Life as an ML

My first paid work as a fully qualified Mountain Leader (ML) – we’re ready to set off, the 40-strong group in front of me ready to take on Snowdon. The other MLs completing their radio checks and i’m there, staring at the radio in my hand not knowing how to turn the thing on. Panic. How am I going to look after these walkers if I can’t even operate a radio?!
Another ML stepped toward me, reached down to my radio and switched the dial. He didn’t patronise, or question, he just explained how it worked, bumped me on the shoulder and set off with a smile.
Panic over. Breathe, I’ve got this, everyone starts somewhere.

On the Mountain Leader journey, you learn (and gain) an awful lot. You learn skills, tricks and techniques, but the real learning begins when you are qualified and people’s safety is truly in your hands. Over the first season of being a qualified Mountain Leader I have gained so much from other leaders – I have learned what techniques work best, and those that i’d like to avoid. I’ve found that the level of enjoyment for a ML on a day rarely depends on the weather, but the group they are leading, the people they are working with and for.

Coming to the end of the season, with only two or three days left before the autumn/winter season I thought i’d fared well, with no casualties and everyone coming away positive from the events and days I had worked. I didn’t know my biggest test was about to come. What you’re not told, in the lead up to your assessment, is that as a leader you constantly need to justify your decisions, whether this be without realising to another leader when you’re out on the hill, to a client who would rather go ‘that way’, or to your ‘employer’ at the end of the day in the debrief. Sadly, in my case my lesson came when after an event that the clients seemingly loved and thanked me for at the end of the day, a client later-on called my decision making into question.

Second-guessing is something that many struggle with in day to day life. Add the safety and enjoyment of your group to this and it magnifies the ‘was that the right decision?’ you’ll play over in your mind after an event in the days/weeks to come. This is where you need to take a look at yourself and your actions, admit where you might have made a mistake or back yourself. I was lucky in that I knew I had made the right decision and I was backed by others and the event organiser. But boy, did it make me take stock.

I quickly learned that if you make a mistake and should have done something differently, own it. Don’t blame others, don’t find excuses – own it. Then, learn from the experience and do it differently next time.
If you trust yourself, know you made the right decision given the situation, then stand by that. Back yourself and explain, clearly, calmly that you were happy with the decision you made.

“When you scale a mountain, you have to leave your ego at home.” – Anthony Hincks.

With the nature of adventurous activities, Mountain Leaders will continuously be tested and questioned on their decisions. In many ways, this is a good thing, it ensures that all leaders are remaining safe, relevant and appropriate in their actions. It calls for a higher level of risk assessment, dynamic safety precautions and sound decision making, which is what we need in dangerous environments.

I have learned and taken a lot from my experience as a Mountain Leader so far. I have been knocked back, built up and tested. While I have not loved every minute of being an ML, finding some times a lot harder than others, I can’t wait to continue my journey.

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


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