A Potted History of the ML Awards

A Potted History of the ML Awards

This is a potted history of the development of the Mountain Leader (Summer) Award in the UK c. 1963-1975/1980 and an overview of the recent registration of the Award with OfQual (2013). It is focused on the Mountain Leader Summer Award (ML Award) with some reference to the Winter Mountain Leader Award. All I’ve attempted to do is present a brief historical overview of arguably the core development phase of the award/s. Accurate detailed reflections on this history seem hard to find, and single organization perspectives tend to have their own particular bent (As Geoffrey Templeman notes in his review of the history of the BMC).

According to the Mountain Training literature the award is clearly a mountaineering award and Mountain Leaders should class themselves as mountaineers. Mountain Leaders should be familiar with the origins, development and ethics of mountaineering within the UK and Ireland, and how hill walking is an integral part of mountaineering. Quality mountain days should be days that involve physical and mental challenges and should be seen as making a positive contribution to the person’s development as an all-round mountaineer.

The ML Summer (and Winter) award/s originally had the remit of providing a particular aspect of educational development to schoolchildren/young people. Over the years, and especially recently, there has been a push to expand the remit of the awards. The Award is registered with OfQual in the catetory of sport, leisure, and recreation. While the various handbooks and FAQs demonstrate an educational remit conferred on the Mountain Leader Award it has enough breadth and depth that it can be applied across any age group.

Regardless of any educational remit this does not detract from the benefit of completing the award, as I am well aware. Indeed, I, and others, have argued strongly that regardless of the intended remit achieving it can, and should be, be a powerful and worthwhile developmental experience. Whether or not this is the case remains open to question but is, in part, down to the individual.

Pete Macdonald details how the ML Awards were developed by the Outdoor Education centres (UK) in the late 1960s as a direct response to concerns raised about the safety of groups of schoolchildren/young people being taken into the mountains. This coincided with Wolfenden’s 1960 report Sport and the Community, which challenged traditional ideas of what sport should be: “Courage, endurance, self-discipline, determination, self-reliance, are all qualities which the sportsman, in the broadest sense of the term, has at least the opportunity of developing in the pursuit of his sport. They spring as readily from mountaineering as from rowing.”

The perceived value of outdoor education had been growing thanks to initiatives like Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. There was a push to develop higher standards of competence among the adults who organise adventure activities among children/young people, and to recruit more such organisers.

Concerns about safety were already prevalent, and the Central Council of Physical Recreation (CCPR) had proposed guidelines and certification in the early 1950s due to concern about the growing number of accidents with led school parties. This met with resistance from hillwalkers and climbers who were concerned that this eroded the ethos of mountaineering and eroded their freedoms. This latter concern remains as valid today as it was then. Further concerns regarding MaDonaldisation and commodification of ‘outdoor adventure’ have been explored, for example, by Chris Loynes who coined the phrase ‘Adventure in a Bun’.

In 1963 the Associated Wardens of Mountain Centres (AWMC) and the CCPR agreed a certificated award. This process was, it seems, driven by AWMC and was led by Jack Longland, the then warden of Plas y Brenin.

In 1964 Mountain Leader Training Board (MLTB; now MT) was established (although an alternative date of 1961 has been mooted), and they developed the Mountain Leader Certificate (MLC; now the Mountain Leader Award). In 1965 the Scottish Mountain Leadership Training Board developed the Scottish Winter MLC (now the Winter Mountain Leader Award).

The MLC was intended “…as an essential requirement for teachers, youth leaders, and other adults wishing to take young people to the mountains and to show them how to enjoy their mountain walking with safety.” (p.63, Langmuir, 1969)

By 1970 concerns were being expressed that the large number of people entering mountaineering were leading to a loss of the core ethos of the activity as a means of physical and aesthetic recreation along with a loss of athletic competence. (See also Loynes, sic.)

Concerns about safety were re-emphasised when, on 20th September 1971 six children, an 18 year old student teacher, and one leader were benighted in a blizzard for two nights on the Cairngorms. Five children/young people and the student teacher died. (The Cairngorm Plateau Disaster.)

From 1965 – 1974 there were continued articles of concern about how too much emphasis on safety reduces the value of the outdoor experience and unnecessarily limits the freedoms of true mountaineers. There were also escalating concerns about the growing conflict between mountaineering as a sport vs. mountaineering as an educational activity along with concerns about the risk of litigation if appropriate measures were not in place

In 1974 the British Mountaineering Council’s (BMC) Future Policy Committee published a report (available in the British Library) that was critical of the educational use of mountains and the promotion of mountaineering for educational purposes (as reported by Macdonald, 2018). Around the same time (1974), the Hunt Committee was tasked with reporting on the issues.

The Hunt report (1975) was also critical on some points (as noted by Simon Priest and Michael Gass):

  1. Many who gained the certificate were not professionally engaged in mountaineering and that the training and certification were too limited.
  2. The certificate had an overinflated value as it only met a minimum requirement.
  3. The certificate attracted people who might otherwise have no interest in mountaineering.
  4. Many agencies started to require the certificate and that precluded many people who had greater competence than required by the certificate.
  5. Local Education Authorities and others took the certificate as an inappropriate guarantee of the leader’s ability.

The Hunt Report recommended that training continued but should be more responsive and flexible to individual needs, that ‘certificates’ should be eliminated and the name of the award changed to something less ‘powerful’, and the scheme should be renamed.

The mid-1970s saw increased concern around the conflict between risk and the avoidance of risk for educational purposes. In 1978 there was an arbitration session between the BMC and the MLTB at the Inns of Court. The tribunal, apparently, gave the BMC responsibility for training. The MLTB retained its autonomy on the basis that the MLTB had an educational remit rather than a mountaineering remit and was concerned with social and personal development. Within this remit ‘mountaineering’ was an educational activity. Around the same time the MLCs became the ML Awards.

The Mountain Leader Awards, especially the Summer award, appear to have been through a long period of gradual consolidation between c. 1980 and c. 2013. During this time there was a reduction in the list of what was considered mountainous country (the list was changed in 2013 and the award was registered with OfQual) and a seeming effort to clarify what is, and what is not, a Quality Mountain Day (QMD). However, the actual description and criteria for a QMD remain somewhat vague when compared to other awards and to Mountaineering Ireland’s description and criteria. Viewing the historic forums where the Mountain Leader Award (Summer) was being discussed highlights a level of controversy about how people interpreted and understood and achieved QMDs.

The Mountain Leader Award (Summer) is regulated by OfQual (since 2013). (As yet – 2019 – the Winter Mountain Leader Award is not registered with OfQual.) The Award is registered as a Vocationally Related Qualification Level 3, which is equivalent to an AS Level, an A Level, a Level 3 NVQ, and so on. This can be matched across to the European Level awards. The award is not, as far as I can tell, a certificate in leadership.

Quality Mountain Days, which must be a minimum of five hours, make up more than 50% of the required hours for the Award (200 /360) and 40 hours are given over to Logging of walks/Completion of technical diary, which presumably demonstrates some of the core administrative skills that make up a good part of the role. These administrative skills include, for example: 1) relevant planning considerations such as parental consent, authority clearance, personal and medical information, finances, insurance and transport; 2) completing detailed preparations such as planning routes, checking access, obtaining weather forecasts and briefing  the group; and 3) ensuring the group is appropriately prepared for the activity and complying with current legislation relating to the activities.

A good understanding of the different elements of risk are arguably lacking in the syllabus. These elements are concisely articulated by Chris Loynes and Peter Higgins in Safety and Risk in Outdoor Education and in a wider context in Petzl Foundation reports Accidentology of Mountain Sports and Incidents and Near Misses in Mountain Sports (although the latter two are concerned with Alpine Mountaineering sports). That having been said, responsibilities towards group members and individuals are fully articulated in the relevant handbooks and additional responsibility is devolved to the ultimate provider of the service/provision in question.

Since 1964, more than 140,000 individuals have registered with the ML scheme. It is sometimes seen simply as a process of gathering professional qualifications, and ‘certification’ (paper-based as opposed to having legal status as a certificate) and ‘awards’ have permeated every corner of mountaineering and outdoor activity. However, there is also an argument that self-reliance and self-discovery are still strong in the outdoors in Britain with regard to education, despite the loss of state-funded outdoor centres, because of the quality and depth of outdoor instruction – and the fact outdoor instruction is about much more than simply earning a living. Furthermore, to date the UK has led the way with regard to the development of ‘Outdoor Leadership Qualifications’ and this seems set to continue.

The Hunt Report on Mountain Training, July 1975, listed five important ‘tenets’ regarding mountaineering. These arguably continue to hold today and a summary is given here:

  1. The pursuit of mountaineering should imply a certain feeling for the mountain scene, as well as a sensitivity in regard to other people who wish to enjoy the mountains.
  2. Mountaineering in all its aspects should be pursued as a matter of personal choice for its own sake, whether from a sense of adventure, or from a desire to acquire knowledge or fresh experience. The essence of motivation to engage in activities in the mountains is that the decision should be that of the individual, acting spontaneously rather than under impulsion.
  3. A basic element in mountaineering is the presence of serious risk in varying degrees. Without this element it would lose something as vital as is competition in organised games. The attraction for some people lies in discovering where the risks lie and in developing skills and gaining the experience to measure up to them.
  4. Those who go to the mountains of their own free will must be free to court these risks. Those who are being introduced to mountaineering must be safeguarded against accidents arising from exposure to risks which are beyond their experience and skill to cope with. At the same time, they should not be taught attitudes or practices which, by over-playing safety, may stultify enjoyment and restrict their ability to progress in climbing with all its attendant challenges and opportunities. By becoming prevalent, such attitudes and practices deprive mountaineering of its unique characteristics and charm.
  5. Mountaineering is a pastime which most people like to enjoy with a few friends, or occasionally alone. Some are more gregarious; but whether they go alone or in smaller or larger groups, all would wish to preserve a sense of remoteness and an element of wilderness in the mountains.


A brief history of the BMC. Posted by BMC on 01/05/2017

Chris Loynes and Peter Higgins in Safety and Risk in Outdoor Education (No date)

Geoffrey Templeman reviewing The First Fifty Years of the British Mountaineering Council A Political History in The Alpine Journal, 1998.

Langmuir, E. (1969). Mountain leadership. Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K Scottish Sports Council

Loynes, C. (1998) Adventure in a Bun. Journal of Experiential Education; 21:1; p 35-39

Mountain Training: 50 years of showing the way. Posted by Ed Douglas on 07/01/2014

Simon Priest and Michael A. Gass. Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming

The Bradford Papers Annual, Volume II, 1987. Indiana Univ., Bloomington. Dept. of Recreation and Park Administration.

The Hunt Report on Mountain Training, July 1975 (available at the British Library)

The Petzl Foundation report Accidentology of Mountain Sports and Incidents and Near Misses in Mountain Sports are available from the Petzl Foundation.

The Story of Whitehall Centre: Outdoor Education across the decades. Pete Macdonald. 2018

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