Once a physicist: Al Powell
Al Powell is one of Europe’s top mountain runners and a member of the British Ski Mountaineering team. As co-director of the company Alpine Guides, he works year-round as a professional mountain guide.
Why did you choose to study physics?
I was quite good at physics at school and, to be honest, I didn’t know what else to do. I applied to the University of Leeds because they offered a standard physics degree with astrophysics added on, and I was interested in doing some astronomy. Leeds was also a good place to be based for climbing and running.
Did you enjoy the course?
I was a fairly typical undergraduate sportsman in that I probably spent as much time doing sport as I did studying. When I got to the final year and I could choose exactly what options I wanted to do, then I got into the course a lot more. I remember doing a lot of solar–terrestrial physics.
Did you meet many other physicists with similar sporting interests?
There were several postgraduates in the physics department who were keen climbers. Also, one of my lecturers at Leeds encouraged me to enter The Fellsman, a 67-mile race across high moorland in the Yorkshire Dales. He gave me the entry form and said “You’ll enjoy this”. He was right.
You weren’t tempted to do a PhD?
No, not really. To achieve at a high level in climbing you really have to commit yourself. I did short-term contract work, things that I could drop easily to go on an expedition. You can’t do that if you are a postgraduate because you are still in a relatively structured environment. You have to work hard year-round and can’t just disappear for a couple of months at a time.
You then went into teaching. How did that work out?
I taught physics and general science to 11–18 year olds for five or six years. The department I worked in was very good at providing specialist science teaching, even at the lower end of the school. They generally always had a physicist teaching physics, a biologist teaching biology, and so on. Children might have three or four different science teachers throughout the year on rotation. I enjoyed that way of working. It meant I could actually concentrate on teaching what I knew and what I was interested in.
Why did you stop teaching?
I am probably the only guy who gave up a teaching job because I wanted more holidays! I just found that I wanted to spend more and more time in the mountains.
Does your physics training help you at all in your current role?
As a mountain guide, you are always thinking ahead. You have to analyse situations very carefully, be observant and extrapolate information to make decisions. That’s perhaps something you get from studying any science to degree level. You also need a good understanding about the way snow behaves, for example how it evolves throughout the day, so that you can ensure that your clients have a good day in the mountains and that everyone stays safe.
This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Physics World
last edited: February 23, 2016