Sam Leary of Leading Edge Mountaineering is one of very, very few female WMCI's (Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructors). A member of the AMI (Association of Mountaineering Instructors), Sam
combines over 30 years of personal and professional experience in the outdoor industry to deliver top-level coaching courses, workshops and Mountain Training qualifications.
Areas of expertise include: multi-pitch climbing, trad climbing, lead climbing, sea cliff climbing, winter skills and winter mountaineering. Just to name a few.
An inspirational coach and educator, Sam's infectious passion, motivation and drive have made her one of the most popular coaches at the Women's Climbing Symposium. As we build up to WCS22 we realised it was high time we all got to know Sam a little better.
Hi Sam, let's start with the basics... what would you like the WCS Community to know about you?
I am a 53 year old woman, fighting hard to balance running a business, working on the hill, making time for my husband, training a puppy and (hardest of all) dealing with menopause! And, after all of that, I still try to go climbing as much as I can too; the motivation to enjoy personal days out on the rock is still really high!
I love my job, I love my husband, I love my puppy (Arwen) and I love climbing... though I do find it hard to prioritise between all those passions, and increasingly find encroaching maturity both challenging and frustrating.
I've been working in the outdoors and climbing since 1988 and still find great fulfilment in sharing the mountains and crags with others at any level. Everyday is a school day and the more I do the more I realise there is so much more still to learn.
You mentioned that the motivation to enjoy personal days out on the rock is still really high... do you have a favourite song for building psych on your drive to crag?
Ha! I don’t have a regular song... I love the random shuffle. Might be anything from 80’s pop (can’t beat a bit of Eurythmics), classical, or a bit of thumping techno.
How about a favourite crag snack? Is there anything in particular that you take out on your mountain days?
I eat a 'left-of-centre' breakfast so don’t really do lots of food when working. Breakfast is a large bed of spinach and rocket, one whole chopped beetroot, half an avacado and one slice of Stilton cheese topped with a soft boiled egg. Eating this means I don't really feel the need for any food until 3-4pm; perfect for long summer days working at the crag and for cold Scottish mountain days through winter.
That being said, my go-to snacks tend to be homemade. I'll make anything from either: 'Feed Zone Portables' by Biju Thomas & Allen Lim, or, 'Amaze Balls' by Karen Dale.
Summers working at the crag and winters up in the Scottish mountains... sounds like a pretty perfect job! Can you tell us a little more about your business, Leading Edge?
Leading Edge is all about investing in whoever we are working with: whether that's a couple of hours at the wall for a taster session, facilitating someone's first trad climbing experience, or delivering headgame coaching, all the way through to training, mentoring and assessing the next Mountain Leaders, Rock Climbing Instructors and Mountaineering and Climbing Instructors. We are dedicated outdoor educationalists who really try to help people understand the underpinning ‘why’ when it comes to skill and technique acquisition; helping them to become truly independent, confident and competent in the outdoors. A huge part of what we do is focusing on 'finding the enjoyment' in it all: helping people to remember why many of us got hooked in the first place and that at its core this is all supposed to be fun - whether climbing and mountaineering for work or pleasure.
Photos: Cath Wilson, Vicky Owen and Sam Leary of Leading Edge | Sam teaching winter mountaineering skills
Within the world of climbing and mountaineering, what do you believe your areas of expertise are? Cath and I have a lot (60+ years!) of experience between us. It’s diverse too, not just in the type of work we do and have done but also in who we work with; from complete novices through to experts, primary school children through to retired adults wanting to re-engage with their climbing. This wealth of experience really helps us to individualise our days out with people. Both of us know what it's like to be scared on a mountain, at the top (and bottom) end of a rope, so we can truly empathise with our clients too. This gives us an honest, genuine dedication to help people improve and achieve.
In your 30+ years in the industry, have you seen it change at all for women? What has been your experience of this and where would you like to see more change and development occur for women's climbing as we move forwards?
Improvements for women in our industry has been glacial but things are slowly getting better. There is better take up at a grass roots level, both in participation and of women considering and following into the outdoors as a profession. But (and it’s a big but) female outdoor professionals tail off massively at the increased technical levels. There are still very few women WML’s (Winter Mountain Leaders), MCI’s (Mountaineering and Climbing Instructors) and even less WMCI’s (Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructors). One of the driving forces behind starting Leading Edge, and a lot of the work we do, is to promote and support women in the outdoors; personally and professionally. We want to make it a more accessible and positive experience for other women. We have worked very hard to follow our passion, with few (if any) role models, however role models are so important. “People need to see - to be” ...and they need to see to believe too! It’s key. Keeping female representation visually high really helps encourage other women into the climbing and mountaineering industry.
I would also love to see better provision in schools for outdoor education: enabling, educating and inspiring young people and children to access and enjoy the outdoors from an early age. Plus, I would like to see a lot more done to encourage people who use indoor climbing walls to try climbing outside, and for women indoor climbers to be aware of the professional pathways that are available to them. Finally... kit is also so poor for women, and I am not just talking about colours here; actual technical clothing and equipment that both fits well and is fit for purpose is still ridiculously hard to come by. Moving forwards I would really like to see manufacturers doing more to support female climbers and mountaineers with equipment that is purpose-designed. For those who joined my 'Intro to Winter Mountaineering' talk at WCS19 we actually discussed an example of this... wild wee's when winter mountaineering, as a woman, can make for a particularly unpleasant and chilly experience! So to any outdoor clothing manufacturers reading right now, do get in touch and I will happily discuss my ideas for improvement!)
Photos: Sam coaching 'Ropework Skills' at WCS19 | The early years of Leading Edge... 'inspiring others' is the Leading Edge ethos.
You mentioned the importance of role models, and 'inspiring others' happens to be the Leading Edge ethos too. From within the climbing community (past or present; friend, family or famous) who inspires you and why?
Lynn Hill! Just my complete idol. She seems so dialled in to what she wants to do and figures out how to do it. Such a great, larger than life figure. I was so excited when she leap frogged over me at WCS17!
You've been involved in WCS since 2016 and for over 30 years have coached women of all ages and experiences to develop and improve their climbing... what are the key things that you believe often hold women back?
Confidence is probably the key element. This is however a multi faceted issue and there are huge players:
A regular climbing partner who is trusted and says the right things at the right times.
Access to climbing regularly.
Supportive atmosphere that actively encourages you to challenge yourself.
Understanding your own head game.
Getting tactical when climbing, utilising techniques that allow you to succeed.
Being prepared to try, and being happy with the outcome whatever it is. Women are often perfectionists and won't try if they think they won't preform how they wish to, or if they think they might fail outright. You cannot fail if you try; as soon as you try you win.
Photos: Sam on Cenotaph Corner (E1 5c) Llanberis Pass | Sam working for Glenmore Lodge (Scotland's National Outdoor Training Centre)
If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to your younger self when they first began climbing, what would it be?
Ha! Very much the above; to be confident in my own choices and decisions even when they differ from those around me. Every day is a school day, feeling like there is always more to know and to be capable of is a very good thing. Make time for investing in yourself and your down time, it keeps you happy and makes you a better professional too.
And lastly... can you tell us about your favourite ever climb or climbing day?
It is actually very hard to answer this one, there have been so many fantastic days.... why would we climb at all if there were not plenty of great days?!
I don’t actually have one favourite climb that stands head and shoulders above the rest, however the first time on Dream of White Horses (HVS 4c) with my husband Alan (he wasn’t at the time) I remember being utterly terrified when looking at the Wen slab from the promontory. It looked so blank. Then, as you abseil in, you begin to relax as you start to see it’s actually covered in holds. Trepidation built again as the second traverse pitch is feistier than the first, and a complete epic trying to find the right belay!
Initially I was too terrified to consider leading the last pitch. I remember hanging on the belay with Alan and his quiet reassurance that I should just try and get to the first spike. As I looked at the terrain the pitch went through I was convinced there was nothing easier than E5; all I could see were enormous, desperate looking overhangs. I just couldn't see the sneaky line that weaves under and through them... those first ascentionists, brilliant yes, but mad also! Alan gave me the confidence to make those first moves, knowing that if the worst came to the worst I could reverse it.
It’s almost like magic as you step away from that belay and commit to the climbing, the way it slowly reveals itself section by section. I can think of a few routes that fully live up to, and even surpass, their reputation and expectation: The Cuillin Ridge; Cenotaph Corner; Point 5 Gully... and Dream of White Horses. Dream of White Horses was everything you expect and so much more. It does stand out as a very memorable day on rock but not just because of the fine climbing. It's the fact I had to fight for it, it's the stunning location, it's the committing nature of the route, it's all of the history and aura, but most of all it's because I was able to share it with somebody I love climbing with. These are all of the key things that make a great climbing day a truly special one for me.
Thank you so much Sam; we can't wait to see you and the Leading Edge team again at WCS22!
For more information about the climbing and mountaineering courses, workshops, Mountain Training qualifications and professional development workshops that Sam Leary and the Leading Edge team can offer you, please visit their website: leadingedge-mountain.co.uk