Mountain Leader (Winter)
To discover more about the winter version on the Mountain Leader qualification we spoke to Mark Handford of snowdonia-adventures.co.uk about what sort of experience you need to get the award, and how it differs from the summer version. Mark also shares some great advice about preparing for this one.
What first sparked your interest in hill walking and mountaineering?
Mark: From a very early age, probably around 10yrs old me and my mates would go off to Cannock Chase and explore the forestry and lakes for fishing and shelter building, things then just got bigger and further the older I got! At 14 years old I tackled my first mountain, Mount Etna with my father, that was in the days when you could wander right up to the top, I think its all closed off now.
Sounds like you had been walking and climbing for years then, or did you jump straight into the instructor training?
Mark: I had about 20yrs of hill and mountain experience before I even thought about the Mountain Leader qualifications.
After you had completed your ML Summer, did you go straight on to ML Winter?
Mark: I had about 18 months gap between completing the ML Summer assessment and attending a Winter ML training course.
Can you describe the training course for us? Does it have any pre-requisites?
Mark: The WML training course can be physically and mentally very tough on candidates. It helps to have a good spread of winter experience from all over the UK, anything that gives you mileage in the winter mountain environment will help make the training course easier.
It's 6 long days, and I mean long, you're up at 06.30 and won't be finished before 20.00 once dinner and evening lectures have concluded. The course covers snow and avalanche analysis, emergency snow holes and shelters, Crampon and axe skills including how to teach and coach correct techniques, security on steep ground, personal map and compass navigation is at a much higher level than what is required for the summer award. Cold weather injuries and weather forecasting are also covered as are expedition and multi day winter mountain journeys.
3 days are spent on a back country trip with candidates constructing snow holes or caves for the 2 nights wild camp, those 3 days are tough! Sleeping in snow holes in less than warm conditions, then going out for 4hrs or so of night navigation every night. Add to this the normal dehydration and usually ration pack type expedition food and you have the end product of a demanding training course.
The prerequisites for attending the Winter ML training course are Summer Mountain Leader Award, a minimum of 20 quality winter mountain days in at least 3 different mountain areas of the UK, be well practices in the use of crampons and ice axe.
What was the biggest challenge when clocking up your quality winter mountain days?
Mark: Fortunately I had 15 odd years of winter experience with a fair few days logged as you would expect! So getting the quality days wasn't a problem as you can log all your previous experience. However, you need to be prepared to travel to Scotland and get to know the mountains like the back of your hand. It's good if you can stay up there for a few months and just hammer the mountains day in and day out, have a few hill days then a rest day, perhaps a bit of ski touring and of course getting some quality winter climbing routes under your belt. If you have to travel up then there the cost of fuel and accommodation adds up, the cold sleep in the van with your mates is an experience, tents are not my thing in the UK winter, it's too damp and hard to get your kit dried out, it just makes for a harder than needed experience.
Did you find the assessment easy or difficult? What did it involve?
Mark: Overall I found the assessment experience fairly easy, that was due to having a stack of experience, I was also very hill fit which goes a long way. I know others on the same course struggled the whole week, most of it was due to barely scraping through the minimum requirements before the assessment. My advice is don't just log the minimum requirements in the consolidation period, get out there and hammer the hills, don't just 'tick off' the 10 Grade 1 and above climbs, get out there and 'enjoy' 30 grade 2 or 3 routes as it will all build your competence, experience and confidence.
The assessment puts you under a microscope, ask any UIAGM Guide, they will tell you "Winter ML is the hardest assessment course going" It's 5 days of close contact time with 2 different assessors, you need each day to be "a good day" you need both assessors to see you working at your best, whether that's describing snow pack structure to them or being on very steep ground with a 'mock student' who has just lost his crampon and axe.
What is the best thing about holding the ML Winter award?
Mark: Being able to share the mountains with people in winter gives me great satisfaction and seeing peoples skills and confidence progress in a short space of time is an amazing experience. I have had clients who attended 5 day winter course in Scotland with me then the following year went out to the Atlas mountains and bagged their first 4000m peak in winter, that gives me a great sense of achievement, that I have coached them in safe efficient winter travel skills that they can only build on as time goes by.
What is your favourite bit of kit that you couldn't do without?
Mark: Aah this is a very tough question, let's have 2 bits of kit? My Suunto Vector watch with a great altimeter and my Aladdin Flask with a home made neoprene cover for extra insulation.
How has the ML Winter been useful to you? Why should people take it?
Mark: Holding the WML award enables me to work in the mountains of the UK all year round. The cost involved in gaining the award soon becomes irrelevant, as one week's work in winter can see you having the following week off if you wanted! Now that's what I call winter work!