What does it takes to get a Mountain Leader (ML) qualification?
by Paul Cummings (Originally posted on uk.rec.walking, and published here with kind permission. His website is here)
Work conspired to help rather than hinder, so in May I went to work for a week in Stirling. Using my evenings and the following weekend, I got up a few Munros with my new found confidence and realised that Martin was right: Scotland is on a different scale to Snowdonia. Full of confidence, but worried that I would forget the rope skills we had practised, I booked in for assessment in August. Plas-Y-Brenin did not do the course when I wanted to go, so I booked in with The Adventure Fitness Company.
I didn’t know just what I was letting myself in for. The two people named were Penny and Lisa Farthing. I took this to be two sisters. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The course is actually run by ‘Penny’ Farthing (I didn’t see the significance in the Penny at the time), a strapping six foot Royal Marine Physical Training Instructor. Lisa, his wife, does the admin rather than on hill work. He was assisted by two other RM PTIs and a Navy PTI. One of the guys even came out with the classic quote “I don’t do guns, I do press-ups.” These guys were fit.
The course was based in Eric Jones’ bunkhouse at Tremadog. There were eight of us on the course. Seven of us also booked in for the two day refresher course before hand. Of the eight, five had a recent military background (two still serving). The others were every weekend instructor types. And then there was me (again).
For the refresher course, we walked a for an hour or so up onto the hills, practising some simple navigation, then spent several hours practising rope work. I found this incredibly useful; being the only non-climber in our group, I was the only one who was not confident with his rope work (although some of the others were not overjoyed to abseil without a harness). The second day was supposed to be a navigation refresher day, but in practice turned into quite a boring slog up the Ranger Path and down the Rhyd Ddu Path to Snowdon. Still as one of the instructors said, ‘it was good phys’.
Day one of the assessment was spent exploring the Moel Hebog area from Beddgelert. We were practising micro-navigation. In reality, this felt more like a third refresher day rather then a real test day. In fact for this day, I was allowed to keep my GPS switched on (solely to record distance etc). In the evening we had a weather test and a general legal / environmental etc test. The weather test was an isobar map of the North Atlantic and Western Europe with a date. We then had to predict our local hill weather (i.e. Northern Snowdonia). Surprisingly, mine was the best, although most people in the group had mostly the same sorts of things. In the other test, we worked in pairs. I worked with Jeremy, a guy that I had got on with well over the first few days. We worked well as a team and got the most answers right (although only after a couple of recounts due to people complaining about the marking). My feeling were that these tests were not really important unless you were borderline, when they gave you a chance to lift a defer to a pass. I’m not sure if I concluded this alone, or if one of the assessors led me to think this.
Day two was the steep ground test. We climbed up Dinas Mott from the Llanberis Valley. There was no doubting this was a full on test day as we had to go through the works of showing our rope work – confidence roping, belaying, abseiling. My group of four was divided into a couple of mountain climbers who were very hot with their roping and shot up each section. Then there was me (a rope novice) and the oldest man in the group. He was a “seen it, done it, got the patch” type of guy. Convinced that he knew best. For some reason, he was unwilling to play the game (i.e. give the assessors what they want to see), but insisted on doing everything his way. It made it very difficult for me to lead him on a confidence rope (as he wouldn’t let me be in charge). Another advantage the others had was they each had altimeters. We were not allowed to get spot heights from them, but they were allowed to use their altimeters. I was refused permission to use my GPS in just an altimeter mode. Not really fair in my opinion, but I now have a standalone altimeter to prevent a re-occurrence.
By mid afternoon, I was convinced I had blown it and would fail the course. Nerves suddenly went out of the window and I relaxed. I finished with a textbook belay and then abseil that I was told was the best one by anyone all day. We were given the results that evening. The two mountain climbers were both passed. I was given a Gypsys (a final warning, with the promise of a re-test on ropework at the end of the week). My partner was told he was getting a deferment (which means he would have to return to do the ropework again). This was largely due to a very unsafe belay where he braced his foot against a rock that, when told by the assessor, I could pull over and knock off with ease. Very unsafe. Rule one – only use bomb proof sites. No judgement should be used (“I think it will hold”). If it isn’t rock solid, weighs as much as a car and well bedded into the ground then don’t use it (Top Tip #2). We were losing daylight as we were coming down, so our assessor took the lead and headed us down at full speed. A little too fast and dangerous, as I found out when my (exhausted) foot slipped and I crashed my knee into a rock. I ended up with a balloon in place of a knee and wondered if I would be able to continue.
Page 4 – Expedition