The Mountain Leader award

A first hand report of the journey towards the Mountain Leader Award

By Rowan Bonney

It’s not only the school children who learn at Bewerley Park! Rowan is one of 6 trainees instructors who spend a year or two in learning how to be an outdoor instructor through shadowing our staff and eventually gaining qualifications. This blog is a little insight into his journey towards attaining his Mountain Leader award. This award is  one of the true benchmark qualifications in the Outdoors.

Before starting the traineeship, the qualification I thought would be the hardest to get was the Mountain Leader (ML). This qualification allows the holder to lead groups on mountains and hills across the UK. Although Bewerley is not in a particularly mountainous area (compared to Snowdonia for instance) we often take school groups up Simon’s Seat, Great Whernside and other local uplands. (Read more about Bewerley Parks Mountain Leader courses here)

To gain the award you need to be able to navigate in all conditions, always knowing where you are on a map to within about 10 meters. Your group leadership is assessed so you need to have good knowledge of the outdoors and be able to inspire and interest the group. Before attending the assessment you need to have done at least 40 days of walking in the mountains and have camped in the hills, away from a formal campsite numerous times (before the training you need to have done half of this). However if you arrive at the assessment with the minimum amount of experience it doesn’t look good, and the more experience you have the better leader you’ll be. Before I started this seemed like a mammoth task. Fortunately another trainee, Bryony, had a similar amount of experience to me and we could work towards the award together.

The Training Course

The Mountain Leader training course is 6 days, half of which we spent out on the moors near Bewerley followed by evening sessions indoors. We spent the second half of the course wild camping in the Lake District, where it rained the entire time, excluding the sun we encountered walking back to the minibus, typical. Unfortunately for us the weather on the training was a taste of the coming winter. A winter we would need to spend walking in Wales, England and Scotland as much as possible. Last winter was extremely wet, with many places (Bewerley Park included) experiencing bad flooding. You don’t get to make excuses when you’re a trainee though!

Consolidating our experience

With only a limited amount of time to get our qualifications we can’t wait around for fair weather. Besides, experience walking in difficult conditions makes you a better leader and a better navigator. You have to look on the bright side, which is an attitude you can instil on children when you’re out together on a walk in adverse weather (for instance walking through a blizzard to the summit of Great Whernside – something I experienced in May, less than a month after I joined Bewerley!).

During the winter, Bryony and I got out plenty. We did short night walks near the centre. Nights out camping on the odd day the weather permitted. Walks with wind so strong its hard to stand up and the tent pegs get pulled out the ground. Many foggy walks where you miss the best thing about the mountains, the view! Walks where you are on frozen ground, in the dark and fog, not able to see more than 5 metres ahead even with a head torch on, or see at all when it is not, and then you find out the flask hasn’t kept the coffee warm! A lesson that sometimes the best thing to do is turning round and getting off the mountain.

The preparation took a lot of dedication to get all of the required experience. We went to the mountains two weekends a month, which used up a third of our wage on fuel alone. We felt we had to focus on this award above all others, meaning we spent less time working towards other awards and gave up on time doing our other hobbies for the time being.

Covid thwarts our plans

This was all to become good enough Mountain Leaders by April that we wouldn’t scrape through our assessment; we would get through it easily. So it was quite a blow when the country was locked-down 2 weeks before we were due to start the assessment! Not only because we would miss doing the assessment after we had spent months walking in all conditions, but also because over the following months we might start to become rusty in all the techniques and skills we needed for it, requiring us to prepare all over again.

As soon as lockdown restrictions eased, we were out in the mountains again (although with better weather now it was summer). We booked ourselves onto a course as soon as they were available. We prepared ourselves as well as we could all over again.

The assessment is shorter than the training; 5 days rather than 6. However, you cannot fail the training! Not a huge issue really, you go back and are reassessed on the one area you had an issue with. However, you put a huge amount of pressure on yourself to get it the first time. It is like a driving test that is 5 days long; extremely stressful. No matter how well you prepare nothing goes perfectly and when you make a mistake, the stress levels sharply increase. You need to stay calm though, the assessing never stops. Whilst you are out on the mountains you are always being assessed, you cannot lose focus. At times, both Bryony and I felt like things were all going wrong but we both held our nerve and passed.

Onward and upward

It was a huge relief, knowing all that work had paid off. Getting confirmation that not only could we navigate but also we could do it under huge pressure. Most importantly all while keeping a group safe at the same time. We would now have more free time to focus on some of the other qualifications we are aiming for. Which really means we are about to start the process all over again! The ML is on of the hardest to get though, so it is a huge confidence boost. Once we have gone through that in every activity, we will be able to call ourselves instructors.