For 2 years, I worked in one of the most boring office jobs imaginable. My colleagues were nice, but, not exactly social. I would be lucky to get a hello out of them most days. As the months passed, my work load reduced as the company faced difficulties and I found myself with hours and hours to kill, everyday, with nothing but my laptop to keep me occupied. Google soon became my best friend. I read books online, checked my social media accounts way too often and, mostly, searched the web. I soon got into the habit of checking out really cool jobs, the sort of work I wished I was doing instead of sat bored in an office cubical. Anything that was outdoors and adventurous. One required qualification kept cropping up with all these jobs. Passing Mountain Leader (Summer) Award.

I did some research into the qualification and what was involved with passing Mountain Leader Award. Like most things that I dreamed of doing, I felt like it was beyond me. My experience wasn’t varied enough. My skills were not good enough. I wasn’t strong enough or fit enough.

After way too long letting myself hold me back, I signed up to the training week, the first stage of getting the qualification. I was nervous, although I needn’t have been. The training is exactly that – training. Everyone in the group (out of 6) had different experience levels and different strengths and weaknesses. I learnt loads and, by the end, was determined to follow the qualification all the way through to the end. Nothing was going to stop me.

Mountain Leader Compass

I went away and, over the course of a year, obtained a further 20 quality mountain days (the assessment requires you to have a total of 40). These practice days in the mountains were a lot more ‘quality’ now that my skills had been enhanced and I knew what I needed to practice for the qualification. I did my Outdoor First Aid Qualification, another requirement, and read through the syllabus book back to front.

Heading into the assessment, I felt nerves that I hadn’t experienced since doing my driving test 10 years ago. The pressure of being observed and staying focused at all times was horrible. Keeping this up for 5 days was nothing short of exhausting, even the fittest, most experienced in our group was feeling the fatigue after a couple of days. Being tested when sleep deprived, tired and pressured is all part of it though.

Not everything went smoothly and, as I headed back to the centre after our 2 night expedition, I wasn’t certain what the outcome would be. At that stage I didn’t even mind, I was just relieved that it was over and proud that I had completed the assessment and given it my best shot.

I passed. I can’t tell you how great that felt!

(If you still haven’t done your training ML week yet, I would suggest starting with this article I wrote about the Mountain Leader Training week and what to expect)

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What to expect on your assessment week

My assessment took place over 5 days, although the last day we were finished by 10am, so really it was only 4. On our first morning we were given a talk about what to expect and were put into groups of 4 with an assessor each. We then set out in our groups for a day of hiking. A leader is selected from our group and, in secret, is given a point on their map to navigate to. They work out a strategy then, when they are ready, give any information that they think is needed to the group before setting off. When that person has reached what they think is the point, they tell the assessor who will then ask everyone else to relocate. You will then need to look at the map and pinpoint exactly where you think you are (one at a time, also in secret). The assessor won’t tell you if you are right or wrong and you will not find out until the end of the day when you do a review.

A new leader is selected and the process is repeated. Some sections were really long, some were short, some were easy and some were hard. None of the places I had to navigate to were on a path – they involved various features but usually just a counter ring, an unusual contour shape or a section that flattened out or suddenly went steep.

On average, I probably led about 3 or 4 sections a day, although I found relocating harder as navigating is easier if you know where you are going!! While you are leading, we were expected to demonstrate our group management techniques (checking people had the right supplies and that we didn’t loose anybody, as well as group management in steep ground). You were expected to use your initiative to stop and demonstrate your flora and fauna knowledge if you see something you recognise. At various points over the week, we would stop to do the 5 minute presentations or to practice rope work or to discuss various topics such as river crossings – the assessor will decide when to do these and allocate who needs to lead the discussion.

The first day was relatively easy, with short sections to navigate. The second day focused mostly on management in steep ground. The third, we had a new assessor. We had to pack for a 2 night expedition and show what we had packed. The navigation become noticeably tougher on the third and fourth day and I felt that there was less scope for errors. On the first night, we went out for about 3/4 hours of night navigation. A couple of members in my group made a lot of mistakes while doing night nav, so we also went out again for a second night. It was an opportunity to rectify mistakes – you do get second chances! From what I have heard, this isn’t uncommon.

The final morning, we packed up and walked straight off the mountain. There was no further assessment this day.

Back at the centre, the assessors gathered all their information and, after a couple of hours wait, we were called in 1 by 1 and given the verdict. Out of 12 people, 7 passed. 1 outright failed and the remaining 4 were deferred on 1 element (navigation, night nav or rope work) and were told to return to be reassessed on this category alone.

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Tips for passing Mountain Leader Award

Get fit: being in good shape will help you feel more confident and keep you focused on the navigation, rather than on keeping up with the group.

Pack early: pack at least 2 days before and repack the day before to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. It will also make sure you know exactly where to find everything, making your performance smoother.

Test everything: Don’t try out equipment for the first time on the assessment.

Take spares: A head torch and compass are arguably the most important items you will need for the assessment so take a spare of each. You are also expected to pack as you would a leader meaning you will need to take spare warm clothing and food (on top of your own supplies). At my centre we were able to hire ropes and group shelters but check this out beforehand if you don’t already have your own.

Use the same provider: I did my training with Plas Y Brenin (I had a great experience with them). Doing your assessment with the same provider will make you more confident going into it. You will know the set up and expectations.

Don’t stress over Quality Mountain Days (QMD): Everyone has a different opinion as to what constituted as a QMD. I kept being told; this does’t count and that doesn’t count. I also kept hearing ‘you need at least 80 QMDs to pass the assessment’. Ignore it all!! The awarding body set out what a QMD is and, as long as you are confident that it ticks the guidelines, then it counts. As for needing more days – if that was the case then the minimum days would be set higher! In an ideal world you would have more experience but maybe, like me, you live far away from mountains or don’t have the time or money to do more than the required amount. I had 42 QMD’s and I passed (I should also say that there was a guy in my group with over 150 QMD’s who outright failed). QMDs are not a reflection of your skills so don’t stress over them and don’t compare your log to others.

Know the syllabus: Buy the official Hill Walking guide book. Read it back to front so you are familiar with all that you are expected to know. Although a lot of it didn’t come up in the assessment, being able to give confident, text book answers when I was questioned made me look like a pro.

Really listen in the reviews: At the end of each day, I had a review with the assessor to discuss how it went and to talk about strengths and weaknesses. Possibly the most important information you will get from the week! Think about what they say you need to improve on and put a strategy in place so that you don’t make the same mistakes again the next day. They are looking for improvements.

Learn a bit of flora and fauna: I neglected this section of the syllabus and only learnt to recognise about 12 species. Although I didn’t fail on this (and I’m not sure you will fail in this department alone) you are expected to know more than the average hiker and it is part of demonstrating your all round abilities. Don’t just stick to learning about plants, find out a bit about the land and animals that you see in the mountains.

Don’t be shy about repeating yourself: I had a complete show off in my group who reeled off a ton of information on flora and fauna, not letting anyone else get a word in edgeways. Although I was repeating some of what had already been pointed out, when it was my turn to lead, I still showed off the knowledge I had. When you are leading, it is your time to shine!

Navigation is the glue: Although there are lots of different elements to passing Mountain Leader Award, almost all of it comes down to navigation. Practice as much as you can. The most useful skill you will learn is being able to relocate using just contour lines. Challenge yourself when you go out hiking, get yourself lost and learn how to read the land around you using just contour shapes and features. Learn this and you can navigate in almost any situation (except at night).

Memorise pacing and timing: Know your pacing and timings off by heart. Knowing different variations, eg. 100m, 500m, 1000m, without having to calculate it, will save you a lot of time and prevent mistakes. These micro navigation skills are essential when you are doing night nav. I also added a little card with these figures on to my compass, along with clips to use as an aid when passing. Both were hugely helpful.

Use what you have around you: sometimes you can get so caught up in timing or pacing or back tracking a route you took, that you can forget to look at what information you have in front of you. Put the map down for a second when you are relocating and look around you. This is especially true for night navigation. Take a look, notice any features, are you on a slope, is there a drop nearby? All this information will help either confirm or challenge where you think you are.

Strategy is key: When you are leading a section for navigation, have a strategy. Know what features you will follow, how long it will take, have tick of features and CRUCIALLY a catch feature (to know you have gone too far). Have all this knowledge in your head before setting off. Doing this will decrease your chances of going wrong massively and, if you do go too far, you will be able to demonstrate how good you are by noticing it and smoothly correcting yourself.

Be sure of your decisions: when you tell the assessor where you think you are, say so confidently. Sometimes they will ask probing questions about how you came to that decision or even ‘are you sure?’. This can really make you doubt yourself and it is meant to. Be sure of your answer and your reasons for coming to that conclusion.

Be pedantic with accuracy: when you relocate, be as accurate as you can marking the location you think you are at to the nearest metre.

Don’t panic: everyone in my group had at least 1 time when they got into a mess and couldn’t work out where they were. It happens to everyone. If/when it happens, take a breather and start thinking logically. Use all the information you have to make the best, most supported guess you can if you are really stuck. If you realise you have made a mistake after you have relocated or later on down the line, return to the assessor and tell them.

Be flawless with your rope work: find a rope and practice all the knots and procedures of rope work in the syllabus. Making a stupid mistake here is an easy way to get deferred as someone in my group found out the hardest way! They failed because the anchor they used for belaying wasn’t ‘bomb proof’…such an easy avoidable mistake. When you pick an anchor, make sure it is solid and the right shape and size – give it a hefty kick and pull from all angles to check it doesn’t move.

Be a good team mate: I had 2 unfortunate members in my group who seemed to have a problem taking instructions from a woman. They kept ignoring what I was asking them to do, something that they didn’t do for anyone else. It really knocked my confidence and made the assessment twice as hard for me. Despite their behaviour, I still went out of my way to be supportive and helpful when it was their chance to lead. At the end of the week, the assessor told me he had noted their behaviour and commended me on my ability to be a good team player regardless. No one can be a good leader before learning to be a good team player!

A year was a good time for me: leaving a year between the training and assessment was the perfect amount of time. What I learnt in training was still relatively fresh in my mind, while it also gave me enough time to practice and develop my skills.

Making mistakes is not a problem: I made quite a few. What the assessors are looking for is that you are self reflective, you notice your mistake and, most importantly, that you LEARN from them. If you keep making the same mistakes over and over again then you really need to reassess what you are doing and change your strategy. The assessor is also looking at the overall picture and how you generally perform over the whole week so occasional hiccups are not only ok, but are to be expected.

Be self critical: as an extension of my point above, taking criticism and learning on it is vital. The best mountain leader will know their weaknesses and how to manage them. If the assessor asks you to review your performance, they are looking for your ability to recognise your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Take some time to think about this before going into the assessment.

Think logically with group management: group management can feel a bit weird as you are effectively practicing it with a group of experts. Be confident though and don’t worry about being patronising – the assessor needs to see that, with a group of novices, you will be able to deliver the right information and to look after them. In steep ground, pause before a tricky section. Work out the most dangerous part, with the worst consequences if someone were to fall, and position yourself there so that you can provide the support needed while not endangering yourself. It all comes down to consequences.

Don’t measure against others: One of the best pieces of advice that my assessor gave me was that to pass the assessment, you only need to cross the bar that has been set for the qualifications. Most likely you will end up with someone amazing in your group who seems to know and do everything with ease. Don’t measure yourself against them. The assessor isn’t. They are looking at the syllabus and marking their expectations against that. You only need to cross that pass line.

Practice with different maps: on the assessment you will use both 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 maps. I neglected the latter while practising which threw me a bit in the assessment.

Do the paper and presentation way in advance: as part of the assessment, you have to come with a completed paper (which is emailed to you when you book) and a 5 minute presentation on a related subject of your choice. I chose to do my talk on Cuckoos Spit and the creatures that live inside them. The paper took a surprising amount of time to research and complete. Do these both way in advance so you don’t have to worry about them during the week before the assessment.

Expect to learn loads: coming into the assessment you aren’t expected to be an expert at everything. The assessment is a great opportunity to continue your learning. Ask questions and take knowledge from others in your group. As well as building on your skills, it will show a willingness to continue developing as a leader.

Enjoy yourself! The assessors are looking for people who actually enjoy being in the mountains and who will inspire others. Although you should take the assessment seriously, when it is appropriate, it is fine to joke get to know your team and to take a moment to actually enjoy hiking with like minded people.

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Got a question that I haven’t answered about passing Mountain Leader award? Leave a message in the comments below and I will get back to you. If you are in the process of working towards your Mountain Leader – good luck!!