I have written this article to help clients, particularly those considering going guided for the first time, get the most from their guided experience and although focused on alpinism much of it is equally relevant to UK climbing.
Why Go Guided?
For those without the experience, skills or confidence to venture independently, going guided offers the best chance of enjoying a fantastic climbing experience in relative safety. In the bigger mountains you need to be up climbing when the weather and conditions are favourable and down in the valley when they are not. For the inexperienced it's all too easy to get these the wrong way round and end up achieving very little.
It’s also an excellent way to build skills and experience providing a springboard for your own independent adventures and to stretch yourself to try objectives that might otherwise be beyond your grasp.
Finding a Guide
The first choice to consider is between a British Mountain Guide and a guide local to the mountain area you are visiting. British Mountain Guides are trained and assessed to the highest international standards. They often have experience across many climbing areas and the absence of any language or cultural barriers means you’re more likely to get on. Local guides are trained to the same standards. They tend to be experts in their local area and can be engaged through the local guides offices found in the major climbing centres across Europe.
For more information on British Mountain Guides visit www.BMG.org.uk
Choosing An Objective
You may have a very specific objective in mind but in my experience having an open mind and taking a flexible approach is the key to great adventures. Discuss the type of climbing experience you are looking for such as rock, ice, mountaineering. You might have a preferred mountain area but even keep this open if possible. Your guide will have access to a network of colleagues, hut guardians and local climbers which will provide a good picture of weather and conditions across a wide area. This intelligence is priceless so use it to choose an adventure where the conditions are favourable rather than waste a week sitting out storms.
Be realistic about your own ability and fitness. Your guide will quickly get your measure but if you have already oversold your own capabilities then your objective may be a lost cause.
Some preparation will ensure you get the most out of your guided adventure.
Fitness: Long approaches carrying a heavy pack followed by extended climbing days probably moving at speed finishing with seemingly endless weary descents are a reality for even modest alpine objectives. Some personal fitness, especially mountain fitness, allows you to better enjoy the mountain environment and climbing experience.
Skills: Going guided is not the same as a course of instruction so you should be equipped with at least a basic skill level. Serious mountain terrain is not the place to learn tying in, belaying, abseiling etc.
Acclimatisation: If you have the time tag on two or three days in front of your guided days for some acclimatisation. You will benefit from feeling fitter, able to move faster and enjoying your surroundings.
Kit: Make sure you are clear what clothing and equipment you will need to bring yourself. Expect to bring your own personal equipment although some guides may have some kit for you to hire or borrow and most major mountaineering centres have shops that offer equipment hire.
Don't Be a Passenger
Your guided experience will be richer if you join in the mountaineering process. Discuss route finding choices with your guide, understand how the objective dangers are assessed and participate in the climbing mechanics. Little things like turning the rope over at belays, clipping yourself into anchors and abseil set up all help to move things along, give you a better experience and develop your own skills.
There's no getting away from the fact that hiring a mountain guide is expensive and for many prohibitive. For me the equation is about the value of the experience. By engaging a British Mountain Guide and adopting a flexible approach to objective selection I believe you have the best chance of enjoying a great mountain experience.
Going with a second person (two clients is usually the maximum) means costs can be shared but be extra careful that the motivations, aspirations and preparation levels are consistent.
As well as the guide’s fee you will also be expected to cover all the expenses such as hut fees and cable cars, although guides often get reduced rates for these, as well as food and local travel costs. If you are using the guide's own car expect to pay for fuel or a mileage rate.
Also make sure you have the means to pay. Don't assume that remote mountain huts will accept your plastic so take sufficient cash, in the relevant currency, to cover eventualities. Your guide will be able to advise you on this.
Make sure you have personal insurance cover, including medical and rescue, appropriate for your activity and destination.
Over the last 15 years I have enjoyed guided climbing and mountaineering all over the European Alps in summer and winter with Adrian Nelhams Director of the excellent International School of Mountaineering. These have always been great climbing adventures even if not what was originally planned. I have enjoyed being pushed and challenged physically and mentally in the ways only mountaineering can offer. Expensive? Yes. But worth every penny!
Adrian Walter is a Mountain Training Instructor based in the Lakes so he also knows about helping his own clients achieve their mountain objectives. Adrian is also active in the voluntary sector working with youth and disability groups.