Mountain Leadership

“A Mountain Leader (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”

Mountain Leader Training England (MLTE) manages and administers a series of qualifications that are generally recognized as the benchmark for competency within the walking/guiding environment. Although there is no legal need for a qualification to lead groups in the mountains,  schools and other educational authorities, outdoor centres recognize the awards that are given and the consistency and level that the qualification brings. 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.

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 which 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) as is the Assessment 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) and there must be a suitable gap between each where a great deal of experienced mountain days are undertaken and the training techniques 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 ML to remain valid. It is up to the candidate to source his own course.

Available Qualifications

The following courses are available:

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

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

International Mountain Leader. 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

Walking Group Leader (Non upland areas). Personally I see little benefit in this, however it is run by the MLTE and the training and assessments involve less time.

There is also 2 levels of instruction for those on a Climbing Wall and the Single Pitch Award for instruction

Useful Links

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 whilst the course providers understand that one of the fundamentals of taking people on the hills is to make them enjoy the experience. On the Assessment I was asked to take out 3 girls on their Duke of Edinburgh course and as well as not getting them lost it was just as important they had an enjoyable experience as possible (Kinder Scout in the cloud not ever going to offer the ultimate pleasure). Yes the assessment can get a little tense, even stressful but the fact is that you are testing yourself and your abilities in one of your favourite hobbies or even potential career so there should be a challenge but a pleasurable one.

So why do it? I can only judge from my experience and those who were doing the course and assessment with me but there were 10 different reasons for 10 different people. I wanted the challenge. In particular I wanted to become better at leading groups, a little more conscientious, learn some basic skills on rope work and to enjoy a week in the hills. I had no pretentions to make a career out of leading people (I still do not) 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 and many just happened to live nearby and fancied days on the hills with like-minded groups. Whatever the reasons each of the 2 groups I was with gelled brilliantly and each helped each other out without any reservation.

My Mountain Leader Training.

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 and I fancied the idea of Ennerdale as it was somewhere I had hardly ever walked from. One trip to climb Pillar from here and another crossing in to Borrowdale was all I ever remember 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. What goes through your mind is what the hell am I doing here but one thing I did find out was that no-one on the course was particularly experienced. My completion of the Munros made me stand out although to be fair there were others with much better camping skills and some even had the ability to tie knots (something I certainly did not!

We never camped on the first weekend and in all honesty I remember little of what we did. There was a full half day on the crags below Great Borne when I quickly realised my greatest challenge was going to be the rope work element of the course, choosing both the correct knots and anchors to tie the rope to. 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 and some frollicks in the river with the various techniques for crossing being tried out. Still it was enjoyable and the group got on well.

The second weekend was much more fun. We had 2 nights camping/expedition up near Black Sail Youth Hostel. We had been spit 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 operate in 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 which was in fact thoroughly 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 certainly 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 and 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 Assessment.

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! Not only was I traipsing down to the Peaks, although I was aware that the expedition was in the Coniston Fells, but this was the end of October when the weather is notoriously unreliable aside from the certainty that it would be wet. 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 aong 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 way the provider does this was up to them. 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 which makes for a fairly intense assessment. Whilst we were on the mountain one of us was always leading the group with the others following 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.

We actually set off from Torver just south of Coniston and setting up camp near the old mines. Of course it was dark by 6 but this did not deter Rory and we set off from the camp for the most 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 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 massif pain throughout the week, the blisters being formed from 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.

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, over Little Carrs before eventually dropping 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 all 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 summited 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 summits – all in all a fairly typical Lakeland October ½ term. Darrin took each of us aside and gave us a resumee of how we had got on which was all 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.

Day 4 Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme

This is something unusual on the ML assessment but really good and in retrospect what the course is all about. 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 hat it was about them clocking in the hours, for us it was about giving them an interesting day. Kinder Scout in the mist was our location so off we trooped.

I knew the 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’. However how much there interest was on the route or whether they were treating this as a good day out for a gossip it is difficult to say but to be sure 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!.

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” although 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 for everyone is that the providers are really strict on completing as many walks as possible 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!

Day 5 A fully accepted Mountain Leader

We spent the final morning at a local beauty spot near Buxton which had a gritstone scar, 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 and 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, and we had escaped to the local for a couple of pints the night before, as everyone I think just wanted to get away.

4 of us secured straight passes and there were 2 deferrals although one was because the lad had not taken his First Aid course. The girl in our group was asked to come back in 6 months to retake some of navigation but to be honest I did not think she was far away. 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 course however and 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.