The Mountain Leader (Summer) Assessment: What’s it all about?
A QMD publication
Bill Fear 2020
These views and opinions are my own and are not representative of, or linked to, any organization or group
The MT Handbook on the ML Training and Assessment can be accessed here
The ML assessment is, in the professional vernacular, an assessment centre process and it follows the same processes and principles as any assessment centre. One of the key things that helps with managing and enjoying the processes is doing the homework (preparation) before you attend the assessment. The other is putting it into perspective and managing your own expectations.
The ML Award is equivalent to a single A/AS level or a single VRQ Level 3, and will be assessed at that level. It is primarily a VRQ and that is why the QMDs are so important, and make up the bulk of the qualification (more than 50%). It was developed as an Outdoor Education award with the emphasis on leading groups of young people in the mountains of the UK.
In practical terms the ML assessment tends to focus on three main areas: navigation, rope work, and QMDs (which are assessed from your log book). During the five days of assessment the majority of actual ‘testing’ will typically centre around leading navigational legs with a little time spent on rope work. The reason being these are core technical skills that can be reasonably well measured. All other skills are open to a wide degree of interpretation. The so-called ‘Leadership’ element, for example, is difficult to assess especially in the artificial context of an assessment centre.
Navigation at the ML level is pretty straightforward. There are no time or speed pressures and you can keep the map to hand at all times. There is no excuse for not practicing your navigation and some elements – map reading, planning a route, etc. – can be practiced from an armchair. Similarly, there is no excuse for not knowing how to set the map and read from map-to-ground and ground-to-map. If you have a good QMD log you will have learnt these skills anyway. Night navigation is not part of the ML syllabus yet virtually all assessments will include some night navigation as a substitute for navigating in poor weather. It is worth practicing this as at night, and in poor visibility and bad weather, our perspective and sense of time and distance become distorted. The only way to become familiar with this disorientation is to practice under relevant conditions (poor weather, night time, when tired, etc.)
Rope work focusses on safeguarding and is basic and straightforward. There is a lot of confusion around ‘confidence roping’, which is really nothing more than short roping in disguise. Learn the basic knots and how to ‘descend’ safely and stick with that. Don’t over-complicate things. One of the biggest issues people often face with rope-work is finding an anchor. It is worth learning to seek out and recognise and identify anchors in a wide variety of contexts, especially on rocky ground. As regards actual rope-work, the requirement for the ML assessment can be met with probably 2-4 days dilligent practice, a couple of hours with knots, and some time learning to recognising anchors while out on rocky ground.
QMDs are the core of the ML Award and an area where people sometimes make invalid assumptions about what is, and what is not, a QMD. The criteria and the FAQs provided by MT do not always provide the level of clarity one might wish for (Compare, for example, to the Mountaineering Ireland criteria). There are a couple of key considerations worth noting. First, if you are concerned about whether or not your QMDs make the grade then you probably aren’t ready for assessment. Second, if you don’t know how to assess your own QMDs post-training that raises serious questions about your training. Third, you can ask any provider whether or not any particular day would count as a QMD. The ML Award is regulated by OfQual and a consistent standard must be met. It follows then that if any provider tells you any one, or more, of your days meets the QMD requirement then any provider must accept it/them as a QMD/s. Similarly, if any of your days are rejected as QMDs then any provider must reject those days. However, any provider who does this without seeing a copy of your log book is probably making an error of judgement. All any provider can really do is re-iterate the stated MT criteria and what is given in the MT FAQs.
Coming back to simple terms, if you want to develop as a mountaineer, and the ML award is a mountaineering award, then there should not be any difficulty in gaining QMDs that meet the criteria, especially once you have done your training.
If you are a teacher, or work in Outdoor Education, you will already have managed expectations with regards to the award and will know why you are doing it. Otherwise, it is worth taking some time to think through why you are doing the award and what you expect to get out of it. It is worth bearing in mind that:
- The ML Award is not graded in any way either in part or whole. You either achieve the award (pass), or you don’t (fail). The award may be deferred at assessment, which means you get told which areas you failed on and you can then address those areas and be re-assessed on them. Very few people fail the ML award. A small number are deferred on part of the award, typically navigation and/or rope work.
- The award will not lead to a glittering and lucrative career guiding groups of like-minded people around the mountains of the UK and elsewhere. The odds of earning a realistic living from the award appear to be more remote than any mountain country in the UK.
- Those who excel at assessment are not the best candidates in terms of real-life future performance. The best real-life candidates are those who perform at average level at assessment. In the same way, setting out to ‘impress the assessor’ says more about your own insecurities than it does about your ability, skills, and knowledge.
- The assessment is an opportunity to learn, revise, and continue building your skills. If you remain open to learning you will gain a great deal from it with a skilled and experienced provider.
- It is normal to be anxious about an assessment. You are assessed keeping with the MT guidelines and requirements and not according to the individual assessor’s own standards and opinions. In other words, it is whether or not you meet the minimum stated requirement as per MT that determines whether or not you will pass.
- At the end of the day achieving the award will not turn you into a mountaineer, nor will it necessarily make you a better mountaineer. The hallmark of a good mountaineer is quality time in the mountains that meet and exceed a particular benchmark.
- What the award will give you is a chance to learn, develop, and test yourself. It provides a structured framework to develop a small, particular, skill set and for some of us having this structure allows us to extend ourselves and frame our learning and experience.
It is worth taking some time to chose who you will do the assessment with. You may fancy the idea of using the assessment as an opportunity to visit some of the more remote locations of the UK, or you may want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible with as little fuss and bother as possible. You may choose to do it with someone who has a high pass rate, or you may choose to do it with someone you know. You might choose an assessor based on their level of experience, or you might choose them because they have a reputation for making the assessment enjoyable. Maybe you trained with somebody and feel comfortable with them and you would like to continue your journey with them. All of these are good a valid reasons for your choice. But, equally, the basic assessment of your knowledge, skills, and abilities will be consistent across all assessors and will meet the same standard across all assessors. No one assessment is ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ than any other and as such this shouldn’t really figure in your decision.
The other element to consider is that providers and assessors tend to attract particular cohorts. For example, the institutional centres tend to attract a wider range of people and particularly the ‘corporate’ types and their approach reflects this. Smaller provides tend to be more idiosyncratic with a more personalised approach and have a greater diversity of styles. Smaller providers won’t have anything like the resources available to the institutions but they tend to be more approachable.
During the assessment, and especially during the exped, you are likely going to spend your time with a group tromping around one or other of the various ‘ML graveyards’. Your assessor will probably know the area like the back of their hand (and that is how they will know where you are at all times – that and they will be thumbing the map). You are almost certainly going to get bored, fed up, and frustrated at times, and this is all part of learning to manage with and as part of a group. Taking the time to find an assessor who can make the assessment interesting and stretching for you is worth the effort.
Managing the assessment process
Doing your training and assessment with the same provider is a matter of personal choice and does not convey any overall advantage. There is much to be said for doing your training and assessment with different providers as this will stretch you further and give you a broader perspective on the award.
My choice was to do the training with the top rated institutional provider in the UK, Glenmore Lodge, which was also stressful as it was unfamiliar and included a long journey on the nominal and decaying public transport system that is the shame of the UK. It took me way out of my comfort zone but also gave me the chance to experience Scottish mountain country. When it came to assessment I did it closer to home in North Wales with a small provider with impeccable experience and a solid reputation; a provider who sticks the core principles and doesn’t clutter and confuse the process with fancy bells, frills, whistles, and riffles.
When it comes to the assessment, regardless of where, and with who, you choose to do it there are basic principles you can apply to make it less stressful. After all, it is only an assessment and a relatively straightforward one at that.
Principle One: Accommodation and travel
Book your accommodation well in advance and make sure it is suitable and comfortable. The more comfortable you are the more enjoyable the experience will be.
Make sure you allow plenty of time for travel both to and from the assessment. You are likely to want some time to reflect both before and after and this is a good way to use your journey time. Also, arriving late for the assessment, or at the last minute and tired from a long journey, is disrespectful at best and demonstrates poor planning (all other things being equal).
Principle Two: Have all the kit
Either have all your own kit – the preference – or check in advance whether or kit is available for hire. Some of the bigger providers, such as Glenmore and Plas y Brenin, include the option to book out kit from their stores (if they have it). Expecting providers to hand out free kit because you can’t be bothered to get your own is irresponsible. And if you don’t have all the kit you need how can you possibly think you can function as a mountain leader? How did you do your own rope work, for example? Kit doesn’t have to be super-expensive. The necessary basics will do, some of which can be bought second-hand.
Principle Three: Make sure you have all the food you need and more
Make sure you have proper exped food and any other treats and snacks you might want in the evenings during assessment. Being able to tuck into a bag of your favourite crisps/snacks in your room while watching something on your iPad the night before exped can make all the difference to your motivation.
Principle Four: Look after your kit
Keep your bag and your kit sorted, organised, and tidy at all times. You should be able to pick up your pack and put on your shoes/boots and be ready to go in minutes. Keeping your kit and bag sorted and organised and ready packed will ensure you are always ready and take some of the stress out of the process.
Principle Five: Work with the group
During the assessment you are part of a group and part of a team whether you like it or not. Work with the group and be part of it at all times. This is particularly relevant when leading navigation legs or on steep ground and/or doing rope work. The art of navigation is to get from A to B following the most effective and efficient route to the best of your ability and knowledge. The same applies to pacing, steep ground, and so on.
Principle Six: Use the map/s
Study the maps beforehand. Become familiar with the 1:25 and 1:50 maps of the area. You will have plenty of time before the assessment – usually months – to sit down comfortably at home with either a glass of good single malt or a decent glass of wine and spend time getting to know what the country looks like on paper at both scales. When the time comes any navigation should be straightforward. It’s not a particularly demanding level of navigation other than you’ll be doing a lot of it for five days and it can get boring and tedious – unless you thrive on basic technical exercises.
When doing navigational legs during the assessment thumb the map. Given you will be overly familiar with the map, and you will have it in your hot little hand at all times, it should all fall into place very nicely.
Principle Seven: Get plenty of rest and relaxation and reflection
Get as much rest, relaxation, and reflection as you can. This will not only help to keep your stress levels down, it will also put things into perspective. If you have a bad day one day – and everybody has bad days from time to time – a couple of hours of R&R&R in the evening will help you regain your focus.
Some final thoughts
At the end of the day when all is said and done the award does have some intrinsic value in and of itself if approached with the right attitude and managed expectations. If you lack experience in the mountains, and if you are willing to go out and physically and mentally challenge yourself building a worthwhile portfolios of QMDs, it can be a worthwhile adventure and one that can be shared with others. It can also be a journey of discovery during which you find out what being a mountaineer means to you and what being in mountain country means to you. For most of us the assessment is not be the culmination of our mountaineering journey, it is the beginning.