Learning From Your Trade | The Transition From Climber To Guide

Words and photos by Tom Ripley

The thing I was most anxious about when I applied for the British Mountain Guides’ training scheme was whether or not I would actually enjoy taking people into the mountains for work. I thought I would, but not having come from an instructing background, I wasn’t certain. If I am honest, part of me wondered if I just wanted to tell people that I’m a guide, rather than actually be a mountain guide.

BMG Trainees 2017. Stuart McAleese photo

Thankfully, nearly one year into the BMG’s training program, I’ve discovered my doubts to be needless. My life has been consumed by climbing since my early teens. I used to skip school to go climbing; I choose my university based on its proximity to climbing. This backfired slightly, as I was so busy climbing I barely attended lectures, and when I did go to class, I spent most of my time daydreaming about climbing or plotting my next trip. Training to be a mountain guide has been a revelation: I can go climbing all the time, guilt free. In fact, if I am not going climbing, I start to feel guilty.

Jammed Boulder Gully. Hamish Dunn photo.

The British Mountain Guides’ training program is a three-year, full time commitment. It starts with three, one day long, inductions, each followed by a few days of introductory training. The inductions check candidates’ personal rock climbing, winter climbing and skiing is at the requisite standard. Once you’ve passed all three you are officially on the Guides’ training scheme and the training begins in earnest. Although they were quite daunting, the guides working on them did a good job of making these mini tests as relaxed and enjoyable as possible. That said on the night before the rock induction I was more than a little nervous. I woke, much earlier than normal, and packed and repacked my rucksack, making sure nothing had been forgotten. With butterflies in my stomach, the introductory briefing seemed to drag on for hours – I just wanted to start climbing and get it over with. Thankfully, all too soon I was at the bottom of Gogarth Main Cliff with my good friend Hamish, being assessed by Adrian Nelhams, the BMG’s Technical Director. I set off up the first pitch, nervous and little wobbly at first, but then it was just climbing and I was enjoying it like I always do.

Gogarth Main Cliff. Tom Ripley photo

The first proper training course, the unimaginatively named ‘Rock One’, was based in the Lakes District. The night before, our motley team of six met at the club hut that was going to be our home for the next few days. Situated in picturesque Little Langdale, there was no phone signal, let alone 4G. Whether this was by accident or design I am unsure, but with no distractions from the outside world we were able to devote all our energies to learning how to guide. Over the four action-packed days that followed, whilst weather from all four seasons was enjoyed and endured, we learned the nuts and bolts of guiding: taking people climbing, how to teach climbing, the dark art of short roping, and an evening of night navigation thrown in too.

Amphitheatre Buttress at Carneaddau. Tom Ripley photo.

On the second afternoon, having spent the morning being introduced to short roping techniques on a roadside outcrop, we headed to Dow Crag to put our newfound skills to the test. The course convener, the inimitable Stuart McAleese, was training Will and me. The walk to Dow is normally a leisurely hour’s stroll; Stuart however had other plans. Starting us off at a brisk pace, which got increasingly brisker as the ground got steeper, we arrived at the crag in a little over half an hour. I tried my best to act cool and to look like I always walked at that pace. No sooner had we arrived, it was up a scramble, followed by a classic easy route at lightning speed. At the top the wind picked and as we started to descend, short roping down some broken ground it started to snow.

‘Rock One’ was followed three weeks later by a second training course, delivered by Martin Chester at Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre in North Wales. Officially named: Physical Performance and Coaching, it is known to most simply as Rock 2. If Rock 1 teaches the nuts and bolts of guiding, during Rock 2 you learn how to think like a guide. Mornings were spent in the classroom, whilst in the afternoons we went out on the hill, putting what we’d learned into practice. On the last day of the course, under the watchful supervision of qualified guides, we were each given a mock client to take out for the day. Each evening (after tea and cake – a Plas y Brenin institution) there was a lecture on a subject relating to guiding. The most interesting of these was a talk on the psychology of guiding from Lew Hardy, a retired British Mountain Guide, also a professor of psychology at Bangor University. Lithe and dressed in an open shirt, Lew didn’t look like your conventional academic. Over the next hour, he delivered a fascinating talk, occasionally dropping in a four-letter expletive whenever our eyes started to droop or attentions started to waiver.

Deep Cut Chimney in Cairngorms. Tom Ripley photo.

Since then, it has been practice, practice, and practice. I’ve been out a lot: in all weather, climbing, scrambling up and down, navigating, problem solving, in boots and in rock shoes, day and night. I’ve loved every minute of it. Thank yous go to my peer group on the training scheme, the qualified guides and instructors who have allowed me to observe them working and in particular to all my friends who’ve accompanied me on the hill as mock students. The banter and patience has been appreciated. With less than two weeks to go until our formal six-day rock assessment I cannot wait to get stuck in.


Read more about the British Mountain Guides.

Tom Ripley is a British Mountain Guide trainee based in North Wales. He has a passion for adventurous climbing and is always psyched for the next one.