The latest update from Kaylee Pickett, one of our adventure guide interns based in Queenstown:
After having prepared in every way we could think necessary – practicing every knot a hundred times, quizzing each other on plant names and uses, planning sessions – we had the last three months put to the test. Over four days, we were assessed by a lovely guide from the New Zealand Outdoor Instructor Association in the hopes of achieving our Rock, Abseil, and Bush Leader qualifications. Rock and Abseil came first, with our personal skills assessed on day one and our group management evaluated the second day. Bush followed the same format over days three and four.
I have always over-prepared for exams and assessments in the past, so I treated my NZOIA assessment the same. I set up top rope and abseil systems over and over again, watched videos to see how other guides teach belay technique, ran through the steps of personal safety in my head constantly. I tried to plan our group day as much as possible to avoid any unforeseen missteps that could cost us. In the end, all of my planning paid off, but was also a bit of overkill.
The nerves dissipated as we worked our way through each skill on the first day of rock, with each of us feeling more and more confident as we received satisfactory marks. Our assessment location was changed the morning of, so we were a bit nervous about setting up our systems and maintaining our personal safety at a crag we hadn’t climbed at in two months. We were reminded of something very important in this change of events: it doesn’t matter where you are or who you’re with, the systems are the same, the safety is the same, and we’ve been trained to do things correctly and will do them correctly so long as we follow the steps we’ve been practicing.
The group rock climbing session had everyone excited and a bit anxious, as none of us had ever acted as lead climbing guide before, only under another guide during our work experience with Climbing Queenstown. We planned the day as best we could, expecting to work our groups of two through four climbs on top rope and one long abseil like clock-work. I delivered the welcome briefing, we split the group into two’s and grabbed a pair each, and set to work getting our brave volunteers fit with harnesses, shoes, and helmets before bringing them over to the crag. We had arrived an hour or so before the clients to set up our ropes, so we jumped right into belay instruction, safe climbing technique, and getting the clients stoked for a great day of cragging in Wanaka.
We had two NZOIA assessors watching nearly everything we did with our clients, making notes, ticking boxes, and ensuring we kept everyone safe and happy. Aside from one of my clients getting a bit spooked by the heights, we all cruised through the day and the assessment with hardly any hiccups.
The Bush personal skill assessment felt much more relaxed after having received passing marks in Rock and Abseil, so we took a collective deep breath and eased back into our normal, goofy selves. We were evaluated on our ability to determine distance and timing for various legs of the Lower Routeburn Track, on giving six-figure grid references for our locations once we arrived at the leader’s stopping point, on shelter building, plant identification, other aspects of navigation, and general knowledge of the area.
Our client day ran a bit differently from the rock and abseil, as each of us took turns guiding the full group while the others kept in the back behind the clients. We each acted as lead guide for a minimum of an hour, exercising our group management skills, providing interpretation, chatting to clients, and answering questions. Aside from the massive amount of rain that fell throughout the day, we again had a quite cruisy day that ended with hot cups of tea on the bus back to Queenstown and very happy clients (and guides).
We were each given numerical values for the many skills and required tasks of the NZOIA qualifications, with a 3 meriting a pass, 4 meaning we’d done something a bit better than expected, and 5 demonstrating excellence. For me personally, it was nice to have a quantifiable evaluation of what I’d learned over the past three months and what I was now able to do.
By the end of the four days, we were absolutely exhausted mentally and physically. I had set an alarm on my watch for 5:30 pm, to alert us when it was TIME TO PARTY, but by the time it rolled around half of us were asleep in the lounge.
As our final group activity, our program director gave us an address in town, a time to arrive, and sent us on our way. I was beyond stoked when we arrived at Queenstown’s Escape Room and could hardly contain myself when they gave us Victorian-era hats and scarves to help get us into a Sherlock Holmes-esque mindset. The five of us were quite spastic trying to place each clue, and although we escaped with one minute to spare and solved the murder mystery, we needed lots of help from the eye in the sky that regularly gave us hints.
“The answer is 9! Try 9!”
Clue on the screen – “The answer is not 9.”
Pizza at Winnie’s and some drinks finished off an awesome graduation night. The following day we received our certificates of completion of the Pure Exploration program and our Swift Water Rescue & Pre Hospital Emergency Care certificates. Just like that, we were finished! Ready to join the world of outdoor guides! (gulp)
Life post program meant different things for all of us. One member of the crew had a job lined up for the (Northern Hemisphere) winter, so she cruised home a few days after graduation. Another was jonesin’ to get back on the road and explore the South Island a bit more, so he bought a van and set off on an epic road trip.
The rest of us are working in Queenstown. One guy had scored a job at Ziptrek, the ziplining company in Queenstown, and had been working there for a couple of weeks by the time we finished our assessments. His training coincided with our schedule, so he was unable to sit his NZOIA exams, but he has since worked in the trees for over a month now and will go for his qualifications in a few months. The last is working for Serious Fun Riverboarding managing the shop and the company’s day-to-day.
I’ve been super lucky to split my time between Pure Exploration as a program advisor and doing some administration work with guiding for Climbing Queenstown. A typical day for me starts with a morning of helping people from around the world get down to New Zealand on one of our programs (hopefully this is you!) and ends with an afternoon of guiding rock climbing in Sunshine Bay. Sometimes it can get a bit hectic, but I am super passionate about both opportunities I’ve been given and love both companies so much.