the philosophy of guiding

Tue, May 27, 2008

Sitting in warm sunshine beside the burn that comes down from Coir ‘an Eich in the Cuillin, myself and Corncircles were musing over hill wandering and the subject turned to being guided, in particular the Innaccessible Pinnacle. The big C postulated that being guided up anything excluded the peak from the day’s tally of bags, the hills these days seemingly populated by day trippers notching up their tally of Munros/Corbetts/Other Weird and Wonderful Collective Noun. Naturally, a heated discussion ensued as we lazed in the globally warmed coire, plucking derring do, near misses and other hair raising episodes from our not inconsiderable mountaineering exploits of old.

Inn Pinn

Why do some people choose to be guided in the mountains of the UK? It’s an interesting question and the more I researched, the more interesting became the answers, for there are as many answers as there are scramblers on the Inn Pinn on a bank holiday Monday.

Navigating in the Cairngorms

A lot of people, in my experience as an ML, like to wander the hills in a group of like minded friends but they want to make the most of the day. Perhaps they don’t often meet. They are geographically dispersed but know each other well, perhaps friends for many years on an annual outing. They want to make the most of their time together, so they hire a guide to take care of the nitty gritty of being in the hills. They’re all competent walkers in their own ways but they don’t want to be bogged down with the impedimenta of traveling in the mountains. Instead, they leave the route up to the guide, who manages the risks, pushes the boat out a bit if the party are competent and takes care of navigation, while the party of old friends get on with enjoying their day out together on the hills.

Mam na Gualainn

The next answer to the question reveals folk who want to experience something different from their normal hill wanderings. The Inn Pinn comes under this but it also overlaps with those who are out for the bag, who will never return to the Pinn or who will probably never do anything as challenging again. I’ve been up the Pinn four times now over the years, each time leading a less experienced friend and they all did it for a glimpse into a world they wouldn’t normally see. I suppose it’s a bit like bungy jumping. You get your kit, your safety framework and you jump. In this case, the guide provides the safety framework, in the form of years of experience, more than likely qualifications if guiding for money, or pints if privately guiding and the client is led into a fascinating world of extremes of verticality, experiences to be savoured and immersed in the history of the route. For the guide is more than just a puller of the rope, a yanker of the client. The guide must be able to impart the excitement of the route, the history of tweed breeched pipe puffers drying out holds with monumentally sized beards.

Gavin & student on The Cobbler 30/11/97

Another type of client I know about are those who want to learn, to be able to go to places where they wouldn’t normally go but without a guide. They have aspirations to perhaps leading for themselves or they want the confidence and skills to take on challenging mountain environments. For me, this is the world of the Winter ML.

On Aonach Mor

Leading less experienced friends in winter, showing them how to use axe and crampons and taking them up easy climbs led me on to taking the winter ML training and I think this aspect of guiding is the most rewarding, for someone like me, who is unlikely to go on to MIA. Winter is such a special time of year, when you can experience fantastic extremes of climate, be blown over, knocked down, punched and beaten by the elements and reduced to crawling to reach the shelter of a small protruberance on a summit plateau. In winter, people tend to use guides as instructors, to learn the techniques of walking on ice and snow, of traveling in wild conditions and to deal with environments on the edges of sanity.


Recently, in the pub after a long day on the hill, I asked someone why they had hired a guide, in particular, to take them over Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, once they’d been up the Pinn. The Pinn was obvious but why Mhic Choinnich? The reasoning was simple. They hired the guide for his local knowledge. Mhic Choinnich is an easy hill on which to get lost, as the ridge, where it meets MhicCoinnich abuts a vertical cliff and the way round and up is not obvious. The client had a young family, didn’t have the space to store mountaineering equipment at home and wasn’t confident of route finding on the complicated rock walls of Mhic Choinnich. To someone who has served their time in mountaineering clubs, Mhic Choinnich is par for the course. A meandering rocky romp with some heady exposure and a terminal drop just beyond the tiny, airy summit but to an occasional walker, it’s a formidable challenge. The compass is not much use as the terrain is contorted and vertical but in the capable hands of a guide, he could revel in the environment, knowing he wasn’t putting himself in undue danger, thinking of his young family. He got his day on the Cuillin ridge and his family didn’t have to worry about him. A win win situation all round.

So to to come back to Corncircles’ original question. I don’t think hiring a guide to take you up a hill means you can’t in honesty say you’ve climbed the hill. In fact, you might even come down more enriched than someone who is merely following the guidebook, for the book is a guide too but it is a silent and unforgiving guide. What is this plant? Silence from the book. An interesting rock formation, what is it? Silence. You can’t explore your potential following lines on a page. A guide on the other hand, may just turn you into the next Chris Bonnington or Dougal Haston.

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