Mountain Leader Training: Ups, Downs and Challenges
Climbing up the rock, trying to hide my nerves. Rock climbing without a rope was new to me. Stretching my leg up to the same foothold the boys used, I got stuck. A little too tall for my leg to fit comfortably, it didn’t provide me the confidence I needed to push myself up. I needed a hand. A break in the conversation didn’t come. It was just me, leg too stretched to lift my weight, butt hanging out over the mountain, nerves shaking and confidence hit, the only way I was going to get help, was by breaking the conversation and asking for it. Just an insight of what to expect when you train as a mountain leader.
Mountains have always been my home. It’s a place I would run to, to get away from it all, challenge myself, reconnect and just feel awesome. Being in the mountains was what I loved so much I decided to train to become a Mountain Leader and one day, walk in the mountains as a professional!
I chose to go to Wales. I’d never been there before, I found an independent operator and it was an adventure! Wales is probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Based in Snowdonia, more specifically Llanberis and the surrounding area, this was where I would call home for a week.
What to expect on a Mountain Leader Course.
In short, you can expect to be pushed, challenged and surprised. It’s definitely not an easy course but it is so worth it. Before the course, I thought I was confident and all-knowing when it came to the mountains and the outdoors. Boy, I was wrong. This wasn’t a bad thing, just a good nudge of reality and I was so excited to learn well, everything. To get into a Mountain Leader Training course in the UK you have to already have 20 quality mountain days, be a member of the mountaineering society and have some basic knowledge of map, compass and navigation skills. So you have the basics covered, what’s next?
The first day of a Mountain Leader training course was nice and relaxed. Meeting up in the morning, we got to know each other, ran over the schedule and general expectations of the course. Once the classroom finished it was time to head out into the hills and make the best of the day!
We spent the day at Capel Curig near Clogwyn-mawr and Crimpiau. It was a stunning hot day and we spent the full day outside, glorious! We were taught how to read a map, tick off points on the map, contours, symbols, access land and matching the ground to the map (which always helps!). As well as all of this we used the compass as well and did a basic introduction on how to take bearings using tick off points, the benefits of ‘handrailing’ and introducing how to relocate ourselves on a map, time and pacing. It was a full on day and by the end of it, my brain was fried.
If you think about it, we hardly ever – as adults – do this kind of intense learning. As children we learn a lot in a relatively short time, but as adults we slot into a job and learning something new, takes a bit of a back seat! Unless you opt into it!
Day one of Mountain Leader Training really built my confidence up. I realized that although I wasn’t the most experienced map reader, I certainly wasn’t the worst. Having a mix range of abilities in the group was refreshing.
Today was a Quality Mountain Day. These are days that you have to build to eventually take on your assessment. There are so many questions around QMU’s that today we went through some and nailed out exactly what a quality mountain day was.
Starting at a parking bay near Glan Dena we followed the path up to the summit of Pen Yr Ole Wen. Swapping instructors it was refreshing to get a different perspective and try someone else’s method of teaching. Most mountain days I have done in the past are following routes to the summit with the occasional stops for photos. Today was a lot more stopping and starting. We weren’t just climbing a mountain, we were navigating, relocating ourselves on the map and learning more about contours.
Today was a lot more in-depth when it came to relocating and navigation on a mountain and it definitely highlighted people’s strength’s and weaknesses. It made me more comfortable to see everyone struggling with something. It put us all back in the same boat! We got to the summit of the first mountain and instead of following the other group up the trail to the second summit, we decided to contour our way around the mountain. Contouring is hard, it’s so natural to end up drifting off course and level. And one leg is definitely working harder than the other!
Contouring around to the crag we then scrambled down and navigated our way back to a beautiful mountain lake before finding ourselves back on the path. Running down the path to the cars we were so sure we were late. The group ahead of us, we thought was the other team and so we ran to meet them. It was not them. Instead of being late we were in fact the first people down!
Now it was time for the fun stuff! As a Mountain Leader you have to be prepared for all scenarios and that includes basic rope work. It’s not used as a practical method of getting people up a mountain. It’s there to prevent potential accidents or incidents. I was so excited for this workshop day as I’ve not got a lot of experience with ropes but mainly, I wanted to abseil off a mountain!
All aspects of today’s workshop was new to me. From the knots to the method this was my biggest learning day and I was looking forward to it! I love learning new things and rope work was the top! However, as the day went on my confidence got hit a little bit.
As it was a workshop day, a lot of this was second nature to the other people on the course. So I could since the irritation when I asked the instructors to repeat steps. I could sense my partners impatience when I was trying to remember how to tie the knots. It’s not that I didn’t know what I was doing, it just took me a little longer to do it! When it came to doing an indirect belay, which involved a lot more knots, my partner pissed me off. Asking if what I was to do next was right, he did it for me.
There is nothing worse when you’re trying to learn for someone to become impatient and do things for you. That’s not going to help someone learn, it’s a hindrance.
Being the one of the only women on the course, the workshop day turned into the men making ‘macho’ jokes about whether their crotch looked good enough for a tinder pic in the belay and trying to outdo each other. As a women I didn’t feel comfortable joining in and shied away from butting in to ask for help. All this I could handle, but what I couldn’t was being treated as a child and having things done for me.
Leaving the workshop behind me I went for a walk around the lake to reflect on the day.
I had never experienced discrimination in the outdoors before. Training as a Mountain Leader, I certainly didn’t expect it to raise its ugly head here, but it did. I’m not going to lie, I was upset. Walking around the lake to cool off and get away, taking in the shock of the day. It’s really hard to put it into words. So much of what I experienced wasn’t all in the actions or words themselves. It was portrayed by stares, looks of impatience, slight comments and general mood feels.
I don’t ever want to experience a day like that again. After talking to my partner on the phone and some friends I cooled off, relaxed and my stubbornness kicked in. I was not going to let a group on impatient people ruin the reasons I was here.
My love for the mountains kept me going.
Whooop! We hopped in the cars and our destination, Tryfan. One of the most pointy mountains in Snowdonia, I was so excited to go and explore the north face of this beauty. Today, we were putting all our skills into practice, from navigation to ropes. Still a little shaken from the day before, my day started off quiet. I was a little more withdrawn but thankfully I think Mike sensed it. Instead of charging off with the boys he talked me through what we were doing for the day and just generally talked to me. This was just what I needed, a little confidence boost.
The aim of the day was not to summit, but to practice our skills. But where’s the challenge in that? Heading up the North Face of Tryfan there was a lot of scrambling involved. Where the experienced climbers soared, I was incredibly ungraceful at times trying to get my feet to the same ledge as the boys. The difference was everyone was supporting one another today. Maybe it’s because we weren’t in the safe workshop area, this was real life.
Once we picked our route it was less map and compass work and more general judgement. Depending on the group you have when you become a Mountain Leader will influence the choice of route you take. Remembering that the rope cannot be used to aid someone up a mountain by choice, it’s only there for incident management you can’t rely on it. This was a good skill to remember, what’s comfortable for me might not be for someone else.
We sailed through the route picking and once at a good area we practiced our rope skills. I was anxious, but our instructor today was great. He showed me how to a knot, untied it and made me do it again, this is how you learn!
Rope work finished, we all aimed for the summit. Thankfully our instructor was a summit bagger as well and I was stoked to be standing on the summit of Tryfan!
Navigating back down the mountain through a gully and some uneven scree ground we made it back down and met up with the other group. Meeting back at a cafe for some coffee and scones we ran over the plan for the last two days, our expedition!
Day 5 & 6
Packing up the big expedition backpack, it was time to lose signal and head into the mountains for two days. And classically, this was the day it decided to not just rain, but to pour! Mountain Leader training will take place in rain, hail, snow or shine so there was no complaining allowed. Thankfully, by the time we had packed our bags, met up with the rest of the crew, had a coffee and killed time talking about the days ahead, the rain had died down.
Jumping in the cars we headed out into the wilds. Leaving the cars behind again we split into two groups and headed into the hills. We navigated our way using the maps and the compass, putting all our skills we’ve practiced over the week into use. Climbing higher we got out of the cloud and into clearer skies. It was beautiful once up there and thankfully not as wet.
We all took turns navigating and leading sections of the walk. The instructor would tell one person where to go, they would plan it, have it checked and rest of us would have to follow and then relocate ourselves. This was challenging, but great fun and soon we were close to the campsite for the night. I’m not going to lie, taking off the giant packs was a nice relief and we were all ready for some food!
We pitched our tents near a beautiful lake called the Lake of Dogs or Llynnau’r Cwn. Cooked some good food and as the cloud cover rolled over us, we tucked ourselves into our tents and rested.
10.30pm and back outside we went. Training as a mountain leader means knowing how to navigate in poor or zero viability. I loved this part of our navigation practice. Due to the cloud and the darkness we couldn’t see five steps in front of us. I found navigating, was actually easier!
Stumbling in the dark, it was actually easier to find my way than in daylight!
We were out until around 01.30am and we were all thankful to get out of the wet cloud and into our warm, dry tents. Damp shoes and clothes from the night before definitely did not dry for the next day. But waking up in the mountains, next to a lake made wet boots not an issue.
Our final day on expedition was chilled. We packed up and did a little bit of navigation but mainly, it was time to walk out and I think we were all ready for a warm shower. Using the 1:25000 map on the way back down to see the difference, practicing pacing and basic baring practice it was a good final day. The scenery was incredible, the waterfalls were pumping. It was a great final day of our mountain leader course.
Debriefing with cake and hot chocolate, it was time to head home and put all the skills we had learnt into practice.
So what happens next on the road to becoming a Mountain Leader?
Now it’s time to sharpen my skills and go out and get experience in the mountains all over the UK.
To get into the assessment you must have at least 40 QMD’s (Quality Mountain Days), have experience both wild and campsite camping, expedition trips and good experiencing of leading and navigating routes.
It will take everyone a different amount of time to get to the level you feel ready to do the assessment. I’ve given myself a year before trying my Mountain leader assessment. This gives me enough time to fit mountain and camping trips into my life as well as full-time working.
Whether you want to go on to make a career in the mountains or just want more knowledge, taking a mountain leader course is something i would highly recommend. You’ll learn so many new skills, sharpen up old ones and restore confidence in yourself. It’s certainly not easy, but it’s worth it!
So if anyone is the UK and fancies going hiking, send me a message!