Becoming a Mountain Leader
I’m delighted to say that I have just recently passed my Mountain Leader award, a professional qualification that allows me to take groups into the UK mountains. It’s been a lot of work over many years but highly rewarding. Let me share some thoughts on why I did it, how I got on and what tips I’d give for any other aspiring Mountain Leaders out there.
The Mountain Leader (Summer) award
The Mountain Leader (ML) scheme is probably the most widely-recognised UK mountain leadership qualification, allowing individuals to take groups into the mountains of the UK and Ireland. The Mountain Training organisation manages the professional mountain leadership qualifications, with the ML (Summer) award covering the leadership and technical skills necessary to take groups into the hills and mountains in all but winter conditions (where a separate ML (Winter) award takes over). To be able to qualify you must be able to demonstrate that you:
- have attended a Mountain Leader training course (or, in exceptional circumstances, have been granted exemption)
- are familiar with the syllabus
- have logged a minimum of 40 ‘Quality Mountain Days’ ** in three different regions of the UK and Ireland
- hold a current first aid certificate (minimum 16 hours) and relevant to your work as a Mountain Leader
- have logged at least 8 nights camping, including at least 4 nights wild camping.
** A QMD broadly comprises a day where the individual gains direct personal experience of navigation away from marked paths, increasing their knowledge is increased and skills, and where adverse (terrain/weather) conditions may be experienced.
The syllabus covers a range of skills and knowledge, all of which are covered in ML training and in the Course Handbook (‘Hillwalking‘, by Steve Long):
- Group management
- Access and the environment
- Hazards (including steep ground and rivers) and emergency procedures
- Expedition skills
- Background knowledge.
Keen hillwalkers will be familiar with at least some of this material. However, there’s a big step up from having some knowledge of some material to knowing it all. To successfully gain the award you really need to have strong and practical experience in every area, be resilient and have a genuine passion for the mountains. Crucially, it’s not enough to be an experienced navigator and hillwalker. The qualification is essentially about leadership and so the real test is about having absolute confidence in your own abilities so you can focus all of your attention on leading an inexperienced group in the mountains in all weathers.
To qualify as a Mountain Leader you need to have:
- passed a 6 day training course (which can also be delivered over two long weekends)
- passed a 5 day assessment (which can also be delivered over two long weekends)
- have at least 20 QMDs at the time of registration and at least 40 QMDs by assessment (using the consolidation period in between to develop skills and experience)
- a certificate in outdoor first aid
- experienced at least 8 nights camping, including at least 4 nights wild camping.
So what kinds of people take the award ? In my experience (from my training and assessment groups) there are three types of people:
- those who are volunteering to support Duke of Edinburgh expeditions or Scout groups and need a qualification to become Expedition Supervisors (leaders)
- those who are developing a career in outdoor education (typically in their 20s/30s), where the ML award is essential for career progression
- those who run a business and for whom an ML qualification would provide an ‘add-on’ to enable them to become a mountain guide (eg for 3 Peaks and charity hillwalks).
This video gives a good overview of the ML award (although in my experience the weather isn’t always as favourable ..!).
Why did I do it?
I’m firmly in the first category, having already climbed the munros and having volunteered to help with DofE expeditions at my local high school when my daughter became old enough to take part. For me, ‘helping’ wasn’t enough; I wanted to be able to lead expeditions. I’d gained sufficient experience in my own right – walking, camping and backpacking – and I wanted to ‘give something back’.
In volunteering to help with DofE expeditions I realised that I really enjoy teaching young people about the outdoors. I love camping and being out in the hills and so being able to pass on some of that knowledge and enthusiasm is great. For many (if not most) kids their walking and camping experience is limited to day walks and ‘car camping’ in fine weather, so it’s very rewarding to help them go beyond their comfort zone and really stretch and develop themselves.
In our local authority all DofE expedition supervisors (leaders) have to have a recognised hill or mountain leadership qualification. A number of people have gained the Basic Expedition Leader (BEL) qualification, covering walking and camping in lowland countryside, which is sufficient for the DofE Bronze level. The newer Hill and Moorland Leader Award also covers similar terrain, up to areas of 600m in height. However, the ML qualification is needed at Silver and Gold level, where you could potentially be leading groups in upland and mountain areas and gives a much more rigorous training.
I had originally been interested in the Hill and Moorland Leader award given that it’s relatively less time-consuming in terms of training and assessment. However, I failed to find a training course that was running; for some reason, there seemed to be much less demand and fewer training providers. Having sought the advice of a few people the general view seemed to be that “the ML award is really the one you need” and so I changed tack.
My main criticism of Mountain Training is that their written (website) information could be clearer. I wasted the best part of a year not really knowing what qualification was right for me. Only after a year did someone at Mountain Training actually tell me on the phone that you could do the ML training and assessment courses over split weekends. Up until this point I was struggling to see how I could find enough holidays to take two full weeks off work, so it was a revelation to discover that I could actually do it by only having to take four days in total.
I undertook my training and assessment in the Lake District with Andy Brown of Adventures. Having wasted time not knowing about the ‘system’ Andy’s training course was the nearest and next available course to me. At the time I only had limited experience of walking in the Lakes and so immediately it was a great learning opportunity. But much more importantly, it turned out to be a great decision: the experience and training given by Andy and his colleagues (Phil Tinning, Mike Gullen and Andy’s son Chris) has helped to develop and stretch me in ways I just couldn’t have imagined a year ago. I have huge respect for the ways they patiently shared their knowledge, experience and tips with me and others; it was simply first class.
I’m also indebted to those organisations who provided financial support to cover the cost of my training and assessment: DofE Scotland (who have a Training Fund), Stirling Council and Dunblane High School. Without this support I undoubtedly would not have become a Mountain Leader … and now of course I’m very happy to volunteer my time and knowledge for free.
Here’s a brief overview of what’s involved, including my own experiences:
Spread over six days (continuously or two long weekends) the training is designed to cover the whole syllabus and identify candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. It’s highly practical; we only spent the first morning in a ‘classroom’ environment with the rest of the time spent out on the hills. It’s also hugely enjoyable. The emphasis is on learning without any added pressure of assessment at this stage, and I found I picked up a massive amount both from the instructors and fellow candidates.
For the first weekend we were based at Buttermere YH. Our first day was spent learning about the course and discussing the parts of the syllabus best done indoors (eg weather and interpreting synoptic charts, discussing emergency kit), followed by outdoor navigation practice. This was the most important aspect of learning from the whole course for me and something I needed to put into practice over the following year. Understanding how to accurately calculate time and distance – with a group, on different terrain and carrying different amounts of gear – is an essential navigational skill. At assessment, you’ll find that assessors are looking for 10% accuracy, the ability to work things out quickly in your head and then communicate the key pieces of information to your group.
The next day was a ‘mountain day’, climbing up to the ridge between Red Pike and Haystacks. We didn’t cover much distance but the micro-navigation practice was an eye-opener for all of us: really understanding the detail contained in 1:25,000 maps and interpreting this on the ground while looking for specific crags, hollows and other features. On the final day of the first weekend we practiced techniques for walking on steep ground including using a confidence rope as well as direct and indirect belays.
While the second long weekend was billed an ‘expedition weekend’ we spent some of the first day not only talking about but actually making river crossings. As an ML you want to avoid having to take a group across a river as much as you possibly can … but if you absolutely have to do it (in an emergency) it makes sense that you’ve actually experienced it yourself first. (While it looks as though we’re crossing with the aid of long-handled brushes in the photo below, we’re actually simulating using walking poles to steady ourselves against the force of the water !). The rest of the day was spent doing micro-navigation before camping at The Quiet Site, near Ullswater.
Talking of the force of the water, here’s a snap of the swollen Swart Beck the next morning. It had started raining as we practiced river crossings on the Friday morning and continued on and off all the whole weekend. It was to prove very challenging !
We set off from outside Glenridding YH on Saturday morning complete with camping gear and climbed Helvellyn via Swirral Edge. We dropped down to Grisedale Tarn and took the path just north of Fairfield into Deepdale. Without any paths, Deepdale is a less-visited corner of the Lakes and a perfect place for wild camping (see below).
I have to say that with so much rain, our walk out on the Sunday was pretty eventful. Every stream was swollen with raging torrents and we were forced to put our newly-gained knowledge about river crossings into action as we made several diversions from our planned path to find a route down from the hills to Brothers Water. So after a first training weekend with fine, sunny weather we arrived into the pub soaking wet inside and out. You can’t say we didn’t experience the best and the worst of Lake District weather !
Having completed a training course aspiring MLs are expected to put their skills into practice over a period of at least six months, which might also include undertaking some more walking experience (taking their QMDs to at least 40 in total). I knew I had lots of practicing to do, particularly in terms of (micro and night) navigation and ropework. While I already had many more than 40 QMDs logged, having already climbed the munros, almost all of my experience by the time I took my training was in Scotland. However, the requirement is that ML candidates have experience of at least three different mountain areas of the UK and Ireland … and Scotland seemingly counts only as one. I therefore used the next 12 months going back to the Lake District twice, as well as Snowdonia and climbing some Scottish Corbetts, managing to bag all the 3000-footers in England and Wales in the process.
I took my assessment twelve months after my training, giving myself a clear deadline to prepare myself. I decided to go back to Andy Brown at Adventures mainly because I had a good idea of what he was looking for at assessment and I didn’t want any ‘surprises’ by going to an unfamiliar assessor. I’d learned a huge amount from Andy and Phil Tinning and respected their experience and approach, plus the split weekend format also suited me.
It’s inevitable that individuals will be anxious about their assessment. You’ve spent a lot of weekends in the outdoors gaining experience in new and unfamiliar parts of the country. You’ve been out at night with a headtorch, navigating around damp hillsides looking for elusive corners of walls, boundary stones and other features. You’ve been practicing various knots and belay techniques while testing out potential anchors. You will also have been reading the Course Handbook from cover to cover, learning a depth of material about land access arrangements in different parts of the UK, weather systems, navigation techniques, party management, the upland environment and much, much more.
There’s a lot to learn. I found myself devouring not only the Course Handbook (Hillwalking by Steve Long) but also Eric Langmuir’s Mountaincraft and Leadership as well as significant chunks of Hostile Habitats – Scotland’s Mountain Environment. I felt like I was cramming for an exam, much to my kids’ amusement.
However, it turned out that I was ! As well as being assessed ‘out in the field’, lots of material is also assessed by various written papers. This includes a ‘home paper’ done in the week or so before assessment as well as two other papers (on weather, the upland environment and maps) completed in the evenings after a full day on the hills.
So while it is nerve-wracking being assessed we were all gratefully relieved by our assessors’ opening comments: their job isn’t to fail us but to help us pass. I held on to those words over the next 5-6 days of assessment.
There were seven in my group for assessment and for the first weekend we were based at Cockermouth YH. The first evening on arrival we sat a short paper (on weather) then received the topics for our ‘lecturettes’, five minute informative talks to be given to our group when out the following day. It turned out that mine was on the subject of ‘when to call out Mountain Rescue’ which I duly gave the next morning to the group and two assessors for the day, Phil Tinning and Mike Gullen … who just so happens to be Team Leader for Wasdale Mountain Rescue !
We spent a long day on the Borrowdale Fells the next day followed by yet another paper in the evening (upland environment and maps). Our final day that first weekend was spent demonstrating security on steep ground, using belays and confidence ropes. We’d been put through our paces – it was a full-on weekend – but after our individual debriefs I think we all came away thinking we still had a lot more work to do to demonstrate our leadership, navigational and rope skills so we were much more confident and slick. Luckily, we had a fortnight to get out and do some more practice.
For our final assessment weekend we met up at Honister Slate Mine again but this time ‘on expedition’ and carrying full packs. Just as my training weekends had been a ‘game of two halfs’ (benign weather conditions the first weekend followed by floods the next) so the assessment weekends fitted the same pattern. This time we arrived in the Lakes with gale force winds and heavy showers forecast.
The group split into two as usual and our route took us over Brandreth, skirted the impressive northerly cliffs of Great Gable and over Kirk Fell. From here it started to get a bit more interesting, with one of my navigational legs taking us along the sketchy, scrambly path along the steep northerly outcrops of Pillar, overlooking Ennerdale (see below). We ascended a steep rocky ridge to take us up to the summit of Pillar just as it was starting to get dark: this was our night navigation exercise. The plan was to camp in Mirk Cove, a little-known corrie just east of Steeple, which would be sheltered from the strong westerly winds. By the time we got to the trig point at Pillar it was gusting perhaps 40-50 mph and it was difficult to walk without getting blown sideways. We dropped down from the ridge at Wind Gap (yes, really!) and then with headtorches started to navigate along rocky outcrops towards our campsite. I’d expected us to have our tents up and cooking by 8.30pm but in the end we didn’t get pitched in Mirk Cove until 10.30pm, over three hours after leaving Pillar ! It turned out that we’d dropped down too low from Wind Gap and could have picked an easier line along the outcrops higher up. It was slow, methodical work and of course, good navigational practice. This night navigation turned out to be the most memorable part of the whole assessment !
It turned out that Mirk Cove wasn’t the sheltered spot we’d hoped for. There were fierce downdrafts from the back wall of the corrie which meant it was a fiercely windy, noisy and sleep-deprived night. One tent pole was snapped, two others bent and half a dozen tent pegs pinged out of the ground after a strong gust, never to be found.
We dropped down into the relative calm of Ennerdale, practicing belays on the way, then up to the saddle between Starling Dodd and Red Pike before camping overlooking Crummock Water. It has to be said that this wasn’t at the route the assessors had planned for us. Originally, we were headed for Scafell Pike and Wasdale but it would have been extremely difficult walking into the fierce wind so we instead turned east and had the wind in our backs, camping low for our second night. The final day was a relaxed walk out along Buttermere and back to Honister via the Warnscale Bothy (the ‘room with a view’) for lunch.
10 tips for aspiring Mountain Leaders
I learned a huge amount from this process and from my fellow candidates and assessors. If you’re thinking of becoming an ML, hopefully these top 10 tips will be useful:
- Speak to other MLs and assessors for good advice
By far the best advice I got in relation to the whole process was from speaking to people. For whatever reason, websites aren’t great and perhaps the issue is that they’re catering for all possible circumstances as opposed to your particular needs. So find someone who’s been there, done that and got the t-shirt.
2. Become an effective leader, not just a good navigator
The clue’s in the name: it’s a Mountain Leader award. Yes, you need to do know how to navigate. But you need to be such a slick and confident navigator that you don’t really need to think about it (in all weathers) so you can give your full attention to your group. So the assessment is as much about the way you can build a rapport with a group and guide them through tricky terrain with confidence and reassurance. In essence, you need to demonstrate you can take a group from A and B … and then back to A again while keeping them happy, safe, comfortable and engaged.
3. Get lots of practice leading groups
For some people, group management doesn’t come easy: they’re just not used to it or comfortable being an outgoing communicator. But there’s really no substitute for getting practice with groups of all ages. I learned a lot from my peers who had more experience that I have in working with groups. They understood the details of how to get the best out of people, how to motivate them and how to reassure people when they’re way out of their comfort zones.
4. Learn a fail-safe way of estimating time and distance
Accurate navigation requires a rock-solid approach to knowing how fast you’re walking in different conditions and on different terrain. This take (a lot of) practice but can quickly be learned, and really is an essential skill by the time you time you get to assessment. Pacing is fine for micro-navigation, including in zero visibility, but you certainly shouldn’t rely on this over longer distances.
5. Learn to walk at alpine pace
A lot of ML candidates (me included) make the mistake of walking too quickly, being too used to striding out on solo walks. But alpine pace (a … slow … methodical … pace … where … you … have … the … time … to … think … about … the … placing … of … each … step) suits groups of mixed abilities, gives consistency in estimating time and distance, and is a more efficient walking style particularly when walking uphill. It takes a bit of getting used to but you just need to adopt this habit and it will stand you in good stead.
6. Don’t leave things until the last minute
While I’d been out gaining a few more QMDs during my consolidation period I hadn’t really been swotting up on the rest of the material that I would be assessed on. Summer came, I was busy, we went away on holiday … and then all of a sudden I realised I only had three weeks to learn a whole lot of knowledge, much of which was new to me. So my advice is to learn it gradually and test yourself during the consolidation period in naming geographical features, flora, fauna and so on.
7. Understand contours
It sounds so simple and you’re probably thinking “yes, I know what a contour is“. But when map reading on the hill the devil really is in the detail. Many of the candidates on my assessment (yes, me included) focused on compass bearings and distance but somehow forgot to factor in the height gain/loss. If the map shows that the position you’ve been asked to navigate to is only two contours up from your original position, should you really have climbed so far uphill? By looking at the shape of the contours on the map, can you visualise what the landscape should look like? It’s worth spending some time practicing on the hills just thinking about how contours give some vital navigational clues.
8. Don’t just learn one knot
In one sense, this is a metaphor for “just getting by”. Some of the candidates on my assessment had undertaken their training with different providers who’d focused on the minimum to get through assessment. They hadn’t actually experienced river crossings. They hadn’t had the importance of accurately estimating time and distance drilled into them. They’d only been taught the overhand knot for belaying. So when you’re choosing a training provider, ask others what they thought of their own training. Were they really stretched and left feeling that they had lots of tools at their disposal? Or did they only get taught the basics so they could scrape through assessment? Who would you rather have as your mountain leader?
9. Find a friend to navigate with, practice ropes with etc.
If you’re getting close to assessment you really want to get some quality practice in. While you could go out by yourself there will be little challenge or surprise so find yourself a friend (preferably an ML) who ‘knows the ropes’ (literally) and will really help you up your game.
10. Pack light
I’m not a big chap and at a starting weight of 12.5kg (including water and food) my rucsac was heavy enough for my three-day expedition weekend. But my pack was the lightest (excepting Phil Tinning’s, one of the assessors – a good clue in itself). One person in my assessment group really suffered under a 20kg pack: his energy levels dipped on Day 2 and he wasn’t able to perform at his best. While it’s tempting to pack for every eventuality you need to think about how tiring you’re going to be after 10-12 hours’ walking, followed by a second night in the tent. Do you really need two jackets? Is the second gas canister really necessary? Could you borrow a 1.2kg tent rather than the 3kg stalwart? It all adds up.
I found the Mountain Leader training and assessment process testing but immensely rewarding. It took a year of hard work … plus the previous 18 years of avidly climbing hills and subconsciously gaining experience in all weathers and all terrains (… although you can obviously gain experience more quickly than I took !). But if you want to step up and convert your ‘hobby’ experience into a recognised qualification that really grounds your knowledge and skills to lead inexperienced groups into the hills and mountains, then I’d highly recommend it.