Scaling the heights: Being a climbing instructor offers plenty of career highs
Thursday 18 September 2008
Walking in the Peak District on a clear sunny day, stopping to admire the view across the Hope Valley and breathing in the crisp Derbyshire air might not seem like your average journey into work. But, for James Thacker it's a daily reality and one that he thanks his lucky stars for.
Thacker, a climbing instructor from south Derbyshire started climbing when he was in his early teens. "A friend's father climbed and he was good at introducing us to the activity, allowing us to be independent very quickly," he says. "It wasn't long after this that we started getting the train to Sheffield and visiting an indoor climbing wall. We also hitched out to the Peak District and taught ourselves a thing or two."
When Thacker was at university in Sheffield, he began working as a climbing instructor for a local outdoor centre in the holidays and gained his first reward, the single pitch award, for short climbs. He now holds the highest UK climbing and mountaineering award, the mountain instructor certificate. "This means that my 'instructional' year is very diverse," he says. "I may find myself doing a beginners rock climbing session in Derbyshire, working with independent experienced climbers in North Wales or ice climbing on Ben Nevis in the winter months." Thacker also works as a technical adviser for wall climbing and other activity providers and training other instructors.
Thacker admits that a lot of instructors find the work a bit too seasonal. "Dealing with the British weather can be hard and you need to be continually inventive. Choosing venues that fit the weather (and your teaching objectives) is a challenge."
There is no requirement in the UK to have a climbing instructor qualification but most instructors or coaches do have some accreditation. At a basic level, the climbing wall award and single pitch award are for supervisors of climbing activities at climbing walls and single pitch crags. At the upper end, there's the mountain instructors' scheme, comprising the mountain instructors award, the mountain instructor certificate and the mountain guides qualification IFMGA Guide which covers climbing, mountaineering and ski mountaineering worldwide.
"I don't think it's a problem that people choose to climb without formal instruction," says Thacker. "The important thing is that they are aware of the risks involved and are responsible for their own actions and involvement. The reality is that we all learn in different ways and for most people contact with a climbing instructor will be a positive experience."
An average day for Thacker might start around 7.30am with a check on the weather forecast. "Most venues are very accessible or, within a 10-minute drive. I always aim to finish at an appropriate point rather than having a cut-off time, usually being back at a local cafe before 5pm to review the day and make plans."
Tim Mosedale, from Manchester, lives in Keswick in the Lake District. After doing a bit of climbing at school which, he says, "never fired my rockets" he took it up properly in his mid-twenties. "I did my first lead-climb [without a rope above] and it blew me away," he says.
"I was exhilarated, scared stiff and clueless. I still have that exhilaration sometimes, not to the same degree, but I still love it."
After a career in the Army, Mosedale worked at a local activity centre to fuel his outdoor passion. "I went from earning £25,000 a year to £2,000," he says, "but it was I wanted to do." Working his way up to head of centre, Mosedale – who has climbed Everest – eventually struck out on his own. Like many others, he also runs a B&B business and orchestrates regular mountain expeditions to make ends meet.
"When I started working for myself, I had eight jobs, working in a restaurant, cleaning toilets, doing anything while I gradually built a client base," he says. "It's very difficult to make a living purely as an instructor. You're on anything between £5,000 and £15,000 per year, which can be tough. But in the winter months it's possible to find work doing rope access or surveying work in places like Libya and Oman. Working with geologists looking for oil can be a well-paid option."
But Mosedale says that first and foremost a climbing instructor must have to want to teach. "For some climbers, teaching is just a way of earning money to enable them to climb.
"You need to want to encourage other people, though I do know some who seem to like the fact that there's 50 metres between them and the client but I really love that I can enthuse people about climbing."
How to get to the top
Find work at an outdoor centre and learn by experience
Don't treat it as a hobby
Contact the British Association of Mountain Guides (www.bmg.org.uk), Mountain Leader Training England (www.mlte.org), for details of accreditation or visit the British Mountaineering Council website (www.thebmc.co.uk), for tips on how to get started
"Be professional and offer value for money. Don't treat it as a hobby," Tim Mosedale
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