I was quite looking forward to my Winter Mountain Leader assessment course, I was super well prepared and I do a lot of navigation and winter mountaineering / climbing so didn’t think I’d struggle. Then I got flu the day I needed to drive up to Scotland, doh!
The drive up was a struggle! Maybe the crux of the whole week.
First things first, I passed with no real drama, other than really struggling with the flu, but I’ll write up what goes on at a WML assessment for those who are interested and for the benefit of those going through the scheme.
The WML qualifies you to lead groups in the mountains when there are winter conditions and is an extension on the Summer ML scheme which you must already have passed, the winter version is a big, big step up – but completely achievable if you put the effort in. There’s a few providers out there, I went with Phill George.
Meet and greet type thing at 0815 and chat through the week, then look through the weather / avalanche forecast.
Today was a mountain journey in the Coire Cas area with plenty of nav and the added fun of teaching ice axe braking skills, something you’ll do a lot of as a winter ML. The nav theme was set straight away, making sure tactics were solid, winter proof ones, the first of many contour features! The management of the group is also a constant theme, is the pace right, have you picked a suitably safe slope, are you assessing the snow pack, do they need any new movement skills etc? When you’re teaching the axe skills, make sure you have a good, progressive structure.
We got back to the accommodation after 1700 and reviewed the home paper until about 1900, it felt like a long day.
0815 again, weather and avalanche chat.
The format was very similar to day one but instead of axe skills it was security on steep ground skills, using the rope appropriately, picking good lines and appropriate safeguarding tactics. The nav was there throughout the day again, more contours..! We assessed the snow quite a lot this day too. Rope work wise we did bucket seats, horizontal axes, approaching the edge as a team, abseiling on a bollard (I did three… first one another candidate stood in the middle of it, second one I hit a rock and third one was ok!) and some confidence roping. We were operating in the Fiacaill Ridge are and finished about 1700.
First day of exped… Later start at 1000. We walked and navigated to many, many contour features until 1800 when we arrived at our snow hole site, cue digging a snow hole until about midnight. Tough day! Digging snow holes is brutal, especially with the remnants of the flu, you get super wet and extra knackered. I was super excited to get into bed that night and we knew we had a slightly later start of 1000 the next day. Admin is key in a snow hole, keeping your kit in order and as dry as humanly possible for another two days.
I’d slept terribly! But a breakfast of hot chocolate, porridge and Nutragrain helped and the weather was awesome, it was a great place to be. If I thought day three was a long day, day four was super long too. We navigated throughout the day and into the night, by the time we got back to our snow hole it was nearly 2200. Soup, noodles and cous cous never tasted so good! We’d done an epic amount of nav that day, even when it’s not your leg to lead you need to relocate when you get to wherever you’re going, you must concentrate all the time. I’m glad my nav is really good or the stress levels would be mind blowing, one lad in my group was having a meltdown by this point.
I slept like a log that night and was super psyched this was the last day, but it wasn’t over yet! More nav of course, this time in the rain and we had to stand around for about an hour while one of our group got some rope work situations, I guess he hadn’t been up to scratch on day two. More nav down towards the ski centre car park, we must be nearly done. “Right guys, you’ve got 30 mins to dig an emergency shelter.” I consider myself to be pretty fit, but my sense of humour was hard to locate at this point, but what are you going to do?!
Finally we were on our final leg down to the car park.
Boom, done. All that’s left is the debriefs.
All in all a great week, it was a shame I was so ill that I couldn’t really enjoy it, but a pass is a pass!
I’d definitely recommend going with Phill George, he and his team of assessors (Dave Kenyon and Steve Spalding) were great, I learnt loads and they created a great atmosphere. It was useful to be on the other side of an assessment again too, I spend a fair bit of time assessing candidates on SPA and ML courses, so it was good to get a reminder of what it’s like being assessed again!
The WML was far more physical than the the SML and whilst less technical than the MIA scheme, it’s more demanding in my opinion. You need to be on top of the whole syllabus of course but nav is the key, you must be able to nav and relocate when you’re knackered and the vis non existent. The nav was pretty much completely on bearings with timings / pacings and always to contour features.