Interview with Summer Mountain Leader - Emma Holland

Alongside working for Nottingham City Council, Emma is a Senior Mountain Leader at Mind Over Mountains Charity and founder of her own Mountain Training business. She also has 15 years experience of working in the NHS supporting adults with mental health difficulties and is passionate about promoting the link between spending time outdoors and improved mental health. In this interview I ask Emma how her previous work experiences have contributed towards the work that she does now, what challenges she is facing and how she will approach them, and why she wants to inspire other people to go walking. Grab a brew and put your feet up for this one - it's a really inspiring and powerful read! And make sure you make it all the way to the end because Emma asks you a question to take away and think about.

When were you first inspired to go walking?


Probably when I was in the Girl Guides. That was a long time ago now and I’ve been walking and enjoying the outdoors since. We would spend a lot of time as children in the outdoors - camping, bushcraft, cooking and other outdoor activities. It always felt so grown up to be able to get from A-B using a map, compass and your own feet. I always loved the outdoors and exploring and having adventures in the local countryside. Sounds weird but it gave me freedom.


My parents enjoyed holidays in the UK and by the time I reached adulthood, I had experienced many outdoor holidays in most areas of the UK. I’ve always made time for myself for lots of opportunities for walking or walking holidays and they have always been my first choice for holidays and my favourite most relaxed times.


Why do you want to inspire other people to go walking?


Good question. I think mostly because it opens up the door to so many other experiences and it is the most simple, accessible form of exercise that can have the most benefits, short term but long term. Without a doubt It improves physical health and also contributes to good mental health and wellbeing. I want people to see and enjoy the beauty of the countryside and landscape that the UK has to offer. It is something that can be enjoyed either in a group or solo. I want people to treat the countryside with respect, to understand the impact that we have and to learn how to treasure and value it for our future generations. The reason I enjoy teaching navigation so much is that I help to inspire and encourage people to become more self sufficient and build confidence to go for a walk by themselves. Small steps but knowing that I have inspired someone to learn to navigate and become more confident to go for a walk is a real buzz.


What are the physical and mental health benefits that you have discovered by walking and spending time outdoors?


Personally, I feel so alive when I’m outdoors and walking. I feel healthy, I feel happy, I feel connected to the world around me. I absolutely love being exposed to all manner of weather conditions. I don’t care what the weather is like, in fact the more challenging the more excited and more alive I feel. Walking and talking with a group, a client, a friend or a partner are two things that can be done together in quite a relaxed way, non confrontational or pressured way, particularly for people who have poor mental health. Walking can either be a very reflective time or it allows you to forget the rest of your worries. It’s definitely a choice though, one to make according to how you feel, or what you need. I sometimes switch off and forget all my troubles but some of the most productive and constructive times have been when I have walked alone to relax, re group and reconnect with myself.


How do you bring those benefits into other people’s lives?


I’ve been involved with, and have been working for the charity Mind Over Mountains now for the last 2 years. We organise, lead and coordinate walks and residential weekends to support people to access the outdoors. I am the Senior Mountain Leader (ML) and my role is to plan walks, recruit other qualified staff and volunteers and to develop and put the walking programme together.


Our main aim is to restore mental health naturally, using the outdoors as the main tool for support. Our therapeutic outdoor experiences build resilience, establish connection and provide a foundation for lasting change. We have a very holistic approach, offer professional support on our walks and rambles. We reconnect with nature on our walks, practice mindfulness and have a safe space for people.


What positive changes do you see in people when they take part in the experiences that you offer?


Confidence increases, self esteem develops and mental resilience improves. I also see people being physically challenged by the walk itself or the conditions encountered. These things can only be good and a good foundation of change for self improvement and personal development. I also see a new found love for the outdoors and the desire to take some personal risks with challenging personal long held beliefs of what people can achieve and how. I teach a lot of couples how to navigate and it’s always fascinating to see the traditional roles and how the ‘couples’ negotiate and overcome their long term opinions of each other, what they think or what is possible. I often think the experience of the navigation course itself teaches much more about life than which way is north! That’s probably a bit deep though!


What do you think it is about these environments that can change people’s perspectives and bring them more confidence?


They are out of their comfort zone, often in challenging weather conditions, sometimes with people they don't know. It’s like being back at school sometimes, in a navigation course, and it sends people into a place of panic when they feel somewhat out of their depth. It’s my job to recognise and support them in situations like this, encouraging and building confidence by using the appropriate teaching methods or style to bring the best out of people.


What impact has learning new skills and spending time outdoors had on your own confidence?


I would say that outwardly I appear as quite a confident, assertive person but that’s not the real me. I am a classic introvert/extrovert and I don’t mind admitting it. In fact it has only been in the last year that I have started to be honest about that with the people that I work with or for. I also suffer from imposter syndrome all the time, comparing myself to others. It’s really bizarre but I don’t feel confident or certain about my own abilities at all but all the feedback and reviews that I get are always so positive and encouraging. Before any course or walk, I get extremely nervous, I question my own confidence or ability. I don’t think this has improved and if anything the more experienced I get the more pressure I put on myself to be the best and perfect at everything I do. I think a good Mountain Leader is a well organised Mountain Leader and I always prepare as thoroughly as I can. I’m constantly learning, I do make mistakes and I tell this to the clients that I teach navigation to so they know this part of the learning process.


Who inspired or encouraged you to become a summer mountain leader?


Clare Kelly from Her On a Hill & Navigation for Women. Clare has been a long time friend and gently gave me a push and encouragement to go and do my Mountain Leader training sometime in 2014/2015. We went out for a walk and navigation day (as friends) and Clare kindly gave me some very positive feedback about my current skill level. It was at that point I thought to myself, yes I could do this and why not get paid for doing something I love. Thanks Clare!


Was the training and assessment how you expected it to be?


I found the Mountain Leader training really hard and stressful. I came way from the week certain that I didn’t want to progress or take it any further. I was on a course with 8 participants and I was the only female. The rest of the group were nice and friendly but mainly climbers who were going through the training to add the ‘walking ticket’ to other climbing qualifications. The conversations were very focused on climbing and who had climbed the hardest, highest or fastest. I didn’t really have much in common and felt quite intimidated throughout the whole week wondering what I was doing there. My main overriding thought was ‘Do I really want a career in this kind of environment?’ Thankfully I later learnt my experience was not the reality. Sometime, several months later, I joined the Peak District Mountain Training Association (MTA) and found a whole new bunch of like minded friends, qualified instructors and peers who got me back on track.


I then spent a lot of time on further training with Paul Poole in North Wales who is without doubt the best instructor and trainer I have ever had the pleasure to spend time or work with. Paul mentored me shortly after my assessment, and I wouldn't be where I am today without his support and encouragement. I wouldn’t recommend anyone else now for training or assessment, although I would definitely recommend spending time with a wide variety of other outdoor professionals as it is so important to get different perspectives, ideas and see other good practice. The assessment was easier than the training, it may be an assessment but it was a relaxed and supportive environment.


Essentially what the assessors are looking for is competency, confidence and the ability to engage, interact and keep the group safe. It’s often said and is totally true - it’s not a navigational award, it’s a group leadership award. You need to have people skills and be able to inspire and enthuse the people who you are out on the hill with, whether that’s leading a walk, mentoring a trainee or delivering a navigation course.

How have your previous work experiences contributed towards the work that you do now?


I’m a people person, I enjoy spending time with people. Working as a Mountain Leader you need to be able to engage, inspire and enthuse your groups and be able to build and develop relationships and understand the people you are spending the time with. I’m a very good judge of character. Most of my work history has been in a public facing role so I feel like I do understand people quite well. I also think I’m very resilient and have coping mechanisms. I’ve worked in public libraries for 30 years, spent 5 years working as a PCSO (Police Community Support Officer) and I have 15 years experience working within mental health in an Occupational Therapy Team. I’m patient and a good communicator as I enjoy helping people, supporting people to achieve their goals. I like to think of myself as being open, non judgmental and caring. I’m fun, energetic and positive.


Out of all of the work that you do now, which do you enjoy the most?


There’s such a variety of work as a Summer Mountain Leader. I teach navigation, lead walks, mentor ML trainees, offer 121 bespoke courses, work with charities, train, supervise and assess young people through their DofE Award. I love it all to be honest but if I had to choose one it would be teaching navigation. I get so much out of it personally and always learn something new about myself or from the people that I spend the day with. We can go at a slower pace, have interesting conversations and spend time appreciating the natural environment, history or geology of an area. I just really enjoy enabling, inspiring and encouraging my clients how to use a map, compass or their GPS device or APP. I like the smaller group work, I like the intimacy of getting to know people more, finding out what makes them tick, helping the less confident learners. I don’t enjoy large groups, big long distance walks or social scenes around big events. I enjoy conversation, motivating, inspiring and supporting people. I suppose the coaching and mentoring work comes a very close second, as that is very person focused and it feels good to be able to give the client my total undivided attention and energy.


What challenges or fears are you currently facing and what’s your approach to them?


I’m worried what 2021 will look like for self employed freelance instructors & sole traders like myself. I am lucky to have a small part time job working for my local authority, but financially it isn’t enough of a salary without my outdoor instructor income. I want to make plans, some small, some quite ambitious for next year, however I know this takes time, energy and investment (financially and emotionally) and I’m tired, it’s been a very difficult year. With Mind Over Mountains we have so many plans, ideas and projects in the pipeline that I really hope we can move things forward as I do worry about the physical and mental health of people. I know MOM will make a big impact and difference to so many people's lives.


I am definitely a ‘glass half full person’ so I will continue to always do the best I can, give 100% to the projects, the work and the companies that I freelance for, always looking for ways to help support them too, most of all whilst still encouraging people to get outside and go walking.


How have you developed and changed your business since you started it?


To be honest I’ve not had the time or energy to develop the business as much as I have wanted. I had lots of ideas, grand ambitions and potential partnerships to develop and create. I’m still working part time for my local authority, so I have limited time. I have parents and an elderly Aunt who I spend time caring for and helping out so juggling all of life’s plates sometimes gets too much. I hardly ever get any ‘me time’ which as an introvert I do need. As I’m sure anyone who runs their own business will testify, it’s damn hard work. There is lots of admin, social media, emails and planning needed. I seem to spend more time doing this sometimes than actually getting out in the mountains. The foundations of the business are important though and getting things organised and set up from the start make everything else more efficient. I like to pay attention to detail and make sure I have every base covered. My interactions and communications with my clients before & after any course is really important to me. I want to be as professional and as thoughtful as I can. I have lots of ideas for 2021, I just need to find time to invest in my ideas but I said that too at the end of 2019, and then Covid threw me a very big curved ball.


What powerful question would you ask somebody who is thinking about changing or diversifying their career, that would help them make a shift in their thinking?


How would you manage uncertainty, risk and change whilst staying motivated to achieve your goal?

I first came across Emma via our mutual friend Clare Kelly, founder of women's walking company Her on a Hill. Since following Emma on social media I have been really inspired by her approach to work and the way that she shares what she does. We had a chat on the phone before I sent over the interview questions, and soon discovered how incredibly dedicated she is to her work, and how passionate she is about promoting the link between spending time outdoors and improved mental health.


You can follow Emma on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Find out more about her work on her website and on the Mind Over Mountins Charity website.


Other links that were referenced during this interview include Clare Kelly from Her On a Hill & Navigation for Women, and Paul Poole at Paul Poole Mountaineering.


If you have any questions or comments about this interview please email me: sarah@sarahventurer.com and if you'd like to see more interviews like this you can view and subscribe to my newsletter.

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