A review of Active’s Course by James

The Steps that I took to Become an Outdoor Instructor:

The steps that i took to become an Outdoor Instructor: After leaving university, I was in a bit of a no man’s land – I was not sure of which direction to go in my life and my career. I studied archaeology at university and loved it, but I loved climbing and the outdoors even more so…

As I sat there contemplating what to do, it became clear that a career in the outdoors was probably the correct way to go. The only issue was … I had no idea how to do that. How do you become an outdoor instructor? … Well, I can tell you how I became an Outdoor Instructor and the course which helped me to do just that.

This is part 1 of many blogs – I have yet to decide on how many… Part 1 will focus on the nitty-gritty bits of my personal experience of becoming an Outdoor Instructor. The subsequent blogs will cover some of the adventurous trips that this career has helped me to experience personally and for work.

Having searched around on Google for outdoor instructor training courses and the steps other people took to became outdoor instructors, I had narrowed down my list of potential routes into the industry. It was decided! I was going to do an outdoor instructor training course – going freelance wasn’t an option for me (as you need the qualifications first) and going back to university to do an outdoor degree … no, that just didn’t quite sound like a good idea. So which course was the right course? I googled many times and read and re-read all the information. There were a few courses which really stood out from the crowd straight away … and there were ones which fell by the wayside very quickly.

In terms of professional qualifications, it became clear immediately that Active’s course offered the most by a mile. It was situated in the mountains, and it also offered snow sports which very few courses did. It offered the most, it was situated exactly where I wanted, and everything looked good – so it went to the top of the list of potentials very quickly. But I wanted to do my research properly and accurately. Other courses looked good initially, and went onto the list for further inspection and to find out more information. But nothing else seemed to be coming close. Active’s led to the highest number of professional qualifications for a better price… almost too good to be true!

I started ringing around courses to find out information. At this time my shortlist had come down to three: Plas y Brenin, Active and some other course down south that I no longer remember the name of. It was down to finding out more information so I called all three to enquire. I was sold the moment Active picked up the phone. They gave me the information I wanted: it never seemed like they were selling me the course – more trying to help provide me with information. And they had an SPA (now called the RCI) course running in a week or two that I could join. This worked perfectly: I got to do the SPA and I got to see the centre before committing to a course that is a large investment.

A couple of weeks came and went, and I found myself in Scotland on the SPA course Active had running. I got to meet the staff, see the centre and have a meeting with the course director who answered all my questions. I still felt like everyone at Active was genuinely trying to help me and not just sell me a product. I do not like pushy sales teams and never have: if someone tries to push a sale on me, I just put the phone down or walk away and go somewhere else. Whether it is something small – like someone trying to sell a newspaper – or something larger – like a vehicle … or in this instance, a course. I like to come to my own conclusions with information that is honest and accurate. Anyway, I have gone off on a bit of a tangent there … so back to the process. I had decided to do it, so how should I sign up? They helped me every step of the way, and after a few more phone calls and emails – and a bank transfer – it was done: I was on the course starting in the next few months. I couldn’t wait … I was going to be an Outdoor Instructor!

The course itself then… Week one started off with an introduction to most of the different activities led by the activities manager and a few other instructors assisting him. It helped set the scene and really show how we as trainees could all become outdoor instructors, and it was great to see the manager out on activities as well. Too often managers end up getting stuck indoors or on paperwork in this day and age. Not here – at Active, they still get out and teach which is brilliant – as they tend to have got to where they are in their career for a reason: they are normally good at what they do!

The accommodation worked perfectly. We were situated in a stunning location smack bang in the middle of Scotland. It was shared dorms but with the option of a private room should people prefer to opt for that. The lounge was spacious and the kitchen was well stocked with equipment. I quite liked the ability to cook for myself as opposed to being catered for as I have always prided myself on being able to make food that is normally nicer than what you might get if someone else cooks for you (call me arrogant if you want, but I worked part time in a restaurant for five years so I picked up a few things…).

Week two kicked off with the rafting course, which was provided by the Scottish Rafting Association. It was a hoot: the river levels were huge and the providers of the course were brilliant – they had a perfect level of professionalism – inspiring and also fun … a hard line to get right. For many people in the outdoors it is all fun or all professional. It is a rare gem to find people that get that goldilocks zone just spot on. If there was any doubt before then it was all gone: becoming an Outdoor Instructor was the right direction for me.

From here, it all progressed as you would expect – improving our personal abilities and professional coaching abilities in all the different activities. The formal assessments, with the exception of the rafting and first aid, were all at the end of the course so we could have as much experience before going for them.

steps to becoming an outdoor instructor

After a few weeks, the Breckenridge trip came around, and we were flying off to the States to improve our skiing or snowboarding (or both) abilities. When we arrived, I couldn’t believe the scale of the place. I have skied in Europe before, but Breck was huge and there were not many people about – and there were a crazy number of runs open. It was the perfect learning environment. Truly there cannot be anywhere better – maybe on par … maybe … but better? … Not in my eyes anyway. It was cold while we were out there though – so cold that it actually hit -28 Celsius on one of the days (and that was in town not on the mountain). But we wrapped up warm, and for the most part the days were sunny with a dry cold. The snow never melted (which was heavenly). We progressed quickly and by the end of fortnight, we were skiing confidently with much improved technique on even difficult runs.

The next part of the course was after a Christmas and New Year break. But, if you wanted more incentive to come and do the course at Active, then it is worth getting back in time for Hogmany as Newtonmore is one of the best places to go in the entire UK for New Year’s Eve. There is a torchlit processions, fireworks, dancing, live music, free whisky… FREE WHISKY? … SIGN ME UP AGAIN! … Well, in fact they have: I now live in Newtonmore and go to the celebrations every New Year’s Eve, as I loved the area so much that I bought a house in the village and have worked as an Outdoor Instructor in Scotland for the past four years.

Anyway, I am off on a tangent again … back to the course. January. We flew down to sunny Spain. Initially I was a little dubious … Costa Blanca? Isn’t that where Benidorm is? … Well yes – but we were situated in the hills and crags for climbing, and honestly wouldn’t have known it was a touristy part of Spain at all. It is quaint and totally Spanish  with great vineyards, wee café’s, good tapas … and above all else GREAT CLIMBING. I am and always will first and foremost be a climber – nothing else comes close, and never will. The course was structured around preparing people for their SPA training, assessment or MIA (now called MCI) training depending on what stage people were at in their development. And it was run brilliantly. We climbed every day in the sun and warmth while Scotland got dumped on with snow and rain. I see why we ran to Spain in January now that I live in Scotland all year round!

The time in Spain came and went very quickly – too quickly … I could climb for a lifetime and more, but we had other activities we needed to focus on; and the weather in Scotland always improves in February – so back we flew to continue with the other elements of the course. Mountain biking, lots of paddling and working towards the Mountain Leader training or assessment. In the midst of everything, we also got over to the Isle of Harris for a expedition to remember. The weather was … what shall I call it? … Let’s go with: interesting, dubious and windy as anything …

Bear with me here, I am about to go off on a tangent again – but trust me it is funny – at least in my mind anyway. I can still remember sitting in a pub Ullapool waiting for a ferry that was delayed due to the weather, and in the middle of everything doing a quiz with the rest of the group. I have always been useless at pub quizzes – I am sure I would be fine in one about climbing, but normally in pub quizzes I really don’t stand out from the crowd. Anyway, there was a picture round and one of the pictures was zoomed in on a bit of metal. The whole team is umming and ahing over this picture; but when I look it suddenly seems obvious to me that it is part of an adjustable wrench. The table goes silent and then one other person says, ‘You know what?  I think he is right.’

Fast forward to the end of the quiz and before they read the results an announcement … ‘Congratulation to the only team that got question five correct: it was indeed an adjustable wrench!’

At this point, one of the locals (at least I presume he was local: his accent was hard to understand – mind you, that could have been because he was drunk – although it was only the middle of the day) jumped up on the other side of the room and started screaming and swearing: ‘No way! Impossible! Cheats! There is no way you knew that! You must have cheated!’

The quiz master very quickly sorted the situation out by saying, ‘Don’t worry: they still came last by a mile.’ At which point the local chappie sat down mumbling to himself looking like a fool and probably feeling like one as well …

The expedition was a walking exped right across the island. And we camped below Sron Ulladale – the most overhanging crag in the UK … my goodness, was it glorious! … golden eagles, beautiful climbs (that I could never hope to achieve – there are only a handful of people in the world who can climb there), and some of the best scenery that Scotland has to offer. Plus day two was sunny beyond all possible comprehension.

For two weeks in February we got the time off to go home or to continue our development. In my case, I asked the course director if I could volunteer in every element of the company (activities, centre and office) to gain a feel for working at Active as I was contemplating applying for the apprenticeship (now called the IDP) scheme. After a few discussions pertaining to everything that I would be doing in order to prepare myself, they let me volunteer for the two weeks, helping out teaching on the activities to real clients, working around the centre and working in the office. I was living with the staff while I was volunteering, and this really helped me to decide that I wanted to apply for the apprenticeship scheme – which was the route I chose to take after the course to put my skills into practice and become the professional outdoor instructor I wanted to be.

After the break, we continued to work on personal and coaching abilities and then, all the formal NGB assessments arrived … Each short course of assessment came and went, and as soon as we knew it, we had finished the whole outdoor instructor training course. It had zoomed on by but we were now all qualified. The course at Active had provided me with a raft of knowledge and qualifications which meant I could go straight into the apprenticeship scheme with a true appreciation of the different activities and how each one has to be taught in different ways (sometimes subtle, and sometimes more obvious) to different people.

All in all, there is no doubt in my mind that the course at Active set me up to become an outdoor instructor better than anything I could have hoped for, and I am really glad I chose it. I have stayed in Scotland and still work as an Instructor in all the activities and, having progressed still higher through the paddling, mountaineering and snow sports qualifications, I now find myself even more than ever wanting to empower other people and enthuse them for the outdoors. Working in the outdoors isn’t just fun, it isn’t just professional, it isn’t just inspiring … it is everything! And … you get paid for it! It truly is the best job in the world, in the best office in the world: the Scottish countryside! Don’t get me wrong … there are days where it is raining cats and dogs (not literally – although I would not put it past Scotland sometimes) and you wonder what on earth you are doing outside in weather like this – longingly thinking of the wood burner back home … but you smile, stay happy and keep professional. It is amazing how something as simple as a smile can help your clients to be happy as well. And that is what the course at Active taught me above all else: how to be a professional Outdoor Instructor; not just an Instructor who is doing it for the thrills.

James.

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