Crystal Patton - Winter Mountain Leader

Crystal Patton on belay in a snow gully.

What do you do for work?

I work as a course director and instructor at an outdoor education centre in North Wales called Arete. I get to work with a huge variety of clients doing anything from climbing mountains and exploring abandoned slate mines to heading out round the coast in sea kayaks. I am super fortunate but I can’t tell let on to my boss that I enjoy it too much as I might be made to work for free!


Have you always been into outdoor activities?

In one way or another, yes. I grew up in rural Wiltshire so I spent lots of time outside as a kid and away on camping holidays. About once a month we went to Croyde and spent time on our friend’s farm. Our friend’s sister, Anthea Cooper, worked at an outdoor centre in North Wales and I would be in awe of her going off climbing and biking. With a little bit of knowledge passed on from Anthea and in her absence we would often go scrambling round the cliffs and abseiling down the barn walls using an old climbing rope and a harnesses made out of a seat belt (not something I would recommend)! I also began to spend quite a bit of time in the mountains as a teenager when away on camps, these led to me going to outdoor centres for my work experience.

A combination of all these events inspired me to go to uni at Liverpool John Moores to study Outdoor and Environmental Education. When I got there though it opened up a whole new world of outdoor activities, I remember the first evening being asked by the second years if I was a ‘climber or a paddler?’ I was a little confused by this and at that stage I felt the honest answer was ‘neither!'


Do you do any other sports?

I love sea kayaking, climbing and skiing and am happy to get involved to some degree or another in most outdoor activities. I love the idea of some more traditional sports but I never felt I had the best hand-eye coordination which, coupled with a lack of confidence, meant I shied away from them.


Why did you start pursuing qualifications in the outdoors?

As part of our uni course we were encouraged to go through our Mountain Leader and Single Pitch Award [now Rock Climbing Instructor] training as soon as we were able to and this started the ball rolling. I knew that I wanted to pursue a job in outdoor education and so I guess it was a natural step towards this.

Crystal Patton in Scottish winter mountains

What made you want to be a Winter Mountain Leader?

As a centre we have a number of axes and crampons for group use when the conditions are good in North Wales and we also run a trip to Scotland in the winter. These have always been such memorable days out for groups when I have worked alongside other Winter Mountain Leaders and so this definitely inspired me to get involved in the qualification. You can climb a mountain numerous times in summer conditions but in winter it can be a completely different place and is a really unique experience. Being able to facilitate other’s enjoyment of this was a huge factor in wanting to lead groups in winter.

Also from a professional development point of view I think it is really good to keep learning and Winter Mountain Leader was always a qualification that I had held in high regard. After hearing tales of friend’s and colleague’s experiences whilst going through the qualification, I knew the preparation and assessment would put me through my paces but equally would reward me with that feeling of achievement and satisfaction that you only seem to get after working hard!


What were the best and worst things about working through the Winter Mountain Leader qualification?

I have such a wealth of memories from my times in Scotland on training, consolidation and going through assessment. You get to see what you can really cope with in the mountains and you learn when you just have to stand back, go to a cafe and respect the wildness of Scottish winter! The worst was definitely being away from home for a good chunk of time and the solo car journeys up to Scotland from North Wales!


What are your top tips for anyone thinking about leading in the winter?

Get involved in the Winter Mountain Leader qualification and put the time in. Make sure you dedicate a good amount of time to being in Scotland and just getting out in a variety of areas and in different conditions, there really is no substitute. Being out by myself was really important in my learning process but getting out with others was also great for discussing different aspects of winter mountaineering.

Don’t let the fear of the unknown or your perception of the award hold you back. The fact that the qualification is well-respected is a double edged sword - it is this that makes you aspire to it but it is easy to listen to people’s tales of suffering and believe it is virtually unobtainable! I very nearly backed out because I felt there was some magic formula that people who were Winter Mountain Leaders had that I didn’t have access to!! It is hard work but it is not so hard that you cannot achieve it by just putting in the time and effort.

Invest in some good boots and try to keep your feet as happy as possible!

Crystal Patton on Yr Wyddfa

Where’s your favourite place for a winter adventure?

After spending 15-20 years getting out in the mountains, this winter I had some of the most spectacular days in my memory in the mountains of Torridon. It is hard to put into words, but the wildness and the unique shape of the mountains got under my skin.


What are your leadership plans for the future?

I was really fortunate that winter returned to North Wales after passing my assessment and so I took a group of 15 year olds up Y Garn in winter conditions which was brill. I plan to use my Winter ML in North Wales and Scotland next season and hopefully inspire others to get out in the mountains.