After years of intending to become a qualified Mountain Leader. This summer I finally took the plunge and signed up for a Mountain Leader training course with Louise Tully – Freedom Outdoors. The course took place in Llanberis in the Snowdonia National Park. This post covers a detailed account of what my week looked like, the skills we covered and what I learned. So, to learn more about what the Mountain Leader training course is like, read on! For more information about the scheme, have a look at the Mountain Training website. I was originally meant to do my course in the early spring. But of course, everything got cancelled in summer 2020 and the earliest choice of dates available ended up being mid-August.
I chose to do my training with Lou Tully as she came highly recommended, as a mountaineer and as a course provider. Lou’s name came up repeatedly as a provider who ensures everyone has a good and productive learning experience. Something, which I found really important when considering what I would like to get out of my training. As a woman (and a short woman at that), I have had my fair share of experiences of walking with groups where I have struggled to keep up. This can set a very negative mood and I wanted to avoid it during my training. The ML course is an intense learning experience, and I wanted to be able to stay relaxed and focus on practicing the skills. Therefore, it is very important to choose a provider who knows how to facilitate this.
Mountain Leader training: an overview of the week
The course ran for 6 days from Monday to Saturday. I arrived in Llanberis on Sunday in order to prepare for the week ahead. I did not have a car available for the duration of my stay, and for that reason I decided to camp at the conveniently located Llanberis Campsite at Llwyn Celyn Bach. At £10ppn the campsite was a little more expensive than some of the nearby options. But the facilities were good and the atmosphere at the campsite was relaxed with people coming and going all week.
Although, I did not know it at this point, the biggest challenge during the course of the week would prove to be the weather. We got extremely hot and humid days followed by thunderstorms and torrential rain in the afternoons. I have never done well in hot climates and certainly found the heat a serious challenge. Some days I carried over 2.5 litres of water with me and finished all of it! Due to the forecasts, we agreed to have early starts throughout the week. Regardless of this, most days the temperature was above 20 degrees Celsius by the time we started walking. On a flip side, all of us would finish the course with a very acute understanding of the challenges of mountain weather and how important it is to plan for different scenarios.
To find out what I packed for the week have a look at my Mountain Leader Kit List!
Monday – Day 1
- Mountain Leader’s Kit
- Macro Navigation
- Planning a Day Out with a Group
- Group Management and Positive Communication
- Flora (=plants) and General Knowledge
- Evening Session on Mountain Weather
The course started at 9am on Monday morning with everyone meeting in central Llanberis. From there we moved into a room rented to us by the Boulder Adventures centre for a course introduction and overview. After introducing ourselves and once Lou had given us a look at how the week would be structured, we were ready to start the training. There were 11 people (4 men & 7 women!) on the course, and so we split into two smaller groups. Although, all of us were eager to get started and head outside, we spent some time discussing our personal gear choices and the essential kit a mountain leader should carry when out with clients.
The aim of the first day was to learn what a typical day out as a group leader looks like. Therefore, before we headed off, everyone folded their brand-new maps to the day’s route and had a chat about what to expect in terms of navigation. The aim of this exercise was to do the macro navigation without having to look at our maps. This is important because as a leader you should be able to divide your attention between the group and the route. It is rarely social, or confidence inspiring, if a mountain leader spends the whole day hidden behind a map!
Today’s walk of choice was the Moel Eilio horseshoe. The route was chosen due to a forecast of thunderstorms for the afternoon (something we experienced first-hand later). And this route allows you to escape the ridge at various points. While we walked, Lou talked about the plants we saw, as well as different strategies for managing groups on easy ground. We spent some time coming up with ways to entertain faster walkers, while making sure the slower group members would feel included – especially in groups of children. But also talked about how to find out information about your clients in a positive way and tailor the day to suit their experience and fitness levels. An important discussion point today was also planning for different extreme weather scenarios. This was spurred on by the thunderstorm which we saw creeping closer and closer on the weather forecasting app.
On the way down from the hill, we got a taster of micro navigation. Something which was to become a stable for the rest of the week. Lou wanted to break us into it gently (and see what level we were at) by dividing us into pairs and giving us points on the map to navigate to. It was quickly apparent that everyone in the group was already a pretty competent navigator. The biggest change from personal navigation for most of us was the fine detail of ML navigation. We would all soon become extremely accustomed to ring contours, spurs and re-entrants! Just as we were descending the final ridge back towards Llanberis, we could hear the thunder rumbling in the distance. And by the time we had made it to the bridleway leading us back to the centre, the skies opened with rain and lightning.
Soaked to the bone but still smiling we arrived back to where we set off from a few hours earlier. After a quick dry and a cup of tea everyone settled back down for the evening session on mountain weather. Lou had prepared an excellent presentation and had us quickly following the intricacies of synoptic charts and pressure fronts. It was an excellent first day, although some of my gear would not dry out for the rest of the week. Pack enough clothes for your course people!
Tuesday – Day 2
- Micro Navigation
- How to Teach Navigation
- Navigation Techniques
- Contour Interpretation
- Bearings & Pacing
- Evening Session on Mountain Hazards
With another warm forecast for the day – we had agreed to meet up in Capel Curig for an early start. The morning was gloriously clear and sunny. And I had a lovely early morning of having the campsite facilities to myself before heading to the meeting point where Lou picked me up. From Capel Curig, we headed into the area around Crimpiau. It is a little peak among the other more impressive summits of Snowdonia. But the ground around it is complex and put our navigation skills to the test throughout the day.
Today was a mixture of learning and consolidating our personal navigation skills, especially when it came to contour interpretation, compass bearings, pacing and micro navigation. Moreover, we started by covering strategies on how to teach these skills to others. For me this was one of the most important aspects of the course. I wanted to learn more about how navigation is taught within the Mountain Leader scheme and how to improve my own skills as a navigation teacher. We discussed (and tried out) many little games and exercises designed to teach navigation skills to groups. I can say that our group found this not only very entertaining but also extremely useful.
For the second half of the day, we honed down on progressively harder and harder micro navigation tasks. Both in pairs and individually Lou gave us mainly contour features to navigate to. But the overall pace of the day was slow with all of us feeling the effects of the heat – and some running out of water. I ended up being very happy that I had decided to carry both a hydration bladder and a full Nalgene bottle. And on the other hand, the slow pace and frequent stops left us with ample time to discuss the plant life, access issues, general knowledge and our previous experiences in the outdoors.
Wednesday – Day 3
- Steep Ground Work
- Group Management
- Micro Navigation (more nav!)
- How to Teach Movement Skills on Rock
- Assessing a Client’s Abilities and Setting Appropriate Objectives
Working with a group on steep ground will probably be the most challenging aspect of your role as an ML. The aim is, not only to teach the clients movement skills on rocky terrain, but also to ensure everyone in the group remains safe throughout the journey. And has a great experience outdoors! The scope of the ML scheme states that there should be no ‘planned use of rope’ on ML terrain. This means that the more technical ridges and buttresses are out of remit – but there is plenty of fun to be had on easier, usually Grade 1, scrambles.
On Wednesday morning my group met up at Ogwen Cottage for a walk up to Llyn Idwal. On the way up, we spent some time learning how to teach movement skills, and find out the experience level of your clients, before even making it to the start of your route. Cwm Idwal also proved an ideal location for discussing glaciation as there are signs of it everywhere. The actual route we took was Seniors’ Gully (grade 1) which was a great environment for practicing group management.
The key skill we focused on time and time again, was how to place yourself in relation to your group in order to safeguard the more serious sections. We considered the pros and cons of leading from the back versus staying at the front of the group, and how you can mobilise your group members to assist you. From the top of the gully we headed across the basin and down Y Gribin practicing micro navigation as we went. Unfortunately, about halfway down, we were caught in another thunderstorm. And oh man if it rained. The rain and hail were so strong that the perfectly dry footpath we had walked up became an ankle-deep river. And soon most of Cwm Idwal was covered in water as it rushed down the mountain. An exciting finish to the day.
Thursday – Day 4
- Rope Work
- Abseils (rope only)
- Confidence Roping
- Dealing with Emergencies
- Improvised Carries
As a climber myself, I had been looking forward to this day of the course. However, previous experience is not necessary. The rope work for the ML is very straightforward and can be learned quickly – as long as you keep a few key rules in mind. The systems we practiced included; building belays using just the rope, belaying a client up & down, securing a descent as a leader (= body abseil) and confidence roping. We also discussed suitable ropes for an ML (a skinny 30m rope is ideal), which knots to use (you’ll always get away with an overhand), and how to deal with emergency situations on the hill including how to alert the Mountain Rescue.
To build an ML anchor using just the rope, the important things to keep in mind are: always choose a bombproof anchor (especially important for direct belays), make sure everything is lined up properly (the anchor, the belayer & the climber), there is no slack in the system and that you always keep hold of the dead rope when belaying. Let me know if you would be interested in a more detailed post covering the rope work on the Mountain Leader syllabus in the future!
Friday – Day 5, Expedition
- Expedition Skills and Camp Craft
- Navigation on a 1:50k Scale Map
- Micro Navigation (more nav…)
- Night Navigation
Finally, the part of the training week everyone had been most excited about! The expedition typically includes a Quality Mountain Day (see here what constitutes a QMD). Followed by a wild camp, night navigation and a walk out on the next day. Our day started with practice on using the 1:50 000 scale OS maps. I must say that the transition was a little rocky after using the 1:25 000 constantly over the last days.
Due to Covid restrictions, we weren’t allowed to share kit and so all of us carried our own tents, stoves and other camping gear. Additionally, I had almost 3 litres of water (all necessary) which made for a very heavy rucksack in the heat of the day. For this reason, the going was slow, and we decided to pass on summitting Yr Aran which our instructor had initially aimed for. Instead we made for a col in the ridge leading to it and crossed that to camp high in Cwm Tregalan.
We reached camp just after 6pm with ample time to refresh ourselves in a nearby stream and cook dinner before heading out again at 9.30pm for the much-anticipated night navigation. For me this was very reminiscent of autumn and winter nights’ orienteering practices when I was in university. And honestly speaking, I found it great fun! We received increasingly difficult contour features, outcrops and stream junctions to navigate to, using compass bearings, pacing and handrailing to get us to our intended locations. For anyone a bit intimidated by this part of the training – don’t be! Any good teacher will be patient and take their time to help you – you are all there to learn after all. We finished at 1am for a short night’s sleep before being up early to walk out.
Saturday – Day 6
- Micro Navigation (see a theme here?)
- River Crossings
- Group and Individual Debriefs
In case you haven’t guessed it yet – on the last day we did more micro navigation! This time each navigation leg took us a bit closer to the car park and the end of the course. However, before meeting up with the other group in Llanberis, we did one last session on river crossings. A big part of this session was theoretical – as practicing the formations would have been against the current Covid guidelines. However, some things we were also able to try out in practice – enough for all of us to get our feet wet anyway.
The final part of the course included group and individual debriefs – done on the sunny lakeside in Llanberis. We discussed what constitutes a Quality Mountain Day and how to log things in the Dlog on the Mountain Training website. Finally, Lou and Geoff talked to everyone individually about the things they should focus on before the assessment, how to improve and what our plans were. At last, we dispersed happy, exhausted and excited to work on our new skills.
How did Covid-19 affect the course?
How each Mountain Training provider handles the current Covid situation is down to them and depends on local guidelines. Regarding my course, it was apparent leading up to it that Lou was putting in a lot of thought and effort to organising the course so that it would comply with the current Covid-19 guidelines and that everyone would feel safe while they were learning. The actual content of the course did not need to be significantly altered for any Covid related reasons. Here are the small differences you can expect from your training during Covid times as compared to normal:
- Face masks. In situations which required us to temporarily be close to each other the use of face masks was encouraged. For example, as I didn’t have a car with me for the week, Lou was giving me lifts to the starting locations every day. I sat at the back of her van (at a good distance) and both of us wore face masks. Also, the hand sanitizer was brought out at various points every day.
- No demonstrations for improvised carries or river crossings which would have involved us facing each other at a close distance. Regarding these points on the syllabus; we discussed things that could be done but did not practice them as such. For me this did not make a big difference and I feel confident I could demonstrate these points without having tried them out in practice.
- Minimal time indoors. The only time we spent in a ‘classroom setting’ during the whole week was on Monday. For that day, we sat in a large room with appropriate social distancing in place. After this all teaching including the final briefings happened outside.
- No sharing gear. We all carried our own tents, stoves and other equipment. On the ropework day, we had our own ropes and helmets (any loan equipment had been quarantined for 72 hours beforehand).
Should I do my Mountain Leader training?
In short, yes! I had put my training off for a long time – never feeling like it was quite the right time. I never felt like I had the time, or was ready for it, or was fit enough. But in the end, these are just excuses as everyone is there to learn. In saying that, you will probably get more out of the week if you are reasonably fit and used to carrying a backpack on consecutive days for a week. I went in already having an extensive background in hillwalking, climbing and orienteering among other things. But that is certainly not necessary, and people do it for different purposes and outcomes.
I would say a majority of the people on my course were aiming to do the assessment within the next year or so. But there were also people who were doing it to enhance their personal skill set and weren’t concerned about getting assessed. And that is what makes the Mountain Leader such a great award for anyone to do. It gives you a great set of outdoor skills and builds your confidence in yourself on the hills. But it also provides you with many transferable soft skills when it comes to leadership, people management and communication.