GUEST POST by KELVYN JAMES
Kelvyn James is an International Mountain Leader, and he is the current Chair of the British Association of International Mountain Leaders, the Mountain Training Association Lake District rep and the former Development Officer for the Association of British Climbing Walls. He lives in Cumbria, runs his own business, Mountain Services, and he is on our team of freelance instructors. He has featured in our My Story blog series.
I drifted into the Mountain Training awards almost by accident – something to do as I wandered the hills after selling my business. I’d met Chris when I booked a place on his Single Pitch Award (now Rock Climbing Instructor) course, & that quickly led to the Summer Mountain Leader – but I’d still no real aim, no idea that you could, or that I would, end up earning a living doing something so rewarding.
As we made our way up the flank of Cold Pike aiming for an obtuse little contour on Mountain Leader assessment we chatted about the things we’d done, the places we’d been, a love of travel and mountains. “You should do the IML next.” I had to confess I’d never heard of it.
But I’ve always valued Chris’s advice, so I went away and read up on this potential next adventure – and it just seemed a perfect fit. A higher qualification aimed at those who work and play in mountains around the world – a mandatory qualification to work in France, Switzerland (& soon Italy) – a qualification just as much about judgement and the ability to adapt as it is about nav & ropes. I signed up days after passing the Mountain Leader assessment.
The rest as they say is history – I was in the very fortunate financial position that I was able to attend the four courses in quick succession (summer training & assessment and winter training & assessment), and eighteen months later I was an International Mountain Leader.
You have to do the summer training before the winter training, but you can do the winter training before you've done the summer assessment. The summer training course includes a speed navigation test – Mountain Leader level navigation at Naismiths pace with a full sack (easy if you trained with Chris). As the winter training is largely on snowshoes in deep snow, practice was needed, so I had ten days on snowshoes before winter training. The summer assessment involves fixed equipment and a hut to hut journey, and the navigation is a little harder than Mountain Leader, but very achievable. For the winter assessment you’ll need to know how to build a solid snow anchor and a shelter and there’s also a mandatory timed avalanche rescue to do. You need very solid snow skills, almost certainly developed, at least in part, overseas.
So what did I find surprising along the way?
Firstly, there’s an expectation within the award that you’ll also be an educator (my French Carte Professionnelle says “Educateur Sportif”) and a higher level of additional knowledge is expected. Flora, fauna, lichens, geology, local history and much more – as an International Mountain Leader you’re encouraged to add value, and it’s made me a much better leader in so many ways. And (and for me it’s a big AND) I love pointing things out as we wander in the wonder – I like taking the time to pause and ponder, and I hope I leave clients with a little more than they came with.
The nature of a qualification that lets you go nearly anywhere (except where the tools of Alpinism are required is the current definition) means that we spend a lot of time on dynamic risk assessments, on using the best tools we have, not just prescribed tools – and that we have the skills to know how to deal with a lot of different situations. The first time I had to tell somebody they couldn’t do the next stage of their very expensive trek was tough, but I knew it was the right call and that I’d done the right thing. I also knew that I could collect the client in a few days and make the end of their trip special with a few route alterations.
IML is not a cheap, or easy, qualification to achieve. Three out of the four courses are residential overseas. . But – there are currently (at time of writing) only around 450 qualified UK IML’s, and there is a vast amount of work if it’s a lifestyle that appeals. I’m able to mix very well paying gigs with giving back projects that I’m invested in, and it’s also nice to work for Americans who like to tip! It’s not often mentioned, but IML together with UK Winter Mountain Leader meets the requirements to be a course provider for Mountain Training awards (other criteria apply), so there is real career progression via IML too. A lot of IML’s go on to form their own trekking companies, or others, like me, simply freelance and I find that I get a lot of repeat work as I develop specific expertise in the geographical areas I love. But the real value for me is that it’s such a broad award. It’s one of only two mountain qualifications that are internationally recognised (clue - Chris holds the other one) and it opens up a whole world of opportunities & reward.
I now spend 3-4 months of the year working overseas. A typical summer will see me on the Tour du Mont Blanc, the Walkers Haute Route, maybe a GR20 or an Everest Base Camp. I’ll spend some of my IML time in boots, some in trail shoes and some on snowshoes. But I also try and get to at least one new place a year, so this year I found my self working for the International Red Cross out in the Caribbean in the aftermath of the hurricanes – amazing and very sobering all at the same time. I’ve colleagues who’ve used their IML to work in Mongolia, Antarctica, Siberia, Slovakia – and right here in the Lake District. In many of those countries the qualification isn’t strictly necessary, but it does open a lot of doors and gives employers and clients a measure of the quality of the leader they’ve got.
For more information on becoming an IML chat to Chris or me (you can reach me via Chris) or get in touch with the British Association of International Mountain Leaders