What to expect on mountain leader training
You’ve probably ended up on this page if you’re thinking about signing up for the mountain leader training course. Perhaps you’re a little nervous about committing and want to feel more confident about what to expect. While you can (and should) start with Mountain Training’s website to find out more, it’s always nice to hear a first hand account from someone who’s recently experienced what it’s like to attend a mountain leader training course.
It’s only training
A lot of people put off signing up for the more formal elements of mountain leader training thinking they won’t be good enough. I was probably guilty of this too, and had images of turning up on day one to find elite mountaineers swapping stories of gnarly first ascents. That’s not what it’s about at all. The training course is just that – training. You aren’t expected to have been everywhere and know everything. Whatever your level of experience, I guarantee you will still come home with your head crammed full of new information.
Before you sign up to a mountain leader training course, make sure you have met the requirements set out by Mountain Training. You’ll find information about the various hoops you need to jump through on their website.
In short, you’ll be asked to join a Mountaineering Council (BMC, Mountaineering Scotland or Mountaineering Ireland), sign up with Mountain Training, pay your registration fee (£49) and log your hillwalking experience in the form of Quality Mountain Days (QMDs).
Before booking a course, you’ll need to complete and log at least 20 QMDs in DLOG (the digital logbook you’ll be given access to when you enrol with Mountain Training). QMDs can be from any time before or after you register with Mountain Training, although do make sure some of them are recent to ensure your skills are current.
Don’t try to take shortcuts on this part. While you aren’t expected to be an expert on the training course, you are expected to have done some hillwalking. You’ll find it much easier to keep up if you aren’t having to concentrate on the basics.
But equally, don’t stress too much about it. Log all of your experience and become familiar with Mountain Training’s definition of a QMD. See it as an opportunity to enjoy spending time in the mountains you’d ultimately like to call your office. Learn what does and doesn’t work for you in terms of kit. Get comfortable with your map and compass. Practise moving efficiently through the landscape come rain or shine.
A lot of people have asked how fit you need to be to complete the training course. Remember, this isn’t an audition for SAS: Who Dares Wins. Yes you’ll have some long days on the hill but you aren’t there for a beasting. We didn’t cover huge distances on the course and stopped regularly, but we were out all day. Think of it less as a fitness test and instead as moving through one big outdoor classroom.
Of course, it helps if you have a decent level of hill fitness, so you can focus on the course content, not on getting your breath back. You don’t need to do anything special to get fit; regular QMDs in the run up to the course should be enough for most people.
There are lots of quality providers out there, so choosing who to go with can be tricky. If you don’t have a personal recommendation, then pick a mountainous area you’d like to spend six days in and narrow your search from there. Check out the different providers’ websites, see if they have a social media presence and assess whether you like their style.
Most providers will offer their course over six consecutive days but some split it over two weekends. This is what I did and it can be helpful if you have other commitments. It’s also quite nice to have a break halfway through – the course can be pretty exhausting with all the new things you’ll be learning.
If this were your assessment, you’d of course be expected to know exactly what a mountain leader should be carrying.
For the training, your course provider will likely issue a list of recommended kit when you sign up, so be guided by that. If you are doing regular QMDs, chances are you’ll have already accumulated a decent amount of personal hillwalking kit by default. But you might not have things like a rope, group shelter or group first aid kit. Don’t worry if you don’t have everything at this stage; check with your course leader beforehand if you are able to borrow any missing items.
You should also take the opportunity to look at what others on the course are using. You’ll have a group of likeminded people to geek out about kit with and you’ll get some honest reviews about what works well.
Equally, just because it’s training doesn’t mean you can’t start acting like a leader now, so pack as if you are in charge of the group and don’t be tempted to leave important kit behind.
I stayed at a quiet campsite nearby, which meant I could chill out, write up my notes and sort out my kit for the next day.
Some courses will offer accommodation as part of the training package but not all do. While I can see the appeal of a group staying together and bonding outside the formal teaching hours of the course, I personally enjoyed having some downtime in the evenings (even though I had an awesome group)! Ultimately, it’s down to personal preference.
You can ease any pre-course worries by reading the candidate handbook, which is available to download for free from Mountain Training. Print this off, leave it somewhere you’ll read it and refer back to it regularly.
I can also recommend getting hold of ‘Hillwalking by Steve Long’. Otherwise known as the ‘Mountain Leader bible’, it’s a fantastic book covering the theory of the course in a highly accessible manner.
I was glad to have read these before attending the course. It put the learning into context and helped with knowing what to expect.
Every course provider will have their own preferred way of dealing with the different elements of the syllabus on any given day of the course. Unknown factors, such as the weather, group dynamics and individual requirements might also lead to some flexibility in the programme as your training progresses.
On my course, we spent the first four days doing a mixture of classroom and practical learning outdoors, with the final two days being an overnight expedition. With so much to cover, you can expect some packed days but they flew by and there was still plenty of time to consolidate in the evenings.
With Covid, none of our sessions were inside. The mountains were our classroom. This did mean quite a bit of sitting around for ‘lessons’, so it’s important to have enough warm clothing, particularly if it’s peeing it down. We were generally quite lucky with the weather, the heat being the biggest challenge for most of the week. But it’s amazing how chilly you can get sitting on the ground.
The structure of mixing the more formal classroom pieces with periods of walking and navigating works well. It breaks up the day, allowing you to process information between sessions.
After the obligatory introductions, we talked about the stages of the mountain leader qualification before delving through the contents of a leader’s rucksack. Then we headed out for a walk, jumping straight into some basic navigation, gradually adding elements of complexity as the day went on. We had regular breaks to discuss access rights, conservation, flora and fauna and some practicalities of managing a group.
Today was great fun, learning all about rope work. We started by discussing the weather before navigating our way to some rocky outcrops. Here we set up camp for much of the day, learning when, why and how a mountain leader might need to use a rope. There was plenty of opportunity to practise belaying our ‘clients’ over rocky ground, before abseiling ourselves down.
The weather was pretty soggy in the morning but it brightened up for some micro-navigation later in the afternoon. I’ve always relied on much vaguer navigation techniques so I found this a real eye-opener in terms of how accurate you can actually be with the right map and compass skills.
A QMD in the Helvellyn area was on the cards today, with a change of instructor too. As well as learning more about what makes a QMD, we spent lots of time discussing leadership strategies and group management, steep ground work, the weather, environment and, of course, more nav!
Thunderstorms were forecast, and we had to beat a hasty retreat as the skies darkened when we were on higher ground.
Today really showcased what’s possible with the qualification, discovering ‘secret’ ways up one of the more popular fells in the Lake District. I started to appreciate that being in the mountains is so much more than racing up and down to a summit.
Another outdoor classroom day, interspersed with navigation using different scales of maps. After looking at some useful books to add to our libraries, we considered interpreting the weather from synoptic charts, map symbols, more steep ground work (with and without the rope), working as an ML and the different organisations and acronyms we might come across. We finished a little earlier, after talking about expedition kit, to allow for any last minute shopping trips!
A slightly later start for our two-day expedition in stifling conditions. The heat was a real challenge with heavy packs and little shade. It might not happen too often in the UK mountains but when the sun comes out you need to know how to manage it for you and your group!
As well as the obligatory nav work, we looked at emergency procedures, the digital logbook and took advantage of the crystal clear visibility for a quiz on the surrounding summits. After looking at responsible camp craft and setting up our canvas homes for the evening, there was time to relax before heading out for a few hours of night navigation. I loved this part of the course; it felt hugely rewarding navigating to tiny contour features in the dark and it was a privilege to experience the solitude of the mountains in a different guise.
It was also the most tiring day physically. A full day on the hill with expedition packs in the heat, before heading out again at 10pm is tough going. But it’s important to know you can operate effectively when you are tired and a little grumpy! We were back in our tents at 1am, with all of us asleep the instant our heads touched the pillow.
A combination of the heat and last day excitement meant we were up and out of our sleeping bags cooking breakfast around 6am. After leaving no trace, we looked at route planning and searches before more steep ground work and river crossings. Nav also featured quite heavily, as you might imagine! After a debrief, we were free to go, new friends made and eager to consolidate everything we’d learnt.
I cannot speak highly enough of the course but also the course provider, Graham Uney Mountaineering. Graham and his partner Sharon are hugely inspiring people and I found myself in awe of their collective experience, wisdom, patience and style of delivery. Almost every step was a learning opportunity and they broke even the most complex topics down into simple steps. The days flew by and I was mentally exhausted every evening – top tip, take a notebook to scribble things down at the end of the day.
For me, the training course not only confirmed my reasons for wanting to become a qualified mountain leader but also identified areas I can work on during the consolidation period. I was surprised at the number of subtle nuances of leading a group there are and it was these little nuggets that I found particularly valuable.
Any worries I had about what the rest of the group would be like proved to be unfounded: they were all top people with unique strengths to be inspired by. Although we all had different reasons for doing the course, there’s always a common bond among those who worship at the feet of the mountains. I came away with five new mates and the WhatsApp group is already buzzing with ideas and inspiration for QMDs and the next stage of learning.
Completing the course has elevated my confidence in the hills to new heights. It’s made me appreciate what’s possible in the mountains and hungrier than ever to help others to experience that same joy I get from a day outdoors.
So, if you are thinking about the mountain leader training course but keep putting it off for whatever reason, my advice is just to get it booked. You won’t regret it. And even if you decide not to pursue the ML qualification any further, the course in itself will make you a more competent hillwalker.
If you have any questions about the mountain leader training course, feel free to get in touch and I’ll do my best to answer!