A step up in mountain skills

Six days in the Highland mountains without rain or midges is somewhat unprecedented but that was the card we were dealt as I joined a week-long training course for the Mountain Leader qualification.

It made the challenge of practising bad weather navigation that bit trickier but we weren’t complaining!

The ML, or summer ML, as it is often referred to, is a leadership award that allows people to take groups in the hills and mountains of the UK and Ireland.

Participants must have good experience even before taking part in the training course, which is followed by a lengthy consolidation period before a five-day assessment course. It’s not for the feint-hearted!

Our group of 12, led by Sandy Paterson and Dave Chapman of Scotch on the Rocks Guiding, were strangers when we met at the Kinlocheil Outdoor Centre in Lochaber the night before the course began.

That was soon to change as we spent six days learning and sharing our experiences together from Glen Coe and Glen Nevis to our two-day expedition on Creag Meagaidh.

Most of us were there thanks to High Life Highland because we are helping youngsters get involved in the outdoors, as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award or through the Scouts, but it is possible to use the qualification to take groups out commercially as well.

The course involves a range of subject matters, from weather to negotiating steep terrain and river crossings, knowledge of flora and fauna to navigating in foul conditions. It’s fair to say it’s a varied award and now that I’ve completed the training week there is plenty more to think about and put into practice.

We began the week with a look at the ML award before getting out and about to do some basic navigation and look at group management, as well as talking about the mountain environment. We enjoyed an outing in the low hills above Fort William, getting to know each other as well as the remit of the course better.

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Our second day was spent in Glen Nevis, climbing the steep south-west ridge of Meall Cumhann as we worked on steep ground hazards, involving some straightforward scrambling. Sandy had a game for our group as we were asked to wander around the crags with two rocks balancing on the back of our hands, trying not to let them fall.

We also had a chat about maps – one of my favourite subjects! My ever-growing map collection is something most libraries would be envious of, so I was happy to talk about the benefits of certain maps over others.

But we had to make the descent to Glen Nevis before the day was out so we went via the Steall Bridge, where some of us had a go at crossing the wire bridge over the river and others took advantage of the hot spell by going for a swim.

Another day was spent on Buachaille Etive Mor in Glen Coe, working on emergency procedures and use of the rope. The Mountain Leader award does not include planned use of a rope so this is purely a piece of emergency kit rather than for any climbing.

Using relatively thin walking ropes for harness-free abseiling makes you realise why you really don’t want to end up having to use them this way, anyway!

We also had to look at the possibilities – and the limits – of lifting and carrying people in an emergency on the hill. Again, this showed that it isn’t an easy option and emphasised how important other aspects of leadership are when out in the hills.

After practising various ways of crossing rivers safely – which also needed a bit of imagination after the recent long, dry spell – and some classroom-based learning, we were ready for our expedition.

Our route took us up three Munros – all new ones for me – starting with Carn Liath. We would take it in turns to lead and navigate sections, which was easy enough in these glorious conditions but we would have to be able to do this whatever the weather in our assessment, so we focused on contours rather than other features.

After ascending Stob Poite Coire Ardair, the second Munro, and dropping to our camp below Creag Meagaidh itself, we managed a meal and a few hours’ rest before Sandy had us out of bed for some night navigation.

Even in these good conditions, the senses are heightened at night, so you really felt a responsibility on your leg of the route, walking on a bearing and counting paces to measure the distance.

The next day he warned us that on assessment we might face three or four hours of this intense activity – a real mental as well as physical challenge.

Our final day had us navigating again to the top of Creag Meagaidh before identifying features on the way back down, after which we had our course debriefing and went our separate ways.

I’d heard people say before that the training week itself is worthwhile for sharpening up hill skills and, after my experience, I totally agree. It’s made me focus on improving my navigation further as well as heightening my awareness of the environment and weather conditions, not to mention emergency procedures and group management skills.

There’s still plenty to digest but one thing is for certain – I’ll be getting out in the mountains lots more in the next wee while as I work towards gaining my Mountain Leader award.

More details

About the Mountain Leader qualification: www.mountain-training.org/walking/skills-and-awards/mountain-leader
Scotch on the Rocks Guiding: www.sotrg.co.uk
High Life Highland Outdoor Activities: www.highlifehighland.com/outdoor-activities
Duke of Edinburgh Award: www.dofe.org

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