Interview with a Winter Mountain Leader
Mountain Training UK speaks to Lucy Wallace about what drew her to the Mountain Leader Awards and where they have led her.
After growing up in The Fens (a famously flat, marshy area in Eastern England), Lucy Wallace now works full time as a Mountain Leader, in Summer and Winter, on the Isle of Arran. What inspired her to want to work in the mountains and what advice would she give to people thinking about doing their Winter Mountain Leader award?
How did you get into the outdoors? Has hill walking always been the activity that you enjoyed the most?
My parents are keen hill walkers and my Stepdad was a very active Alpinist. Having said that, I don’t recall particularly enjoying hill walking as a child – I found it a chore and I think I was probably a bit of a disappointment! I have always loved the natural world however, and in my early 20s I re-discovered the hills. It wasn’t long before it was a huge part of my life again.
You’ve worked for the RSPB: What came first? The birds or the mountains?
Birds were my first love and it was this that drew me in to wilder and higher places. I think when I was little I was probably a bit of a geek (and I still am). I’ve loved to watch wildlife for as long as I can remember. I grew up in The Fens and my Dad would take me to reserves to see huge flocks of swans and other wildfowl and it was these natural spectacles that really impressed me.
Why did you decide to do your Winter Mountain Leader award?
I was already freelancing as a Summer Mountain Leader and as someone who loves the winter environment; it seemed the natural progression for me. It takes a certain hard-headedness to get your Winter Mountain Leader award and I think it helps you stand out as a leader with experience and resilience.
What do you do with your awards now?
I’m looking forward to my first season as a Winter Mountain Leader. It’s given me the confidence to take year-round bookings for mountain walks from visitors to Arran where I live, and I’m hoping to pick up some contract work from providers in Scotland this winter. If it’s anything like my summer work, it will grow gradually through word of mouth, so I’m sending my CV out and pestering colleagues. My summers are jam-packed with a variety of work from otter watching tours to assessing Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions.
Have you ever been overseas with either of your awards?
In 2012 I was lucky enough to lead a schools expedition to Tanzania. We trekked on Mount Meru, and although we didn’t get to the top, it was an amazing experience for all of us. The Mountain Leader award is not designed to prepare you for the added complications of altitude and remote foreign travel, but I think my experience as a Mountain Leader in the UK laid a good foundation for leadership overseas. Having some personal experience at altitude also helped. I’ve got the chance to lead another trip to Africa this summer which I’m really looking forward to.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to somebody thinking about doing their Winter Mountain Leader?
Ha! I could write a book…. I definitely worried about my physical powers beforehand, but in reality, the award assesses a whole range of skills and while it’s necessary to be fit; being a good navigator who makes safe decisions is key, not brute strength.
To get the most out of your training, gain as much experience as you can in advance, so that you do not have to learn the basics of self arrest and movement on snow and ice on your first day. Once you have done your training, it’s really important to get out and practice in awful weather as much as you can. My training was in blue sky conditions, and we didn’t have many navigation opportunities during the week. I was quite surprised on my assessment by the length of the navigation legs that we were asked to do, in whiteout conditions. It was very hard, but luckily I’d got myself a lot of time in the “white room” in the lead up to the assessment.
Where’s your favourite place in the mountains?
At home on Arran there are lots of stunning glens and coires, but one of my favourite spots is the summit of Goatfell. It’s an easy peak to reach, but you are surrounded by spectacular ridges and encircled by the sea. It’s very special and I think it is one of the best views in Scotland. An interesting way up is to traverse the ridge from North Goatfell, when taken direct it has a few scrambly bits to add interest. The whole circuit can be walked in under four hours so it’s a good little jaunt to get some breathing space and big vistas if I’m short of time.
What’s your scariest moment in the mountains?
Ooh I’ve had some scary moments, although I’m pleased to report never when I’ve been working. The mountains are dangerous, and to err is human. Whilst it is not ideal, biting off more than we can chew is one of the ways that we gain experience. The key is to get out of these fixes in a safe way and learn from them. My scariest moment came quite early in my mountaineering life, with a traverse of Crib Goch in a horrible blizzard. I had a borrowed axe, crampons and rope in the bag, but no idea how to use them, and crawled along the ridge on my hands and knees convinced I was going to die. It nearly ended my love affair with the mountains, but I survived, and the following day was persuaded to go for a walk on the Glyders in perfect crisp conditions. It was the first time I’d seen rime ice and I remember sitting above Cwm Idwal, watching the snow showers rolling up the Ogwen Valley and the sunlight twinkling all around me. It was magical. I resolved there and then that I needed to learn how to keep myself safe in the hills, and enrolled on a winter skills course at Glenmore Lodge not long after.
What’s the best bit of kit you take with you on a day out hill walking?
It’s got to be my trusty walking boots. My poor feet, they look about 40 years older than the rest of me; they have such a hard life! I walk hundreds and hundreds of miles each season. I’ve got a really comfy pair of Mammuts that I love. I always get the same model, they last me about a season. I know my size, and they fit me straight out of the box, without fear of blisters, which is all I can ask for really.