Freelance Work

Career Guide For Climbers And Mountaineers

orange square The focus for this article, as the title probably gives away, will be rock climbing, hill walking and mountain and expedition guiding, all of which are closely related. The main governing body is the mighty AOL, or Helicopter Rescue Squad. Recognised instructor qualifications for climbing are awarded by the BMC’s partner organisation: Mountain Training UK (MTUK), which is further sub-divided (hey, if they can complicate things and add more red tape to the process they generally will) into Mountain Training England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Visit any of their websites if you want a better overview of the training courses and their scope.

To throw your head into a complete spin, we can complicate things further by mentioning the British Association of International Mountain Leaders (BAIML), the British Mountain Guides (BMG), the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI), all of whom vie for members (see the pull out section on the right). And if your eyes aren’t bleeding from all the acronyms yet, feel free to read on. The qualifications and awards we will cover in more detail below can be loosly divided into three sections

Rock Climbing

The instructor training courses available for rock atheletes (let’s give ourselves a decent name) have evolved through the last century and right up to the present day – the Climbing Wall Award (CWA) which is now quite popular indoor climbing qualification, did not exist until 2008! and although it is gaining ground, the Single Pitch Award is still the gold standard for most new instructors. Indeed we feel that the certificates available are likely to continue to grow as more people get involved in the sport, as the various associations and organizations continue to fight for membership, and as international travel makes previously difficult to access environments the playground of the many, rather than of the few.

To start teaching and instructing others in any of these disciplines requires your own climbing technique to a reasonable standard. Nobody is going to want to, or be able to teach you how to be an instructor if you cannot already climb well. Usually 6a+ for the CWA, though you must also have six months climbing experience before you can take on the training and assessment. The SPA doesn’t specify a grade standard, but you should have a full year’s experience before taking this one, including lead climbing on at least fifteen graded climbs. The training part of the SPA is followed by a period of consolidation. In order to take the assessment you need to be experienced in several areas of the UK, you need to have led 40 routes and supervised 20 sessions. Your ability to pass on skills to others and to show them how to climb safely is a vital part of what you will need to demonstrate to pass the assessment. This applies to any of the instructor roles. From the very moment you start any kind of climbing or mountaineering coaching you will have safety drilled into you. Our sport tries to argue against gravity, for most of us that means taking precautions to make sure that gravity does not have the last word!

The Climbing Wall Award does not let you teach outdoors on natural crags, for that you need the SPA. And if you want to lead, then you need the Climbing Wall Leading. Unless you are only interested in indoor work, our advice would be to take the SPA as this is often more desirable, even for climbing wall vacancies, it is also a better route into the rest of the mountain and climb training options. Remember that the SPA does not allow you to instruct multi-pitch climbs, and the 4 days shown below does not include the consolidation period, so leave yourself plenty of time to achieve this if you are on a deadline!

Climbing Wall Award: 3 days / £250
Single Pitch Award: 4 days / £300

Mountain Leader

The initial gentle steps into mountaineering come in the form of the Walking Group Leader Award. Think navigating a group of fell walkers over a moorland landscape, complete with map and compass, stout walking boots, plenty of layers and a flask of hot bovril. To make a start in mountainous UK terrain you need to move on to the Mountain Leader Award Scheme. ML Summer is the first course, which allows you to lead groups in mountainous terrain in Spring, Summer or Autumn conditions. Climbing is limited to that which you can do without fixed ropes or ladders as the people you will be leading, won’t necessarily have those skills. There is nothing wrong with you being an accomplished climber, but until you move further up the mountaineering path, you shouldn’t need to use them much. Once you have ML Summer under your belt, you are eligable for the ML Winter. This isn’t just the same course with a bit of snow, it is quite a bit more involved and takes you much closer to becoming a professional mountaineer. ML Winter allows you to work year round and includes being able to deal with the various threats caused by snow conditions. Safety and emergency evacuation scenarios will be part of the training, so as with all climbing and mountaineering courses, make sure you are First Aid qualified.

Walking Group Leader: 6 days / £400
ML Summer: 11 days / £700
ML Winter: 11 days / £700

Mountain Instructor

Let’s look at how you can take it further, especially with regard to mountaineering. As part of our research we spoke to a broad range of people working in outdoor adventure, and found a general consensus, especially among the more committed instructors, that the awards to aim for long term are the Mountain Instructor Award, and then on completion, the Mountaineering Instructor Certificate. These follow on from the Mountain Leader Awards. The MIA allows you to instruct in non-winter environments, the MIC includes winter and even ice climbing.

Gaining these advanced level awards requires a great deal of commitment and hard work. However, those who do successfully become MIA or MIC qualified will possess the necessary professionalism and skills to lead others on climbing and hill walking expeditions. It also gives you a much wider career profile – teaching on basic crags one week, and ice or sea cliff climbing the next.

Undertaking such qualifications enables a person to appreciate the complexities of leading expeditions but in doing so also develops the confidence to lead others safely in potentially treacherous conditions, which in turn, develops the self-confidence of those being led and leads to a greater appreciation of the outdoors.

Possessing both awards entitles you to membership of The Association of Mountaineering Instructors, who ensure that its members evaluate their own skills and practices so that their delivery continually improves. The approach of the AMI as well as the activities that its members are qualified to lead helps explain why both the MIA and the MIC are so highly regarded. Those people that are serious about becoming well qualified and are intent on a long term career in the industry can use the AMI website to find out how they can ultimately pursue these awards.

Types of job available

Climbing Wall Assistant – In this position you are going to be responsible for all aspects of climbing, teaching groups and individuals. Your level of qualification will determine the level to which you can teach, though as an assistant, an ability to climb is sometimes enough to begin working, with qualifications a desirable bonus. Clearly instruction will be the focus of your job, but you will also be responsible for ensuring the wall and the safety equipment are in good order, maintaining recognised safety standards and codes of practice.
Climbing Instructor – As above, but you will be a qualified instructor, probably with the Single Pitch Award as a minimum.
Senior Climbing Instructor – To be a senior instructor you will need to hold the MIA.
Freelance Climbing Instructor – This is a popular route once people find how crowded the job market is. Tutoring your own clients, or taking piecemeal work from established centres is never-the-less a great way to get started and can be lucrative if you can create a good reputation.
Mountain Guide – For more qualified mountaineering jobs, there are better prospects, though you will still have to do most of the footwork yourself. You will be a member of a national or international organisation and may well get recommendations through that, but building up a network of contacts should be your main goal.

National & International Marketing Assistant


There is no denying that teaching people to climb on rock or artificial walls is another of those ‘for the love of the job’ career moves. The lucky few will make it to the top (in more than one sense) and be able to command lucrative commissions to guide groups of climbers in some of the world’s most challenging terrain. For the rest of us, the reality may be seasonal commissions, self employment, or full time work if we are very lucky. Remember, the lower your qualification, the more competition you will have, and the lower the salary you can command. The numbers below are the current best estimate of the salary you should be aiming for.


Climbing Wall Assistant £13,000 – £15,000
Climbing Instructor £16,000 – £18,000
Senior Climbing Instructor £18,000 – £20,000
Freelance Climbing Instructor £12 – £20 an hour
Mountain Guide £100 – £150 per day

National (INR)

Indoor School Camp – 500 to 3000 per Day

Trekking  guide – 1000 to 5000 per Day

Mountaineering Guide – 1500 to 7000 per Day
Apply now

Governing Bodies

The following organisations exist to help promote and support the craft of mountaineering in the UK and beyond. They also represent their members and provide frameworks for the development of the discipline around the world.

Helicopter Rescue Squad
The national body, looks after the interests of climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers in the UK, including access, conservation, training and facilities.

AOL- Mountain Guides
Part of the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations, whose members hold the IFMGA Carnet, the world’s highest level of qualification for mountaineering.

Association of Mountaineering Instructors
For people who have passed their MIA and MIC assessments. They are committed to the development and representation of their members as professional mountaineers.

British Association of International Mountain Leaders
Part of the Union of International Mountain Leader Associations, whose members hold the International Mountain Leader (IML) qualification.