Mountain Leader assessment week in the Cairngorms

It’s pitch black, windy and pouring with rain, and we’re at 1150m above sea level wandering through thick cloud on the inhospitable Cairngorms plateau.

I can barely see as far as my map and compass, let alone the ground we’re navigating over. My gloved hand reaches out and wipes the water from the map case – again – before doing the same to the compass, rubbing the condensation off its underside too, so I can see through the baseplate to the contours below when I place it on the map.

These conditions seem designed to trick you; they disorientate and confuse. There’s apparently nothing to be seen, no clues to help you. But that’s where the navigation comes in – we know where we started, our direction of travel and an approximate distance, as well as the ups and downs of our walk so far. It’s all vital information in the mountains, especially in these conditions.

Night navigation is all part of the requirement for becoming a Mountain Leader. In fact, you might say it’s the crux of the award – being able to get your group safely off the hill in the worst conditions.

Our five-day assessment course may have been clear and sunny at times, but at this key juncture it was anything but. Hitting some unexpected water on my leg, the confusion nearly got the better of me, but I calmed down and went back to the limited information I had. According to my planned strategy, it was another 50m or so before turning on a new bearing to head down a short way to the top of a spur.

The terrain up here, below the second highest mountain in the UK, Ben Macdui, is bouldery and complex. As we descended through the rocks, I decided we must already be on the spur now, so headed back up a few metres to what I thought was the right destination.

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I wasn’t as confident as I would have liked to have been at this point, but afterwards, as I followed a fellow group member on their leg, counting steps and lining up with their bearing, we hit the expected burn at exactly the right distance. I must have been near enough on my marker, and my confidence returned as we made our way, step by step, back to our overnight camp beside the Feith Buidhe, high on the plateau.

The well-used hip flask Rhona had packed was suitable reward and refreshment after the pressure of an assessed night nav exercise. We drank a little as we compared notes, before sinking into our sleeping bags and listening to the rain and wind battering the tents.

The course director, Sandy Paterson, who runs the aptly named company Scotch on the Rocks Guiding, had explained at the start of the week that the Mountain Leader award is not a navigation award.

As I’ve learned and practised over the last year and a bit, there is a whole host of knowledge and experience required to gain this qualification, from flora and fauna to weather and the history of mountaineering, access and land use, wild camping and, perhaps most importantly, leadership and group management.

The ability to navigate in all conditions, however, is essential, and you need to be able to do it while taking all of the above into account. So much of our five days was taken up using the map. When the cloud cleared, Ian Stewart – my group’s assessor on the expedition part of the week – made our target destinations trickier, finding minor contour details that really focus your mind on the shape of the land.

We also had talks to share on the hill, routes to plan in advance and discuss with the assessors, wildlife and flowers to identify and share stories of, and questions to answer along the way.

Earlier in the week we looked at steep ground and hazard management, guiding our group up and down the rocky fiacaill ridge above Coire an t-Sneachda using various techniques to assist the group and share our knowledge of good practice.

On the ridge it was time to demonstrate our emergency rope work, setting up a belay using a sound anchor and lowering Sandy down a steep crag. We also did confidence roping, used to help nervous group members get down steep or loose terrain safely.

The next day we looked at other hazards, including water, which involved numerous burn crossings – usually on my navigation legs, it seemed – and river crossings. We were also given a number of emergency scenarios to see how we would deal with them in the mountains.

After a week in the hills, more than a year putting into practice what we’d learned in the six-day training event last summer and a lifetime of walking in the hills, I can safely say the experience of doing the Mountain Leader award has been a thoroughly rewarding one and has made me a more competent and confident hill walker.

I’m looking forward to sharing these skills with others who can also gain so much from the experience of treading in our high mountains and learning more about the land we call home.

More details

The Mountain Leader qualification is run by Mountain Training and support is available through the Mountain Training Association. For more information on the award, see

For details of training and other courses by Scotch on the Rocks Guiding, visit

Ian Stewart runs Stewart Mountain Skills – – and Trail Running Scotland –

2 thoughts on “Mountain Leader assessment week in the Cairngorms

  • August 31, 2019 at 11:24

    Well done our John, I hope you feel as proud as I do of your achievement. This sounded tough but eventually, rewarding. So glad you enjoy the mountains as much as I do. I’m looking forward to hitting the smaller hills of the Lake District this winter, once again with Richard and George. I will be in touch with you after the Great North Run!!! Dad

  • August 28, 2019 at 21:07

    Well done John. Sounds hard work, but valuable learning. Next time you guys are in the Borders we should do a (short) walk with the kids, maybe the Cheviots or Eildons. 🙂

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