Mountain Leader

orange square Following on from the Walking Group Leader is the Mountain Leader (ML) Award, which comes in two flavours: Summer and Winter (you need to have the summer version before you take the winter one!) These qualifications, sanctioned by Mountain Training UK, are for people who want to lead groups of walkers in mountainous terrain. The routes should not include pre-planned use of ropes to tackle the terrain and the course and assessment look at your group management skills as much as your technical walking and climbing ability. To help us get a better understanding of what the courses cover, what you need to be able to do to achieve the qualifications, and the types of opportunities available to instructors who hold the Mountain Leader Award, we spoke to a couple of people who have been through the process and who now hold these qualifications. First up Chris Jopling who is ML Summer assessed.

ml summer

Mountain Leader (Summer)

How did your love of the hills and mountains get started?

Chris: My interest in the hills and mountains first developed while I was at secondary school. It was here that I learnt to ski and travelled to the Brecon Beacons and Dartmoor with the school cadet unit. I have since become a ski instructor as well as MLA.

What level of experience did you have before you took the Mountain Leader Award?

Chris: I became aware of the ML Award whilst serving in the Army and when I registered for the ML Training I had just over the required amount (20) of Quality Mountain Days (QMDs). I had done plenty of navigation training, both practical and theory and was used to spending nights out under canvas.

Can you describe the training course for us? Does it have any pre-requisites?

Chris: The training course generally takes place over five consecutive days and covers navigation, weather, group management, equipment, camp craft, security on steep ground, access & conservation and river crossings. You are expected to be able to navigate to a decent standard on arrival but you discuss and are taught the rest of the topics. The majority of the course takes place outside and you are assessed during the last two days as you take part in an overnight trip into the hills. Your navigation skill will be constantly tested during this trip. You will lead numerous legs and be expected to know your location even when others are leading. Night navigation is also practiced during the trip. Pre-requisites for the course are a minimum of 20 logged QMDs and 12 months experience in the hills, that you are registered with one of the Mountain Training Boards and that you are over 18 years old.

And what did you do for your consolidation period?

Chris: It was 12 years before I took the ML Assessment! I completed the military equivalent of the course two years after ML Training and then spent 10 years leading servicemen and women on expeditions to a number of locations around the world. When I left the Army it became obvious to me that I needed to complete the ML Assessment in order to work in the hills or lead expeditions overseas for the majority of civilian companies. It is worthy of note that although I had accrued over 100 days leading since training I still only just had enough to meet the required further 20 QMDs to go for assessment! This is because it's only UK days or those spent in similar environments that count.

Did you find the assessment easy or difficult? What did it involve?

Chris: The ML Assessment is not difficult as long as you really have consolidated the skills you learnt during training, although when navigating you always put added pressure on yourself. The Assessment is another 5 day course and covers all the skills learnt during training. The difference is that you are expected to know all about them this time. That said I still learnt a lot of related skills and improved some of those I already had. This time there is a 3 day, 2 night trip into the hills with constant navigation assessment as in training and one day is spent assessing your skills for dealing with leading on steep ground. Pre-requisites for assessment are a total of 40 QMDs, MLT, and a valid 1st Aid Certificate. Make sure you keep your log book up to date as it is checked when you go for assessment.

What is the best thing about holding the MLA award?

Chris: The best thing about being a Mountain Leader is that I can safely and legally take groups into the hills and mountains and give them the opportunity to discover what an exciting and interesting place they can be. It has also given me the opportunity to travel to a number of far flung places and experience cultures that I would otherwise never have seen except on TV.

What is your favourite luxury on expeditions, or do you snap your toothbrush in half to save a few grams?

Chris: I tend to travel as light as possible on exped only carrying what's really necessary. My one concession to this is a hammock. It feels like sleeping on air after a few days on an inflatable roll mat! My other travel essential is nail clippers. There is nothing more annoying and potentially painful than not being able to trim your finger or toe nails properly.

We understand you have led a few overseas expeditions too, where have you been and was the MLA useful?

Chris: I've been lucky enough to have been involved in expeds to Everest Base Camp, Mt Kilimanjaro, Ras Dashen in Ethiopia, The Naukluft Trail in Namibia, Alta Via 1 in Italy, a number of trips to the Allgaü Alps in Germany and a month long overland trip in Mongolia. MLA was useful in that my navigation skills were up to scratch and I was carrying the correct kit. Fortunately I've never needed to use any of my group safety kit in anger.

ml winter

Mountain Leader (Winter)

To discover more about the winter version on the Mountain Leader qualification we spoke to Mark Handford of 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!

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