There are no legal requirements in the UK for companies taking adults into the outdoors: anyone can claim to be a rock climbing instructor, set up a company and start dangling paying customers off big cliffs without even needing to take out any insurance. As a consumer this is a worrying state of affairs which is not helped by the confusing array of instructor qualifications available. So how do you know if your instructor or guide is actually qualified to take you out, keep you safe and can help you make the most of your day in the mountains?
You should always ask what qualification your instructor holds – it is amazing how rarely we get asked – you need to be able to put a lot of trust in this person to keep you and your family safe so always check. To help you understand the answer we have listed all of the British mountaineering qualifications below along with a short explanation of what that qualifies them to do.
Mountain Leader (Often shortened to ML)
This qualifies the holder to take out walking groups anywhere in the British mountains in summer conditions (i.e. when there is no snow or ice). Mountain Leaders should not lead scrambles. (If you would like to try scrambling you need an MIA).
Single Pitch Award (SPA)
SPA holders can take you climbing on “single pitch” crags (i.e. ones that are less than one rope length high). They can teach you the climbing basics such as learning to tie into the rope and belay for your climbing partner but they cannot teach lead climbing.
Mountain Instructor Award (MIA)
The MIA is a highly respected award. An MIA holder can take you rock climbing or scrambling anywhere in the UK. They can also teach you how to lead climb or lead scrambles for yourself. Unlike SPA holders they can work on multi-pitch climbs.
Winter Mountain Leader (WML)
A Winter Mountain Leader award holder can take you walking in winter conditions in the British mountains. They should not lead scrambles.
Mountain Instructor Certificate (MIC)
This is the highest award for British climbing and an MIC holder can take you climbing, scrambling or walking in any conditions (summer or winter) anywhere in the UK. MIC holders are extremely experienced mountaineers and instructors.
There are lots of awards and it can be difficult to remember which is which. If you see a company displaying the logo of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (you can see it at the bottom of this page) it means that at least one of the company owners holds the MIA or MIC so it is a good indicator of quality.
Remember even if you are only just starting out in the sport of rock climbing or winter mountaineering, if your instructor is more experienced you are likely to learn more, get more out of your day and get to hear more exciting stories!