Friday, 24 August 2012

Letters After My Name

Sun sets over Anglesey

I’ve got a familiar feeling, sitting on a train with heavy luggage at an unsociable hour, travelling the breadth of the country. As a student, I’m used to it; multiple changes and delays. But this time it’s different, because I just passed my Summer ML assessment after a week in North Wales. Satisfaction, pride and wonderment fill my head… Completing my Mountain Leader award ends a chapter for me that lasted two and a half years – logging ‘Quality Mountain Days’ and developing 'skills' – but it raises more questions than it does answers. What to do next? When you’re two-thirds of the way through a broad yet uninspiring environmental degree, with no concrete plan post university except for travelling (more about that soon), such questions inevitably rear their head.

The Summer Mountain Leader award is a national qualification for outdoor instructors and youth leaders, which requires a training course, consolidation period of about 12 months and five day assessment. Although the main test is navigation and leadership in the hills, it also challenges your scrambling, ropework, management of mountain hazards and environmental knowledge, among other things. Successful candidates become qualified to lead groups in the UK mountains during summer conditions.

The view from PYB; Snowdon in the distance

Thankfully with a bursary from JBMF, I booked onto the five day assessment at Plas Y Brenin in the heart of Snowdonia National Park. As the National Mountain Centre, it's a hub for outdoor training, expertise and gear development. In my assessment group for the week was an unlikely mix of candidates - climbers and walkers, different backgrounds [teacher, student, scout leader, hillwalker], different strengths and weaknesses, very different personalities - but all of us wanted the same badge. And all of us kept up the same friendly banter. Only three out of four in my group passed. Although, a deferral is no bad thing. It's like failing your driving test for the first time, you come back for the second test as a more experienced and all round better driver, or hillwalker.

We were lucky in that it stayed dry for the week, leading new routes up Moel Siabod, Glyder Fawr and around the base of Snowdon. The night navigation exercise was testing but not overly difficult, searching for boulders and streams around Cwm Clogwyn in the dark. The ropework practical (to climb or abseil down rock steps using just a rope and no gear) required some improvised anchor selection and lots of rope faff, but I got a thumbs up from our assessor. I can't forget the insane friction of my South African abseil and the rope burn I endured in the process. The point is that I completed the job safely, so who cares about style.

Glyder Fach on the skyline
Wild camp at Llyn Du'r Arddu

Interestingly, the ML assessment was not as rigorous as we’d expected. What they’re really looking for is that you operate safely in the hills with the head and confidence of a mountain leader across the five days. Individual errors in navigation or route finding on steep ground for example, can be discounted against the overall picture. So the ML syllabus retains depth and breadth, while the assessment itself is more about quality testing the finished product. Never have I witnessed such competition to name the well-trodden bog-living moss plant aside the path, or to be the first to explain the 'symbiotic relationship' of lichen organisms. If you don't know what I'm talking about, get a copy of Mike Raine! And for any budding ML candidates out there, good luck, and get logging your mountain days!

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