Training the UIAA Way

Steve Long

The federation currently represents member associations in 66 countries, promoting the growth and protection of mountaineering and climbing worldwide, largely through the work of its specialist commissions.

The soft patter of fluffy snow settling on the tent roof had gradually muffled all other sounds. Occasionally, a faint whinny could be discerned from one of our pack horses, or the muted screeches of choughs, calling their own name. I snuggled down inside the cocooning sleeping bag and dozed peacefully for a few more precious minutes, postponing the decision. Suddenly a white hole rent the tent entrance as the zip was eased open, and the irrepressible Nantuk, our Zanskari guide thrust a steaming mug of chai through the entrance. The moment had arrived, morning was here.



Outside the tent, the world had retreated into a monotone, enveloped by mist. Snowflakes squalled diagonally through the gloom. A taut ground rope secured the line of pack horses, browner shades of grey; some punctuated by crimson tape bridles. Neck bells clanged as they scuffed the ground clear with their hooves or as an occasional scuffle broke out. Somebody had carved ‘good morning!' and a smiley face through the snow on the mess tent roof. The horseman appeared, checking the line. His gamcha (scarf) matched the colour of the bridles, under an olive gilet (sleeveless jacket). Nantuk translated for me: “He says the horses cannot cross the pass today”. Our journey appeared to be ending prematurely.

We were camped high at Shang Phu, nestled behind two shepherdess’ huts built of mud bricks, straw and yak dung. Our destination was the monastery village of Matho, but to get there we needed to cross the Shang la at 4900 m. The previous evening, the shepherdess had shown us how she made yoghurt and cheese, insisting we tasted some. Now she was watching the show unfold. Her grin revealed a single tooth, but still her smile was beautiful.

The team gradually assembled in the mess tent. Working through chapatis, fruit and omelettes we unfolded a map and examined the terrain on either side of the pass. Could we persuade the horseman and the cook to attempt the crossing, or was it out of the question? It was a pivotal moment and the success of our expedition was hanging in the balance.

You may well be thinking that this sounds like a typical mountain expedition, and I’m kind of hoping that you are. Because, you see, this was no ordinary journey—this was the climax of a UIAA training project, piloting a combined personal skills and leadership programme. Our trainers were an international team comprising two English, two Nepalese, one Cypriot and one Indian trainer, all bringing different life skills and cultures to the table. We were all committed to the concept that context is essential for training mountain leaders, and this mini-crisis was the perfect case in point. Our trainees were all competent seasoned local leaders, but none had experienced the difficulty of making a risk-management decision involving such complex opposing factors; group dynamics, support logistics, changing weather, slippery slopes. Concurrently, we were working alongside an Austrian team from Lech to continue and extend a rescue training programme for the Zanskar region.

Eventually a group consensus was reached; we would strike camp and head for the pass; but be ready and willing to turn back if conditions did anything other than improve. They then needed to persuade the support team to fall in with the plan. When the tattered flag-strewn cairns finally loomed through the mist above the long zigzagging climb, the relief and joy was as palpable as any summit moment. We slithered down towards Matho Phu as the clouds gradually burned away and the snow turned to slush. Even for the most experienced students and trainers, our journey had turned into an adventure, where the outcome is uncertain and requires the traveller to dig into their personal reserves. I call this ‘consequential learning’—it’s experiential learning, but moreover decisions have real consequences and mistakes involve a degree of hardship or disappointment (although as trainers it is our responsibility to minimize the risks of the third possible consequence—injury or emotional trauma).

Context is key to training for leadership and teaching in mountaineering activities such as hiking or climbing. There is of course some cognitive learning required, but even this can be wildly misplaced if the candidate does not have the relevant experience required in order to process the information. An example that I remember vividly was one of our students on the first Mountain Leader course that we delivered in Nepal, with the long-term aim of helping the Nepal Mountaineering Association create a practical qualification for trek leaders. The candidates had all completed the government-required Nepal Academy of Tourism & Hotel Management (NATHM) course, but this is largely classroom based. After a day learning basic map craft in the fields and paths around Kakani (a few miles north of Kathmandu) he expressed horror that everything that he thought he knew about navigation was based on a misunderstanding. A few courses later he is now the official path mapper for one of the major cartographers in Nepal—but only after completing training courses set on real treks in summer and winter. We were glad that NMA accepted our recommendation that later phases of the training and assessment have to include a multi-day journey, and in turn NMA was subsequently rewarded when the scheme graduates were granted the coveted aspirant membership of the professional Union of International Mountain Leader Associations (UIMLA) in 2019.




The UIAA was founded nearly 90 years ago. It has a French acronym but because its working language is English it is now generally known as the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation. The federation currently represents member associations in 66 countries, promoting the growth and protection of mountaineering and climbing worldwide, largely through the work of its specialist commissions. The Training Panel is a sub-committee of a Commission named ‘Mountaineering’ but perhaps more accurately comprehended as the ‘spirit of adventure’ and the balance this requires between risk management and human aspiration—which is rather a mouthful! Nowadays, training is treated identically to a commission but retains the benefits of a diverse membership. We also collaborate closely with the other commissions in order to keep abreast of developments in equipment, healthcare, environmental protection etc. For the last decade the Training Panel has had a close working relationship with the Petzl Foundation, a charity focussed on risk management and the conservation of ecosystems with difficult access. Sponsorship from this organization has allowed us to pilot and develop courses in partnership with member federations.

The UIAA first established minimum standards for qualifications back in 1993, so they are nothing new: however, we subsequently realized that progress was held back by a misnomer that led to confusion in many countries: we rebranded from ‘Training Standards’ to ‘Qualification Labels’ in 2016 and have never looked back. The biggest lesson for the original development team back in the 90’s was that the standards needed to focus on the process rather than the minutiae of syllabus content; the scheme needed to work for every culture and rural environment—whereas in 2016 we realized that ‘training’ implies an emphasis on the teaching input rather than the outcomes. Therefore, we articulated a working definition of a mountain qualification based on three requirements—governance, quality assurance and technical competence. Anybody can run a training course—but not necessarily a good one! By contrast, establishing a qualification is a big responsibility, and the delivery of training courses is only a small part—in fact some countries only conduct assessment, and post-qualification training. We believe that this is a lost opportunity, but it’s their choice.



Once a candidate has submitted themselves for peer testing of competence, they expect affirmation to remain in place at least for as long as they retain that competence—and they also expect the governing body to inform the climbing and hiking public about the qualification. This requires commitment, intellectual investment and of course longevity: a training committee representing a range of stakeholders, a syllabus and prospectus, containing published requirements for entry, assessment and revalidation, scope of the award, a complaints procedure…the list goes on. The awarding body also bears a responsibility to ensure that standards are maintained between courses, and that the qualification remains fit for purpose by conducting periodic reviews. Although the standards are aimed primarily at voluntary leaders and instructors, the risk management differs little for professional work, so some associations use these qualifications as the foundation platform for their membership. UIAA accreditation does not extend to the additional elements required for a professional association, such as code of conduct, Professional Standards and Disciplinary committees etc. and it certainly should not be perceived as entitling anybody to work outside the country that awarded their qualification, unless specific member organizations have entered into a formal agreement on behalf of their members.

The first UIAA Training courses

We were delighted to return to Leh, because Ladakh had been the location for our first multi-national training courses back in 2010. Working in partnership with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, Rimo Expeditions, ABVIMAS and sponsored by Petzl Foundation and their Indian contacts,those pilot courses had proved that shared standards made it possible for a multicultural group of instructors to work collaboratively, albeit with a course director ‘floating’ between sessions or at least leading practical plenary sessions. Instructors had to be capable of working through a translator and be willing to compromise over specific techniques—putting favoured ‘hobby-horses’ aside. It was a challenging but rewarding month, highly energizing for the trainers, who like the candidates, had volunteered to embark on a learning curve. As an experiment, this project had mixed success: in retrospect the course for national centre staff should have followed a different, ‘train the trainers’, syllabus—but we found a reasonable compromise under the circumstances. Sadly, it would be a decade before we could make further progress in India, as the concept of governing qualifications described above does not seem to be within the remit of the primary UIAA member organization.

The success of the course in Leh prompted the Petzl Foundation to ask us to help rekindle a leadership programme at a training centre in Kakani, in the foothills north of Kathmandu. Our mission was to help the Nepal Mountaineering Association develop a qualification for trekking leaders that might eventually meet the standards of the UIAA’s Mountain Qualification Label, to be verified by an independent inspection. As in much of Asia, there was no shortage of training initiatives—but a shortage of peer-assessed programmes with quantifiable learning outcomes for trek leaders, by far the largest sector of the mountain tourism industry. This time the relationship with the national federation was more carefully negotiated, and contracts duly signed. So began a six-year journey, working with dozens of stakeholders; including the Nepalese National Mountain Guides association, various agencies (including TAAN, NATHM, SNV), and government officials including a succession of tourism ministers, all under the watchful eye and support of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. Initial misconceptions were soon overcome, and within a few seasons all the courses were following our ‘consequential learning’ model by climaxing with a real trek. For myself the high point, literally, was a winter crossing of the Ganja la (5130 m) for a train the trainer course, which demanded step cutting across icy slopes to access Helambu valley. This technical pass is rarely traversed in winter, so a long traverse across 30 degree snow slopes several kilometres later came as a surprise that could easily have forced an about-turn if the weather had deteriorated—you could be forgiven for thinking that this seems rather similar to the incident that opens this article, but with the benefit of hindsight I would now recommend access from the Helambu side, in order to avoid the potential to be caught out with a high altitude pass blocking the only escape route. Every adventure is a potential learning experience—but only if you reflect upon it…

Fast-forward, and the qualified mountain leaders in Nepal are now eligible to join a professional association that has recently attained aspirant membership of the Union of International Mountaineering Leader Associations—until recently monopolized by European members. One of our first students, Vinayak Jay Malla, springboarded from the course onto the Mountain Guides training programme and is now a member of the professional International Mountain Guides community—it was no coincidence that we brought him in to work on the course in Leh, closing the circle.

During the intervening years we have worked with organizations in Jordan, Mongolia, Turkey, Hong Kong to help develop leader and instructor training. However, when the Jordan project ended abruptly due to staffing changes at the Tourism Board, we realized that our candidates had ended up with nothing to show on paper for their commitment. If a national organization does not introduce qualifications, we were powerless to issue anything beyond course reports. This was what prompted us to develop skills certification that instructors holding accredited qualifications can deliver; naturally these are a subset of the skills, knowledge and awareness required by a leader, who carries the added responsibility of caring for a group. Now, all our candidates can gain a meaningful certificate based on a syllabus, contact hours and practical delivery requirements regardless of the evolution of any national qualification programme. This has enabled us to extend the programme into countries that have keen individuals but as yet no representative organization, for example Kenya.



This year we closed the circle more tightly, when our original sponsors from Mumbai asked us to deliver a trek leadership course in Sahyadri to coincide with the Annual Seminar of the Himalayan Club. Yet again we were humbled by the enthusiasm and commitment of the candidates, and captivated by the terrain. The course organizers and instructors overcame many challenges and obstacles to set a blueprint for potential development throughout India. But then the Covid-19 pandemic arrived and the world changed for ever. Who knows what the future will bring for our training programme? Watch this space, because we will return!

The UIAA conducts highly recognized mountain leadership courses and who better to write about these than Steve Long. Ladakh had been the location for their first multi-national training courses back in 2010. Apart from Ladakh and Nepal, the UIAA have conducted these certification courses in different parts of the world such as Jordan, Turkey, Mongolia, and Hong Kong. They were in Lonavala near Mumbai in early 2020.

About the Author

Steve Long is President of the UIAA Training Panel and is a member of the International Federation of International Mountain Guides Associations (IFGMA). He works as technical officer for Mountain Training UK and Ireland (MTUKI) and has been a keen climber and mountaineer for over 40 years, with ascents in every continent including a handful of new routes and first ‘free’ ascents. He lives in the heart of Snowdonia, surrounded by hills and sea cliffs. When he is not climbing or teaching much of his time is spent gardening or watching wildlife. 

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