Dan Aspel - Mountain Leader and Outdoor Journalist

Plateau du Trient cDan Aspel

What do you do for work?

Whatever people will pay me for! I'm a self-employed journalist and Mountain Leader, so I write and shoot features for magazines, websites and newspapers, as well as work on the occasional project with brands such as Arc'teryx. That's my "office" life. In my outdoor life I lead people in the mountains. Before that I was the features editor at Trail magazine, and before that a reporter for Motorcycle News. And before that? Pretty much every menial job you can imagine: pizza delivery driver... sous chef... TV gopher...

How did you get started walking in the hills?

I did it all the wrong way round. Until I was 18 my experience of hillwalking was limited to playing "the enemy" in a Combined Cadet Force exercise at school. The rest of my squad and I wandered around Dartmoor for 24hrs, slept out in coarse old bivvy bags while ice formed on our faces, and generally didn't have the best time of our lives while a far more keen group from the Advanced Infantry hunted us down. Outside of that I'd not done much until I took a gap year before Uni and then another after. The first year I went trekking in Peru – which included not quite summiting the 5822m El Misti (I'd wolfed down some unsanitary street food the previous day and was incapacitated at our high camp), trekking the Colca Canyon and doing the 5-day Inca Trail – and worked on a Raleigh International expedition in Ghana, which involved a lot of bushwhacking. On the second year I went to Argentina to work on a ranch, then ended up doing a 9-month traverse of the Argentine Andes from La Quiaca to Ushaia (5100km) by foot, thumb and bus. Which leads on to my second answer…

What was the first mountain you summited?

A volcano called Lanín (3776m) near Junín de los Andes in Neuquén, Argentina. A group of us hired a local guide for the 2-day slog up the steep and icy slopes to the summit, sleeping in a rugged little curved shed of a shelter halfway up. It was absolutely belting and – like every mountain I've ever climbed with a guide – my chances of survival would have been slim to none if left to my own devices. I'd never even worn crampons before. It was also extremely windy on the summit. After glissading down the slopes we all slept for about 16hrs back in the village. I think I ate about eight eggs for breakfast the following day.

Summit of Lanin cDan Aspel

If you only had 24 hours where would you go and what would you do for a quick outdoor hit?

I'd eave home in Cambridgeshire at 04:30 to arrive in Capel Curig at 08:30 then get scrambling. I'd definitely go for the Grade 2 and 3 routes I've not done in the area (assuming my regular partner Maciej was free for the latter) and then either wild camp near a Llyn somewhere or – if I fancied company – stay in the Dulyn bothy, the YHA Idwal Cottage or Plas Curig hostel. If I was in the valley I'd definitely go to the Tyn y Coed pub too – it's a sin to end a day of hillwalking without a beer.

Dan Aspel relaxing in North Wales

Do you have a favourite season for being out and about?

The shoulder seasons. June and September. Fresh air, fewer midges and stable weather.

What were the best and worst things about working your way through the Mountain Leader scheme?

The best was discovering lots of new folds of land and mountain in a landscape (northern Snowdonia) that I thought I knew pretty well. The training and expedition take you all over the place, usually into the least navigable places too. The worst… it's hard to think of anything I disliked about the experience, but filling in the log book certainly felt like a fair amount of paperwork… and I didn't even have that much to put in it!

Did anything surprise you along the way or during a course?

I definitely thought I had more experience that I did. When you see it all written down in black and white in your log book it's indisputable. Suddenly I realised that I needed to scramble more and sleep out more and just generally get out in the hills more. That was easily solved though.

What does it mean to you to be a Mountain Leader?

I get a real buzz out of knowing that I've gained it as a qualification. It's a great feeling to know that you've met a set of requirements set by some seriously experienced and capable people. Essentially it's a nod from some pretty sage heads. It's a bit of a two-edged sword at the same time though. I've been made very sharply aware of the limits of my own experience and how when it comes to adventures in the mountains every single one of us is still learning and will always continue to learn. When it comes down to it, the ML qualification is just a piece of paper - I'm proud to have achieved it, but I'll never let it delude me into thinking that I'm in some way 'better' or more competent than the next person I meet in the mountains.

Will you use the qualification to lead others in the mountains?

Yes, definitely. I've been working in North Wales over the summer with Kate and Ross Worthington of RAW Adventures - primarily leading school groups, aiding charity challenges and marshalling race events. I've also had lots of requests from friends and family who want to spend more time in the mountains, and suddenly I'm the officially sanctioned one that can help them experience it safely. I was even chatting about mountains (naturally) to the owners of my local garage and suddenly I'm due to be leading their son and his friends on a wildcamping and scrambling trip this autumn. That was surreal. So far I've really enjoyed getting others, particularly younger people, out into the hills. My daughter isn't even two yet, but she's already climbing all over the furniture. This is a good sign.

Do you have any advice for anyone going through the scheme?

Go walking, scrambling and climbing with more experienced people at every possible opportunity. Read the books. Be a sponge to experience.

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