I’ve just returned from Snowdonia, where I spent the last week or so in the mountains training for my Mountain Leader qualification.
As I mentioned in a recent post about my 2018 goals, the Mountain Leader award is a nationally-recognised qualification that enables you to lead groups in the mountains of the UK. It is pretty much essential for anyone looking for a career in the outdoors.
If you’re thinking of doing it or just want to know a bit more, here is a rundown of what you might expect on the six-day training course. Due to multiple recommendations I chose Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia to do my course, but the scheme is run in locations all over the country. Although aspects of the course will vary depending on where you do it, the general curriculum and structure are the same. The syllabus covers the following eight areas:
- Group management
- Access and the environment
- Hazards (including steep ground and rivers) and emergency procedures
- Expedition skills
- Background knowledge
The week began with an introduction to the course and a chance to meet my fellow mountain trainees before heading into the mountains to kick things off. The Mountain Leader course is very much focused around practical learning so you can expect to get hands on right away. That said, the course does expect some base knowledge and experience so you shouldn’t be hoping to learn everything from scratch. The first day was navigation and we wandered around the slopes of Carnedd Moel Siabod in the mist with our OS maps and compasses, practicing various macro- and micro-navigation techniques, taking bearings and reading linear features. After a good few hours trudging around in the mist and rain we came back to the centre for a classroom session on weather forecasting, looking at how to read synoptic charts and interpret the info to plan days in the mountains.
Today was all about group leadership with particular focus on managing groups over difficult ground. We began with a 600-metre Grade 1 scramble up to the summit of Glyder Fawr, along the way looking at how we would address the management of groups of different abilities over tough terrain. We took turns throughout the day to lead the group and guide them up the climb. Once we reached the summit the weather was particularly bad so as we walked along the ridge line we went over some more techniques for navigating in poor visibility. After scrambling back down we returned to the centre for some more work on route planning, working together to plan out a suitable mountain day for a group of fictional people based on various things we knew about them.
This day was focused on risk management and the hazards a leader might come across in the mountains. We began in the classroom by identifying the potential hazards a group could face in the mountains and how a leader would address and try to prevent them. We then headed outside to practice some emergency ropework for getting people off the mountains in a crisis, going over the necessary knots and how to belay each other over rocky ground. This was nothing new for the climbers in the group but took me a bit of practice before I got it right.
We then looked at different techniques to move injured people down the mountain, from carrying them safely to creating a sling out of a tent groundsheet.
In the afternoon we drove out to a tributary of the Nant Gwryd river to practice river crossings. Having done a number of genuinely dangerous river crossings in the past, this is not something I was really looking forward to, especially as we were already absolutely freezing. We were dropped off at the banks of a fast moving section of river and told to get to the other side as quickly as possible. This was simply to demonstrate to everyone how fast the river moved and how difficult it was to get across safely.
When we were all soaking wet and chilled to the bone we were then forced to do exactly what we didn’t want to do and get back into the water multiple times. We practiced a few different ways of safely getting a group across by moving together in different formations until we were deemed to be sufficiently adept at moving from one side of the river to the other. We were allowed to dry off before coming back to the classroom to go over some stuff on the legal and moral responsibilities of a mountain leader.
A day to focus entirely on ropework, we headed to the crags at Pen y Pass at the base of Snowdon. We starting by recapping a lot of the stuff we learnt yesterday on the basics of emergency roping, having a much better opportunity to practice the knots and finding reliable anchor points. We then had to rope each other up (and then down) a number of sections of difficult, steep rocky terrain. After lunch we got to enjoy what we’d all been waiting for – abseiling. We went over several techniques the mountain leader could use to abseil down the mountain after successfully belaying his or her group down. This part was a lot of fun and we all got a chance to abseil ourselves down a sheer rock face using whichever technique we preferred.
Back at the centre, this evening’s classroom session was an environmental talk about Snowdonia. As a mountain leader you are expected to have knowledge of wildlife, plant life and history of the areas you are leading in (which I am pretty terrible at) so it was good to get a bit of basic knowledge.
Day Five and Six:
The final two days of the course were spent out on expedition. We began by looking at equipment, giving everyone a chance to get properly kitted out and making sure we all knew exactly what kit a mountain leader is expected to carry. We then headed out on the minibus to Bethesda, where we began our two-day hike. Once again we took turns leading and navigating to various secret locations, at which point the rest of the group would have to figure out exactly where we were on the map using retrospective navigation and whatever features they could identify. We managed a few summits in some pretty terrible weather and headed back down to the Anafon valley where we set up camp in a sheepfold for a freezing cold night.
After everyone had eaten and night had fallen, rather than settling into our nice warm sleeping bags, we were made to march back up the hill to practice night navigation. We learnt some techniques for effective micro-navigation in the dark, taking turns to lead and following compass bearings from point to point, pacing out our steps to gauge distance and handrailing linear features on the map. After two hours of this, snow and hail were hammering down on us and we were all soaked and freezing. We called it a night and retired to our tents which were flapping violently in the wind.
By 9am the next day we were up and away, climbing back up onto the ridge for even more navigation work. We got a lot of practice done and I do genuinely feel like my navigational skills (which I thought were fairly good before) are now 1000 times better. We practiced some confidence roping and then early afternoon we were mercifully able to get out of the cold and back to the heated van to warm everything up.
The course finished with a bit of a roundup of everything we’d learned and exactly what would be expected of us on assessment. Before booking onto the final assessment, each of us would have to log a minimum total of 40 “quality mountain days,” as well as gaining a wilderness first aid qualification (minimum 16 hours), completing a written paper and generally being 100% confident in the skills we will be assessed on.
If you’re wondering what a quality mountain day is, Mountain Training defines it as fulfilling the following criteria:
- The individual takes part in the planning and leadership
- Navigation skills are required away from marked paths
- Experience must be in terrain and weather comparable to that found in UK and Irish hills
- Knowledge is increased and skills practised
- Attention is paid to safety
- Five hours or more journey time
- Adverse conditions may be encountered
Finally we were each given an individual review of how we’d performed and the areas we’ll need to improve on to pass the assessment. I’m aiming to take my assessment in November in order to be qualified by the end of the year. I feel like I have all the theory down but need to really take the time to get as many days as possible in the mountains to get really shit hot at everything without making any mistakes.
I’d really recommend the Mountain Leader training course to anyone looking to move to a career in the outdoors or even just improve their outdoor skills. I’d be interested to hear about other providers people have used but would highly recommend Plas Y Brenin because the instructors were really thorough, Snowdonia is beautiful and they definitely feed you well.
Some tips for acing your Mountain Leader Training:
- Read up on the theory beforehand. This way when it comes to learning things like ropework and navigation techniques you can just focus on putting what you know into practice rather than learning the theory from scratch as you go.
- Ask as many questions as you can. The instructors have a wealth of knowledge and experience so take the opportunity to pick their brains as much as possible. They will assume a base level of knowledge but if you don’t understand something then just ask – that’s what they’re there for!
- Don’t lie about your experience. There is a reason they ask you to log 20 QMDs before booking onto the training – you need to have some base knowledge and competence in the mountains. It’s easy to lie when logging your QMDs but you won’t get as much out of the course and you will be holding back the other members of the group who will already have that extra experience. Your quality mountain days will be a lot more “quality” after your training but it is crucial that you do take the time to get out into the mountains in advance. What’s more, having your logbook fully filled out means the assessors can review it and give you feedback on what you need to improve before booking onto assessment.
- Stay in touch. Everyone on the course has their own personal reasons for wanting to achieve the ML, and each member of the group will have something you can learn from as well as being a useful contact to have. Once you’re in your consolidation period you will be grateful to have a network of people who are at the same stage as you that you train with when you need to.
- Enjoy yourself! Whatever your reasons for taking the ML training, it’s a fun week and will no doubt be a memorable experience.
If you have any questions about anything related to the mountain leader training then please get in touch, I’ll be happy to help.