It’s been a long time coming, nearly four years in fact, for me to attend a Mountain Leader assessment course. I hadn’t intended to wait so long, I had made a couple of attempts to attend assessments but each time anxiety and nerves got the best of me and I cancelled. I think, if it wasn’t for this PGCE course and other occurrences, I probably would not have bothered really as it wasn’t needed in my previous employment and any hillwalking within Scouting was covered by another’s permit…
But, deep down, I wanted to pursue it. It was one of those nagging ‘wants’. I wanted the validation that I was at “that level” as other outdoor professionals.
I didn’t find my training particularly enthusing; I felt the bare minimum was delivered and it did leave me with more questions than answers sadly… Over the next year or so I went out, but honestly, I found the Quality Mountain Day conditions were taking the joy out of the experience – how can I extend that to five hours? Is a 500m peak significant enough? Have I navigated enough or just followed paths? Have I gone to the correct area?
I just wanted to go and walk some hills!
A few weeks ago I had a successful and enjoyable assessment so I thought I’d write a blog post about things that helped me through my training/consolidation period/assessment – it might help others!? Please note, this is a blog about the best books, where to go to practise nav… I think most of those have been covered by numerous amounts of other blogs out there!
One thing anyone must be aware of is the amount of horror stories you will hear about ML assessments. Not everyone has a good time, not everyone had a nicer than nice assessor and yes, some people are challenged on their assessment and will disagree with their assessor choices and decisions! I let these stories worry me. I let the attitudes of others affect me (actual words: “you don’t walk fast so will fail an assessment”). I let my own mind run away with me. For you see, the ML assessment isn’t like a driving test in a known area, it’s rather learning the skills to drive then taking the test overseas!
So, one bit of advice I will give is to listen to the horror stories, then disregard them. People can exaggerate, their minds can change their memories, shit can happen, but that doesn’t mean the same thing will happen to you. I thoroughly enjoyed my ML assessment – it was full of laughs, interesting conversations, fun people, great learning opportunities and was relaxing as much as it could be. One of the better weekends in the hills!
I never felt ready, even right up to the night before I didn’t feel ready. I’d read the MTUK Hillwalking book from cover to cover, I’d read various weather books, flora and fauna books, synoptic charts, books on clouds… I still didn’t feel ready and I don’t think anyone can fully say that they will be because of the unexpectedness of it all. ML training teaches you that there are many variables and unexpected things to the outdoors – weather, people, situations. You can never be 100% sure of what you’re going to get or what can happen (and that’s the fun/challenge of it all!), you just have to go for it.
I will say though, having lots of varied group experiences thoroughly helped me. You are in an ‘unnatural’ group environment, with others of equal skill to yourself, so it all does feel artificial when it’s your turn to lead and manage them however, having that prior experience means you can spot the times when the group needs to stop to remove jackets as they’re overheating walking uphill, finding a toilet spot before you enter an area of bare hillside which you’ll be on for a while or finding an interesting thing to discuss to break the dull routine of walking -it all shows experience and knowledge to manage the wellbeing of a group. That’s the bit I loved the most, finding out why they want to go out on the hills, what they want to achieve and helping them to do that!
My recommendation came unexpectedly. I didn’t want to go back to the people that provided my training as I didn’t feel they’d make my assessment personal because the training didn’t feel like it was, so I decided I wanted an independent self-employed person to assess me, but who would be good for this?
I decided to join a free Ordnance Survey Get Outside walk in Llanberis run by Jason Rawles as I was up in this area. Whilst on the walk up Snowdon by the Llanberis pass I got chatting to another Get Outside Champion, Eli Bishop, about her ML journey. She was there to gain group work experience and was a delight to speak to – she recommended Will Kilner, of AdventureswithWill. She knew about the anxiety assessments can cause and said that Will would put the group at ease – which, from day 1 he did! I never felt negatively judged, my mistakes were acknowledged but not made an issue, I felt comfortable enough to show my personality (I can be quiet and shy when I feel uncomfortable!) and the result was a better performance from me than I thought I would give!
So, go on recommendations. Listen to others and speak to your potential assessor beforehand. A good assessor will make time to speak to you and answer any queries; Will did with me and that made a huge difference!
Go where you know
I love the Brecons. Always have, always will, so why I decided to suddenly take assessments in Snowdonia and the Lake District I’ll never know. Yes, the ML Award enables you to walk anywhere within the UK – even the rugged remote areas of Scotland – but feeling comfortable in an area you know well makes all the difference. That’s not to say I didn’t go to Snowdonia, I did, because I was on a split weekend assessment; on the first weekend, the micro nav and rope work days were around the Glyders and the second weekend, the expedition weekend was in the Brecons. I wanted to make my assessment memorable to me – there are a few providers who run the assessment on the Isle of Rum, Scotland.
So go where you know, where you’ll feel most comfortable. Where you’ll enjoy the memories you’ll make!
No one can go through this life alone and no one should go through their ML training/assessment without the support and encouragement of others. I was thankful to have a partner with the same interest, experience of group work with charity organisations, such as Scouts and DofE, and online communities; I was even thankful to have friends who helped to financially contribute to paying for the assessment (it can be costly for a student!) – that was both a positive to know others believed I could do it, also a good incentive to complete it!
I’m pleased to see the Mountain Training Association is running a mentoring scheme. I’d like to join this in the future and help others if I can towards their assessments and feeling confident. Had I had this years ago then maybe I would have completed mine sooner? I’d much rather prefer to speak to someone face to face than through the internet and think this mentoring scheme is a great idea.
So, find a community, a friend, join the mentoring scheme, any support to help you with it. Often, you’ll question if that day was really a Quality Mountain Day (a QMD), what to pack, what spare kit to take, where best to take a group etc; having support – a go-to person or people – will make a lot of difference!
I hope, whether you’re contemplating starting the award or you’re currently working your way through it, that you have a good and interesting experience. These points above were ‘sticking points’ for me going through training; just stick at it, in your own time, at your own pace and most importantly, if it’s feeling like a chore… just go back to some good old fashioned hill walking and being outside. The mountains will always be there and they don’t care if you’ve walked more than 5 hours and included a ‘significant peak’ in the days planning that involves some navigation off route!