Passing the Summer Mountain Leader course was one of the best moments of my adult life. It was something I really believed was out of reach for me as someone who started the process with little experience and very little confidence in my own abilities.
ML has been great to boosting that confidence as well as opening up a world of opportunities career-wise.
If you are new to this blog, I’m Bex Band – a full-time UK adventurer (follow me on Facebook and Instagram). My first big adventure was in 2016 when I hiked the length of Israel. I decided to do Summer Mountain Leader training as a way to get prepared for this adventure but once I’d done the training I decided I couldn’t stop there. One of the best decisions I ever made!
Shortly after finishing the Israel hike, I founded Love Her Wild, and through that platform began organising and leading my own expeditions all over the world (I even wrote a published book about my adventure and how it changed my life called Three Stripes South!). I didn’t specifically have this in mind when I started out on my Mountain Leader award, but having the qualification meant I was able to grab opportunities like this when they presented themselves.
The course is designed to equip you for being a Summer Mountain Leader guide in the UK in summer conditions. Although most companies and insurers accept this as a good general qualification for leading overseas (as long as it’s not in restricted areas like the Alps who require different qualifications).
ML has been crucial in growing my career as an adventurer – sharing my journey via this blog and as a speaker – and also in growing the Love Her Wild community which has now taken over 1,000 women on adventures.
If you have any questions, please do use the comments box below. And for ongoing tips and inspiration on camping and adventure, make sure you follow me on Facebook and Instagram.
You might also be interested in reading:
- How did I become a professional adventurer
- My messy career path to full-time adventurer
- How to pack a hiking backpack like a pro
- Tips for staying warm while camping
The confidence to just go for it
Before starting my Mountain Leader course, I was very unfit and had little experience in the outdoors. I also didn’t really know anyone who did adventurous things like hiking or camping. It wasn’t part of my upbringing or friendship circles.
For me, working towards this goal gave me the motivation to get out and keep pushing myself. It taught me everything I needed to know. Boosted my confidence and also left me with a qualification so I could then turn expedition leading into a career.
In the early stages, confidence was my biggest issue. There are a lot of people taking their qualifications who have a lifetime’s worth of experience and I regularly felt out of place and like I didn’t belong.
It took me a long time to sign up for the training week – the first stage of passing the Mountian Leader Course. 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.
Once the ball was rolling with the Mountain Leader course, I found it easier to keep the momentum up.
My advice. Don’t worry about your experience level your QMD’s if you haven’t done your Summer Mountain Leader training yet. Just book it…..right now!!
Consolidating my learning
After the training, I went away and over the course of a year obtained a further 30 quality mountain days. (So I had over 40 when I got to the assessment). Note that when I did the training I only had 10 days worth – I thought it was more but after speaking with the trainer he pointed out why some of my days didn’t count).
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 I read through the syllabus book back to front (Hill Walking guide book).
Mountain Leader assessment
Heading into the Mountain Leader 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 if I’m completely honest I didn’t have the best experience (I write more about that in this blog). As I headed back to the centre after our 2-night expedition, I wasn’t certain what the outcome would be….Fail. At that stage, I didn’t even mind. I was just relieved that it was over and proud that I had got to the end Mountain Leader assessment and given it my best shot. It took a lot for me to even find the confidence to book the course in the first place so I’d come a long way!
I can’t tell you how great that felt!!!
What to expect on your assessment week
My Summer Mountain Leader assessment took place over 5 days. Although the last day we were finished by 10 am, 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 and 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.
At this point the assessor will ask everyone else to relocate. You will 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. You will not find this 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 was 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 lose anybody, as well as group management in the 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 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. After a couple of hours wait, we were called in 1 by 1 and given the verdict. Out of 12 people (there were 4 groups going out at the same time all with different assessors although we didn’t see each other), 7 passed. 1 outright failed. 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.
What to pack for your assessment?
Like always when you are hiking you want to pack as light as you can. When on assessment though it won’t look good if you don’t have an important bit of kit. So make sure you have everything you need.
Check out my full kit list of what to pack for your assessment.
Tips for passing the summer Mountain Leader course
I’ve put together this list with all the advice I wish I’d been told before going into the Mountain Leader course…
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. This means 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. 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 setup 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 doesn’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 the 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. Right now!!! You are going to need this. 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, textbook 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. 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. It is part of demonstrating your well-rounded abilities. Don’t just stick to learning about plants. Find out a bit about the land and animals that you see in the mountains. Everything I learnt was using the brilliant Nature of Snowdonia book!
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 backtracking 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 and how long it will take. Have tick off 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. 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 easily 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 teammate: 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 you really need to reassess what you are doing. Stop 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 practising it with a group of experts. Be confident though. 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 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. 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.
Find support online: The UK Trainee Mountain Leaders has over 6,000 members and is a great place to ask questions, find otehrs to go on QMD’s with and to look for inspiration
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. Take a moment to actually enjoy hiking with like-minded people.
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What next once you’ve passed your Mountain Leader Course?
The next step is to get your Moutain Leader Winter award under your belt! This is a similar award but will allow you to also lead groups in the UK winter conditions.
After that is aiming for your International Mountain Leader. This is a real toughie that takes a lot of time and money (your QMD’s will all need to be abroad on challenging mountains).
What job can I do now I’ve got my Mountain Leader qualification?
If you’ve passed and are ready to start putting your qualification to good use, here are some ideas….
- Become a DofE assessor
- Keep checking Explorers Connect for suitable jobs
- Join Facebook groups like Mountain Training Association to hear of mountain guide opportunities
- Start leading children’s overseas expeditions: British Exploring, World Challenge and Outlook Expeditions
- Or adult overseas expeditions: like Secret Compass and Biosphere Expeditions
- Or leading your own hikes and expeditions!
More advice for passing your Mountain Leader assessment
My advice is based on my own experience of going through the Mountain Leader Award. But everyone’s will be very different!
So I interviewed 10 Mountain Leaders to ask what their top tips and advice would be. The interviews have been split into 2 parts: Mountain Leader interviews: Part 1 and Mountain Leader interviews: Part 2.
I also then thought….what would be better than hearing from the horse’s mouth itself, so to speak! So I interviewed 3 mountain leader assessors to get their advice on the Mountain Leader Qualification and how to best prepare.
Got a question that I haven’t answered about passing Mountain Leader course? Leave a message in the comments below and I will get back to you.
If you found this post helpful, follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Or you can subscribe to my YouTube channel. I give all my advice out for free on my website. If you want to say thanks, you can buy me a coffee!
*Any women reading this?* I founded a women’s adventure community called Love Her Wild. Check out our private Facebook page and see what adventures we have coming up.
And finally……GOOD LUCK!! I’ve loved receiving messages from all those who’ve passed their Mountian Leader Course and found this blog helpful 🙂
My name is Gavin. I am juat starting my ML journey looking to get on a nav course as im abit rustyand want to learn and do it right from the word dot. When you were saying about the plebs in your group it lisening to you when you were leading. Was any of it set up by the assers?
Thanks for reading! If you haven’t yet done the ML training, I would suggest going straight for it (if you have the 20 QMDs), even if your nav is rusty. The whole point of the training is to get everyone’s skills up to the required level. The instructors will teach you the techniques and you will get a whole week to practice. My nav was not good at the start of training but by the end I felt much more confident.
The assessors didn’t provide any instructions on how we should act or behave with group management. They simply stepped back and observed. I was sure that they were watching how we behave as a team mate just as much as a leader.
Good luck with the ML! Don’t wait until you are perfect to start or it will never happen 🙂
Hi Bex, really liked your blog post, some great info and tips. However I couldn’t agree with one point, there are lots of brilliant providers other than Plas Y Brenin. I’m pleased you had a good experience and endorse them so strongly but I thought it was a little unfair considering I’m assuming you’ve only had experience of them? To be honest its the only reason I won’t be sharing it far and wide as it’s a great resource. Simon
You aren’t the first to question my point about the providers and, actually, I completely see where you are coming from. I had a fantastic experience with Plas Y Brenin and for anyone like me, who isn’t able to get a first hand recommendation on a good provider, they are a safe bet. However, I completely recognise there are plenty of other top quality assessors available and I don’t want to unfairly point to just one so I’ve removed it.
Thanks for taking the time to comment!
Firstly, congratulations on your pass. Although this is just how I expected things to be on the training and assessment it’s very useful to hear it from someone who’s just been through it all.
Thank you very much for spending time to help us on our journey.
I also found that it wasn’t too far off what I was expecting, although I would have liked to of known so I could’ve prepared properly. Always happy to help 🙂
Good luck with the ML!
Hi, thank you for taking the time to write this resource! I’m booked on the assessment in April and this is very valuable feedback to focus my efforts. Very much appreciated.
Thanks for the comment Damian.
All the best for the assessment in April!!
Hi Bex. Nice to read the article. I have couple of questions and may be daft but I thought to ask. I totally agree with your first tip i.e. get fit. What I don’t know is that how do I measure fitness? I was very unfit when I started this journey in the November but fitness has improved considerably. for e.g. yesterday I did 10.5 miles walk. It took me 7.5 hours to complete. I could have finished this within 5-6 hours but I was enjoying and taking breaks to enjoy scenery. This is no where near to some people I know who can do the same in 3 hours. total ascent I did was 4041 ft (1232m). Also the last section – coming down from fleetwith pike took very long as I am not comfortable with scrambly bit. in other words it took me 1 hour to get down 1km of ascent. So other question would be what sort of steep ascent they use? If they use mild scrambling type of ascent then I may struggle.
Not a daft question at all although it is a difficult one to answer. On the assessment I didn’t cover very long distances but was on my feet all day with lots of stopping and starting for navigation, ropework, group management, etc. It was tiring, especially with the added pressures of being observed and carrying a big pack. You will not be assessed on your fitness, although you will need to keep up with your group. I took it nice and slow when I was leading, using my own pace so I could measure distances and didn’t feel pressured. My recomendation is just to fit in as many long walks – with a heavy pack – in the 2 months leading up to the assessment.
As for the scrambling, this is something you will need to practice a bit if you are not confident. We did quite a bit of scrambling. This was always taken very slow, section by section, as people were showing off their group management skills. As an example, one of the days on my assessment we climbed Tryfan, Snowdonia.
I hope that helps. Keep up the practising
Take a bow, that was amazing. Very insightful and carefully written. Thank you for taking your time to do something like this. It has turned on the light bulb for me to book my assessment soon.
May you have many fun, inspiring and safe journeys in the mountains.
Thanks very much Callum 🙂
Book it….it’s easy to find excuses and to keep putting it off. Good luck with the assessment!
Thanks. That definitely helps. I don’t think I can do Tryfan. Not my cup of tea 🙁
Great write up Bex! Made me both nervous and excited to start with my ML training in April. Was not sure what to expect from the assesment which will be next year i hope.
I am not the most confident person when it comes to talking to groups of people in a presentation style, even though i will push myself to complete this part if its whats needed to make my pass next year.
Great tips many thanks,
There is no need to worry about the presentation part AT ALL. This was really very casual. We did it in our groups (5 people) and we took it in turns while on a break or while eating lunch. It only needs to be 5 minutes so very short and for us it was over and done with on the first day.
For the training, don’t worry about practising anything – it will all be fine tuned during the week.
This is a great blog with good tips! Thank you… booked for assessment at the end of April with Phill George.. can’t say I’m looking forward to it! Living in Dorset makes it hard for practice… been over two years since training so have a lot to catch up on! I did training with Phill so at least that part is okay! Cheers Bex
Hi Bex, only just found this article and was hoping to get back to your linked training week article but the link doesn’t seem to work anymore. Any way I can get to read it?
Thanks for checking out my blog. I’m not sure which article you mean though?
Hi Bex, it was the mountain training week article, allegedly at https://www.loveherwild.com/advice/mountain-leader-%E2%80%A6g-what-to-expect/ but when I follow the link it says the page cannot be found.
Thanks for this. I’ve been hill walking for nearly a decade and have been thinking about doing the ML for a couple years. A few weeks ago I decided to take the plunge and have signed up for the ML training in February with my partner. I’m excited and intimidated. I’ve done plenty of navigation in fog and rain with just a map and compass but in the last couple years I’ve come to rely way too much on my phone and the ViewRanger app! I also have zero experience with rope work, so there’s going to be a massive learning curve there. Excited though. And preemptively nervous about the assessment hence my finding your post. It’s actually quite reassuring. QMDs aren’t my issue – I’ve got well enough – it’s all the details, and it was useful to see them listed in such a succinct way. (Have just ordered the Snowdonia book of flora and fauna!) Anyway, thanks, and I’ve joined your FB group. 🙂
You are WAY more experienced than I was going into the process. You’ve got nothing to worry about. The training week is exactly that – training. After you’ve done the training you’ll then have a clearer idea of where you need to improve and what areas to focus on.
Happy my blog helped and let me know if you need any more words of encouragement! 🙂
What a helpful post Bex, thank you so much! It’s making me nervous, excited and full of the right information all at the same time! Thanks for writing all this out. I’ve bookmarked it on my laptop and I’m about to buy the handbook! Bit nervous about the ropework, but thankfully there’s a group of folk I know who climb regularly and are happy to teach me! 🙂 Need to get the training week booked next (or ASAP as you advised). Thanks Bex 🙂
You’re welcome!! I was really nervous going into the process but you don’t need to be yet – the training covers everything from the start and is really relaxed.
There’s not lots of knots you need to learn and it’ll just be a case of really practicing then before assessment to make sure you remember them.
Good luck!!! And don’t hesitate to get that training booked!! X
Great article, I’m two weeks away from my assessment and “bricking” it a little despite having a reasonable breadth of experience. Time to hit the books, again. Thanks, J.
I remember that feeling well!! You’ll be great though, it sounds like you’re going into the process with good experience.
Like everyone here, I too was ‘Bricking it’ before my assessment and nearly pulled out as lots of articles/advice made the process unreachable and unattainable.
I thankfully came across your article(s) on here which made me feel so confident and ready!
I can’t thank you enough – keep up the great work!
Thank you Richard!! Really kind of you to say and it means a lot. And congratulations on passing your ML 🙂