Becoming a Mountain Leader
With each step the frozen snow crunches underfoot breaking the night’s silence. The entire galaxy is twinkling overhead as I pace my 800m leg on the Cairngorm plateau: 100m, 200m… It is a perfect winter’s night and, just when I thought it could not get any better (300m, 400m), our assessor Sam Leary suddenly gets excited. The group looks up from our map, compass and pacing concentration… (500m). The Northern Lights are dancing on the horizon… Wow! No really, WOW!
Oh dear… how many metres had I paced!?
The distinctive whaleback ridge leading to the summit of Schiehallion (1,083m) makes it a popular munro, but it should not be underestimated in winter. Soon after this summit photo was taken (Shane Ohly on the summit), Heather and I helped a disoriented walker, who had lost his way, descend down safely. © Shane Ohly collection
I have always been keen to understand how good practice from other events, and related sports, could be incorporated into the management of my own races organised by Ourea Events. This simple goal started a process that saw me staring in awe at the Northern Lights in March 2016. I was on my Winter Mountain Leader Assessment, but how did I end up here, and more importantly what did I learn along the way?
There is no governing body for the events that I organise, yet often when I am dealing with authorities (like a County Council’s Safety Advisory Group) or an organisation (like an insurer), they ask if we follow the regulations laid down by our National Governing Body. Over the years, I have kept a careful watch on the rules and regulations of organisations like the Fell Running Association, International Orienteering Federation and others, and developed my own good practice guidelines based partly on organisations like these. The next step for me was to look into other related sports: I completed a UK Athletics Race Director’s course (despite having no intention of organising a road race), attended conferences on safety management and looked into the realm of mountaineering who have well established and respected training courses and qualifications.
In the summer of 2014, my wife Heather and I applied for exemptions from the Summer Mountain Leader Training and signed up for an assessment with Climb365 who are based in Cumbria like us. We read the Mountain Leader Handbook, and it all seemed fairly straight forward as both of us have spent most of our lives running, climbing, walking and trekking in the mountains. However, we decided to have a day’s ML ‘refresher’ with Stuart Carter from Climb365 before the assessment and that was the first light bulb moment… there was so much more to the award than the sum of our experience and a read through of the Handbook.
We both passed our Summer Mountain Leader Assessment, and then decided to take diverging paths. Heather opted to start the International Mountain Leader (IML) training scheme as this matched her international trekking experience, and future intentions. I opted to do the Winter Mountain Leader award, because this reflected my previous experience better and had more relevance to my events.
To attend the Winter Mountain Leader training course, I needed a minimum of twenty ‘Quality Mountain Days’ (QMD’s – I was going to become very familiar with this phrase) of Scottish winter walking experience. Naively, I totalled up my easy-to-recall winter climbing, running, backcountry snowboarding and occasional walking days and thought I had around 80. I’d never kept a log of my historical experience so to pull all this tougher, I had simply flicked through old photographs on my computer, knowing that I had missed more days than I was now recording in my DLOG…. “Ah… another Scottish winter day with friends…” that will count!
After five straight days of perfect weather, the only cloud encountered on my WML assessment was this little patch of valley fog as we descended the Fiacaill a' Choire Chais ridge to reach the mini buses in the final minutes of our assessment! The spell of good weather was exceptional, but rest assured our assessors still made it hard. © Shane Ohly collection
At the end of my training course at Glenmore Lodge, Al Halewood, one of the instructors debriefed me and made it clear that he thought I actually had 16 QMD’s not 80+, that the Winter Mountain Leader Award was for hill walking, and that climbing or running days would not count as relevant experience. I’ll be honest, I was annoyed at the time, as I felt my experience was relevant, but respected his no nonsense attitude. In fact, I liked his no nonsense, tell-it-how-it-is approach so much that, when I was looking for a mountaineering expert to challenge our Salomon Glen Coe Skyline™ safety management plans, it was Al Halewood who I turned to.
The training course at Glenmore Lodge was brilliant. The course was lead by Derek Bain with Al Halewood and Al Gilmour assisting. Pre course, I was confident that I knew what I was doing… I’d read the Winter Mountain Leader handbook after all, and had twenty plus years of experience… Very quickly though I was challenged and the learning begun. Briefly, I took away three key observations:
- That being a skilled winter climber and record breaking winter runner actually had little to do with being a decent Mountain Leader for a group of novice walkers.
- That most novices learn by copying you, and that meant, as Derek kept reminding us, that we needed “to be a perfect example of textbook winter skills”. Like many climbers, being self taught, meant I was not!
- That my avalanche knowledge, whilst not incorrect, was significantly less comprehensive than I thought. Basically, I was overestimating my skill at predicting avalanche risk. Discovering this alone, was worth every penny of the course.
Al Halewood’s advice for me if I wanted to proceed to an assessment was clear, “You can clearly navigate, and your personal skills are ok although not textbook, but you need to go walking…lots!”
And so for the winter of 2015/16, I have mainly been walking in Scotland adding to my QMD tally. The criteria for a QMD is actually quite rigid and at the beginning of the season I took the, “winter quality mountain days are likely to be strenuous and reasonably demanding” criteria for a QMD too literally and started the season by completing a 90km, 3-day, winter camping expedition in the hills around Ben Alder. I loved it, but my partner for that particular adventure had been my winning OMM partner, Duncan Archer, so arduous for us, was off the scale for a novice walker.
Duncan Archer on the summit of Beinn Eunaich (989m). As the winter progressed I got into the habit of starting late (often late afternoon), for my ‘day’ of winter walking, as I found practising navigation in the daylight too simple. This was one of those occasions, as Duncan and I embarked on a mini two-day expedition on the Munros around Ben Cruachan. © Shane Ohly Collection
It was clear to me that my two weakness where a lack of empathy for just how challenging novice walkers find the winter environment, and a tendency to be over-confident about my own skills.
The incident that best illustrated my over-confidence happened late at night whilst descending Beinn Chochuill, again with Duncan. I was navigating and needed to execute a little dog leg around some cliffs. It was dark and we were glissading on steep ground.
Wait one second. Let’s just recap.
I am descending a mountain I don’t know, on ground steep enough to require a dog leg, steep enough to glissade and I am ‘pacing’ the leg whilst following a bearing and sliding on my heels… That’s what I mean about over-confidence. Predictably, I slid onto some hard névé, and my previously controlled glissade, become a sat-on-my-arse, out-of-control, slide into the darkness below in a split second. I’m slow to initiate an ice axe arrest because I have a map and compass in one hand. Then I make a snap decision not to arrest but push back up onto my feet and crash stop into a boulder protruding through the snow. CRUNCH! I come to a jarring halt. I am embarrassed, and know I’ve been reckless. Duncan follows down more carefully and we both know I could have had a serious accident. We put our crampons on!
It’s a great example of my personal skills being sharp enough that I improvised, and brought my slide to a stop, albeit in a rather unorthodox way. It is also a good example of how numerous poor decisions had led to that moment. Why on earth weren’t we moving carefully with our crampons on to start with?
What might be ok for me (night-glissading-navigation), and another equally experienced and skilled friend, is far, far different to how I should be leading a group of novice winter walkers. By the end of the winter, I really understood why those 40 QMD’s are required before assessment and that there was no substitute for the build up of experience of winter walking, especially with groups. The famous Mark Twain quote about judgement and experience sums it up, “Good judgement is the result of experience, and experience the result of bad judgement”.
Fortunately, soon after that little incident, I had the opportunity to work with Graham Uney, the Helvellyn Fell Top Assessor, on one of his winter skills courses. I was seriously impressed with how Graham structured the day, the careful and incremental learning, all delivered with a great sense of enthusiasm and confidence. Boy, I had a lot to learn still.
In the past, I might have run past an instructor like Graham with his novice group of walkers, and had little regard for how a great instructor can make that group’s day incredibly memorable, fulfilling and safe. I have found it too easy to be dismissive of novices, and if I am honest, I have had little understand of how an instructor’s experience and style can contribute to a brilliant day of adventure and learning. I’m starting to get it now, and I have much more empathy for less experienced folks in the hills.
Relocate! Sam Leary, our principle WML assessor explained at the beginning of the expedition that because the weather was perfect, there would be no leniency given for any navigational errors or hesitation. It needed to be perfect, first time, every time, or we would be deferred or failed. No pressure then! Here the assessment group relocates again watched by Sam on the right in the funky trousers. © Shane Ohly Collection.
It’s the first day of my winter assessment and I feel nervous. As a group we take it in turns to demonstrate appropriate winter skills training for a hypothetical novice group. Annie is in my assessment group, and she is confidently demonstrating perfect boot and axe skills for moving up a slope, “Axe boot boot, axe boot boot” she says aloud as she moves in time. It’s great to see, and reminds me of Graham Uney’s textbook demonstrations of winter skills. In comparison I feel self-conscious as I am put through my paces, and I struggle to make the leap from what I have intuitively learnt and what is textbook technique.
Keith is also being assessed. He’s an ex Army Captain and has that confident authority and natural sense of group welfare that I know I need to be mindful of. Our main assessor, Sam, explains that it is good to have an ex solider in the group, because they can always walk in straight lines and dig efficient holes! She’s right, Keith’s emergency shelter is a masterpiece of engineering completed in half the time of the rest of the group.
I sit nervously in Glenmore Lodge waiting for the results of the assessment on Friday afternoon. I am last in from the group of eight being assessed to get my results. So far, more have failed than passed. I walk into the meeting room to be greeted by Giles Trussell, the Course Director and Sam who has been my principle assessor for the week. There are broad smiles and they offer to shake my hand, and Giles says “Well done, you have passed”.
Phew! I am genuinely relieved, pleased and proud. I get some feedback that they describe as ‘polishing’ but it is accurate and fair, and I have no complaints about their assessment of me.
Completing the Summer and Winter Mountain Leader awards has provided limited good practice learning that is directly relevant to my events, but it has been a superb personal development journey for me that I believe has, and will continue to make me a more rounded, safer and knowledgeable mountain professional. Don’t misunderstand me though, becoming a better mountain professional will have a subtle but long lasting and beneficial effect on the management of my events.
I also have a new understanding of the Mountain Training Award schemes, and a greater respect for them. They are practitioner’s awards and there is no getting away from the fact that those QMD’s are hard to earn, but build a solid foundation for everything that follows. I would not hesitate to recommend becoming a Mountain Leader.