How to survive a career in the outdoors.

Your dream lifestyle could fail. Perhaps a bit dramatic so let me put it another way: it might not be worth the effort. Wether it is or not depends on your motivation and what you hope to gain.

The outdoor industry (although I hesitate to call it that - perhaps profession might be more appropriate these days) is not cash rich. That said it’s practitioners are usually able to make a reasonable living, take holidays and generally exhibit the trappings of adequate comfort. Houses and children often arrive later than most; different priorities, no career fast-track to a high salary.

So why do we do it? Personally speaking it’s because I have to. I like it and cannot, will not conceive of a life without mountaineering. But there is something else, and this is key: I like working with people.

If I wasn’t fussed about teaching and guiding I’d work full time in the Rope Access industry (and it is an industry in all senses), I’d have the time and means to go away on a lot of climbing holidays.

Fingers Ridge

Workshopping trainee mountain instructors in the Cairngorms.

Think about who are those climbers who are prolific, who gets a lot done? The names that spring to my mind firstly are not mountain guides or outdoor instructors. Lawyer, Teacher, Petroleum Geologist, Academic.

There are lots. A legion of quiet ‘amateurs’ out having the time of their lives based in conventional jobs. Steve Kennedy, Simon Richardson, Heike Puchan, the phenomenal HMRC employee Mick Fowler. The talent these have in addition to exploratory climbing is awesome time management! I don’t know how they do it! But they are testament to what can be achieved.

So you should ask yourself, because it’s your life: do I just want to do my thing? Or do I need to preach and teach?

For a young person in college or on a trainee scheme an outdoor activity career is a long road, quite possibly all the way to seventy years old, bereft of a healthy company pension. Going the distance will require some anticipation of things to come. This could mean a career change, or at least a deviation and perhaps a diversification of work type and that last part is particularly salient. Be varied and be adaptable! Unless you have a very definite focal point!

Broadly speaking there are two types of animal on our planet, the generalists and the specialists. The latter can be extremely successful in a niche where they excel. Take the cheetah, for example, it can only do one thing (run fast and catch rapid prey) and it does it with brilliance. The vulnerability they have is to change in their environment. If the gazelle population crashes, the cheetah cannot adapt it’s behaviour quickly enough to survive. The fox on the other hand is most definitely a generalist, they are found from the high Arctic to the streets of our towns and cities, they are highly adaptable and eat anything!

So are you a fox or a cheetah? You’re either going to have to be able to do lots of things i.e. be multi- disciplined or specialise, which means excellent personal performance and the highest qualification, which may take years.

Huntly's Cave

Staff training for new outdoor centre instructors.

As of now I am in my middle years. All my body parts work and I don’t really have much in the way of grumbles. This has pretty much been a happy accident in that my working life has revolved around a central theme but has been varied. I haven’t subjected myself to a constant battering year after year. Some of my friends have done just this and consequently have worn out knees and hips or wrecked shoulders. Preventative maintenance will go some way to career longevity, and remember, you don’t want to be so knackered that you can’t get out and do your own thing! Perhaps this is a benefit of the generalist plan, no one body area is getting repeatedly stressed.

Physical fitness. We’re all fit aren’t we? We are outdoor sports enthusiasts! What of the specialists though? The MI or Guide have got strong, tight quads, their knees and hips take a pounding, so are they fit? Their heart, lungs and quads will be! The rest might in all probability be somewhat out of balance though ,and this is where cross training comes in, the purpose of which is to combine exercises and eliminate the over use of one muscle group by a particular activity.

So look after yourself! Maintain a good balanced body if you want it to last, clean living and a pure heart! Well maybe not, but do the basics. Cross train, stretch and establish a good core, and by this I mean the muscles of the abdomen and hips that lie beneath the prominent ones that you can see. These are the foundations of your muscular system and good core stability helps avoid a whole raft of problems that can crop up due to straining and load carrying and all the things we take for granted. Hero style sit ups are not what you want for this, rather some subtle balance exercises that quietly work all the little core muscles. My wife was instructed by her ski race coach to take up slack-lining and unicycling! It works!

Check out this guys focus...

Modern equipment is lighter, and if you want there are products designed specifically for lightness. A collective approach to weight saving (including yourself) means you carry less weight and reduce wear and tear on joints. The downside is that the gear is not as robust and wears out more quickly, so a certain amount of compromise is worth thinking about. Using walking poles has become popular in recent years, reliving knees from stress, however I do know one Mountain Guide who has arthritic wrists and asserts that the cause has been over use of poles!

If you’re going to do this you want to be happy and mentally sound. Exercise is very good for mental health, so that helps with that, in an field of wellbeing oft neglected in this country. Stress though can go with the territory. Will I have enough work? How will I manage my diary? I’m short of time! Not to mention the pressure that comes with balancing clients expectations with conditions. Network. Be involved, make friends, go to events and if you have the appropriate qualifications the work will come. Be organised! Attend to things as they crop up and avoid a backlog. The likelihood of a load of chores getting ignored increases exponetially with time! A good friend of mine whom I shall describe here in thinly veiled terms does well with a very busy schedule. He doesn’t drive, he works a lot, he delivers training and consultancy all around the country, how does he manage? Well, by observation I have concluded that he picks assistants and mentees with cars, when he is sitting down he is often working via his phone, catching up with emails and planning logistics at which he is adept, undoubtably with a good knowledge of the public transport network and perhaps most importantly he has an understanding wife! All virtues that will serve you well if you can acquire them!

Orion Direct

James Thacker guiding on Orion Direct.

Being killed will ruin your career, so don’t be. When faced with a tangible hazard, for example a long, steep looking pitch or a boiling eddy we have our game faces on and we are aware. The more mundane things that we are habituated to are what can be most hazardous due to complacency. A short drop onto rocks whilst rigging ropes at the top of a small crag. Instructors have died like this, so be mindful and look after your own safety. Many years ago a guy said to me “when you’re not climbing, never stand with your back to a drop”. A good maxim!

If you do get injured what are you going to do for money? Personal insurance is available now and like all non compulsory insurance is a gamble, but it’ll sure feel like money well spent if you need to make a claim! I often try to have a contingency fund buried in a bank account somewhere. Enough to cover six weeks - the standard time for a simple break to heal! Interestingly a disproportionate number of outdoor instructors have partners who are doctors or other medical professionals, make of that what you will!

At this point in time there are few of the older and creakier persuasion, simply because a few decades ago there were so much fewer outdoor instructors, so time will tell what the current generation will do as they approach retirement age. Some of the originals have done very well as accommodation providers which in the tourist hotspots is a sure winner but requires a whole lot of hard work and time to achieve. Some have done well as authors or on the lecture circuit. You therefore have to ask yourself ‘what can I do as an alternative or as a sideline when I get older’?

Fiacall Ridge

Teaching group management to prospective Winter Mountain Leaders.

In many ways this life style is very satisfying. You are dependent on yourself and your abilities more so than the average person. The exhilaration on clients faces reflects our own early days and is a reminder, it keeps us fresh. The popularity of outdoor pursuits careers has exploded in the last few and in some areas the number of practitioners has increased ten fold. A year round living is not easy and requires a flexible attitude to the work taken, but the work is there. To an extent the increased numbers have attracted new customers and created ‘outdoor hubs’. It is incumbent on us all to push standards, be imaginative and be a professional so that we can create trade, deliver the best and command a good fee for a premium product. Good luck!

A friend of mine, who was a well known free skier said:

“ be a bro, and charge like a rhino ! “

#outdoorqualifications #lifeasanoutdoorinstructor #outdoorinstructorsafety