Mountain Leader Award Scheme

“A Mountain Leader Award (ML) is a qualification for an individual to prove he/she has excellent mountain and leadership skills in the British mountains and is assessed over a 5 day period”.

Guiding on the Coledale Round

Mountain Leader Training England (MLTE) manages and administers a series of qualifications.  They are generally recognized as the benchmark for competency within the walking/guiding environment. Although there is no legal need for a qualification (yet) to lead groups in the mountains, schools and other educational authorities, outdoor centres recognize the qualification. The consistency and level that the qualification brings is important. The different qualifications all follow a standard curriculum and the providers of the courses all follow the same basic areas of assessment. However each provider has their own methods in delivering the courses and assessments.

Route finding up Wild Boar Fell
Route finding up Wild Boar Fell

Experience and Common Sense

What is common and intrinsic to all the courses the MLTE and the neighbouring Scottish Mountain Leader Training Board run is that they rely heavily on the candidates experience, common sense, responsibility and general ‘outdoor awareness’ as opposed to lots of technical detail. There is very little classroom work, it is nearly all outside and practical. Emphasis is also placed on the upkeep of the log book. This is provided at the beginning of the Training and which shows all the practical experience the candidate has undertaken.

Qualification System

Basically gaining a qualification involves two formal stages and a continued informal stage. Training is a 5/6 day course (either continual or split in to 2 long weekends). The Assessment is the same and amongst other things each involves an ‘expedition’ which is two nights continual camping. It is almost impossible to avoid the Training week (and not advisable). There must also be a suitable gap between training and assessment.  During this period a great deal of experienced mountain days must be undertaken and the training put in to action. The candidate must have a minimum of 40 quality mountain days before taking the assessment.

A 2 day first aid course tailored to outdoor recreation is a requirement before assessment. This has to be renewed every 3 years for the Mountain Leader Award to remain valid. It is up to the candidate to source his own course.

Guiding a large group
Guiding a large group

Available Qualifications

The following courses are available:

Mountain Leader Award (Summer). The course I have completed and run by the MLTE. Aside from some walking experience nothing formal needs to be attained.

Mountain Leader Award (Winter). The course I would like to complete and run by SMLTB. The summer award must be attained first.

International Mountain Leader Award . Requires the ML (summer) and 20 quality winter days. As with the ML awards above this is largely non-technical and is for easier terrain, not including rock pitches.

Mountaineering Instructor Award. This is technical and takes in to account all the skills required to ‘instruct’ people on the mountain not just ‘lead’ them. Summer conditions only.

Mountain Instructor Certificate. Includes ‘instruction’ in winter conditions.

Hill & Moorland Leader Award (previously Walking Group Leader). This is good for D of E assessors, scout leaders and offers off path navigation techniques but no high level or overnight components. 3 days training and 3 days assessment.

Lowland Leader. Leading groups on lowland walks on paths. It is limited in scale but teaches leadership skills. 2 days training and 2 days assessment.

Useful Links for the Mountain Leader Award

The official site detailing the various awards is the Mountain Training website. There is considerable detail and it is essential reading for anyone contemplating becoming a Mountain Leader

My Personal Journey

All the above sounds very formal and a little bureaucratic. The reality is that it is all great fun. Like anything when you mix with like-minded people there is that sense of camaraderie that makes the  experience that much more enjoyable. The course providers understand that one of the fundamentals of taking people on the hills is to make them enjoy the experience.

On my assessment I was asked to take out a trio of girls on their Gold Duke of Edinburgh course. As well as not getting them lost it was just as important they had an enjoyable experience. Sadly Kinder Scout in the cloud was never going to be a joyous experience. The assessment can get a little tense, even stressful. However the fact is that you are testing yourself and your abilities whilst undertaking a favourite hobby.

So why do it?

I can only judge from my experience but the reasons are many and varied. I wanted the challenge. In particular I wanted to become better at leading groups, a little more conscientious on my navigation skills and to enjoy a week in the hills. I had no pretensions to make a career out of becoming a mountain guide (little did I know) but I did just want to see where it led to.

I had just finished the Munros and wanted another challenge and this looked interesting. Others wanted to work in Outdoor Centres and make a life from guiding groups. However many just happened to live nearby and fancied days on the hills with like-minded walkers. Whatever the reasons each of the 2 groups I was with gelled brilliantly. We helped each other out without any reservation.

My Mountain Leader Training.

Northern end of Ennerdale
Northern end of Ennerdale

Low Gillerthwaite, Ennerdale 12-14 October, 3-5 November. 10 on the course

I chose the Ennerdale base for 2 reasons. The long weekends fitted in with my work better. In addition I fancied the idea of Ennerdale as it was somewhere I had hardly ever walked. Previously I had climbed Pillar from Ennerdale and once made a another crossing in to Borrowdale. Those were my previous Ennerdale visits before trooping off to Low Gillerthwaite for the first of 2 weekends. I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I turned up and looking around no-one else seemed to. The group was not very experienced. My completion of the Munros made me stand out. Others had better camping skills and some even had the ability to tie knots (something I certainly did not!).

First Weekend

We never camped on the first weekend and much of it was very theoretical. There was a full half day on the crags below Great Borne. At this point I realised my greatest challenge was going to be the rope work element of the course. A straight fail would have been on the cards if I was being assessed this day! Aside from this there was a great deal of simple navigation, relying as much on pacing and distance as serious map and compass work. We had some good fun on river crossings and techniques to cross safely. Still it was enjoyable and the group got on well.

Second Weekend

I thoroughly enjoyed the 2nd weekend and learnt loads. We had 2 nights camping/expedition up near Black Sail Youth Hostel. We had been split in to 2 groups for the expedition with 5 in each which really should be the maximum in these situations. Aside from the ability to set up  a campsite, cook your own food, putting the tent up, digging a latrine etc: we spent a long evening Night Navigating on the bleak slopes of Brandreth and Grey Knotts. I found this really enjoyable even though our tents had been ‘raided’ by the other lot on our return!

Finally we had a long day on the slopes of Pillar and Steeple conducting some more detailed navigational legs and emergency situations. The weather gave the day a much more challenging edge than it would have been in high summer. The trainers, Graham Watson and his team seemed fairly happy that we were all competent yet still urged us to carry on with the walking for a year or so before tackling the assessment stage of the ML. I was commended for my eye to map ability which was as good as he had seen but not for my rope work!

My Mountain Leader Award Assessment.

Near campsite at Seathwaite Tarn
Near campsite at Seathwaite Tarn

White Hall Centre, near Buxton, Peak District 27-31 October. 6 on the coarse

I chose the course for my assessment on the basis it was available! The course was held out of Buxton in the Peak District but did include the expedition element in the Coniston Fells. Being October and having seen the weather forecast I donned full waterproofs. I had done a certain amount of walking in the 2 years since the training but not so much leading. I also had not filled the log book in sufficiently and, along with 3 of the others, spent the final evening getting up to date!

Day 1 Expedition First Day

Even though the assessment criteria is fixed the provider does have a good deal of flexibility in how to deliver it. Rory, the chief assessor, had arranged for a Duke of Edinburgh day on the Thursday so to fit this in we were straight off on the expedition. There were only 6 of us on the course with Rory and his side kick Darren taking 3 each on the mountain. It is fairly intense. Whilst we were on the mountain one of us was always leading the group but the others needed to be aware of where we were at any point in time so concentration was all. The 3 of us in our group though were not above some sly help if any of us thought that the others may have been in any kind of trouble….not that we ever were!

Setting Off

We actually set off from Torver just south of Coniston and established camp near the old mines. Of course it was dark by 6 but this did not deter Rory. Bedding down was not going to happen! We set off from the camp for an intense 6 hours of night navigation around the lower slopes of Bleaberry Haws and Banks. It was tipping it down for the full 6 hours, the underfoot terrain was terrible and it was a simple case of survival. The legs were quite short but micro navigation in the pitch dark and pouring rain tested the 3 of us to the full.

All 3 of us achieved our 3 legs except the lady (I have no record of anyone’s names) who sadly ended in a cave rather than the piece of bracken (joke, it was a split stream) she was aiming for. I was not to know it at the time but some severe damage had been done to my feet which was to cause great pain throughout the week. The blisters were formed by my wet Scarpa boot rubbing against my foot. I have used Scarpa leather boots for years. Everyone tells me they are the best and they have the added advantage of being able to ‘take a crampon’ but hey have always caused me grief with blisters forming repeatedly on and around my Achilles. I have rarely worn them since.

Day 2 Expedition Main Day

We were up and cooking breakfast at about 8 am and moving an hour later. The day ended in the dark at about 7 so it was a long old day with only a 20 minute break for lunch. I have tried to retrace the route we took but we were in reality all over the place with paths only featuring on limited and random occasions. However our basic movement involved cutting under Levers water, dabbling round the slopes of Wetherlam and over Little Carrs. Finally we dropped down to camp near the dam at Seathwaite Tarn. Sadly we never actually peaked.

I think we had 4 legs each, of varying length, which basically meant an average of ½ an hour leading from point A to point B. Additionally we facilitated a water crossing, a first aid evacuation and some local knowledge quizzes (geology, fauna, which hills) as we travelled. All of us seemed to do okay on this which is the basis to all that Mountain Leading is about. I mean if you cannot find your way about the hill what is the point!

Despite being tired and my feet were in considerable pain we had not yet finished. Rope work on the rocks just up from Seathwaite Tarn was the order of the day; the bit I was dreading. I succeeded in making a pig’s ear of selecting my anchor point and I was told later that he would take me away and give me one more chance later in the week – a bit of a downer at that stage. Finally we got in the tent I was sharing and after nearly setting it alight with my camping stove and taken about ½ an hour to remove each boot crawled in to the sack.

Day 3 Final Expedition Day

This was not actually a long day. Although we were off at 8.30 I think Rory and Darren took pity on us and it was only just after lunch when we retired to the mini bus at Torver having summit ed Dow Crag and led a leg past my favourite Lakeland tarn, Blind Tarn. The weather, after the first day, had at least been dry although it was windy and there was cloud over the summit. All in all a fairly typical Lakeland October ½ term. Darrin took each of us aside and gave us the low down on how we had got on. For me all was fine except for the problems with my blessed anchor point. I would have another go on the last morning. I did not fancy a deferral.

Coniston Old Man from Brim Fell
Coniston Old Man from Brim Fell

Day 4 Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme

This is something unusual on the Mountain Leader Award assessment but really added to the experience. A group of lads and lasses from the Duke of Edinburgh gold award were over for the day and it was up to us to devise a route and lead a group for the day. I was allocated a group of 3 girls and the rest was up to me. The girls were required to do some map work but aside from that it was about them clocking in the hours. For us it was about giving them an interesting and educational day. Kinder Scout in the mist was our location so off we trooped.

I knew the Kinder plateau was a fairly featureless place so basically my route was a large semi-circle with a special ‘through the centre’ finish. Hardly inspiring but what is on Kinder Scout? The girls turned out to be great and seemed to enjoy the walk even though it took them barely 5 minutes before they were referring to me as ‘Dad’. How much there interest was on the route was debatable. They were treating this as a good day out for a gossip. I knew considerably more about who was going out with who, the latest music scene and even the benefits and drawbacks of differing coat hangers than I ever used to!

On Kinder Scout

The walk went well, Rory found me in the correct place and the girls were chirpy so all in all I had a very enjoyable day. I like to quote Rory’s comments that are in the log book.  “Very relaxed style of leadership + excellent rapport with the group – well done”. However he neglected to mention that it was all done with feet that were becoming more like porridge every time I looked. It was putting and taking off the boots which was the major issue – I dreaded the moment.

The evening had us all desperately trying to refill the log book with some extra walks we had done. One tip is that the providers are really strict on a full log book and making sure that they are documented. Eventually we had sufficient to keep them happy although I have once again neglected to update the log book since, there is just not room! It is apparently on the Training Board web site under Mountain Leader Award.

Day 5 A fully qualified Mountain Leader

We spent the final morning at a local beauty spot near Buxton which had a convenient gritstone scar. It was ideal for a bit of extra practice with the ropes. Fortunately this time I secured an anchor which was not about to catapult everyone in to space. Therefore I was deemed to have successfully passed this part of the course. After the morning it was back to the centre for the final results. The morning was all a little flat after the last 4 days. We had escaped to the local for a couple of pints the night before, as everyone I think just wanted to get away.

Four of us secured straight passes and there were two deferrals. However one deferral was because the lad had not taken his First Aid course. The other deferral in our group was asked to come back in 6 months to retake some of navigation. If you are deferred on one aspect of the course it is quite straightforward to return in a few months to pass that section only. There is no necessity to redo the entire course. I suspect straight failures are very rare, as anyone who is on the  course is going to be pretty competent or they simply would not be there.

There is a good deal of satisfaction to passing the Mountain Leader Award. I would recommend it to anyone who just wants to improve their skills and therefore their enjoyment of the outdoors. My only advice is to keep your boots dry.