Mountain Leader Low-Down

Becoming a mountain leader will open doors, it will teach you life lessons and skills. It will give you amazing experiences and possibly start a new, exhilarating career. However, it is no easy task and to embark on the journey should not be taken lightly.

Becoming a mountain leader has been one of the best things i’ve done and one of the most challenging experiences i’ve had but I can’t help but wonder – if I knew before it all began what I was getting in to, whether I would have signed up and taken the plunge.

So, what is the Mountain Leader all about? From the NGB who provide land-based outdoor qualifications – Mountain Training:

“The Mountain Leader scheme is designed for people who want to lead groups in the mountains, hills and moorlands of the UK and Ireland. If you love being out in the mountains and want to share your enthusiasm with others, become a Mountain Leader and you’ll never look back..”

As Mountain Training implies, there are endless positives of having the Mountain Leader badge but it is worth considering the costs, time and effort required to get there. This is a goal that could consume your life for months, if not years.

Some might look forward to spending numerous days in the Mountains and delight at the prospect of hiking up and down the hills of the UK week in and week out. Its true, you will experience some amazing moments in the mountains, on your own and with others. However, when you need to get out in the hills, in driving rain and blowing gails it might take the shine off the idea. You might find yourself turning down weekends with friends and family (in the warm and dry) in order to commit to getting those all important QMDs in.

For the training course alone you need a minimum of 20 QMDs and for assessment it increases to 40. What is a QMD, you ask? A ‘Quality Mountain Day’ varies in definition, depending who you talk to, but Mountain Training explain: ‘…the quality of a mountain day lies in such things as the conditions experienced both overhead and underfoot, the exploration of new areas, the terrain covered and the physical and mental challenge…’ They continue to provide a list of the criteria for a QMD, some of which: ‘…navigation skills are required away from marked paths, five hours or more journey time, adverse conditions may be encountered, ascent of a substantial peak would normally be included in the day’.
With this in mind, as an aspirant ML, you’ll need to prepare for spending your spare time and days off in the mountains, rain or shine, leaving marked paths, testing your navigation, getting lost (and finding yourself again) as well as repeatedly challenging yourself.

Once you’ve got all your hill days in, you’ll need to set time aside for practising the skills you learnt in your training – ropework, leadership, first aid. As a leader you need to be slick, confident and professional. Getting knots for your ropework tied down (pun intended), group management honed and gaining environmental knowledge/experience such as flora and fauna takes time, investment and commitment. This may take days, it may take weeks but it definitely takes time. Many candidates hit the QMDs hard and forget about all the other aspects – its all very well navigating perfectly and being able to hike for days, but that is all null and void if you’re as dull as a door knob and can’t entertain or care for your group in the environment you’re in.

Despite the time and effort the mountain leader scheme requires, it is often not the deciding factor for most people. Through experience working in the outdoor industry, I have found that the most common limiter for those wishing to do the mountain leader scheme is the cost.

In order to complete the qualification, you need to be a member of Mountain Training, a member of a mountaineering council (for insurance purposes), register for the award, book on to a training course and then finally book on to assessment. These are just the direct costs, then add in the kit you’ll need, the expeditions and adventures you’ll most likely need in order to chalk up the QMDs, the food you’ll need for hill days and expeditions, the recommended reading material – it all starts to add up.

In 2018 the costs for completing the mountain leader amounted to:

MTA Membership £34 (yearly subscription)
BMC Membership £33.95 (yearly subscription)
Registering for award £39 (one-off payment)
Training Course £350-£400 (non-residential)
Assessment £350-£480 (non-residential)

Through the process, I would have to say the biggest expense I had, even with the course costs, would be kit. The ML kit list is a good starting point for what you should have with you on most hill days, whether alone or with a group. Most of the kit you’ll already have if you’re a keen walker, or you will have amounted it over the years if you’re one of these ‘outdoorsy people’. However, there are a few bits of kit that can cost a trainee a pretty penny, without much of a heads up.

The few bits of the kit list that might catch a trainee out:

  • Helmet & Walking rope – this is one of the most common ‘unexpected spends’ trainees come across. I’ve heard ‘i’m doing a walking award, why do I need a helmet?’ more times than I can count. Feeling caught out is understandable, when someone signs up for a walking award and then needs to spend anywhere from £50-£200 on a helmet and rope. A rope and helmet is crucial safety equipment for a mountain leader. Within your remit once qualified, you should never be setting out with the intention on using either, but as you’ll find out on training, they are essential tools for being able to guide your group out of some tricky/steep ground or help a nervous walker along some unsteady slopes.
  • Group shelter – another key piece of safety/group kit that a ML should really have in their kit at all times.
  • Tent – often the most expensive bit of kit an ML will need. A durable, recommended, lightweight, compact 1-2 man tent (no bivvi allowed) could set you back anywhere from £80-£500, depending on how much weight/size you want to allow for.
  • Sleeping Bag & matcrucial for a good nights sleep after full on days in the hills. The days of strapping your yoga mat to the outside of your pack are gone and when you’re wet, cold and tired, you’ll be thankful for that extra bit of hard earned cash you spent on the next level of sleeping bag to settle in to for an hour or two before heading out on night nav.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to be a Debbie downer and ward you off the mountain leader on the sole reason the kit costs mount up. If you do your research, think what will last and invest in the right kit, you can quite quickly set yourself up for a few years of adventures. Think versatility, think small + light and you could find yourself ready for any adventure you want to embark on. You’ll not only have the skills, qualification and mindset, you’ll have the kit to make it all the more enjoyable.

The biggest positives from completing the mountain leader? For me it was the journey, the confidence building and the ‘wow, I actually did it’ feeling that still hasn’t worn off.

In the space of four years, I went from complete beginner to qualified Mountain Leader. When I started out I was unfit, unaware and completely unprepared – I feebly grasped at what little memories I had from A-Level geography when thinking about contours and the thought that I could take on such a challenge was more than my confidence could take.

The hours alone in the hills forced me to spend time with myself and gave me the space to think, to feel and to grow. I was lucky enough to find myself on top of a peak, completely alone, with no noise but the wind rustling my hood on a regular occasion and if that didn’t put current situations and lifestyle into perspective, I don’t know what would.

As much as i’d like to say that your hill days will be filled with beautiful sunrises and stunning views, they will test you. When you’re not sure where you are, tired, hungry and fed up of seeing nothing but fog in-front of you, you will ask yourself ‘what am I doing?’, ‘why am I doing this’ and the doubts will at best creep in, at worst overwhelm you.

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves”. – Sir Edmund Hillary.

The challenging nature of the Mountain Leader qualification will help you find your strengths, it will show you your weaknesses and allow you to work on them. Yes, the qualification is a big undertaking but that makes it all the more worthwhile. If it wasn’t so hard, it wouldn’t be as rewarding at the end of it, when you finish your assessment, shake your assessor’s hand and hear ‘you’ve passed’.

So, would I do it all over again? Would I invest in the kit, spend the hours, days and weeks on the hill in all conditions? Would I sign up, now knowing just how naive I was when I first started.

Hell yes, I would.

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