‘If you want to learn how to spend time in the mountains then you need to spend time in the mountains.’ Byron.
The Summer Mountain Leader Award, usually described as the ML(S), is the most widely held ML award in the UK. More people do the training than go on to do the assessment and complete the award. It also seems likely that people are often unclear about why they are doing the award and what they expect to get from it. In this post I’ve tried to address this question: The Mountain Leader Award: is it for me?
- Decide what you want to get out of an ML Award and manage your expectations.
- Read all the Mountain Training Handbooks for the ML Awards – Summer, Winter, and International. That will give you a good understanding of the levels of the awards and the standards.
- Bear in mind that it is Mountain Training that set standards and criteria and who approve the award, not any one individual.
- Consider that the standards and values you set for yourself, especially in relation to QMDs, will define you as a mountaineer; the higher the standard of your QMDs, the more you challenge yourself, the better mountaineer you will be.
- Take your time when selecting a provider and find one that works for you. Consider doing your training and assessment with different providers in different geographical locations.
- Most of your development will, for most people, take place between training and assessment. This is the time to practice and develop core skills including rope work and using contour features to navigate by. This is also the time when you will develop your own standards and values as a mountaineer and these standards and values will define you as a mountaineer.
- Prepare for the assessment the same way you would prepare for any assessment. How you approach the assessment says a lot about your standards and values.
- The optimal time between training and assessment is probably 12-18 months.
- If you do the ML training it is worth doing the assessment as this is all part of your development. There is a very real difference between just doing the training and doing the training and the assessment as part of a continuous process.
- If you are uncertain consider alternatives to the Award such as the many Skills courses and the various training offered by qualified professionals.
- Join a mountaineering club.
There are number of different Mountaineering Awards available in the UK, some of which have international recognition; the International Mountain Leader Award (IML) and the British Mountain Guide award (BMG) in particular. The focus here is on the the Mountain Leader (Summer) (ML) award and to some extent the Winter Mountain Leader Award although there appears to be a growing distinction between them.
The ML and WML, and, indeed, many of the climbing awards, were developed specifically for the Outdoor Education industry. The ML Awards emerged partly as a response to criticism and concern raised by Mountain Rescue and others in the 1950s-1960s, as discussed in my article on the potted history of the awards, and partly due, put somewhat unkindly, to the ‘qualifications rat race’. The increasing commercialism and commodification of mountaineering probably also played, and plays, a role.
Regardless of concerns and criticism raised about the awards the majority of people completing the awards find them useful and worthwhile. The reality of earning a living that will pay a mortgage, run a car, and allow you to raise a family on the basis of the just an ML award seems unlikely for most people. However, some people do achieve this, especially those who go into the outdoor education industry or set up in business. All I’m suggesting here is a note of sensible caution.
The awards are, at the end of the day, what you make of them. Approached with the right mindset and the willingness to meet an exceptionally high standard, gaining a mountaineering award will open your eyes to both what is possible and the associated risks. However, everything depends on your willingness to challenge yourself both physically and mentally to the limits, and beyond, of your known ability.
Whether or not it is worth holding more than one award will depend very much on you and your goals, aims, and ambitions. There are training courses that cover every aspect of every award without ever having to go through any sort of assessment. The majority of serious mountaineers, including climbers, traditionally gained their training and their experience through mountaineering clubs and the like where they mix with like-minded peers, not through awards and certificates. This is likely still the case.
Historically, in the context of the ML Awards, ‘leadership’ referred to the capability and competence to manage a group, specifically school age children/young people, especially in a ‘risky’ situation (this is referenced in the potted history article). However, both ML awards are focused on avoiding unnecessary risk, or at least carefully managing it, in the first place (which brings its own considerations). Whether or not, and in what way, the ‘leadership’ element has developed over the years is open to question and the award does not, as far as I can tell, confer a certificate in leadership.
The different elements of risk have been discussed in relevant detail by Chris Loynes and Peter Higgins in Safety and Risk in Outdoor Education. Note that their observation of accidents and fatalities is supported by the recent Petzl Foundation report Accidentology of Mountain Sports and Incidents and Near Misses in Mountain Sports (although these reports refer to Alpine Mountaineering sports and sports rather than education related activity). That having been said, responsibilities towards group members and individuals are fully articulated in the relevant handbooks.
With regard to being in the mountains, the highest mountains in the UK only reach to just over 1000m at their highest, and there are only a ‘handful’ of mountains at this height (well, 202 but they are all between 1000m and 1345m). By comparison, the Alps have over 1000 summits between 2500m and 3000m, 416 mountains over 3000m and 29 over 4000m.
However, the UK mountains are extremely wet and windy and this makes them as dangerous, in terms of mountaineering risks, as other, higher, mountains. The difference is, relative to other mountain ranges in other countries, ‘difficult’ to get lost in the UK mountains and comparatively ‘easy’ to rescue people. This latter point should be considered from a mature, adult, perspective (i.e. as a responsible grown up with at least some appreciation of the outdoors and of what it means to be in the mountains) – many people do get lost, especially those relying on mobile phone apps and lacking in experience, and many people have to be rescued because they have got lost and/or have had an accident. Indeed, the over-reliance by many on handheld electronic devices, and especially mobile phone apps, is arguably one of the causes of the increased number of Mountain Rescue call outs in the Lake District.
There are, though, relatively few places in the UK hills and mountains where you are much more than one hour’s walk from a road, although in some of the more remote areas of Scotland you may indeed be a lot further away than this. In the Alps, by comparison, you could be a day’s walk from the nearest road.
My potted experience of the award
The most important thing I understood, from the start of my ML journey, was that the chances of earning a living from the ML(S) were small. I was told early on, when I was contacting providers to discuss training options, that it is important to put the ML Award into context and recognise that it is a start point, not an end point; you need to think about what you will do with it once you have it, not about getting it. The ML Award conveys, in principle, no distinct market, legal, or professional advantage in the UK (and this should be understood in the context of the history of the award and the concerns raised in the 1970s). If, however, you want to work for an existing specialist provider, or want specialist work in the Outdoor Education industry, it will provide an advantage and will be necessary for some provisions. That having been said the award is widely recognised and the UK has led, and continues to lead the way, with these awards. In addition, there is a lot of work being done to gain greater recognition for the various awards, although it is not abundantly clear what that recognition will be.
My experience in gaining the award was fairly intense. I’d previously been a long distance runner working my way from road running to long distance trail running, fell running, and mountain marathons. A cycling accident left me unable to run without severe pain, although oddly enough I am able to walk long distances at a reasonable pace. Through long distance walking I began to realise the opportunity to spend more time in the mountains, although it’s being outside and free to roam that is the primary attraction for me. Mountains provide some added value to being outdoors and the chance for adventure.
My ML journey began in the first couple of months of one year. Seven months later I did my training at Glenmore Lodge with a clutch of 20 QMDs most of which I am now embarrassed to consider as QMDs. What was I thinking?! Six months later I successfully passed the ML(S) award with someone I consider to be one of the most experienced and best qualified people in the UK. In other words, my journey went from almost zero to ML in 15.5 months. In the six months between training and assessment I bagged around 30 QMDs plus some Mountain Days and a couple of Lowland Days.
I was fortunate. A number of providers openly discussed the ML Award with me both before I started training and between training and assessment. (I spoke to around 15 providers including Plas-y-Brenin, Glenmore Lodge, and individual providers.) I learnt something about the history of the Award and what I could realistically expect from it. No one tried to convince me to do it or sell it to me. It helped me to manage my expectations and get a realistic understanding of what I would get from the Award, and what I would not get from it.
I also spent time with a good number of trainee MLs and some qualified MLs. I was fortunate that from the start I knew what I wanted from the Award: a better understanding of how to spend time in the mountains safely, and how to develop my appreciation of what was possible.
Standards and Criteria
Mountain Training is the governing body that administrates the ML Awards. They set the standards, the criteria, and approve all awards and a number of the awards are now regulated by OfQual. It is not up to individual providers to say what is, and what is not, valid, and what needs to be included in the training. That is the remit of Mountain Training. There is a set syllabus and assessment process. Providers work within these guidelines. There is also an appeals process if a trainee feels they have been unfairly assessed or discriminated against and so on. For awards that are regulated appeals and complaints can be taken all the way up to the regulator (OfQual).
Mountain Training also set the criteria for what constitutes a Quality Mountain Day (QMD), not the providers. Providers do have some necessary degree of leeway in their interpretation of QMDs.
If you have made the effort to gain QMDs and spent time in the mountains it will be obvious to any provider and/or assessor. Put another way, the difference between someone who has a real interest in the mountains and spends time in them and someone who is merely seeking an ML Award is abundantly clear.
It can take a little time to understand what it means to actually get a QMD and to appreciate the criteria. However, you should find that as you progress along your journey that a number of ‘early’ QMDs will no longer look like QMDs to you. Indeed, I regularly review my DLOG and demote earlier QMDs to Mountain Days. Put another way, your own expectations of a QMD should be growing all the time.
Selecting a Provider
Selecting a provider is a tricky business. A starting point is to choose between one of the training centres and an individual provider.
I was told, when I was looking for a provider, ‘It doesn’t matter where you trained or where you did the assessment, what matters in whether or not you have the award.’ But that was in an industry context.
It matters a great deal to you as an individual when you consider doing the award because the experience and input varies tremendously between providers regardless of standards and quality.
Another one of the key considerations is whether you are going to do the training and assessment with the same provider or with different providers. I don’t think there is any advantage or disadvantage either way, quality of provision notwithstanding.
I trained at Glenmore Lodge for two reasons. First, it is in Scotland and I live in South Wales. It was about as far as I could travel to do the training, plus I got to spend time in the Cairngorms. That meant I did my training way out of my comfort zone in an unfamiliar environment. And that was the point. Not only that, Glenmore Lodge still adheres to the Eric Langmuir ethos, which is true to the spirit of mountaineering.
Second, Glenmore Lodge is the premier ML training centre and I wanted to experience what they had to offer. This wasn’t a matter of status, it was a matter of quality and standards as understood by a ‘corporate body’.
When I chose a provider for my assessment I went by personal recommendation and the qualifications and experience of the provider. I didn’t give any consideration to reputation or branding. I wanted to know I had been assessed by someone who could see past the award and the industry norms and trends.
My choice of a different provider for the assessment was also a logistical one. It is expensive to travel to Scotland and it takes nearly two days out of my schedule. I can travel to North Wales in 4.5 hours. Although when I did my assessment I wasn’t that familiar the Snowdonia ranges.
I benefited from the difference between providers for training and assessment. I trained with a well established institution who uphold the highest standards and have a long history and the ethos to go with it. I did my assessment with a small provider with outstanding experience, qualifications, and insight who opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing and experiencing the mountains. I saw two very different sides of the industry and ways of understanding what it means to appreciate the mountains.
Based on my experience my advice is to talk to as many providers as possible before committing to either training or assessment. Decide what will work for you and consider the location for both your training and assessment. Training and/or being assessed in an unfamiliar country will give you opportunities for development you may not even have considered. But it will be an added pressure.
It is important, also, to know what ‘added value’ you will get from the provider, if any. The only way to find this out is to talk to a range of providers and compare the different attitudes and approaches.
The Mountain Training Association (MTA) keeps a list of providers on their website and you can see their profiles, how many people they have trained and assessed, and so on. The MTA is also good at answering inquiries but they are not the governing body and do not set the standards and monitor the Award. That is the role of Mountain Training. The MTA is a membership organization for Mountain Leaders.
Mountain Training recommend you have at least 20 QMDs before you start the training. However, most providers will take you on to the training with less than this. Whether or not that is advisable is open to question. In my experience the training gives you a fresh perspective and understanding of what is required for a QMD and you can begin to incorporate other elements, such as steep ground and rope work as well as using contour features, into your future QMDs. In other words, there may be something to be said for having less QMDs rather than more before you start your training – depending on how long you have been spending time in the mountains of course.
Before doing the training it is worth becoming familiar the training syllabus from Mountain Training. This not only informs you of what to expect but also gives you a good idea of why you are doing various elements of the training and how they apply. Good training providers will provide you with a wealth of hints and tips ranging from the reason for wearing boots to locations of good scrambles and climbs and how to recognise fresh rockfall.
Your preparation for the training should be as rigorous as your preparation for your assessment. Turning up without boots, as I did, and without adequate clothing, sleeping bag, and so on, as I did, can set you back and be demoralising. That having been said it is also an opportunity to learn. I certainly learned that I needed far better quality kit for Scotland than I had available at the time.
At the end of the training you should find your understanding of the ML award, QMDs, being in the mountains, and so on changes and develops. The real purpose of the training is simply to introduce you to what you need to go away and practice on your own.
Between Training and Assessment
This is the where the real development happens. What you do between training and assessment will define you as a mountaineer. This is the space in which you will develop your own standards, your mountaineering behaviours, your understanding of what it means to be out in the mountains.
It is where you will practice and develop your skills. It is where you will make mistakes, fail to achieve your objectives at times, and it is the space where you will have your greatest adventures and achievements. It should be a time you look back on with great fondness and pride, shock and horror, and sometimes embarrassment. Overall it should be great fun and a source of enjoyment, satisfaction and fulfillment.
Following your training you should be fully aware of the skills you need to develop and practice. Two areas that people seem to overlook are steep ground and ropework and navigation using contour features.
Mountains are, by definition, typically steep and rocky. If you avoid steep and rocky ground then perhaps mountains are not really the right environment for you. I’m not suggesting you need to be a rock climber. Far from it. But you need to be able to move over rock and up, down, and along all manner of steep ground with confidence. You need to be able to route find in bad weather, over boulder fields, between crags, and over, up, down, and along rock. Developing these skills can take a lot of time and effort but the rewards are great.
Knowing the basics of confidence roping and safeguarding using a rope on steep ground is a skill that will stand you in good stead (though I would advise becoming familiar with short roping and real rope work using a harness as well; a good weekend scrambling course with a competent instructor will develop your overall rope skills). Just being confident with handling a rope and knowing what is, and what is not, a good anchor and why is a valuable transferable skill, as are the different forms of belaying.
We spent a glorious summer day watching ravens barrel rolling while I sought out dozens of different anchors and practiced basic rope work over and over again in the Brecon Beacons. I also spent many evenings practicing tying knots and belaying. Be inventive with your ropework and appreciate the core principles, one of which is being able to identify and use an anchor. I distinctly remember on my assessment the assessor saying, ‘look at all the anchors around here,’ while I was thinking ‘Where? Where?’ But I calmed down, started to enjoy it, and had a great time with that part of the assessment.
When practicing navigation it is a good idea to do some night time sessions to get comfortable with being out at night, especially when tired, fed up, bored, and frustrated. You need to know how to manage yourself in the mountains under these conditions.
Night navigation is not part of the ML syllabus and is not part of the assessment. However, assessing the ability to navigate under adverse conditions is. Night navigation is typically used in the absence of poor weather conditions with low visibility. In principle it is no different. One thing to be aware of though is that sense of time, distance, and perspective become distorted at night, as they do in poor visibility. (Recent research suggests this is linked to changes in blink rate.)
The key to navigation is map reading and understanding the contour features. Contours are the only reliable part of a map. Virtually any other marked feature can change or be inaccurate. Contour shapes and features are reliable and it is the ability to navigate using these features that you need to develop. Learn the key types of contour features, what they look like, how to recognise them on the map and on the ground, and how to use them. For example, learn to handrail a contour feature rather than a fence or stream. Of course, fences, walls, and rivers and streams may be marked and may be good handrails, but a contour feature is usually preferable.
Use different maps. Definitely use both a 1:25 and a 1:50 and switch between them on the same day. This teaches you to recognise ground-to-map and map-to-ground regardless of what map you use. Similarly, using a Harvey 1:40 will help as Harvey maps use different a different colouring and key as well as being a different scale.
The time between training and assessment should be spent bagging QMDs of increasing quality; QMDs that challenge and develop you, QMDs that bring out the best in you as an aspiring mountaineer. Remember, how you define your QMDs and the standard you set for yourself is going to define you as a mountaineer.
There is a very good reason why any QMD should be at least five hours and preferably a good deal more, with the exception of bad weather conditions that raise concerns for safety. And, QMDs need to be a minimum of five hours to meet the standard set by the regulator.
On the other hand, it is feasible to get one or two QMDs that don’t visit particularly high ground. For example, a QMD that crosses a lot of rough, rocky, ground and involves a day of route finding and some low-level scrambling. You can’t have many like that but having one or two shows a degree of versatility.
How long you leave it between training and assessment is going to depend on your expectations and what you are trying to achieve. As with any sort of training and development there is an optimal time frame which is probably somewhere between 12-18 months. Less than that creates a lot of pressure, unless you already have a magnificent clutch of QMDs and are familiar with all elements of the syllabus. More than that reduces the pressure and that in turn impacts on your development.
Working under pressure to achieve a goal within a time frame is, surprisingly, an important part of mountaineering. And again, it relates back to your own standards and values. That is not to say there is an issue with taking as much time as you want. A good number of people do the training and do not return to do the assessment for years. During that time they spend a lot of time mountaineering and building their skills, knowledge, and appreciation of the mountains. But these are the exceptions. After all, the point of embarking on the Award path is to gain the award. If you don’t see the value in that then you can do a skills training course that will follow the very same syllabus without any pressure.
One key skill that seems to be somewhat overlooked in both training and assessment is route finding. By route finding I mean the ability to find the most effective and efficient line from A to B over, through, and around various types of terrain and obstacle. This may at times mean following a path and at other times crossing rough, broken and/or rocky ground. It is often sacrificed for text book technical skills such as map reading, use of catching features, and taking a bearing and walking on a line. Good route finding depends heavily on developing your mountain sense and a good set of variable heuristics (‘rules of thumb’). It is worth spending some of your QMD time on developing your route finding skills and your ‘mountain intuition’ or mountain sense.
If you are worried about ‘passing’ the assessment you may not be ready for it. On the other hand, if you have spent time in the mountains doing long days in poor weather, navigating using a 1:25 and 1:50 (And ideally the Harvey 1:40s), focused on contour features as waypoints and targets, practised your rope work, and made sure you are comfortable on steep and rocky ground, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t pass.
Assessors are obliged to take account of assessment anxieties, give you maximum opportunities to correct any mistakes and/or complete any tasks, and work to the assessment guidelines set by Mountain Training.
The things you can do to ensure you get the most from your assessment include:
- Read through the assessment guidelines;
- Gain some familiarity with the maps of the area where your assessment will take place;
- Prepare and pack you kit and equipment properly;
- Make sure your accommodation is comfortable (so you can get some rest);
- Review your navigation strategies;
- Treat the assessment as further training;
- Choose an assessor who will give you the most ‘bang for your buck’ (especially if you are paying).
If you have done the work, made the effort, gone out and bagged real QMDs, and have a genuine enthusiasm for the mountains then whether or not you pass the assessment shouldn’t be a concern. Bear in mind also that if you are an individual who is paying their own way you are not obliged in any way to do the assessment. If you think that by gaining an ML Award you are well on the way to a glittering career in the outdoors you probably need to check the reality of such an expectation.
Summary and conclusion
There are many things I haven’t said and could have said. I haven’t, for example, said that much about my experience of the award. That’s because I’m not trying to sell it, neither am I trying to put anybody off. I’m simply trying to give you some help in deciding whether or not the ML Award is for you. Bear in mind there are many training courses you can do without having to put yourself under the pressure of gaining an award. You can do the ML training as a standalone course if you simply want to develop the skills, and that is what I will do when I have time to get to the Scottish Mountains (I will do a Winter Skills course in Scotland). That is what I have done to develop my Scrambling. And when I finally have time to get the Alps I will simply book a Guide for three or four days.
However, if you are serious about being in the mountains an Award will pay dividends. The difference between doing a skills course and doing an award is that you will be assessed for the Award. The assessment consolidates your skills and gives you clear feedback – or should do – on any areas of weakness that you need to develop. The same cannot be said for a skills course. Furthermore, doing an Award through to assessment puts you under pressure and this will test your resilience and willingness to engage with the discipline. To that end I would recommend that anybody who is serious about spending time in mountains will benefit greatly from one, or more, of the ML Awards.