UIMLA International Mountain Leader Alan Ward talks to Tom Bicknell of The Guide Base about his worldwide experiences of being an International Mountain Leader for over 25 years….
Tell me about your background as an International Mountain Leader?
I was born in York where my father was in the army and for most of my childhood, the family moved home from army base to army base and this included two stays in Hong Kong and one in Germany in addition to being in the UK. My travelling experiences began when I was 4 weeks old on a troopship to Hong Kong. Finishing school in Brecon, I joined the BP Tanker Company as a young navigating officer and sailed on a variety of ocean going oil tankers for 5 years before moving into the oil industry.
Employed by Conoco Inc. (a US based major oil company), I lived in Dubai, Singapore and Indonesia with my wife and two daughters for ten years. With the children growing older, the family then moved back to Brecon where I worked for the Brecon Beacon Beacons National Park Authority for over 20 years. During this time, I achieved various outdoor qualifications including the International Mountain Leader Award and became a mountain training instructor. Other training courses I became able to teach included: Rescue Emergency Care (REC) First Aid, IOSH Managing Safely, RGS Off Site Safety Management and a Hearstart First Aid instructor for the British Heart Foundation.
Bigfoot Services Limited was established on March 4th, 2003 and I left the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority in 2010 to concentrate on developing Bigfoot Services Limited as a worldwide provider of quality training and adventures. In 2006 and 2010, I was one of 10 finalists in the Wanderlust Travel Magazine’s annual Top Guide Awards.
Currently, I devote my time equally to being an International Mountain Leader delivering worldwide training and adventures, whilst still undertaking regular visits to the offshore oil and gas sector in Indonesia as a Lead Auditor for ISO implementation with a major pipelaying operation in the Java Sea. This work in Indonesia has allowed me to trek to Mt Semeru (3676m) and explore the fascinating eastern island of Lombok in my spare time out there.
I will be retiring on March 31st 2021 so professional worldwide training and adventures through Bigfoot Services Limited will come to an end. Whilst professional worldwide training and adventures will end, personal activities will continue along with unlimited and ongoing support to past clients wherever possible.
I live in Cardiff with my wife Yolande, and children and grandchildren nearby.
For the uninitiated, what’s UIMLA?
UIMLA is an international governing body based in France which is representing International Mountain Leaders across the world. One of the most important targets for UIMLA is to represent the profession at the international level as well as setting equal standards of qualifications for all International Mountain Leaders (IMLs). UIMLA promotes the profession and supports the cooperation between IMLs from different countries.
What are some of the coolest places you've led treks or expeditions?
1. Back in 2002, two friends and I flew to Chile and completed the fabulous El Circuito Trek in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. We backpacked the circuit but bought the occasional dinner at lodges where we camped. Early in the season, we saw no one until we crossed the snow loaded Paso John Gardener with not an ice-axe or crampons in sight and I taught my two friends how to self-arrest with a walking pole!
2. In 2008, a led a trekking group to Lo Manthang in the Kingdom of Mustang in Nepal. The trekking group had both sighted and visually impaired participants and the King of Mustang was so impressed that there were blind trekkers in his walled city that he invited us into the Lo Manthang Palace for afternoon tea. Mustang is known as The Last Forbidden Kingdom in Nepal and a high daily visitor tax ensures few trekkers are allowed into the area making for quite a unique trekking experience.
3. Numerous other places I’ve been to include Indonesia which is a fabulous destination, the Tatra Mountains in Poland, Morocco and the High Atlas Mountains, the Picos de Europa in Spain. Whilst my wife doesn’t accompany me on these trips, I managed to persuade her to join me in the Arctic Circle once but only because our hotel was the Ice Hotel near Kiruna where the temperature of the bedrooms was -10°C and the vodka was served in glasses made out of ice!
What are the best and worst parts about being an UIMLA International Mountain Leader?
The best part about being an UIMLA International Mountain Leader is being able to set my own work programme for treks and expeditions on a worldwide basis. This combined with the mountain training courses I deliver in the UK gives me plenty of variety with locations and participants and there’s hardly a dull day!
I get a huge amount of job satisfaction from everything I do, from long-haul destinations to Everest Base Camp or training courses in the UK. Being able to help people to achieve their dreams helps me to perform to a high standard wherever I am and this is reflected in the testimonials I receive on my website (www.bigfootservices.co.uk).
The worst part of my career would definitely be the current Covid-19 lockdown and having had to cancel my Sumatra expedition in May to climb Mt Kerinci (3726m) with a small group of clients who were as disappointed as I was. The uncertainty about being able to return to work is very challenging to cope with, from a personal and professional viewpoint.
Tell me about trips that didn’t go as planned?
A couple of trips spring to mind where things didn’t go according to plan:
Nepal – Everest Base Camp (5364m) was our intended destination one year with a large group of charity trekkers. I think their trip had been cancelled from the pre-monsoon period that year so was re-scheduled for September with me. Sadly, the monsoon ran late that year and our flights to Lukla were cancelled for three consecutive mornings. This resulted in our Everest Base Camp itinerary being unachievable as planned acclimatisation days had been lost. I had to break it to the group that our destination would now be Annapurna Sanctuary and Base Camp, a decision which caused distress to some of the group. The trip ran like clockwork thereafter and everyone enjoyed the trip. Tough decision-making is part of my role as an International Mountain Leader, along with deciding how best to implement such decisions….
Ethiopia – Ras Dashan (4550m) was always going to be an interesting challenge and when friends knew I was going, I’d be asked questions involving famine and war and was it really safe for me to go.
This trek had a high proportion of cultural visits and before the trek commenced, I saw the Blue Nile Waterfalls and the ancient city of Gondar with the walled Fasil Ghebbi fortress and palace compound, once the seat of Ethiopian emperors. The ancient 12th and 13th century rock-hewn churches of Lalibela were also a spectacular place to visit.
Sadly, during the trek, an elderly gentleman suffered a sudden cardiac arrest and passed away. This was probably one of the most challenging issues I’ve ever had to manage in over 25 years as an International Mountain Leader. I had to leave the group with my local mountain guide whilst I spent three days on the road with the deceased client trying to get to a rendezvous back at Gondar with a 4WD ambulance from the British Embassy in Addis Ababa.
Why do you like leading worldwide treks and expeditions?
For me, I love the challenge and job satisfaction I get from leading worldwide treks and expeditions. I sometimes meet clients who are particularly nervous about joining a trek or expedition but to see the look on their faces when, for example, they walk in to Everest Base Camp after wanting to for years, is a wonderful experience.
One client had been blind since the age of ten and had a lifetime’s ambition to visit Everest Base Camp and several companies turned him down flat! A company I was leading for at the time asked me if I’d accept him and my response was – why wouldn’t I? It was a pleasure to walk with David into Everest Base Camp on his 60th birthday.
Last year, I was with Jane, who also had a lifetime ambition to visit Everest Base Camp and again, we walked in together thus making for a wonderful feeling for us both.
Do you have a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy?
Yes, for the last 5 years or so I’ve been able to have such a policy whereby I can offer free training to mountain guides in countries where training really isn’t available.
Cardiff based International Mountain Leader Alan Ward regularly travels to long haul destinations for trekking and expeditions. However, Alan has a Corporate Social Responsibility policy with his company – Bigfoot Services Limited. Through this policy, Alan gives his time freely to working with and training local mountain guides in far off destinations as they don’t have access to the training and certification we have here in the UK. Today we look at two recent adventure and training achievements in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco based at the fabulous Kasbah du Toubkal (1800m) which lies between Imlil and Aroumd, gateway to Mt Toubkal (4167m).
I’ve led several groups to Mt Toubkal (4167m) the third highest mountain in Africa and the highest mountain in North Africa and sometimes taken the opportunity to travel to other areas in Morocco. The Atlantic coastal fortified city of Essaouira is a favourite place of mine and ideal for a couple of nights in a traditional Moroccan riad after climbing Mt Toubkal.
Climbing Mt Toubkal should be achievable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness and who is a keen hill and mountain walker in the UK. It’s always best to go with an experienced local leader and support crew and having a nice place to stay before and after the climb is essential. For my last climb I was accompanied by 7 friends and this was an ideal size group for such an adventure. We used the Kasbah du Toubkal to look after all our arrangements including providing our excellent guide Mohammed, mule support and accommodation at the high lodge located at 3200m from where the summit climb begins. There are two high lodges and I chose the newer Mouflons Lodge in preference to the Club Alpine Francais Lodge where I’d stayed previously. Typically, Mt Toubkal can be achieved on a 5-night itinerary:
Day 1: I flew out with British Airways but there is a choice of airlines for the 4 hour flight and on arrival in Marrakech we were met on arrival for the two hour drive up into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains to Imlil. Mules were waiting for us and our luggage was soon loaded onto these and we walked up to the Kasbah du Toubkal where a warm welcome waited for us. I’ve used the Kasbah du Toubkal for several of my Mt Toubkal trips and wouldn’t use anywhere else.
Day 2: After a leisurely roof top breakfast overlooking the surrounding area we set off on our acclimatisation trek to the Tizi-n-Mezzik (2489m). it’s an easytrail to follow but slow and steady is the way to gain altitude successfully. On this acclimatisation day, a mule and cook usually pass the group so a fabulous lunch awaits us when we reach the top of the pass.
After descending to the Kasbah du Toubkal, the rooftop terraces are usually the best place to relax for the rest of the day and prepare our clothing and equipment for our departure the next morning for the high lodges.
Day 3: After breakfast we met Mohammed our mountain guide who briefed us for the day and our mules were then loaded with our kitbags. We then left the Kasbah du Toubkal and set off on the trail towards higher ground. Initially the trail zig zags up to the highest village in the area which is Aroumd (1920m). Continuing onwards we crossed the wide Mizane Valley to reach the shrine at Sidi Chamharouch (2320m) where there are shops and our picnic lunch was waiting for us. After lunch we climbed the zig zags before the trail became less steep and a couple of hours later we arrived at our high lodge (3207m). High lodges in mountainous areas can be cold so we were appropriately clothed but we were well looked after and given a private dining area with our own log stove which made us very comfortable. I’ve always found that the food on trekking trips in Morocco is always excellent and have never had cause to doubt the catering arrangements.
Day 4: An early start is always required for the steep climb up to some large boulders which are reached after about an hour and a half although this can take longer during the winter months when snow covered ground might be crossed all the way to the summit. From the large boulders we trekked up the main valley to reach the Tizi-n-Toubkal (3940m) pass where we rested. At these altitudes, frequent rest stops are required and it’s very important to stay hydrated as well. The summit is generally reached in 5 to 6hrs from the lodges and 360° all round views can be expected in fine weather. The Saharan plateau with the extinct volcano of Siroua can usually be seen to the south.
After descending to the lodge for a well earned breakfast and rest, my groups normally continue the descent back to Imlil and the Kasbab du Toubkal for a well earned time in the private hamman, and a farewell dinner to celebrate our summit success.
Day 5: The day to travel home with evening flights booked so we could enjoy a half day sightseeing tour of Marrakech.
I’ve always enjoyed working with the staff at the Kasbah du Toubkal and Mohammed our mountain guide asked me if I could return to provide some training for the mountain guides working at the Kasbah du Toubkal. This seemed a worthy cause and after discussion with the owner of the Kasbah du Toubkal I returned to deliver a three day Mountain First Aid course and a one day British Heart Foundation Heartstart ELS course for the staff at the Kasbah du Toubkal. The Kasbah du Toubkal covered my expenses but I gave my time freely for the group of hard working mountain guides who really have no access to training in that area.
I’ve agreed to return to the Kasbah du Toubkal in February 2021 to deliver mountain training – UIAA Mountain Skills: Good Practice and Safety. This is a three day practical course with an overnight stay in a remote mountain lodge in the Azzaden Valley. Two refresher one-day First Aid courses will also be delivered. The partnership I have with the Kasbah du Toubkal ensures the local mountain guides receive free training which they might otherwise not receive.
The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) was founded in 1932 and has a global presence on six continents representing 89 member associations and federations in 66 countries. The UIAA has been recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since 1995.
Further details of the Kasbah du Toubkal can be viewed on their website https://www.kasbahdutoubkal.com or contact Alan (firstname.lastname@example.org) for further details of trekking adventures in this area. Opportunities exist for a wide range of treks from easy graded day treks to multi-day summit treks.
February 2021 sees the introduction of a trekking programme for women at the Kasbah du Toubkal with Helen Menhinick (www.brynwalking.co.uk) and Latifa, one of the few female mountain guides in the area. “Trekking in Style” is an introductory itinerary for women keen to experience the Atlas Mountains of Morocco without exceeding 2500m.
Following on from retirement, more time will be available for hill and mountain walking on a personal basis with friends.