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.
Following on from retirement, more time will be available for hill and mountain walking on a personal basis with friends.