How to Pass Your Mountain Leader Assessment

by Mal Creasey

Do not faff
For many people, becoming a Mountain Leader is the gateway to a whole new world of opportunities. Assessments aren't everyone’s favourite pastime, however, so here are some top tips from Mal Creasey (Mountain Training’s recently retired Development Officer) to help you succeed.

1. Look like an experienced walker and don’t faff

Without wanting to state the obvious; once you’ve passed your Mountain Leader award you’ll be responsible for taking groups of people out in mountainous terrain, possibly in all sorts of weather, who may have a range of different abilities and personal goals. The aim of the assessment is to prove that you know what you’re doing and would be a suitable person to carry out the aforementioned tasks in a safe and professional manner.

Tripping over the bottom step of the Transit on day one of the assessment certainly doesn’t impress. And if you’re going to turn up with shiny new gear, make sure it fits and/or you know how to use it; assessments are demanding enough without having to factor in using a new piece of kit for the very first time. (And remember the phrase: ‘all the gear but no idea’? Don’t be that person.)

Also, when the rest of the team is ready to go, don’t faff. There is nothing worse than three people and an assessor standing around getting cold whilst someone grovels around in the depths of their rucksack. Inevitably someone will do it, but don’t let it be you. After all, you are supposed to be organised and potentially looking after others on the hill. Don’t draw attention to yourself; a good leader simply gets on with the job.

2. When you’re leading, take it slow and steady

When it’s your turn to take the lead, remember the people in your group and (unless you’re pacing) that it’s ok to chat to them and the assessor. If you can’t walk and talk without getting breathless you are walking too fast. Taking a five minute break after an hour of walking, then a longer break after two hours is about the norm. Snack every so often and avoid big meals and long breaks, unless you find the perfect spot on a lovely summers day.

The navigation element of your ‘leg’ isn’t the only thing being assessed, but it is important, so take the time to plan your route properly. Then, when you think you’ve reached your point, take the time to check.

3. Remember to look around you

You’re doing this award because you enjoy being out in the mountains and want to share this with others. Use the map as often as necessary (but not too often) and remember to soak up the features around you. They will help with your navigation and hopefully (if there is a view) remind you of why you’re there in the first place. One thing you often see is people walking along with their eyes buried in the map. Assessors in particular notice things like that and it dramatically increases the chances of you tripping over a clump of grass, much to everyone else’s amusement.

4. Read the ground through your feet

In other words, is the ground doing what it should be doing? Is it dropping away to the right or going straight down? Experienced hill walkers and mountaineers are always alert to this. Look at the map and think about the shape of the contour lines; what do you expect the ground under your feet to feel like? Is it a flat open bog or a steep rocky incline? Also, don’t be afraid to stop and reconsider if you get that ‘this doesn’t feel right’ feeling.

Some years ago a friend and I were coming down off the ‘Ben’ having completed the Orion Face and were chatting away in reasonable weather, when we both looked at each other and simultaneously realised that ‘it didn’t feel right’! We had intended to drop down from the summit towards the abseil posts (no longer in place) but had drifted way too far right and had to flog back up the hill to regain our intended line of decent! In this case it only cost us a couple of minutes of (un)necessary uphill, but it was a hasty reminder that a combined experience of over 40 years is no reason for complacency!

5. Know what you’re talking about

From your five minute specialist topic to which sweets are best in the cold, if you know what you’re talking about you’re starting from a much stronger position than those who don’t know the difference between bog myrtle and a Cadbury’s Cream Egg. This doesn’t mean you have to know everything about everything, just that ‘blagging it’ is always a risky strategy and the assessor(s) will see straight through it.

6. Make safe decisions

Whatever happens, when you’re making the decisions, think about safety. ‘Danger never takes a day off,’ is often said in jest but applies to all parts of your assessment; from the steep ground day and emergency rope work to camp craft and looking after the group. Show that you understand the hazards and are making decisions appropriate to the group and the environment.

7. Be well practiced and familiar with the skills in the syllabus

Without (again) wanting to state the obvious, by the time your assessment arrives you should feel comfortable with all of the skills involved in being a Mountain Leader. Someone who is well practiced can use the assessment as an opportunity to show the assessor what they can do, rather than spending the whole time dreading having to showcase a particular skill. A strong candidate will have spent their consolidation period discovering tactics that make their life easier (thumbing the map, packing your bag in a certain way, etc.) and will use these to their advantage throughout the assessment.

Basically, it’s all about displaying an air of authority and knowledge, not arrogance, which will instil confidence in your group and impress assessors! Bribery just doesn’t work. Although that doesn’t exclude the odd Jelly Baby or Liquorice Allsorts, most assessors aren’t fussy!