Rab is the new home of Lowe Alpine. Learn More
Words by
Andy Spink

I’m safely home, shattered but elated; it’s day eleven of a run of fourteen days’ work. It’s 7 pm and dark as I empty my soaking and slightly sweaty gear into the drying room. I hang it up as quickly as I can – I want to be in the warmth. My happiness is seeing the family and being safe at home, “after all”, I say to myself, “it’s only a job?”

I start pondering about the next day as it has not been easy conditions; I have been post-holing all day, route finding, navigating while negotiating potentially hazardous snow slopes then having to climb and guide the clients. And of course, keep myself safe.

There have been three sunny days out of eleven so far – grim has been the word. But the good three were sublime and often the worst is forgotten with the better conditions. This may be denial or simply survival. I eat loads and then some more as I continue to ponder; checking the weather forecast, reading the avalanche reports and sifting through the social media accounts.

“We check all our gear, and I hand over the ropes – hoods up, heads down. Here we go for another day at work.”

I ponder again, silently considering what it’s all about as I chill with the kids before seeing them to bed. As I read them stories, I feel secure. Once they’re safely tucked in, I drink coffee, perhaps too much, but then there is never too much as I can’t sleep without it. I pile more wood on the fire, pour a dram and relax. I check all the emails I missed while out on the hill (this always takes longer than I want it to). Essential courtesy calls are made to tomorrow’s clients to double check their wants and needs, followed by planning calls to colleagues to discuss our options. More input, more suggestions to consider and still wondering which plan to pick of A to Z. I tell myself to trust my instinct.

I do our social media updates. Check blogs, reports, faff and mull everything over some more. I eat more – I am still hungry after three bowls of pasta. After which I check my kit in the drying room. There is a familiar and comforting odour of slightly damp, sweaty kit. I start to sort everything for the next day, deciding on what to wear and what equipment to take based on what the job entails.

I quietly check on the kids, smile. The silence is welcome, peaceful. Their contented breathing fills my heart with joy. All the graft is for them and their future.  

Tomorrow’s packed lunch is made, the porridge soaked, the dog is put out and the cats fed. I grumble somewhat, after all, I’m shattered.  Once in bed, I consider tomorrow’s options again while listening to the worsening elements from outside bash against the window. I loathe my restless mind, self-talk, concern. Where to go? What to do? Rechecking social media reports. Nothing changes. I am now too tired to sleep, so I listen to the radio – it has always been calming, distracting, turn the ever constant little blue light off and sleep finally comes.

Waking up too early before the alarm is always frustrating, but not as much as sleeping through it! It’s dark and still raining outside; it must be snowing high up?  That will mean more wading through the snow! Another exhausting day breaking the trail lies ahead, so I eat porridge and drink coffee, lots.

Vacillation returns as I pack the nearly dry technical gear and sneak out of the house. It is too early for kids to wake up. The dog looks at me “Not today Hamish” I whisper. He mumbles at me. He is like me – he hates missing a day on the hill.

The hour’s drive or so to meet my clients allows me to make dynamic risk assessments. Local knowledge is key.  Hopefully, I will be there before the clients so as to take a deep breath, put my boots on and finish my coffee.

The clients arrive beaming with expectation, and I repeat to myself to trust my experience. We check all our gear, and I hand over the ropes – hoods up, heads down. Here we go for another day at work.

“My daily routine is based around safety decision making, and one of these decisions is the essential clothing choices which are part of the process.”

The working day in the winter becomes more familiar over time, but no day is ever the same. That is the joy and the challenge of being a Mountaineering Instructor, particularly in the increasingly variable winter seasons.

I qualified as an MIC [ Mountaineering Instructors Certificate] in 1995 after the robust training and assessment process which started in 1992. The journey to feeling at ease with working in the winter mountains with clients took time and still, uncertainty looms as the pressure to deliver an appropriate and safe mountain day is ever present. We are only human after all, but the commercial pressure of clients’ ambitions or wants rather than needs can be a tricky thing to navigate. This is based on whether they want to be guided or learn or both. Yet it must not be the driver for the day.

The flexible routine of my working day is strangely predictable. Making the day run as smoothly as possible for everyone involved is the unpredictable element. The daily routine of checking weather forecasts, avalanche reports and only fairly recently other colleague’s blogs and social media reports is a mantra-like habit. We humans will flock to the known, understandably as this is an easier decision but not necessarily a safer one as the hubris of the familiarity has to be carefully controlled. It will catch one out if not recognised and resisted.

We start walking – the buzz of the clients’ excitement is only just heard over the draining wind. The comforting warmth of slightly tired muscles is slowly propelling me upward and signals another working day.

My daily routine is based around safety decision making, and one of these decisions is the essential clothing choices which are part of the process. It is not just arbitrary nor vanity but crucial to my comfort, wellbeing and ability to work in such demanding environments. Decision-making based on what and how much climbing equipment and safety kit to pack is also a daily consideration. I am a fan of lightweight but appropriate equipment. I enjoy packing all my winter gear into a well organised and considered rucksack. When I recall the bulk and weight of gear we used to carry I pinch myself at how much more user-friendly equipment is nowadays. The design, ergonomics and developments of modern fabrics and technical equipment has enabled leaps in practical applications, safety and comfort.

That is not to say that making the correct safety choices has altered. We cannot rely on any of this equipment to make the educated, informed decisions for us. Experience is the key, and you can’t gain experience unless you go out and do it. And of course, (I say reservedly), make mistakes and learn from them. This is the key area where the novice can save time and money by hiring an instructor or guide.

“We cannot rely on any of this equipment to make the educated, informed decisions for us. Experience is the key.”

My legs have survived 36 years of outdoor wanderings, 29 years of professional work and are required to offer up another 15 years of hard labour at the cold coal face of the mountains. I have no idea how many days I have actually spent in the mountains over this period, but it has been a substantial percentage of my life. In a clichéd way, they have shaped and informed my life, defined who I am and, potentially, they may still drive my future.

Each working day progresses from the walk in, to the objective – be it a skills session or a guided route. Each day has positives and negatives. Each day on reflection is considered and analysed, for some days go better than others in delivery, content, outcomes and the client’s satisfaction. All days are driven by terrain, conditions, the client’s ability and honesty, their fitness and, of course, my personal wellbeing on the day and how I react to being responsible in serious situations.

These days have ranged from the sublime to the downright grim. From hedonistic delight at being in this wild environment to near survival epics. No one day is ever the best as the next could be even better. There have been many best days. One thing is for sure; no day in the life of a mountaineering instructor is ever without memories.

Andy Spink has thirty-six years of climbing and mountaineering experience. He is the founder of Hebridean Pursuits ltd, an adventure company based on the West Coast of Scotland. Working throughout the year, Andy particularly loves instructing and guiding in the Scottish winter season.