Reflections On 25 Years In The Outdoor Industry


Apologies for the quality of some of the images. All the photos were taken back in the dark ages before digital cameras.

1993. Boris Yeltsin was voted in as president of Russia. The World Wide Web source code was released by CERN, making the software freely available to all. UKIP came into being, and Mr Blobby was the Christmas number one. The Queen announced that Buckingham Palace would be opened to the public, and the Chris Ensoll School of Mountaineering was birthed in a spare bedroom in a cottage in the Lake District.

Today - 31st March 2018 - is our 25 year anniversary, our Silver Jubilee.

Chris ski touring in France c.1998

Chris ski touring in France c.1998

Chris had always wanted to work for himself, having grown up in a family of small  business owners. He had been working for Impact Development Training since September 1988, and he was looking for his next challenge. So we took the plunge, Chris left his job, and we began the adventure of self-employment. At first he was doing quite a bit of freelance work for Impact, whilst I did some supply teaching and various office jobs to help make ends meet. The combination of not enough work plus Chris going through the British Mountain Guides training scheme led to some lean times. We survived the winters by maxing out our business overdraft, borrowing money from the bank of Mum & Dad x2, and eating a lot of lentils.

Milestones along the way

1995: we changed the name to The Rock Outdoor Adventures and got our first website, which looked like this:

Chris Ensoll first website home page.JPG

Summer 1996: I passed the Single Pitch Award and the Mountain Leader Award, and became full time in the business, dividing my time between instructing and the office.

In April 1997 Chris passed the final stage of assessment to become a fully qualified International Mountain Guide. What a relief.

2000: Stuart Carter joined us for a couple of years. We had our last-ever paper leaflet printed. The inside looked like this:

leaflet inside rs.jpeg

...and the outside looked like this:

leaflet outside rs.jpeg

January 2002: Stuart left to set up his own business, Climb365. Sam was born, and we overhauled the business and stopped doing big group work – a good earner but lots of admin work, and neither of us liked doing it.

November 2005: Chris took a full-time job as the technical adviser for Lancashire County Council. When he came to his senses in the summer of 2006, we relaunched as Chris Ensoll Mountain Guide, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Anne belaying on a Rock Improvers course in the Lake District, 1993 or 1994

Anne belaying on a Rock Improvers course in the Lake District, 1993 or 1994

A few words of advice...

So what pearls of wisdom do we have to pass on to anyone thinking about starting an outdoor business?

It will be a lot less painful if you have some money behind you, either as capital or in the form of a working spouse/partner. We didn’t have either of these.

Setting up a business before you’re qualified to do the kind of work that you really want to do probably isn’t the best - especially not when you need to pay out lots of money to finish your qualifications.

Don’t do it unless you are really passionate and prepared to work your socks off.

However, don’t make the mistake of not taking enough time off. In our first summer, we were getting loads of work through an outdoor shop in Ambleside, and Chris just kept on saying yes to it all. He worked 30 days without a day off, and then he was ill for a week.

Chris working in Nepal, May 1994

Chris working in Nepal, May 1994

When you first start up, you may feel like you have to be all things to all people in order to get enough work. We certainly did. But keep in mind the goal of only doing the stuff that you're really good at and that you really enjoy, and work towards dropping everything else. 

No-one is really good at everything that needs to be done to keep a business going. If you’re a top notch climbing instructor but you’re like Eeyore and you think pencils and what-not are over-rated silly stuff, then you probably need to find someone to help with your office work. The perfect solution is if your spouse/partner is good at all the things you’re not, and he/she is willing to commit to the business.

Be prepared to compromise for the sake of the people you love. We know so many mountain guides who have been so committed to the job that their marriages haven’t survived the strain. When you’re looking back on your working life, it’s unlikely that you’ll wish you worked harder, but you will almost certainly regret not giving more time to your family.

Don't be afraid to give things a go. For several years we offered rock climbing courses in Spain and Majorca, but we never got the numbers to make them really work. We did have some really great times climbing in the sun in the winter, but we recognised when it was time to move on and try something else.

If you've tried something and it didn't work, maybe it was a good idea at the wrong time, or it needed to be marketed differently. We've been offering CPD workshops through the Mountain Training Association for several years, but at first they just didn't sell. A couple of years ago we renamed them as Masterclasses, and now we get loads of bookings and they are a really good earner for us.

A few more pics...

Chris ghyll scrambling with a school group, c.1994

Chris ghyll scrambling with a school group, c.1994

Chris & clients winter mountaineering in Scotland c.1995

Chris & clients winter mountaineering in Scotland c.1995

Roadside belaying in Majorca, 1998

Roadside belaying in Majorca, 1998