‘If you want to spend time in the mountains then the only way to do that is to go and spend time in the mountains.’ Byron.
I completed my Mountain Leader Training at Glenmore Lodge in Scotland, where the ethos of Eric Langmuir is kept alive, in September 2017I went on to successfully complete my assessment in May 2018. During that time I bagged around 30 Quality Mountain Days mainly in the Lake District and Yr Eryri. Before doing my training, and between my training and assessment, I spoke to around 15 providers and discussed many aspects of the award. I learnt a lot about the history of the industry and the value of the award.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice I was given was, in the words of Stephen King, dontdoitforthemoneyhoney – it isn’t worth it. Few people, if any, earn anything close to a living from a single Mountain Leader Award unless it is internationally recognised – the IML for example – and even then it’s tough going.
On the other hand, what you will gain as an individual from a good quality training course and a high quality assessment is worth the investment. As long as you do the work. A lot of people worry about the assessment unnecessarily. The process is driven by a set of objective criteria and the standard is set by Mountain Training and not by individual providers. There is also a full appeals process if you feel you have been treated unfairly. If you have bagged enough good quality QMDs at the right standard, and practiced your navigation and rope work, then the assessment is going to be little more than a formality and all you need to do is enjoy it. The only time you need to be concerned is if you are not out in the mountains clocking up QMDs and getting onto steep and rocky ground. And that is where most people fall short – they simply don’t go out into the mountains and rack up true QMDs.
At the end of the day the ML award is a starting point, not an end point. And if you aren’t out in the mountains then why do want a mountaineering award?
The following notes are completely my own and more or less as I made them in the order I made them. I’ve done a little bit of editing to tidy them up in places but otherwise they are as made at the time.
MLS requires the deployment of skills suitable to the terrain and conditions and the use of relevant technical equipment. It may require the unplanned use of ropes. If the skills required exceed the skills of the training/syllabus then it is no longer within the remit of the qualification. The planned use of ropes exceeds the remit as do conditions that require the use of equipment beyond that of the equipment noted in the syllabus/training. You can lead a group during winter but if you encounter conditions that require the use of winter equipment then you exceed the remit. One of the key boundaries is safety (and duty of care) and another is use of equipment.
The quality of the event is an important consideration. The group needs to have a quality experience that both manages and meets their expectations within realistic and reasonable boundaries.
When managing the groups expectations and performance it is important to recognise that the quality of event is not, and should not be, set to the level of the ‘lowest common denominator’. That is, the event should not be managed according to the expectations and considerations of the lowest level of assumed capability and performance. It is important to assess the capabilities and abilities of the group as a whole. This will mean challenging some people to ‘up their game’ and managing other people to accept a reduced level of challenge/experience. You need to be able to make a good and accurate assessment of your own fitness and the fitness of the group as a whole.
Leadership is important for both safety and quality of the experience. A useful model for leadership is the GIT model:
- Take account of the needs and expectations of the Group
- Take account of the needs and expectations of the Individual
- Take account of the Task
- Leadership is the space where the Group, Individual, and Task overlap.
- Leadership is managing a Group of Individuals to complete a Task.
Packing a Bag
- Wear good quality kit including appropriate footwear (suitable boots) as a model for the group.
- Leading a group is inevitably slower than your own pace so wear more clothing than you would usually wear.
- A strong waterproof jacket is essential. That is, one that will not rip and tear easily on rocks and if you need to do rope work.
- Take extra food – more than you would usually take. Take a flask.
- Waterproof trousers. From my own experience these need to be tough. Rocks will lacerate good quality lightweight waterproof trousers like a werewolf toying with a group of drunken revellers.
- Gloves and hat. Take spares (both gloves and hats). Again, you may as well put thinner gloves through a mincing machine as wear them on rocky ground.
- First aid kit. This should include extras including a pencil (and an indestructible pen) and waterproof paper. ICE details. Interesting extras include cable ties, boot laces (or specialist cord), and the ubiquitous Duck Tape.
- A bothy big enough for 6 people (?) at minimum suggest 4 but this needs to confirmed.
- Check for super lightweight bothys at super expensive prices.
- Extra warm layers. An extra warm jacket is essential.
- Foil blanket or similar as long as it has foil layer.
- A proper heavyweight survival bag.
- Walking pole. This is part of rescue equipment and can be helpful with a heavy pack.
- A 30m rope. This needs to be a proper weight climbing rope.
- Two headtorches. Check batteries and make sure that at least one torch has a new set of batteries in it.
- Two maps of the area. If using paper maps then a proper waterproof map bag is essential. A waterproof map bag is part of equipment even if using waterproof maps.
- Two good quality compasses.
- A fully charged mobile phone.
- A digital watch.
- Extras according to the season include sun cream, a sun hat, and so on.
- Water. There is no guidance on how much water to carry but you need some and a means to transport water. (For myself I also carry a small filter and chlorine tablets and I know some people always carry a UV steriliser pen. In areas with farmed animals – sheep especially – you need to check c. 150m upstream for any dead animals; don’t take water form a source that cattle have been using.)
- Weight of the bag is important. A fully packed bag should be no more than 12-15kg for an overnight EXPED and less for a day trip. You need to be able to move over all ground steadily and securely with your bag fully packed.
- You need to be able to know how to switch on a GPS and take a grid reference and relocate. (I tend to use OS Locate for this; it picks up on satellites so does not need a phone signal.)
You need to have a good knowledge and understanding of the environment. Knowledge of fauna and flora is essential. This doesn’t need to be more than a good quality general knowledge but you should be continually working on improving this. Knowledge of geology and geomorphology is also important as is the significance of place names that relate to the geomorphology. Knowledge of the relevant history of an area is also useful.
You need to have a full understanding of environmental considerations and enforce them. ‘What you take in you take out’. This may mean carrying a back for rubbish. Leave No Trace.
Human waste needs to be buried. You should be at least 30m from a water source when urinating and ideally a 100m from a water source when defecating and this should be buried (including any tissue).
While all navigation skills are important – from map reading to taking a bearing – there are specific skills relevant to the ML. These are particular micro-navigation skills and they come into their own in adverse conditions. Two key skills are:
- Being able to understand and use contours at a fine level of detail even in the dark/adverse conditions
- Moving on a bearing.
Contours are the most important feature of a map because:
- They make up the majority of information available on a map
- they don’t change
- they are reliable.
Anything and everything else may be inaccurate, unmarked, open to interpretation, or may change or not be visible.
Skills for using contours as micro-navigation aids include:
- Measuring the size of the contour feature;
- Checking the aspect of the slope;
- Assessing the shape of the contour feature on the ground in relation to the map;
- Knowing index contours;
- Being aware of distance between contours (varies between types of map);
- Being aware of detail, aspect, gradient, and so on relative to scale.
- Appreciating size and detail of feature relevant to scale;
- When on the ground identifying catching features beyond the attack point/destination that can be used to relocate.
It is essential to know how to relocate. The most important relocation is from contour features but other features can be used if they are there. These are primarily water and rock features but it depends on map and scale of map.
Relocation techniques are the application of good micronavigation techniques to your location:
- Is the ground flat or sloping;
- What is the aspect of slope (take a bearing down the slope with the bearing at right angles to the contours)
- What is the gradient
- What is the shape of the land – especially any flat features or readily distinguishable features
- How does the gradient and aspect change over time and in the immediate vicinity
- How did the land – gradient, aspect, and so on, change while you were moving over it
- What are the catching features nearby – e.g. there should be an X within Y metres in this direction; the slope should do X within Y metres in this direction. You need to know what happens if you that is not the case. E.g. if the slope goes up instead of down in Y metres then were not at point X but more likely to be at point X2; if at point X2 the slope should…and so on.
You also need to be able to apply search techniques such as stars and squares. RTFM.
Back bearings and triangulation are useful relocation techniques. Back bearings are also useful when travelling on a bearing. RTFM for triangulation.
Pacing and Timing
Pacing and timing are important navigation techniques. Pacing tends to be more accurate than timing.
- Count every second step (usually on the left foot)
- Know how many paces = 100m
- Count in sets of 100m
- Keep count of sets
- Adjust for ground: terrain; going uphill; going downhill. Note that the count may or may not be affected by the slope, it will depend on a combination of factors such as gradient, tiredness, and the type of ground being covered. Only practice will improve pacing accuracy.
- Have something you can use to keep count of sets of 100m (e.g. knots on cord and a movable fixable toggle).
You need to know the pace the group is moving at over the ground and how to adjust this for rough ground and for contours. Then you can predict how long it will take to reach a point and keep check of the time using the stopwatch feature on your watch.
The general guide for timing is Naismith’s rule (RTFM).
However, pacing is more accurate than timing.
When using timing it is important to use a stopwatch
Walking on a bearing
It is important to be able to walk on a bearing including over rough ground, on a slope, at night, and under adverse conditions.
Be aware of any tendency to drift.
Use front and/or back bearings to check accuracy of line of travel (taken against group members if suitable).
Also fix on features on bearing and take front and back bearings against features. In the dark or in limited visibility the distance between these features may be very short. In zero visibility (e.g. white out; driving rain at night) you need to be able to move at a pace that keeps you on the bearing and be aware of any tendency to drift.
When walking with the contours against the slope you need to be aware of drift up or down. This can be useful to manage staying on the bearing.
When you are covering ground you need to be effective and efficient. This means keeping the group moving at the appropriate pace with the appropriate boundaries. Don’t stop unnecessarily and make every stop functional and purposeful. When stopping make sure the group knows why you are stopping and what is expected of them. When stopping for lunch, snacks, and so on set time boundaries. You should have a good idea of how long each leg will take and how long the overall journey will take.
Pick good quality appropriate lines across the ground. They not within the groups capability and ability and the group should maintain momentum.
Be aware of how the group is managing rough ground, boulder fields, vegetation, scree, slope and gradient, climbing, descending, and so on.
Use paths when available and if appropriate both to keep momentum and for environmental reasons.
Bear in mind that too many stops and unnecessary stops will frustrate and demotivate the group. Equally, not stopping to allow for layering/delayering, snacks, toileting, and so on can lead to a build-up of problems.
Short stops at appropriate intervals to share knowledge of fauna, flora, and geomorphology can be used as disguised rest breaks for ‘slower’ group members but should be neither too frequent nor too long. Be mindful also that rest breaks in cold weather can increase tiredness and coldness.
Route planning g is important but you need to be flexible and adaptable. A key skill is being able to change and adapt route according to the weather, the needs of the group, and unforseen situations and changes. Changing a route according to the weather forecast and changes in the weather on the day are core skills that need to be developed. This means being aware of the impact of the weather on the terrain. This applies to streams and rivers, bogs, rock, slope, etc. Also the impact of precipitation in terms of mist. Windspeed and the impact of windspeed X height and so on.
Route planning is also applicable to micro-navigation as every leg of micro-navigation is effectively a route. And a route is effectively a big leg.
All full routes should be broken down into legs but it is important to have a overview not only of the whole route but also of the general area as this allows for better planning and flexibility.
We need strategies and tools to plan routes (a route is applied to the whole journey and to a leg).
A core strategy is to storyboard the route. Identify features and objects you will see along the way and how the ground will feel. Anticipate and be aware of changes in gradient, aspect of slope, and contour features and any other stable features (features that are big enough and fixed enough to be there on the ground.
We need systems to ‘get it right’. These same systems can be used to relocate. We use of set of criteria and indicators to know where we are at all times. This does mean being familiar with the map. However, we also need to be able to pick up a map on spec and use it. That is, we should be able to navigate in an unfamiliar area from a map we have not used before.
Even small legs can be broken down into shorter steps so that we can move from point to point in order to reach the destination. The worse the conditions and visibility the more we can break down a leg. However, you need to be aware of the impact of this on the momentum and the implications of this for the group. Equally, breaking a leg down in adverse conditions may increase the sense of security for the group as they move from point to point.
Two sets of tools we can use are the 4Ds and the 4 Whats.
- Description – what does the destination look like; size, shape, slope, aspect, and so on. Any other features.
- Distance: how far is it to the destination; how far is it to catching features; how far is it to attack points leading up to the destination.
- Direction: what is the bearing
- Design: How are you going to get from A to B; are you going to go along a bearing; are you going to aim off; are you going to traverse a slope; and so on. How long is it going to take? Are you going to stop at checkpoints?
- What are you going to use to get to destination: bearing, pacing, timing, catching features, attack points, handrails, etc.
- What will you see along the way; micro-features, catching features, obvious changes in slope, and so on
- What will you see when you get there: features, contour formations, aspect, gradient, and so on.
- What happens if you go to far: How do the contours change, what other features will be there.
With all strategies and use of tools it is important to focus on micro-features because these are what you will use in poor visibility. You need features that are distinguishable and within sight and that can be found on the ground. Contour features are particularly important and it is important to know the distance to checking features and catching features. It is also important to be able to find catching features as a means of relocating.
There are many tools and techniques and strategies. RTFM.
You need to be able to find routes that the group will be able to manage. When going over rough ground you need to be able to take account of the groups ability to manage over the ground and find the safest route for them. This is particularly important across rocky ground and steep ground.
You need to be able to find good lines across the ground, up and down slopes, across rivers, and so on.
When paths are available they are usually the easiest and safest routes to follow. However, this is not always the case. Paths can disappear and can change direction and lead you off course. They are seductive in that they draw you along the path. However, paths may also wiggle around but continue to go in right direction. They can be boggy and slippery. Not all paths are marked on all maps and sometimes there are good quality unmarked paths.
Steep ground and rope work
When crossing steep ground it may be necessary to use a rope. However, any rope work should be unplanned. That is, ML does not include the use of planned rope work, only unplanned rope work.
There are three basic ML parts to rope work:
- Confidence roping
Lowering is when you set up an anchor and belay the person down a step. It is essential to find a fixed anchor that will not move. There should be a straight line between anchor-belay-contact. The knot for the belay should be on the same side as the rope.
When abseiling there are a number of forms but the main ones are the classic, the South African, and the angel wings. (ADDITIONAL NOTE: I would only ever use the South African to abseil without a harness. Both of the other methods require a high level of skill and can be both painful and dangerous.)
Confidence roping involves attaching the other person to the rope, keeping a short distance between yourself and the other person, and moving downhill with them. When they turn they need to turn towards you.
These techniques all require practice and are unplanned. They are uncomfortable and are for use in difficult situations.
Spotting and fielding
When going over steep ground and especially up and down boulder fields and steps and so on we may need to spot and field.
Look for the best line including footholds and handholds. Show the person where to put their feet and hands. Hold their feet in place if necessary. Stand to the side of them with one hand behind their rucksack. Do not push them but lightly support them if necessary. Be to one side so that if they fall they do not take you with them. The same applies to descending.
It is important to be able to find and test good lines with good holds and supports. Be aware of capabilities. Check handholds. Check for loose rocks. Make the sure the group in not in the line of a fall or loose rock.
When taking the group across broken ground and rocky ground you may need to work a traverse especially when there is loose rock. Make sure the group is in a line with no one above another. Stop at the turning point on the traverse. Make sure it is a safe stopping point and gather everybody behind you before continuing on the next traverse.
When crossing rivers look for shallow crossings – knee level at most. But this needs to be balanced against the strength of the flow, the ground underfoot, the width of the river. At the very most it should be mid-thigh deep in a gentle flow.
Always face upstream. Use a pole to test the strength of the water, the depth, and so on.
Lean slightly forward onto pole. Right hand on top, left hand below. Step sideways. Take small steps.
You can form a line, one behind the other. Don’t put the ‘weakest’ person at the back.
You can form an arrowhead. This is more stable in stronger, faster water.
Make sure you keep line or arrowhead.
Always check where you are crossing to and ensure you can get out. Check entry points as well to make sure it is straightforward to get into the water.
Emergencies and Hazards
You need to be confident to deal with emergencies and hazards.
You need an up to date first aid certificate of minimum 16 hours ideally coping with outdoor situations
You need to know how to use a bothy shelter
You need to know what to do in extreme weather conditions
You need to know what to do in the case of lightning
You need to know how to make a simple emergency stretcher
You need to know how to move a casualty if necessary
You need to know how to check if a casualty can move under their own volition
You need to know how to deal with hypothermia
You need to know how to contact mountain rescue and how long they are likely to take
You need to know what to do to aid a chopper
You need to know how to keep someone warm
A good knowledge of how the weather works, how to read the weather, where to find
relevant and accurate information, how to be prepared for different conditions, and how to manage weather conditions is essential and a core part of being an ML.
All planning at every level should take account of the weather conditions. However, you need to be flexible and adaptable and able to respond appropriately to changing weather conditions and modify or change the leg/route accordingly.
The weather needs to be understood as a combination of elements ranging from fronts through wind to rain and sun, mist, snow, and so on. Key elements:
- Wind speed
- Wind direction
- Impact of wind speed on temperature (wind chill; charts are available)
Weather forecasts are highly location specific and are increasingly inaccurate in terms of forecasting. The forecasts should be monitored for some time before a trip and checked again on the day. Forecasts can be checked online, through local knowledge, and there are often forecast sheets in major car parks. Be sure of the validity and accuracy of a forecast before using it.
An important part of the weather is being able to read and assess synoptic charts, especially over time in relation to planning. This takes practice. RTFM.
Sites such as the Met Office give good hourly information that is updated to specific locations.
It is important to have a longer term view if going on Exped. However, this view can only really be clarified and forecast immediately before leaving (i.e. in the hours before setting out). It is equally important to be able to assess the likely weather from the environment (clouds, temperature, windspeed) as when out you are unlikely to be able to get weather information that is up to date and it may be days before you can access any information. Notes of forecasts should be made on waterproof paper and taken on journey, especially Exped.
It is essential to understand the weather and the impact of the weather in order to stay safe. One of the most important factors is the windspeed, wind direction, and how the wind behaves on the mountains. RTFM.
Once the wind is in excess of 40mph it becomes unsafe to take a group onto high ground.
Weather sites and apps (check for apps in relation to these):
MWUK [Mobile App]
Hills-database (combination site)
It is important to have an understanding of your access rights. These vary between Scotland and England and Wales and Ireland. Crucially, in Scotland there is a right of access to land.
In England and Wales there is no corresponding right although there are some access rights on Open Access Land. In Ireland there are no access rights per se. In Scotland, England and Wales there are similar access rights to Public Rights of Way. These rights do not apply in Ireland. It is also important to know what to do if access if challenged and this should always be managed professionally and in a non-confrontational way. As an ML leader you are the one who needs to manage this should it occur. These considerations are even more important when Wild or Valley camping.
Always check you kit before going out. Kit should be up to date and in good working order. Kit should be appropriate to the journey and should include additional and essential items.
Quality of kit is important both for safety and to set an example. Consideration needs to be given to how to manage should a party member not have appropriate kit, lose kit, and so on. Safety always comes first.
It is useful to have a wind layer to combat wind chill. A windproof layer will reduce the impact of windchill.
Refer to notes, handouts, and other relevant sources for this. Key points are:
- You have a duty of care in keeping with your level of training and qualification
- Liability is related to reasonable responsibility
- Negligence incurs liability. Negligence is linked to blatant neglect which in turn is linked to foreseeability.
- Risk management is related to reasonable responsibility and neglect.
- Designated leadership incurs a direct duty of care
- Cannot disclaim risks for people under 18 years of age
A defence against liability rests on:
- Volenti non fit injura
- Contributory negligence
- A break in causation
- Cost benefit
You should be familiar with these defences as that instils an understanding of how to manage risk as the defence takes account of those things that are in effect outside of your reasonable control. RTFM.
Assessment takes place over five days. Three days are out continuously and include two nights of wild camping. There are five parts (days) to the assessment:
- Assessment of log book (start each entry with a summary paragraph highlighting main elements)
- Knowledge of weather
- Emergency proceedures
- Water Hazards
- Packing a bag
- Home paper
2 – Security on steep ground and personal movement
Exped preparation and route planning
Days 3-5 Exped
- Navigation (this includes navigation in adverse conditions with poor visibility; if there are no adverse conditions with poor visibility then there will be night navigation and this may take place on both nights)
- Safe and efficient travel
- Party management
- Personal proficiency
- Steep ground
Usual reasons for deferment/fail
- Security on steep ground
Be professional at all times (safety first)
Make use of CPD workshops
Desk exercises (can be done at home)
- Practice identifying small contour features on a map and working out what they are like. E.g. measure them, take a bearing on them, write down the shape, look at what other features are nearby.
- Stick a pin in a map then work out how you would know if you got there
- Draw a line between two random points. Work out how you would know if you were at point A, how you would get to point B in the safest and most effective way if you had no visibility, how you would know when you were at point B
- Pick a point and work out the aspect of slope
- Plot a route and look at attack points and catching features
- Plot a route from A to B then imagine that part along you have an impassable barrier. What do you do.
- Plot a route. Pick a random point on the route. You are at that point. There are adverse weather conditions and you need to modify your route. What do you do?
- Do the same using an arial photograph
- Rope work: practice on flat ground and progress to steep ground.
- Do the same as above but include walking on a bearing, pacing, and timing.
- Do the same as above at night.
- Do all of the above with different scale maps and different maps.
- Do the same using an arial photograph.
Some useful sights for maps
It is worth looking at this site and the free OS data
If you subscribe to OS maps you can get ariel views Dash4it does cut price maps https://dash4it.co.uk/ordnance-survey-maps.html