Updated: Dec 18, 2020
I’ve spent many years operating as a mountain leader. Throughout that time I’ve also been out helping a number of Mountain Leader (ML) candidates – both Summer ML (SML) and Winter ML (WML). I enjoy it as although I’m not a Mountain Training assessor (but I am a NNAS assessor), I’ve been through the process of both assessments and can offer my own experience.
For folks who have started or who are considering the mountain leader journey, there have been a few questions or areas of weakness that crop up time and again. So I’ve put together some thoughts about both the SML and WML based on my experience which I hope will be helpful for anyone thinking of ‘going for it’.
1. Get out there and have some adventures!
This may seem an obvious point but seriously, get out there and have some adventures. Build up your own wealth of experience out there in all conditions. Have your own stories to tell. If you’re not confident on a particular aspect of the syllabus – go on a specific course (see point 3 below).
The training courses for both Summer and Winter ML will not actually teach you how to do what you need to be able to do. There simply isn’t the time available. They will introduce you to the skills you need and you are expected to go off and become proficient in those skills.
The more experience you have in the hills and mountains the better placed you will be to have your experience vindicated and concentrate on the new skills. If you don’t have a range of experience already behind you, the amount you need to know will seem absolutely daunting.
I was lucky for both summer and winter ML in that I already had completed a round of Munros mainly in winter. I’d gone from someone unable to understand even the basics of a map when I started out, to leading groups in winter 6 years later. I’d had wild camping epics (in both summer and winter) and been a member of several mountaineering clubs from where I was able to learn skills, hone skills, pass on these skills and have folks as bonkers as me to plan some quite insane trips with.
So I was able to go on the summer ML training and almost go straight into the assessment and pass first time. Even so, I was extremely nervous. I had practiced everything beforehand - including meeting up with some of the others on my training course to practice the skills needed. However, despite being an experienced mountain walker, the ML ropework was completely new to me.
2. Quality Mountain Days
You will need a minimum (and that’s the key word here – minimum) of 20 quality mountain days as defined by Mountain Training even to get onto the summer ML training and have these logged on their Digital logbook system. You will need at least three different mountain areas – so brilliant, but if you live in the Lakes or Snowdonia you’ll have to drag yourself elsewhere quite a few times. For winter, basically you'll need to spent a lot of time in the Highlands of Scotland.
I get asked this a lot and see this on a lot of forums on social media regularly: “Do you think this will count as a QMD (Quality Mountain Day)?”.
Mountain Training are quite (OK very) prescriptive about what constitutes a QMD – both for Summer and Winter (the links will take you to the QMD pages for both schemes). If you have been out in the hills and think you’ve clocked a QMD then beyond the tick boxes:
Write some detail in your description of the day. Really explain it, your thought processes, grid references for key places, who you were with and anything else interesting or epic that happened. Solo days out can also be counted as it shows your personal competence, but this is a leadership award and they will want you to have led groups too.
Copy and paste the bullet point list for either the Summer or Winter ML Scheme and tweak each one to address that particular day or expedition. If you are meeting roughly ¾ of them, it’s likely you have a QMD. For winter, if you end up at assessment borderline you will need to make sure every QMD meets every single bullet point. That is what Mountain Training Scotland will look at. You don't have to do this of course, but it'll give you peace of mind that you can justify it if you do. I also realised that at least 10 WQMDs really probably weren't so I removed them when I applied this idea.
I also provided all my QMDs (and winter Grade I and above) in a folder printed out with a starting note saying "Please also refer to my DLOG for wider experience". In the folder I also had my valid first aid certificate (essential). Remember that non-QMDs also show your wider experience so are very valuable to log on DLOG.
You can now highlight the QMDs you specifically want your assessors to look at on DLOG, but if you've used DLOG you've probably realised how bad it is (at least I and a few others think it is). I wanted everything important there in physical form to be sure. Anything you can do to appease the assessment nerves.
I’ve also heard folks saying things like “Oh, I can’t go climbing today as I hurt my wrist so I’m going to go and do a QMD instead.”
It’s highly unlikely that will be a QMD. Perhaps I was lucky in not having to go and tick box new QMDs and had a good share of epics already. But just relax about QMDs. If you have an epic day or learn/use a range of tricks then great. But it's normally afterwards that you decide whether to include it as a QMD.
QMDs ‘happen’. They are often unplanned (unless you set off and plan a full traverse of the Cullin Ridge or the Glen Shiel seven for example). The weather may have turned nastier than expected, something may have occurred to mean you had to change your route plan etc.
Assessors will let you get away with perhaps two or three ascents up Snowdon as QMDs (if they actually were – see above). But they want to see you tackle different hills in different ranges and often off tourist paths. If you have done the same hill a few times, the conditions must be completely different.
3. Join Mountain Training Association
OK, I’m not sponsored by Mountain Training Association - but they are brilliant beyond just getting you great gear discounts. You will get the option to join when you register for a scheme with Mountain Training and I'd recommend joining.
They host loads of events, peer-led sessions, workshops, expert-led days out looking at ecology, geology etc, and you can get training from Instructors at very good prices. It’s these workshops – ones on night nav, contour interpretation, ropework refreshers etc which can be really useful. Plus, you meet others who are at different stages of their pathway. I’ve developed new and real friendships from these workshops who also work outdoors and we regularly go out practicing aspects we don’t use regularly or just for our own epics. Folks have come to me for private refreshers / training and I've been able to mentor them through. Having worked with someone, given them opportunity to shadow me on set trips, also means I'm very likely to employ them once they've passed when I need an extra guide!
You will get way more out of the association the more you get involved.
4. The Training
The training is brilliant. It’s full on and intense. But it’s also great fun. The more experience you have behind you, the more you’ll get out of it. It can be daunting at times and there will be areas you are unfamiliar with. Get the handbooks recommended to you as they will be a great resource. It’s also worth meeting up afterwards with your fellow students to go out practicing.
But it can be brutal especially in winter. The conditions may be horrendous and you may not get through everything on the syllabus that the instructors intended to. Even in summer you can get weeks when storm fronts move through and you’ll be cold and wet. The expedition can be miserable if you’ve not done a wild-camping trip or two when it’s been wet and basically horrible. The more prepared you are, the better you will pack for it and the more you can enjoy it.
Remember too that you will have extremely experienced guides with you all week. Don’t be afraid to tap into their knowledge. I certainly enjoy days out with folks who are eager to learn and ask questions far more than just having a group following me around in silence.
Photos credit - Alan Halewood, Climb when you're ready
5. The assessment
Practice, practice, practice. I’ve heard some instructors suggest going and doing a Gold National Navigation Award Scheme Course (you don’t need to have done bronze or silver) before your summer assessment. This can really help with confidence as Gold Navigator Award is equivalent to Summer ML level. But it won’t cover the leadership elements or ropework.
I went out with a friend who was a working ML two weeks before my summer ML assessment for a 2 day exped. We did night nav and he put me through what he experienced on his assessment and was able to feed back areas where I needed to be work on and areas which were really good. This boosted my confidence and gave me a taster of what was to come. I can always cover ropework and head out for an exped beforehand.
For my Winter ML, I was out almost every weekend beforehand from the first snowfalls with a friend also going for assessment and we practiced and practiced again all of the ice axe arrests, pretending to teach each other how to walk in crampons, building bucket seats and bollards in different snow packs and also nav, nav, nav. I made use of the Facebook groups for trainee MLs and even met up with some random people (who became friends) just to go out practicing. Winter ML assessment is physically brutal. You are out in the mountains for five consecutive days and three are spent on exped typically based in a snowhole or two and it is full on.
But “You only learn to drive after you’ve passed your test”. This is very true for these assessments. At the end of each day you will get some feedback from your assessors. I found this useful as any mistakes or errors I’d made I could put to bed after chatting about them. But the assessors also recognise your nerves (they have been there too), and the fact that your ‘teaching’ style will likely be rubbish as you’ve not been able to properly go out there with paying clients to try it out.
You will also learn loads on your assessment course. The assessors want you to be relaxed to be able to show your potential. They will give you every opportunity to do so. The more experienced and practiced you are, the easier and less stressful it will be. They will want to see you use appropriate skills too. If you are staring at a compass bearing to get to a summit you can see they may question you. So be natural. On my winter ML exped I’d prepared my route plan, set off at a bearing and then the clouds lifted and I could see the target. I asked my assessor “Erm, I can see it, do you want me to stick to my nav plan?”. He responded with “What would you do normally?”
“Erm, walk to it? Still keeping track of where I am in case the weather clags in again of course…”
And so I just walked to it.
If you can do the “set pieces” (ropework etc), and you are with a good group, you will likely get shown new ways of doing things or some fine tuning. Remember – they are teaching as well as assessing and it shows that you are ready to learn more – you’re doing well.
Read the syllabus too – I’ve heard from one of my assessors that many don’t know what’s in the syllabus even when coming to assessment – but it’s available from Mountain Training as a pdf from the course pages. If you don’t know what is expected of you then you will add more stress to the week.
6. Making a mistake on assessment…
Don’t panic. Sometimes it is no bad thing to go wrong to show you can recognise a mistake quickly and find yourself again (so long as it doesn’t compromise safety and it’s not all the time!). We all get a bit geographically challenged from time to time. Perhaps chatting with clients and switching off a bit from the nav or whatever. But the ability to relocate shows you are at the right level.
On the first day of my Summer ML expedition, I had to stop in a moraine field on the Cairngorm plateau and admit I was a bit lost. The assessor sat down calmly and gave me space to find myself again. I quickly did of course, but it was a ‘going pale’ moment and I was convinced that I’d failed. That was it. My previous three days were a waste. I might as well go home.
In the debrief after when I was told I’d passed, he grinned at me and said I’d shown I was absolutely at the right level. Even he got lost occasionally!
So enjoy the journey (no pun intended). It is extremely valuable in terms of your own personal development. You'll meet loads of new friends and adventure companions.
Nothing prepares you quite like being confronted by paying clients for the first time all looking at you for expertise. I don’t think I slept for two nights before my first trip with real clients and I’d rehearsed every key point and written every bearing on a scrap of paper (laminated). But if you just love the mountains and have experience out there, you’ll soon relax!