach, or a swimming instructor, so I never really understood why anyone who works in outdoor pursuits is expected to be a jack of all trades. I like to think I’m quite good at what I do in the mountains, and know that I’d only ever make a second rate mountain biking instructor (or whatever). Walking and climbing in the mountains is my life, it’s not something I do purely to make a living, or for a buzz. I do it because there is nothing else I would rather do.
I’m also proud of the fact that I have been doing this for a long time. I’m not at all interested in the ‘zero to hero’ approach to mountain pursuits that seems to be very popular among new instructors today. This is partly because I certainly don’t see myself as a ‘hero’ just because I love being in the mountains and introducing others to the mountains, nor do I see others at the bottom waiting to take their first steps in the mountains as ‘zeros’ (actually, I really do loathe the phrase ‘zero to hero’ for this very reason). I am particularly proud of the countless days I’ve spent in the mountains, sometimes on my own, but often with some really lovely and truly inspiring people. Because to me, that is what being experienced is all about. Time spent out there doing what you love. And you can’t buy your way into that. You’ve just got to get out there and do it.