After putting together my guide for passing Mountain Leader Assessment, I decided it made sense to hear from those who ultimately decide if you pass or not. Here are 3 experiences assessors to find out what they are looking for in a candidate going through Mountain Leader training.

Interview with: Paul Poole

Website: Paul Poole Mountaineering
Where do you work: Mainly Snowdonia, but I’m also found north of the border in winter and Skye in the summer. I then try to spend a good portion of my winter somewhere warmer, like Southern Spain or Morocco.
What courses you offer: A range of rock climbing, scrambling and mountaineering courses in the UK along with a number of adventurous trips overseas to the Himalaya for example. In addition to all that I provide a number of mountain awards for Mountain Training Cymru.
Email: [email protected]

What are you looking for when you assess candidates doing a Mountain Leader training and assessment?

Good question! Well, starting at the top, the obvious question that is being asked  throughout the course is whether ‘you’re safe in the mountains?’ Your primary role when you accept the responsibility of leading folk in the mountains is to keep them safe and it’s important to remember that this is a leadership award, not a navigation award. You do need to demonstrate a fairly broad range of skills to do this and navigation is one of many aspects that we consider.

If we looked at a normal ‘work’ day out in the mountains for a moment, then meeting folk, working out their experience, their currency, managing their expectations, matching weather forecasts against their aim of the day and creating a plan based around that with plenty of options to react to changing weather, for example, would all happen prior to departure. As the car park is left, then observing the group becomes a theme of the day, it’s a constant risk assessment against your route, the conditions underfoot, the weather, fitness of the group and the objective of the day. Sometimes there may be awkward conditions on the ground which need careful management and good route selection to protect your group. You’re assessing and making decisions based on these and other factors all day and if the weather closes in or you need to change plans, then you reach for the most appropriate ‘tools’ you have and use them. Perhaps the map and compass make an appearance for the first time.

Navigation is a significant part of the week as you have to know where you are in the hills and deal with obstacles, poor visibility and make decisions on route choice. During the assessment, we aim to get a snapshot of your broad skill set to help us answer that question whether ‘you’re safe in the mountains?’

What is the area you most defer people on?

Interpreting the map well and matching the terrain on the ground has always been one of the most common skills that need further development. Personal logbooks often indicate more ‘footpath’ walking rather than getting off the ‘beaten track’ in these situations. It’s simple, go and explore parts of the mountains that haven’t got paths on sometimes, it’s pretty exciting and allows you to truly understand what you can do with the Award.

A recent thing in the last few years is folk who turn up with a logbook that ticks the requirements, but there’s no further depth to it. So having to go and tick a few more mountains after the assessment is becoming more common. The requirements are a  minimum number and folk who pass generally will have in excess of these. I’ve recently seen a logbook with something like 700 days in it, whilst admittedly this is a little unusual(!) aim for more than 40, if you truly love the hills another week spent in them exploring will be time well spent!

What mistakes do you see being made regularly?

Setting the map is such a basic skill and gives you clues, information, direction and yet by not doing this, it is often the root cause of confusion.

Additionally, when you’re under pressure (and real pressure is someone who’s paid you to lead them…) have a logical approach how you go about navigational legs, folk start their navigation sometimes in a very unorganised manner which will create problems. It’s about setting good habits/practises and so when you really need to navigate to a high degree, then your normal practice will give you the answers you need. Lots of folks use the D’s or the W’s for example – see the ML handbook if you’ve not come across these before.

In terms of preparation, what would you say is most important?

Reading as many books as you can, attending Mountain Training Association ‘refresher’ type workshops, shadow other ML holders, for example, will all contribute towards your assessment, but ultimately it all comes down to time spent in the mountains and those who have done their ‘apprenticeship’ in the hills will become Mountain Leaders. Visit new areas, get off the paths, go out in poor weather – find your limits, go out solo – make decisions, have a go at things that are challenging, go on some mini expeditions – what a fantastic way to explore the hills, but most of all, enjoy the journey!

What should a candidate do if they make a mistake on assessment?

Acknowledge it, discuss it with us and move on. No one’s perfect, you will make mistakes over the week, that’s natural, you will not go through your ML career and never make a mistake! What we’re trying to do is analyse why it happened so we can advise you about ways it could have been tackled differently or areas you may need to develop.

Remember we’re all after the same outcome to the week as you are, we’re here to help, we’re not a barrier to gaining the Award.

Any final tips or advice?

Show your passion for the mountains on the assessment, we all enjoy being in the hills and all have a strong desire to share it with others, it’s why we are all there!

Something I wrote a while back that may add to this.

Interview with: Lou Tulley

Website: Freedom Outdoors 
Courses on offer: Mountain Leader Training and Assessment courses, courses in all aspects of mountaineering and rock climbing, winter mountain walking, mountain biking, kayaking and canoeing
Email: [email protected]

What are you looking for when you assess candidates doing a Mountain Leader training and assessment?

I look to see that candidates seem comfortable in the mountain environment. It is absolutely normal for people to feel nervous in the lead up to an assessment but it is our job to do our very best to put people at ease when we meet them.

What is the area you most defer people on?

An area that people find tricky is contour interpretation. Sometimes people rely on bearings too heavily, as well as man-made features such as boundaries and paths. The difficulty with this is that made-made features are not always reliable and bearings can be inaccurate.

It is great to see people reading the land as this shows that they have spent enough time in the mountains in different weather conditions to be able to feel at ease navigating. However, we are super aware that during assessment people want to feel extra sure and therefore might use a variety of techniques to check themselves.

What mistakes do you see being made regularly?

One of the most frequent mistakes that I see is people forgetting to think about distances when navigating. How big is the feature they are looking for? How far away is it from a known point? How much higher or lower is it than a known point? These questions are really useful as they often stop someone making the contours fit the land.

As contours are only 10m apart it is easy to make them fit what you want to see but if you know you are looking for a 100m long flat section, for example, it is more difficult to make the contours fit. Another mistake is looking at the map too often. I know this sounds strange but people often miss the ‘big picture’ when they have their head in the map all the time. Looking at the map too much often leads to over-complication.

In terms of preparation, what would you say is most important?

It is really important to force yourself to get out in all weathers. Heading out by yourself from time to time is a good confidence booster too. It makes sense to be well practised using the kit and clothing that you will be using during the assessment and making sure that everything is in good working order. You will be much happier starting a wet assessment week for example with freshly re-proofed waterproofs.

Try to keep things simple during practice and use navigational techniques that are appropriate to the conditions. Practise without using a compass sometimes to really dial in your ability to interpret contours. A great resource is the skills checklist on the Mountain Training website. It is worth going through this to decide where to focus your practise time. Everyone will have different strengths and weaknesses so will need to structure their practise time to suit.

What should a candidate do if they make a mistake on assessment?

Making mistakes is normal. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time- even assessors! Try not to worry as we are looking for an overall impression by the end of the week. If you realise that you have made a mistake then let the assessor know. If it is a rope skill you might be given another opportunity to show that skill again. If it is a navigation mistake, it is useful for an assessor to know when you realise a mistake has happened as this shows that you are able to solve problems.

The main thing is to try to keep relaxed and tell yourself that your assessor will most likely have made to the odd mistake on their Mountain Leader Assessments as nobody is perfect.

Any final tips or advice?

Try your best to relax. All assessors have been in the same position so we understand the nerves involved and will do our best to try to put you at ease. Remember- nobody is perfect!

Interview with: Pete Goldsmith

Mountain Leader advice

Website: Pete Goldsmith
Where you work: All over but  MLs mainly in South and North Wales
What courses you offer: Mountain Leader training, Hill and Moorland Leader, Lowland Leader, Rock Climbing Instructor
Email: [email protected]

What are you looking for when you assess candidates doing a Mountain Leader training and assessment?

Firstly, a good Dlog with a minimum of 40 QMDs. So many come to assessment with the bare minimum and struggle. I am then looking for a good, all-round performance. Mistakes are acceptable if they are recognised and corrected.

What is the area you most defer people on?

Logbook, contour interpretation in navigation and suitable route choice and group management on steep ground

What mistakes do you see being made regularly?

Trying to second guess what I want as opposed to doing what you do.

Trying to fit the ground to the map and not looking at what is around

Lack of positive decision making

Lack of a plan/strategy

In terms of preparation and, what would you say is most important?

A good Dlog. The vast majority of candidates who have a complete and varied Dlog, pass

Make sure you complete all the necessary paperwork, route plans, home papers thoroughly and in advance.

What should a candidate do if they make a mistake on assessment?

Don’t try to hide it. Admit you are aware of the mistake and explain what you would then do. Everybody makes mistakes. It is what you do after them to prevent them from becoming serious that is important.

Any final tips or advice?

I cannot stress the importance of experience in the mountains. If you have a good level of experience, the chances are that you have come across a lot of the problems and decision making in the past. Go to Scotland (and I don’t mean the tourist track on Ben Nevis). There are great places to expedition and climb mountains in many different areas other than the well known.

Get a map and plan a route off the trail. There is a reason why those who have spent days in the Scottish Mountains are more successful. The days are longer, the mountains are higher and the weather can be wilder.

Thank you to Paul, Lou and Pete for your insights!

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