QMD Blog

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 (2019). 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 (and young people). Over the years, and especially recently, there has been a push to expand the remit of the awards. 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 the 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 (including 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 and 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’ relevant to this 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 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. 2019. During this time there was a reduction in the list of what was considered mountainous country (the list was changed in 2013) 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 now regulated by OfQual (2019). (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 a certificate in leadership.

Quality Mountain Days 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 arguable 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.

Sources

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

The ML Award: Is it for me?

The ML Award: Is it for me?

‘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?

Key points

  • 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.

Overview

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 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 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) – 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.

Training

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.

The Assessment

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.

Snowdon Summits Challenges

Snowdon Summits Challenges

A QMD that took in all of the Snowdon summits (the Snowdon range) has been on my mind for sometime. I’ve worked on various routes trying to find the optimum route without dumbing down the challenge. The two routes i came up with are presented here (on the Challenges Page: Scroll down to them). There is a Traverse and a Circular Route. Unfortunately other commitments mean I haven’t had time to do them yet myself. However, I decided to make them available on the site.

The RDs and Routes provided have not been ‘walked on the ground’; they have been developed from maps. At the time of writing there is to the best of my knowledge no record, as yet, of these challenges having been completed as QMDs. I welcome any feedback, tracks, comments, and so on. Both routes can be escalated in difficulty by taking the goat track from Bwlch y Moch and ascending Crib Goch via North Ridge.

Only listed summits of 610m+ have been included. Y Lliwedd has three listed summits (?). A sort of Three-in-One bonus.

There are two versions of the Snowdon Summits Challenge: The Circular and the Traverse. Both challenges take in all 12 summits of the Snowdon range and include some route finding, some grade one scrambling, and steep and rocky ground. These routes should not be underestimated. Both challenges are at least equal in difficulty to the Welsh 3000s (not traditional route), if not more so. This is based on: 1) the ratio of miles to meters of height gain including a set starting point (see below); 2) the amount of steep and rocky ground and Grade One Scrambling required, and; 3) the amount of route finding and decision making required and time off paths.

The Snowdon Summits challenge is far from remote (but then the only really remote section of the Welsh 3000s is from Carnedd Llewelyn and Yr Elen to Carnedd Gwenllian). There are escapes throughout the route. It should not, though, be underestimated.

Both routes have a series of listed waymarks, given as grid references, that must be ‘logged’ in order to complete the route. These include, but are not limited to, all the summits. Missing any of these listed waypoints is an automatic Did Not Finish (DNF). Both routes are designed to be completed in a single journey, and that is part of the challenge.

The Traverse can be started at either Moel Eilio or Yr Aran. How you reach the first summit is up to you. The Circular can be started from any point on the route. How you reach that point is up to you. The recommended venues to reach a start point, for both routes, are Behtania and Llanberis. Other options include Pen y Pass, the 610m route from Nant Peris, or Moel Eilio from either Plas Isaf, Ystrad Isaf, or Llanberis. However, these latter routes involve extra distance and climbing compared to the Bethania and Llanberis options.

There are limited water sources on both routes so careful planning is required to ensure adequate hydration.

Only limited use of electronic navigational aids is allowed but this is strongly discouraged except in an emergency or dangerous/risky situation. These restrictions are as follows:

  • No mobile phone apps allowed with the exception of OS Locate (NOT OS Maps).
  • Only the GPS ‘Locate’ (grid reference) and GoTo function to be used on a GPS device and/or the compass.
  • Use of a Mobile Phone App or a GPS device to follow a Route or Track, PRoW, or any other path results in immediate DNF. Note that if a GPS device is used for to follow/find a path/route/location due to bad weather conditions and in order to reach safety and/or for rescue purposes this will be classed as Abandoned for Safety Reasons (ASR) rather than a DNF.
  • Use of a Mobile App other than OS Locate results in an immediate DNF (this is for safety reasons).

The Traverse is around 15.2 miles with 2673 metres of height gain (1:189) (starting at Bethania). The route finding sections are: 1) From Gallt y Wenallt to Craig y Deryn and on to Bwlch y Moch, and ; 2) from Llechog cross the big cwm to Bwlch Cwm Brwynog.

The Circular is around 21 miles with 3238 metres of height gain (1:155) (starting at Bethania). The route finding section is from either of the Afon Hwch crossings to Moel Eilio. There is some nominal route finding from the Mine Path up to Gallt yr Wenallt but there is a faint FP here (easy to miss), and similarly from Yr Aran down the ridge line (handrailing the wall) to Clogwyn Brith and down on to the Watkins path.

The Welsh 300s is around 24.4 miles with 3670 metres of height gain (1:150) (starting at Pen y Pass; not including the finishing leg from Foel Fras). There is no route finding required on the Welsh 3000s.

List of Summits with height in Metres (in ascending order of height)

  • Gallt y Wenallt               619
  • Foel Gron                       629
  • Moel Cynghorion           674
  • Llechog                           720
  • Moel Eilio                      726
  • Yr Aran                           747
  • Lliwedd Bach                 818
  • Y Lliwedd East Top       893
  • Y Lliwedd                       898
  • Crib Goch                       923
  • Crib y Ddysgl               1065
  • Snowdon – Yr Wyddfa 1085
Elan Valley and the Teifi Pools

Elan Valley and the Teifi Pools

PDF of post Here

There is a track of our journey, and a suggested route and RD for a full QMD under Teifi Pools Circular. The GPS files are also on the GPS Routes and Tracks page

I’m pleased to see the the Mountain Training Dlog now lists all of the mountains in Mid-Wales. But as well as the summits there is fantastic remote country with four bothys in the Elan Valley. This is a brief take on a wander around the Teifi Pools. In my earlier days I would certainly have logged this as a QMD. Now, with more experience, I logged it as a QHD. But the country should not be underestimated, and neither should the route finding challenges across rough ground.

The country around the Teifi Pools is bleak, charming, and a welcome change for the Disneyfied country of North Wales and the Brecon Beacons. It’s not the sort of country that attracts the adventure-in-a-bun crowds, thankfully, as you need to have at least some decent mountaineering skills and be prepared to work for your day out. Amazing views, vast open spaces, plenty of wildlife, and, best of all, no people. This is the land of dinosaurs. We saw frogs, a nest with eggs, and the fossilised backbone of a dragon. In the harsh depths of winter and/or bad weather this country will test your mettle as much as any other mountain country.

Our day was very much a spontaneous look around. We camped on Friday night in a strange little campsite on the edge of a council estate in Pontrhydfendigaid. In the morning we drove up to the Coed Troed-y-rhiw Car Park and wandered up the valley then went for height and summitted the 459m Disgwylfa and took the tops around to the trig point on Llan Ddu Fawr. The original plan was to head north past Domen Milwyn and circle back round to pick up the path at CLaerwen where the river enters Claerwen Reservoir. However, we cut it short due to slow going over rough ground and the bogs. Besides, this was a mini adventure and a quick look round. We weren’t looking for a big day, just getting a feel for the country.

Consider that we had an 11-mile wander and achieved 770m of height gain, which is decent. A little bit of a longer route and we could have doubled that height gain. There isn’t quite the height as available elsewhere, but we spent a good part of the day between 400m and 500m, which isn’t bad. A lot of rough ground and route finding. Not much steep ground or rocky ground.

It’s straightforward with good visibility but in the mist, dark, and rain this would be challenging navigation indeed. A huge mess of contour features gives you plenty to work with but there is an awful lot of them. It’s a ring contour and re-entrant theme park with every possible variation you could ever hope to imagine all liberally interspersed with difficult, boggy, ground and small crags. The boggy ground can be avoided by staying high and making use of the watersheds, if you know how to do that. There’s also plenty of quadbike tracks – too many if anything and they become seductive paths for the unwary. Nestled deep inside the country is the Claerddu bothy opening up the possibility of a solid two-day QMD exped with an overnight at the bothy, which has a flush toilet! (Or even a multi-bothy day across the four bothys in the area.)

The key thing with this country is keeping the height and finding the watersheds in order to avoid the bogs. Descending is generally good alongside the streams but you need to find the right distance from them. That is, if you are handrailing a stream to descend you need to keep a certain distance from it to stay on the drier ground. Spurs are generally good for descents as well.

It takes a particular mindset to get the real value from this country. It doesn’t come pre-packaged, over-hyped, and crawling with people shouting to each other and dropping litter everywhere. It’s a quiet, gentle beauty, desolate and magnificent. There is truly a sense of being alone in open space that is at once benign and challenging. There is little protection from the elements, whether that be sun, wind, or rain. The ground underfoot can change rapidly with little solidity at times. Thankfully the grass is only a little twmpy but there is a fair bit of bracken later in the year. The lower fences do have barbed wire tops but the higher fences seemed not to. That having been said, with a little effort and thought most the fences are avoidable. Within the expanse of the Elan Valley, taken from it’s southernmost post around the Drygarn Fawr and Gorllwyn, all the way up to Y Garn, there is probably 5-8 QMDs to be had with ample scope for two-day expeditions and real wild camping, to say nothing of the bothys. (Although you wouldn’t really want to try and squeeze more than 2-3 QMDs out of the area if you were going for an ML Award.)

Confidence Roping: A view on.

Confidence Roping: A view on.

(NOT an instructional document!)

PDF Here

When in the mountains people sometimes use a technique known as confidence roping on steep slopes and crags. Confidence roping is a form of short roping, which is an essential Alpine skill. However, in the UK confidence roping is distinguished from short roping. Confidence roping in the UK is defined as unplanned rope work where the consequences of a slip are minimal and will not result in a fall. Short roping, by contrast, is planned rope work.

One of the unanswered questions is: how much rope should be between the leader and the client when confidence roping? There has been little research done on this, but as ever there is a wealth of assumed expert opinion. What research has been done has been in relation to short roping, and includes confidence roping. It is this research I draw on in this tiny weeny post (see below), as well as Langmuir. I refer only to confidence roping in the context of the MLS award here. Of course, inevitably someone will make the argument that this reference is not relevant. I think it is. I have, however, tried to balance this by referring also to Langmuir (2014).

First, confidence roping can take place uphill, downhill, and while traversing either up or down. Second, the risk of both parties falling if one party slides or falls is high. Third, the length of rope between parties is variable and there is no set distance that is either better or safer, although when traversing as short a rope as possible is recommended. In sum, there is no right or best length of rope between ML and client, only suggestions and recommendations. This is open to further debate but also depends very much on the clarity of understanding of confidence roping. Within the MLS context confidence roping is almost always applied to descending.

Langmuir provides excellent clarity of confidence roping in the ML context. ‘This is a technique normally used descending steep vegetated or mixed ground…[as opposed to steep rocky ground]…where the leader has evaluated that there is no risk of a substantial fall should a slip occur and that they personally will be secure…The leader should be as close to their charge as practicable so as to ease communication and minimise complications and stretch in the rope – as distance of about a metre is normally fine…with the leader staying in a braced position at all times as they move…The minute the leader feels uncertain of their ability to hold a slip because of the terrain they are on then consideration should be given to using the rope to belay members of the party.’ (pg. 168)

The purpose of confidence roping in the UK for Mountain Leaders is for confidence, as much as to prevent a slip or fall. As such, it is appropriate to try and direct the client to the easiest route with the least risk of a slip rather than attempting a route where a slip is highly likely. For the sort of ground MLs cover most of these risks can usually be managed. Thus, as noted above, the rope is primarily for confidence. Within the MLS context it does seem to make sense to keep a short distance of around one metre as long as the ML has secure footing and as long as the descent is neither too steep nor to complicated and the risk of slipping is small. I will now consider the three scenarios in turn.

Traversing

You can traverse, zig zag, up or downhill. Traversing reduces the gradient and increases footing. When traversing the ML should, in principle, always be above the client and keep as short a rope as possible. What the ML does is to parallel the client on the traverse. However, this is not always possible on steep/rocky slopes and, indeed, on some rocky slopes is probably the wrong thing to do.

How short ‘as short as possible’ means is open to question. As ever it means that the ML and client are able to move independently of one another and yet the client feels safe. A rope that is too short allows for no recovery or adjustment time and in that situation if one goes both go. By too short I mean the one person literally cannot move without the other person moving, although there may be situations where even this is the most appropriate thing to do.

Uphill

When travelling uphill, and not traversing, it may be possible to keep a very short rope between ML and client (around 1 metre). The ML works the pace to suit the client and they go uphill together. Again, with a rope this short if one goes both go and the ML needs to be keenly aware of their client’s movement.

Downhill

Supporting a client downhill without traversing is perhaps the trickiest aspect of confidence roping. In an ideal world you would always traverse, but this not always an option. One key aspect of downhill confidence roping is to guide the client around obstacles and to avoid areas and features where a slip is likely.

It is common sense to realise that if the ML cannot brace their footing they have no chance of preventing a slip by the client. Thus if an obstacle, such as a particularly steep section of a small bit of rock, is unavoidable the ML should remain above the obstacle while the client descends and only then follow the client down. In order to do this you clearly need not only a good length of rope between you but also to be able to pay out more rope if needs be.

General Guidelines

  • Confidence roping is used in the ML context to instil confidence as much as it is to prevent, or manage, a slip.
  • Secure footing for the ML is everything in confidence roping. If the ML is not secure in their footing they cannot keep any tension on the rope and if the client slips, trips, or stumbles that the ML is likely to follow suit.
  • The principle behind confidence roping is the help the client find secure footing and to avoid any unnecessary obstacles.
  • The length of rope between ML and client varies depending on the situation and the type of ground. There is no one set best or right distance. There are only suggested and recommended distances. A commonly agreed distance is around one meter assuming there is free movement across the ground and the ML has secure footing.
  • Keeping a short distance between ML and client is generally advised for going uphill and/or traversing. However, if traversing a boulder field or scree slope, for example, it may be appropriate to have a longer rope between ML and client.
  • When traversing on a steep slope the ML can be above the client as long as their footing is secure. On rocky ground you should not at any time have one person directly above another.
  • When confidence roping downhill it is at times a good idea for the ML to have additional coils of rope in hand so that they can play it out to allow the client to avoid unnecessary obstacles.
  • Recommended distances for confidence roping seem to vary from between one metre to around three metres depending on the situation and the ground.

NOTE: As an addition someone commented that a common problem with confidence roping is how tight to have the rope between the roped parties. That was not the question I set out to address, as noted at the start. However, it is an interesting question and there are all sorts of recommendations and variations on how to hold the rope, whether or not to secure the rope to the leader and if so in what way, and so on. Langmuir goes into this. But what is interesting is the Alpinism paper goes into it by saying, with regard to the amount of tension required on the rope, the rope should be ‘gently tight’ at all times.

ADDITONAL NOTE: Following further discussion about how taught/tight the rope should be I refer further to Langmuir, the rope should be kept, ‘…taught at all times…the arm† should be kept bent and the body in a flexed position…with the leader staying in a braced position at all times whilst they move, using the bend of their arm to lengthen and shorten the distance between them…’ (pg. 167). However, when you look at the evidence presented in the Short Roping paper you will see that while, in translation, confidence roping may be suitable to prevent, or manage, a minor slip on steep ground where there is no significant risk it provides no guarantee. The Short Roping paper gives consideration to advantages and disadvantages of various techniques and while this goes beyond what most MLs will work with it does highlight the risk of assuming confidence roping will ‘prevent’ a slip from occurring per se. It may indeed help but the fact remains that if either party actually slips and goes both parties are likely to go.

Conclusion

Overall there is not one right or best length of rope to have between ML and client during confidence roping. It depends on the ground, the situation, and whether or not you are going uphill, traversing, or descending. It seems that between one and three meters is usually recommended, but more distance may be appropriate in some situations. For any confidence roping the ML needs to have firm and secure footing at all times. If the client actually falls or slides the ML is almost certainly going to go with them so the point is to prevent this in the first place. This is achieved by keeping the correct degree of tension on the rope to provide some stability and security for the client. One of the key considerations is to avoid unnecessary obstacles rather than to assume the rope will provide protection for the client on the obstacle. If actual protection from a rope is required then you will need to anchor and belay and that is the next step after confidence roping.

References

Langmuir, E. (2013). Mountaincraft and Leadership. Mountain Training England and Mountain Training Scotland.

Short Roping. Gottlieb Braun-Elwert. http://alpineskills.com/pdf_forms/ShortRoping.pdf

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