This article was originally written for RockClimbingUK following conversations about my background prior to becoming a mountaineering instructor. I hope you enjoy it.....
A door to another world; an epiphany; a light turned on – I’ve used all the clichés over the years. But however it’s described my lightbulb moment was being taken climbing with the scouts when I was 12. For someone who’d never had anything in particular to focus on climbing was the full package – adventure, glamour, inclusivity and the physical and mental challenge I’d failed to find with traditional team sports.
Soon my world was widened by tales of adventures in remote places even if, as a teenager from Cheshire, my initial explorations were rather closer to home. My circle of climbing friends gradually grew and, as birthday presents widened our gear selection, we persuaded parents to take us further afield. We’d get dropped off on Saturday and Sunday mornings at crags like Windgather or Froggatt and be picked up in the evenings. What happened in between was in the lap of the gods. On sunny days we’d fill every moment but we also had a lot of time in the rain huddled under plastic sheets waiting hours for the parent cavalry. We had our epics and we had our mellow days but we loved it all. In those formative years I developed a long term relationship with both wild places and my friends. We missed a lot of what other teenagers did but we were driven, we challenged each other and we were our own self-contained support network. It’s only when I look back years later that I realise how special those times were.
As my group of climbing mates grew we also, ironically, became more exclusive. We’d meet at lunchtimes in school or at each other’s houses to share epic tales from climbing magazines and sometimes our own epic tales. We’d also pour over guidebooks to make over ambitious plans for the coming weekend. Things got easier as our age increased and we were able to travel under our own steam. Soon we were hitching to outlying Peak District crags, Snowdonia or the Lake District. The Peak still gave the best opportunities for the least amount of effort and we regularly dossed in the Stanage caves or at Stoney Middleton. Our food was what we could blag from our home kitchens and we carried climbing gear in our school bags so we could get on the road as soon as the end of day bell rang. The challenge was to be the first to Stoney with the fire lit.
All this leisure time didn’t leave much time for school work and it came as no surprise, despite being a great disappointment to my parents, when I left school with minimal qualifications. I couldn’t care less as climbing was my only agenda. Now I had freedom and soon I was leading a life similar to what Yvon Chouinard termed the ‘dirtbag climbers’. Hitching the motorway network was my pathway to Snowdonia summers, Scottish winters and the Peak for the in betweens. The seasons dictated the rhythm. Occasionally the need for money raised its head but a short stint in climbing shops or outdoor centres sorted it.
It was an idyllic life but in the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t sustainable long term. Many of the original gritstone dirtbags had pulled it together and were sitting pretty on apprenticeships or having the times of their lives at university. A few times I leafed through university prospectuses’ but there was always new blood to swell the dirtbag ranks.
At some point we realised we were allowed off this island. The BMC Chamonix coach service (sadly no longer running) was our Trojan horse and the woods near Montenvers our new home away from home. The Cheshire plains boys should have eased in gradually but day 2 of alpine season 1 saw us up at the Gouter Hut ready to summit Mont Blanc. We got up and back somehow but after that calmed down and started a proper alpine apprenticeship. One foreign trip then led to another and we clocked up the visa stamps. No continent was off the radar but every trip had the key features of cheap camping, a great scene and quality climbing. Arapiles was a great example – free camping, really welcoming local climbers and the chance to earn your potatoes and swedes at the local organic farm. There’s even a bit of rock to climb there too!
After one disastrous expedition left me owing more than I’d earned in the last few years I reluctantly decided I better back up my climbing activities with some sustainable employment. Several friends had become teachers and, with 12 weeks of holiday, they seemed to have a good blend of work and play. Thankfully it worked for me too and soon a new pattern emerged. My bigger trips were dictated by the next school holiday and I still raced out of school every day with my school bag - only now it got thrown in the back of the van to blast up to the weekend’s climbing venue.
My headteacher was a wise person who could see untapped potential in me that I failed to see in myself. She planted the seed of a climbing club and, with only one climber on the staff, asked for volunteers. Soon my little team of ten year olds were visiting local climbing walls and crags and no one was more surprised than me at the impact it had. Teachers started pointing out the children’s attitude change in class and I saw the biggest attitude change in myself. Maybe if I just tweaked the focus of this teaching thing I’d find a job I had a true passion for. Maybe giving people climbing as a means of self-exploration and discovery would allow me to learn more about myself.
Becoming a mountaineering instructor is a reassuringly rigourous process. Soon my wall was dotted with planning schedules and logbook pages full of climbs. My weekend escapes were spent stacking up client teaching days and learning new skills. Through the eyes of others I was seeing the mountain environment in a completely different way and it felt great. I never went to my degree graduation because it interfered with a climbing trip to Pembroke but it didn’t matter – my ‘real’ graduation happened the day the pass stamp was put in my mountaineering instructor logbook.
People say climbing with beginners every day must erode my own passion but don’t you believe it. Every time I can inspire or educate others about this sport that has given me so much it just reaffirms how much I love every single thing about it.
Posted by Paul