A Day in the Life of a Winter Climbing Instructor
Senior Instructor Neil Johnson lets us take a look at a day in his life as an insructor on one of our Scottish Winter Climbing Courses
On our “intro to Scottish winter climbing courses” we aim to get the most out of every single day. This always means an early start (following a hearty breakfast). I usually meet my team of students about eight in the morning when we have a good chat about the day ahead. This is an essential part of the day, taking into account individual aims and the weather forecast and climbing conditions. Working at such low instructor to student ratios allows us to tailor the course to make sure our students experience a mountain-day that’s pitched at the optimum level for both their learning and enjoyment.
After the first day, where we concentrateon fundamental winter climbing skills, I usually have two students to climb with for rest of the week. As an instructor, working this closely with people allows me to really get to know them and to start to understand their personal learning style, tailoring my approach to their personality.
The venue we choose will always depend on weather, conditions, personal experience, fitness and aspirations. If we head to somewhere like Ben Nevis there will always be a two-hour walk to the cliff before the real climbing commences. This is an important opportunity to look at conditions as we walk to the cliff. I usually use this time to do some teaching. There’s plenty to chat about - gear, clothing, possible routes, fitness, nutrition, psychology, I often find myself simply sharing some of my experiences gained in the last 15yrs of climbing in the Scottish hills with my students.
That’s one of the big strengths that I think we overlook at Plas y Brenin. Here students are taught by instructors who have a wealth of experience climbing in Scotland and around the world but on top of that our full-time job is all about helping people to learn from that experience. That’s what we do best - we help people learn. It’s what we’re good at. As a team, our instructors are constantly exploring the process of coaching in the mountains and striving to improve our own coaching abilities.
As we arrive under the cliffs the climbs come into view, the North face of Ben Nevis is always an awe-inspiring sight with striking rock faces, steep cliffs and fine gullies covered in snow and ice. The nature of Scottish winter means snow and ice conditions vary enormously from week to week, but there is always something to climb. Finding the right challenge for the right person is what makes my job all the more interesting and rewarding.
As a result of our ‘walk-in’ chatter we usually have a specific route in mind but there are no guarantees someone else hasn’t got there first or that the conditions aren’t what you anticipated. That’s where our flexibility comes into play. It takes experience and confidence to instruct in this constantly changing environment, when plan A doesn’t work out you have to weigh up all the options and make a decision.
There are some great routes to choose from on the “Ben” and I have some personal favourites. Climbing a route like No3 Gully buttress, which is a popular route on these courses, involves walking up steep snow to the foot of a majestic rock buttress. As is often the case from the bottom, the line looks improbable but as you move up you find your self on a relatively straight-forward route through impressive surroundings.
Three sections(pitches) of snow climbing lead to a rocky step, usually covered in snow and ice, a couple of moves with crampons scratching on rock and swinging picks into ice lead to a belay and the start of the routes ‘classic’ section. This consists of a rising traverse of snow covered rock with a tricky move in the middle.
Whilst climbing the route I make a point of talking to my two students all the time, explaining what I’m doing, giving them hints and tips on climbing and when they are at belays helping them to learn the skills necessary to keep themselves safe in winter. I always try to get students “doing” as much as possible so they can learn in a ‘hands-on’ manner. I feel this is the best way to learn in these conditions and I think this is one of the great strengths of our approach to coaching at Plas y Brenin. Our instructors have years of experience climbing and teaching in these conditions and are experts in helping people learn in a practical way. Students learn to build winter belays, handle ropes, consider route logistics and how to use axes and crampons for efficient, safe travel. Moving smoothly over different terrain in winter conditions is hard learned and complex real skill and I feel strongly that the coaching we offer helps people progress much more quickly.
Once the traverse is complete the top always comes quickly, hopefully unveiling a magnificent view of the Scottish highlands. On a good day this view could encompass the Cairngorms in the east, and span all the way out to the Isle of Skye in the west. This is one of the things that make the winter experience so unique and memorable. In my experience Scotland has some of the finest scenery in the world.
Once we’re finished it’s time to return to the Minibus and meet up with the rest of the team. The walk off the mountain usually takes around 2 hrs and is a good time to reflect on the day and start the plans for the next adventure.
Most of the time everyone arrives back at the bus at roughly the same time, which means no-one is left waiting around in the cold for other groups to get of the hill. Timing is something we’re always acutely aware of and our experience once again helps us get that right time and time again. Once in the warm minibus it’s back to the hotel for tea and cakes which is a perfect opportunity to sit back and enjoy a chat about the day.
This is always a nice way to end a day in the winter hills. At the same time this gives the instructors an opportunity to get together to share their experiences of the day and to make plans for the next one.
All that is left now is a relaxed sociable evening then a warm, comfortable bed. I usually make a point of getting to bed early - plenty of rest is essential as tomorrow we are sure to be out in the mountains doing it all again!