One of my most popular blogs remains my top tips on how to pass the Mountain Leader Summer assessment and I can understand why. Being able to read about another person experience can make a huge difference when it comes to calming nerves. Or even having the confidence to go for your Mountain Leader assessment in the first place.

So I have collaborated with other qualified Mountain Leaders to bring you more words of advice from those who have been through the experience. In this blog, you can hear from Mikaela, Ian, Katherine, Phil and Emma. Make sure you also check out Part 2 of the blog to hear from David, Julian, Alan, Jenny and Alex.

I also did an interview with assessors to find out what advice they would give candidates.

Interview with: Mikaela Toczek

Mountain Leader assessment

Tell us a bit about you

Name: Mikaela Toczek (website and Instagram)
Age: 31
Home: South Wales
Job: Freelance Outdoor Instructor, Photographer and Writer
Hobbies: Walking (of course!), climbing, fell-running, cycling. Essentially, if it’s outdoors I’ll probably give it a go!

What was your motivation for getting your Mountain Leader Award?

When I first started my Mountain Leader Award I was just about to jump into my PGCE to become a secondary school teacher. I am a huge believer in outdoor education and the possibilities it holds to engage people in empowering adventures that build independence, resilience and a wider understanding of the world we live in. My original plan was to use it with school and college groups, DofE and overseas expeditions in the summer. However, the more I progressed along the journey the more I realised this was the type of learning I wanted to dedicate myself to more fully. By the time I completed my assessment I had made my decision, I handed in my notice at the Sixth Form College where I had been teaching for four years, and I have been freelancing ever since.

Where did you do your training and assessment?

As I mentioned there was a huge gap between my training and assessment due to starting a career in teaching. My training was in the Peak District and feels like a lifetime ago but my assessment was with Paul Poole Mountaineering. Paul was absolutely fantastic, his genuine, friendly approach and commitment to helping others develop and achieve their potential has resulted in me returning to him for a Winter Skills course and for my Single Pitch Award training (now Rock Climbing Instructor).

Was the process what you expected it to be?

I was extremely nervous before my assessment. I was going through a period of high stress and worry with teaching and this carried through into worrying excessively about everything else. However, Paul instantly put me at ease and I actually loved my assessment. It felt like I was exactly where I was meant to be. The rest of the group I was with were all very supportive and we had a fantastic 5 days! Paul provided meaningful coaching and feedback and I felt like his approach allowed us the space to show what we were really capable of out on the hill.

What sort of experience and practice did you do before?

Prior to my assessment, I attended a refresher with Paul, which was actually what prompted me to book my assessment with him. The refresher focused on micro-nav and night-nav and I found it really helped to get my head into the right space before deciding I was ready. I also did a lot of practice navigating in very poor weather in quite featureless terrain, mostly around my home in the Brecon Beacons. This definitely made a huge difference to my navigation skills!

What was the hardest part of the assessment?

Maintaining confidence in my own decisions was the hardest part for me. I used to constantly second-guess my decision-making and I had to actively fight myself to stop this from happening on my assessment. Treating my decisions like any other day on the hill was the best approach but I could only do this through having confidence in myself.

What did you learn most from your assessment?

To trust in the systems I had been using all along for planning and undertaking great days out walking in amazing places. Also, I felt that I had an OK knowledge of our mountain environments, but with hindsight, I only had a minuscule amount of understanding about our complex eco-systems and geological history. I have since taken a number of other amazing courses to try and address this, including a geology course and an upland and moorland bird course. I have now developed a real love for birdwatching and my binoculars are an essential part of my kit!

What do you wish you’d known before the assessment?

Before the assessment, I wish I had known more about nature and geology. I would tell myself to engage with it more completely as it is such an important part of being able to engage others in the landscapes that surround us. I still consider myself a beginner when it comes to mountain flora and fauna but I am passionate about it and constantly learning!

I would also tell myself to stop worrying and just book the assessment. Even though I met all the criteria and I had lots of additional group work experience it still took a lot for me to actually take the leap.

Did you pass your assessment first time?

Yes!

Any final top tips…

It’s not a problem if things go wrong, its how you handle it that makes the difference. So, take a deep breath, organise your thoughts and make decisions based on the information that you have available to you.

Don’t overpack, in particular, think carefully about your med-kit, what do you really need? What is essential for a group out on the hill?

Finally, it should be enjoyable, this is what we are all about, getting out on the hill and creating memorable, engaging experiences that hopefully encourage others to get outside more as well!

Interview with: Ian Howells

Tell us a bit about you

Ian Howells, aged 45, living in South Manchester. I work full time as a Freelance Mountain Leader and aside from trekking and the great outdoors I am a huge rugby and cricket fan, a keen cook and gardener, an amateur ornithologist and a keen reader!

You can check out my website and Facebook for more information.

What was your motivation for getting your Mountain Leader Award?

There was a dual motivation for me. The first part of it was that felt it would be hugely beneficial to me as an outdoor enthusiast. I felt that I would learn new skills, improve existing ones and meet like-minded people. I was also considering at that point that it might be a step on the ladder to career change and that was a motivation for me although at the time I had no idea how realistic a goal that would be.

Where did you do your training and assessment?

I did my training and assessment with Thornbridge Outdoors in the Peak District. Both training and assessment took place in the Dark Peak and in Snowdonia.

Was the process what you expected it to be?

It pretty much was what I expected it to be. The training was really useful and connected well with the eventual assessment which helped to make me feel comfortable with the process. The expedition was also in line with what I was expecting and although we had a small group it worked well.

What sort of experience and practice did you do before?

I did numerous QMDs in as wide a number of areas as possible. I did a ton of navigation work, day and night, and tried to get some group leading experience although the latter made up a very small percentage of my overall days. I did an additional navigation day looking at more technical aspects such as aspect of slope etc and I also did a mock assessment about six weeks before my assessment which made me feel much more comfortable and confident. As a non-climber I also went to a beginners climbing course and continued indoor climbing to familiarise myself with ropes, knots and ropework. I went out and specifically practised ropework as it was the area I was least confident with.

What was the hardest part of the assessment?

I found the ropework very challenging and I found the navigation stressful (especially the night)

What did you learn most from your assessment?

That I was already operating at an appropriate level as an ML, that I had learned and internalised the skills I needed and that I was competent as a navigator.

What do you wish you’d known before the assessment?

I wish I had known (or at least believed) that the assessors wanted you to pass and wanted you to show the skills you had. Believing in yourself is really important as long as you have put the work in in advance.

Did you pass your assessment first time?

Yes, I did

Interview with: Katherine Grugeon

Tell us a bit about you

I’m Katherine Grugeon, I’m 56 but rarely admit my age and I live on the Somerset, Dorset Wiltshire border. I used to be an industrial chemist but became a teacher in 1998. I’m desperately trying not to be a teacher anymore. Hobbies obviously include walking and hill walking, I have two terriers who like to come with me. I sing in a local choir, I like to cook something special from time to time. In the winter months I knit or sew or make rugs in front of the tv in the evenings, in the summer I’m in the garden. I’m married with two grown up children.

I’m trying to run my own business ‘The Walking Woman’ taking people walking, in particular women who don’t feel comfortable walking along. Still trying to get in touch with my potential clients.

Find out more on my website, Instagram and Facebook.

What was your motivation for getting your Mountain Leader Summer Award?

I started the process when the school I was working at asked me to train pupils for the Ten Tors competition, I left the school before qualifying and took quite a long time to get round to plucking up the courage to do it. Eventually, in 2017, I decided to ‘finish what I had started’ this included the ML and a cushion cover. In 2018 I completed the Pennine Way which I started in 2011, starting again from the beginning.

Where did you do your training and assessment?

Training with Pete Goldsmith, three weekends, Cheddar, The Brecon Beacons and North Wales.

Assessment with Steve and Helen Howe at Snowdonia First aid, all in Snowdonia.

Was the process what you expected it to be?

More or less, the training was much tougher and much less enjoyable than the assessment but I think that’s down to the people, both the professionals and the trainees, who were there.

What sort of experience and practice did you do before your assessment?

I had lots of practice between training and assessment, I love Dartmoor and went there a lot so I had lots of days there which didn’t count by the time I did my assessment. I did lots of tough mountain walking with my son and some on my own, always practising my navigation skills. For night nav I walked short legs in a field behind my house which has a dip in it, practising walking on bearings after dark with a gps unit on the slope to see how much I veered downhill. I also did a refresher course with Snowdonia First Aid. My training course had left me with great doubts as to my ability, in particular, my personal fitness. It was great fun and I explained to Helen Howe about my fitness problem and she was able to reassure me that I was plenty fit enough.

What was the hardest part of the assessment?

Trying to get some sleep before being woken up for night nav, then the night nav. Probably also the feeling that I was continually under scrutiny.

What did you learn most from your assessment?

How to perform under pressure, how to laugh with and support the other assessees who were just as nervous as I was. Actually as well that my input into conversations was just as important. Most of the other assessees were semipro outdoor people, I was definitely an amateur, but we shared a lot of each other’s experiences.

What do you wish you’d known before the assessment?

That I could do it, I was so nervous about the night nav it almost crippled me, and I was not the only one. Once that was over I could relax and enjoy being in the hills. It’s also about being safe in the hills, not being the first to the top and to hold on to that fact.

Did you pass your assessment first time?

Yes!

Any final top tips…

It’s not a GCSE, you can take the bits you don’t get right again, relax and enjoy being in the mountains with other people who love being up there as much as you do. Remember however cool they look, they are just as nervous as you are.

Don’t take too much, I took all my gear and my car was stuffed, it meant that I had to make decisions about kit during the assessment, over half what I took I didn’t use. If I’d been able to (I tried) and made those decisions before I left home, then it would have been one less thing to worry about. I guess extra socks would be my top tip. You can not afford to have wet, sore feet on assessment.

Interview with: Phil Nelson

Tell us a bit about you

Phil Nelson, 36, full time Business Development Director for a global warranty company and freelance Mountain Leader in my spare time working towards Winter Mountain Leader. In my rare free time I enjoy ticking off the munros (about 80 left), skiing and ski touring, mountain biking, cycle touring, bikepacking.

I am very active with freelance work specialising at the moment with companies that do mountain walks/challenges with inexperienced participants who may not have been up a mountain before and/or may have physical/medical issues.

What was your motivation for getting your Mountain Leader Summer Award?

It was something I had wanted to do for about 10 years but never got round to it and it was to take my skills and experience to a higher level and share this with the walking club I was with at the time to help other members improve their own safety, skills and enjoyment on the mountains. I had no intention at this point to do freelance work but I soon realised after passing that this is something I could do lots of and enjoy it (and get paid!)

Where did you do your training and assessment?

Glenmore Lodge – Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre near Aviemore – I did both my training and assessment there as the location, facilities and instructors are world class and I wanted to be trained, assessed and learn from those at the top of their game.

Was the process what you expected it to be?

Pretty much; Glenmore Lodge does a pretty good job on both their website and with their pre-course information as to what to expect during both training and assessment. This combined with reading ML handbook and syllabus then there weren’t any real surprises. I suppose the thing that surprised me the most was that the training course wasn’t as physically or mentally demanding as I was expecting. You sometimes have the fear that you will be beasted physically and there may be too much to take in but it wasn’t the case. It was more relaxed than I was anticipating but still, high standards set.

Although the criteria and syllabus for all ML training and assessment are largely the same, there may be some subtle differences on certain aspects from various providers. One of the advantages of doing your assessment with the same provider as your training is that you will have been shown exactly what they look for. On my assessment, a couple of candidates had done their training somewhere else and had been shown how to do certain things slightly differently. It just meant they had to justify a bit more why they were doing what they were doing (they still passed I might add!)

What sort of experience and practice did you do before your assessment?

Some stats to start off with before I go through how I prepared for assessment:

  • QMD’s in logbook for ML training –  40
  • QMD’s in logbook for ML Assessment – 81
  • Time taken between training and assessment – 12 months
  • 40/81 QMD’S were leading groups of people mainly in a walking club
  • 80% of QMD’s done all around Scotland – Rest Snowdonia, Lakes and Brecon Beacons
  • What feedback was given to me at the end of my ML training course as areas to focus on? Get more diversity in my logbook as to the areas in Scotland I walked as although I had genuine 40 QMD’s, some of the mountains and areas were a bit samey so was advised to get to the remote areas like Torridon, Knoydart. Learn about Flora and Fauna (I was terrible at it during training), get a better Headtorch (I thought it was ok until we did night nav in low cloud where it’s shortcomings were obvious), get slick at rope work (as a non-climber I needed to get sharp at this)

How did I prepare?

I set a date for assessment and made a plan – This is key to success regardless of your prior experience level. Understanding what you need to do and how you set about achieving it is the key to success to most things in life. You can’t wing ML assessment unless you are mega experienced! 

Leadership Prep – ML is ultimately a leadership qualification not a navigation one (there are Nav specific quals out there that get you to the same standard as ML but with no Leadership aspect). The day after you pass ML you could be hired for a job and so I wanted to make my mistakes before I get hired! The best advice I can give for leadership practice is join a walking club/meetup group, organise the walks you want to do, do easy ones you know to start off with. Then as you progress do bigger days on the hills with strangers. Walking with friends/family is a completely different dynamic to walking with strangers and when you qualify you’ll spend 99% of your time guiding strangers so get some practice of it as even though it’s not a prerequisite of assessment you’ll be a better ML for it!

Exped/Night Nav/Micro Nav/Camp Craft Prep – For this I’d finish work on a Friday evening, pack my car and drive to the mountains. Normally start walking 10pm and walk for 2 – 3 hours so I’d get practice of night nav, camp craft and chalking up a good wild camp on top of a mountain for the log book. Next day I would walk for about 12 hours across pathless, boggy terrain taking in a number of mountain summits (and ticking off those munros!). Pitch tent and wild camp again. Next day walk some more and finish late afternoon/early evening. I did this a few times and I average between 55-60km in total walking distance with 2500-3000m of ascent all with an exped pack on. On the 3 day ML assessment Exped we only did 36km and 1800m of ascent so mentally and physically I was well prepared for it.

Rope/Flora and Fauna Prep – I bought a 30m rope and practiced setting up anchors and the techniques on anything that could take my weight. Trees, benches in car parks, boulders, whatever until I was slick! For Flora and Fauna I left this to the last minute. 1 day before assessment I got my hostile habitats book and walked down a path in the Cairngorms and every time I came across a plant/tree I didn’t know (which was most) then I took the time to identify it and learn info about. You can imagine how pleased I was the next day on assessment when we walked down this same path and were asked questions on Flora and Fauna…not only could I  identify them now, I knew what was coming up later on the path so could ‘surprise’ the group and assessor with another plant.

Other Prep – Read the manual and ML handbook – all the answers are in there for you!

What was the hardest part of the assessment?

I had a good think about this and I remember finding the first 2 days of assessment not too challenging. I don’t mean this arrogantly, it was simply because I knew from my training course and pre-assessment info what I’d be doing on those days. Day 1 was River crossings, Environmental awareness, Emergency Procedures and Day 2 was dealing Steep Ground. Both done with no issues. I felt good and well prepared for these.

The hard part for me was the exped Days 3 to 5 and it was simply because of the stress/pressure I put on myself. We were covering less distance than I had prepared for, in conditions which were poor but I was used to. So it was simply the feeling of being constantly assessed that was a challenge. But equally, I had prepared well and so tried to focus on the task in hand and keep the mindset positive.

What did you learn most from your assessment?

That if you genuinely put the work in, prepare, address your weaknesses before assessment it pays off and you should pass no problems. Don’t try and wing it, you may still pass if you are skilled and experienced enough but you are just making it more difficult and stressful for yourself. Stack the odds in your favour! It is no surprise when the ML assessors say those who exceed the QMD Criteria generally perform better on assessment than those who are on bare minimum.

What do you wish you’d known before the assessment?

Maybe do it sooner! I could have possibly done it sooner but equally, I enjoyed the process of getting up the mountains, developing myself and others along the way.

Did you pass your assessment first time?

Yep – I still was nervous as I waited to find out if I had passed! On my course of 6  (we were a strong, well prepared group)– 5 of us passed. 1 was deferred for Log Book not being up to scratch. Too many North York Moors and similar non-mountainous areas QMD’s out of the 40 he turned up with. So once he had done 10 proper QMD’s in Scotland he was given a pass a month or so later.

Any final top tips…

Make a plan and set a date – I can’t stress this enough! Put it down on paper and commit to it – You may need to adjust along the way but it will help you structure what you do so you are only doing actions that will develop and prepare you. Put the time in on the mountains and over-prepare and life is a lot easier

You will make a mistake or 2 on assessment – I did as do most others! Don’t worry, stay positive, learn from it and make sure you get it nailed next time as 99% of the time you’ll get another chance or 2 to make amends. Once you qualify as a ML guess what?…you still make mistakes – we are human after all so don’t let it get you down on assessment.

Enjoy it! The whole process before/during/after training and assessment. You are with likeminded people, in amazing places with assessors who want to pass you. Enjoy the moment and be proud regardless of the outcome.

Interview with: Emma Holland

Mountain Leader assessment

Tell us a bit about you

My name is Emma. I’m 45 and I live in Nottingham. I grew up in the Peak District and my love of walking and the outdoors began as a Girl Guide. My parents always took myself and my brother on holidays in the UK, most often camping and to National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I really enjoy exploring the UK particularly the more remote areas. During the week my day job is within a Secure Mental Health Hospital where I work within the Occupational Therapy Department and I run the Library service. I have a VW Camper Van so ‘Vera’ as she is affectionately known gets out and about on regular weekends, either when I’m freelancing or on personal adventures. I also love road cycling and discovering new music.

Find out more on my website or on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

What was your motivation for getting your Mountain Leader Summer Award?

I had been leading group walks regularly for friends, my partner and family for years. I also helped establish and regularly organised and led a monthly women-only walking group in the Peak District which was popular, sociable and well attended. It was whilst organising walks for this group I was encouraged by the group and friends to go for my ML. I had wanted to do it for years but kept on procrastinating over it. There was always a reason not to. It isn’t a cheap undertaking and time was also a barrier as I was working full time and had a busy social life and family responsibilities.

Where did you do your training and assessment?

I did my training with a small provider in the Lake District in 2014. I did my assessment with www.paulpoolemountaineering.co.uk in October 2017. My training wasn’t a great experience to be honest. I was the only female and although the other guys were friendly and welcoming there was a distinct lack of connection and I didn’t particularly ‘click’ with any off them on a personal level. The other thing I found extremely hard was that all of the other trainees were rock climbers so there was a lot of ‘rope talk’ and climbing talk and when we did the rope work element of the syllabus I felt totally lost and out of my depth. It wasn’t until I did a masterclass with Paul Poole (who I went on to do my assessment with) that I actually found some confidence and realised that I only needed one knot. I finally began to relax around ropes.

Was the process what you expected it to be?

It was pretty much as I expected. I’d done a few of Paul’s masterclass courses and I enjoyed all of them and liked his teaching style, approach and supportive encouragement. Paul gave good feedback and set out the expectations of the assessment clearly. There were no hidden surprises or hidden agendas from the assessors. Everything was clear and fair and he uses a great team of staff who have the same ethos and approach.

What sort of experience and practice did you do before your assessment?

I went on as many MTA or professional courses as I could manage. I can highly recommend the courses that Mike Raine, Jim Langley and David Broom all run for geology, nature and glaciation. Not only were those course fascinating and interesting, but it is also where I met lots of now lifelong ML friends. I networked with the MTA, BMC and I used social media. I also spoke to and spent time with as many other qualified ML’s or trainers as I could. I used different scales of maps to navigate and forced myself out in all weathers and conditions. I went wild camping on my own, which is always scary the first time but a great feeling once you have done it.

What was the hardest part of the assessment?

The weather. I did my assessment during Storm Brian and it was tough, really really tough. We had trouble standing upright at several points during the week. I remember crawling across a bridge at one point because the wind was so strong and the rock so slippy. The assessors were also constantly being challenged by the weather conditions and not everything went to plan, I’m sure they had to reevaluate route plans several times a day. It was certainly a test for all of us and as a team we pulled together, supported each other and kept spirits up despite 24/7 rain for 5 days. I woke up on the second night of the expedition in 3 inches of water.

What did you learn most from your assessment?

To try and relax when leading a group and have the confidence when making navigational decisions. Look at the land, look at the contours, get your head out of the map, enjoy the experience. It’s something I’ll never, ever forget.

What do you wish you’d known before the assessment?

There wasn’t anything unexpected and I’d been given lots of advice, support and encouragement from ML friends so it was as I expected. I’d been told (and I’d also read) not to make any changes to my set up, kit or how I operate whilst on assessment. I stupidly made changes to how I used my map (case/no case) and it went pear-shaped when my map blew off in the storm. Thankfully I had a spare one in the bottom of my bag. Unknown to me my assessor (who was at the back) had picked it up. I felt a twit but learnt a valuable lesson. Don’t change what you have been using/doing on the day!

Did you pass your assessment first time?

Yes, and it was an amazing feeling.I’m not an outwardly emotional person but I burst into tears. Even the men in the group shed a tear. We had been through a lot together on those 5 days. It was a huge sense of relief because preparing for your ML is stressful, hard work, time consuming and can take it’s toll on everything else in your life. All my personal holidays for a year became about mountain experiences or practising navigation.

Any final top tips…

Relax, be honest with yourself and your assessor. If you make a mistake admit it, evaluate it and explain how you could have done it differently. Be as prepared as possible but don’t spend months and months stressing whether you are ready or not and cramming last minute work in. If I could do it again I would spend the 4 months up to assessment just simply enjoying my walking rather than worrying about my upcoming assessment.

Check out PART 2 of this blog for more interviews.

If you have found this advice helpful please do take a minute to follow my pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Any women reading this? I set up Love Her WIld – a community to help women in adventure. You can join our private Facebook page which is a great place to find support and inspiration!

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