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Thinking of your Mountain Leader Assessment....

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Recently I was asked by Bex Band ( to write a little about the Mountain Leader assessment process as she was collating a few thoughts from Providers to share with the wider community. Again, I hope this settles some nerves....

What are you looking for when you assess candidates doing a Mountain Leader assessment?

Good question! Well, starting at the top, the obvious question that is being asked throughout the course is whether ‘you’re safe in the mountains?’ Your primary role when you accept the responsibility of leading folk in the mountains is to keep them safe and it’s important to remember that this is a leadership award, not a navigation award. You do need to demonstrate a fairly broad range of skills to do this and navigation is one of many aspects that we consider.

If we looked at a normal ‘work’ day out in the mountains for a moment, then meeting folk, working out their experience, their currency, managing their expectations, matching weather forecasts against their aim of the day and creating a plan based around that with plenty of options to react to changing weather for example, would all happen prior to departure. As the car park is left, then observing the group becomes a theme of the day, it’s a constant risk assessment against your route, the conditions underfoot, the weather, fitness of the group and the objective of the day. Sometimes there may be awkward conditions on the ground which need careful management and good route selection to protect your group. You’re assessing and making decisions based on these and other factors all day and if the weather closes in or you need to change plans, then you reach for the most appropriate ‘tools’ you have and use them. Perhaps the map and compass makes an appearance.....

Navigation is a significant part of the week as you have to know where you are in the hills and deal with obstacles, poor visibility and make decisions on route choice. During the assessment we aim to get a snapshot of your broad skill set to help us answer that question whether ‘you’re safe in the mountains?

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What is the area you most defer people on?

Interpreting the map well and matching the terrain on the ground has always been one of the most common skills that needs further development. Personal logbooks often indicate more ‘footpath’ walking rather than getting off the ‘beaten track’ in these situations. It’s simple, go and explore parts of the mountains that haven’t got paths on sometimes, it’s pretty exciting and allows you to truly understand what you can do with the Award.

A recent thing in the last few years is folk who turn up with a logbook that ticks the requirements, but there’s no further depth to it. So having to go and tick a few more mountains after assessment is becoming more common. The requirements are a minimum number and folk who pass generally will have in excess of these. I’ve recently seen a logbook with something like 700 days in it, whilst admittedly this is a little unusual(!) aim for more than 40, if you truly love the hills another week spent in them exploring will be time well spent!

What mistakes do you see being made regularly?

Setting the map is such a basic skill and gives you clues, information, direction and yet by not doing this, it is often the root cause of confusion.

Additionally when you’re under pressure (and real pressure is someone who’s paid you to lead them…) have a logical approach how you go about a navigational legs, folk start their navigation sometimes in a very unorganised manner which will create problems. It’s about setting good habits / practises and so when you really need to navigate to a high degree, then your normal practise will give you the answers you need. Lots of folk use the D’s or the W’s for example - see the Mountain Leader handbook if you’ve not come across these before.

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In terms of preparation and getting ready for the assessment, what would you say is most important and what really shows?

Reading as many books as you can, attending Mountain Training Association ‘refresher’ type workshops, shadow other ML holders for example will all contribute towards your assessment, but ultimately it all comes down to time spent in the mountains and those who have done their ‘apprenticeship’ in the hills will become Mountain Leaders. Visit new areas, get off the paths, go out in poor weather - find your limits, go out solo - make decisions, have a go at things that are challenging, go on some mini expeditions - what a fantastic way to explore the hills, but most of all, enjoy the journey!

What should a candidate do if they make a mistake on assessment?

Acknowledge it, discuss it with us and move on. No ones perfect, you will make mistakes over the week, that’s natural, you will not go through your ML career and never make a mistake! What we’re trying to do is analyse why it happened so we can advise you about ways it could have been tackled differently or areas you may need to develop.

Remember we’re all after the same outcome to the week as you are, we’re here to help, we’re not a barrier to gaining the Award.

Any final tips or advice?

Show your passion for the mountains on the assessment, we all enjoy being in the hills and all have a strong desire to share it with others, it’s why we are all there!

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