MTS Guidance for Winter MLs and Teaching Winter Skills

This guidance has been drafted by George McEwan, the Executive Officer of Mountain Training Scotland to clarify the teaching element within the context of the Winter Mountain Leader Award.

Winterskills The scope of the Winter ML award – from Winter Mountain leader Award Handbook Pg 1 (June 2011 Edition) is defined as:

The successful Winter Mountain Leader is validated to lead parties on hill walks within the UK under winter conditions. The award excludes the use of ropes and technical equipment other than required for potential emergency situations. The area and terrain chosen for the activity should be such that no use of the rope is contemplated. Those who wish to instruct others in winter climbing skills and techniques should hold the Mountaineering Instructor Certificate.

Winter MLs Teaching Ice Axe and Crampon Skills

The following views are taken from a Winter ML Course Provider Seminar attended by MTS Winter Providers, Course Directors and trainers in early December 2012 and refer to covering this topic at both training and assessment. What is covered in training and then what is assessed are key to understanding what the scope of the award is i.e. one helps define the other.

The ML(W) syllabus states that candidates are expected to be very competent in the use of ice axe and crampons on a variety of terrain, including Grade I ground, and in a variety of snow and ice conditions. It goes on to state that Winter Mountain Leaders will frequently need to give tuition to novice groups in the safe use of ice axe and crampons. On assessment candidates will be expected to give basic instruction in the elements in (syllabus) sections 3.1 to 3.11 (See Appendix 2).

Two questions were posed to the group and provoked a degree of discussion.
  • Winter MLs are not winter instructors so how much emphasis should there be on the teaching of winter skills at both training and assessment?
  • How do we assess this and what standard are we expecting at assessment?
The first question provoked a wide ranging debate, some of which touched on issues which were not directly relevant to a discussion regarding the Winter ML Award e.g. remit relating to AMI code of conduct, Winter ML’s advertising winter skills courses etc. Putting aside these potentially contentious issues we focussed on what the syllabus stated.

A general view held by all was Winter MLs could/would/should be able to give basic instruction to novices. However, it was strongly believed that this role was undertaken within a wider context part of a led group undertaking a winter mountain walk and to ‘winter proof’ their charges. In that respect the role was fundamentally as a leader rather than as an instructor.

The general view held was that a Winter ML would be more involved in leading groups on mountain walks, in and around which some basic instruction would take place, rather than winter skills instruction around which some hill walking may take place. A view was also expressed that there was no reason why a Winter ML could not teach winter skills as long as they were mindful of how much they may be stretching the scope of their award and the potential implications if something went badly wrong e.g. would their insurance cover be effective, do they have the appropriate experience and training to be teaching and coaching winter skills?

Winter Group above cloud inversion

After defining what the context was to this element of the syllabus we then explored how we did this practically. Everyone was in agreement that first and foremost a Winter ML should have a very good level of personal competency in winter skills e.g. moving on snow, use of ice axe, self-arrest etc. Therefore the key emphasis during the training course would be on developing and enhancing these personal skills.

We then discussed the ‘need to know’ elements of providing basic instruction. The point was made that in the process of addressing the above that we were in effect modelling good practice when it comes to teaching core winter skills. However the point was also made that candidates may be too involved in learning for themselves how to do the basic skills that this process may not receive their full attention. In that respect it was felt that we do have to give candidates some very clear and basic teaching strategies.

  • Those ‘must know’ clear and basic teaching strategies were defined as:
  • Emphasis on good solid demonstrations that ensure that the leader is seen as an expert model for the technique.
  • Choosing suitable terrain to instruct appropriate techniques.
  • Ensure a simple structure and clear progression in any programme of training
It was also believed that effective reviewing at the end of each day would enable the training team to emphasise this basic instruction and tease out key learning points e.g. top tips. It was also stated that it was a good idea to emphasise to candidates the potential limitations in teaching certain techniques in relation to the prevailing snow conditions e.g. some techniques require hard snow such as step cutting.

We then discussed how we would assess the above aspect of the syllabus. One key method was to use peer to peer teaching i.e. individual candidates teach techniques to their peers. The emphasis in this process was on good, solid, clear demos.

Use of questioning allowed the candidates depth of knowledge and understanding of progression to be explored. It was felt that it was key to check out if candidates could select the appropriate techniques for the appropriate terrain. One way this was done was to give candidates a specific task e.g. teach self-arrest or use of axe as a self-belay and go on a journey. This journey allowed opportunistic assessment of skills teaching. However the point was made that the trainer needs to have a good idea of the terrain/conditions they are travelling through and what areas may be suitable for what techniques. Otherwise it becomes more an assessment of the trainer’s ability to pick terrain rather than the candidates.

Winter walking.1

We wrapped up this discussion with a chat about emphasising to candidates the limitations of self-arrest skills e.g. the time taken to develop a technique to a skill and the implications this may have for their route planning and management of their group on steep terrain. This aspect becomes crucial especially if planning a trip into an area with a great deal of steep terrain e.g. walking on Bidean nam Bian where sound movement skills are essential to a safe ascent. Taking a novice group into this sort of terrain could prove very challenging for a WML if the group have little or no movement skills?


The Winter ML award is first and foremost a winter mountain and hill walking leadership award. It was never foreseen as being a de-facto winter instructor award. Both the Winter ML training and assessment reflect this (as detailed above).

In saying that in the UK no-one working ‘on the hill’ with adults has to have any award/qualification or certification. Being appropriately experienced is enough. Likewise there is no requirement for a sole trader to have insurance that covers them for their activities.

However progression to MIC does entail people being able to develop their experience at a time when they are not full MICs. Hence there will always be people who are Winter MLs (note being an MIA does not add anything to this – you are still a Winter ML) looking to develop their winter skills teaching experience.

If Winter MLs are seeking to run winter skills courses where the emphasis is on doing winter skills rather than leading people on the winter hills where a bit of winter skills teaching takes place – then that is up to them but not something MTS can readily take responsibility for or endorse. I would strongly suggest people read the Winter Mountain leader Award Handbook rather than assume what the scope of the Winter ML award is. It’s very clear I believe. As to whether they should or should not be running winter skills courses, as either Winter ML trainees (attendance on a training course is no indication of competence assumed or otherwise) or as Winter ML holders, then that is something that both AMI and MTA would need to make a decision on? It’s not readily a decision MTS would seek to make or enforce.

Fundamentally if individuals are wishing to have be qualified and certified to teach, instruct and coach winter and mountaineering skills then they should consider doing their MIC.

Winter ML Review

This year MTS are reviewing both the syllabus and the guidance notes associated with the winter ML. If you have any comments or feedback about the Winter ML scheme, syllabus and guidance notes please do not hesitate to email me, George McEwan