18th October 2017

A week in the life of an ML assessor…

mountain leader course

Working on ML training and assessment courses is flipping ace!

My brother brought me to N Wales when I was 15 and it has lead to a lifetime of fun filled adventures all over the world, for which I’m extremely grateful. The ML award has been vital to my career, enabling me to take groups out in the mountains and leading on to my Mountaineering Instructor Award and Winter Mountain Leader, so I feel very privileged to help others on their own journey.  

There’s a few steps to being able to work on ML courses and a few specific terms that’ll make more sense if I explain them now…

Provider: In my case this is my company – JB Mountain Skills, the role of the provider is to look after all the admin type stuff. They must be approved by Mountain Training, and briefly, they will have shown they have a market for ML courses and will be beneficial to Mountain Training.

Director: The person who’s in charge of delivering the course, ie. me, Jez Brown. A director must also be approved by Mountain Training and hold their MIA & WML or IML & WML, as well as having worked on at least 6 ML courses. They will also need to have a diverse range of CPD and tick a few other boxes too.

Staff: A second member of staff will be needed to deliver at least part of every ML course and will work under the direction of the course director. Whilst they don’t need to be approved by Mountain Training, they need to be an experienced ML as a minimum and have worked at least 20 days as an ML, most staff will have far in excess of this though.

Now that boring stuff’s out the way….

rock climbing warm up

How I like to start my day…

Before the course even starts I’ll have spoken to everyone on the course, as the provider, dealing with the admin and checking DLogs. The day before the course I’ll have a look at the candidates DLogs and make a few brief notes, are they meeting the minimum requirements, does anything jump out? Sometimes there’ll be something unusual in there like a trip to some far flung place or an epic that provides a good talking point. I can’t say I read every last note on each entry of the DLog as it’s pretty time consuming, but I’ll read some if they look interesting and sometimes I’ll have to hunt around the DLog to find everything – log everything, whether it’s a QMD or a winter climb or a Himalayan exped, it all helps build a picture of you as a candidate.

Day 1, I always meet in Pete’s Eats, it’s a North Walian institution as much as it is a cafe! I don’t like to spend too long indoors so I try to keep things fairly brief, we’ll have some quick introductions and have a chat about the week ahead. We’ll also get straight in to chatting about the weather forecast and analysing a synoptic chart. Because this is an assessment, I expect the candidates to be leading most of the stuff we chat about including telling me what kit we need for the day, group shelters and such like, then we’ll decide where to go for the day. Maybe Cwm Glas and we’ll be on the 1:25k maps.

We try and calm the nerves a bit, we know it’s a stressful time, by giving everyone some pretty straight forward legs to start with, fairly obvious points like stream / footpath / field boundary junctions etc. We’re looking for people to get us to the points and look after the rest of the group on the way there, maybe imparting a bit of knowledge along the way about anything mountain related, whether you’ve spotted a Sundew plant or tell us about the hydro electric developments you can see en route to Cwm Glas, or anything else – I love all this because I’ll usually learn something myself! For those not leading the leg, you still have to concentrate as you may well not know where you’re going and you’ll have to relocate when we get there… Assessors won’t always tell you if you’re correct, not to be a pain in the butt, rather to give you a chance to correct yourself should you realise you’ve made an error- but absolutely do not assume because we haven’t said “yes that’s right” that you’re not on the correct spot. Sometimes we will say yes, sometimes we may say “if we are there, where’s the stream shown on the map” or something similar, to try and elicit some justification points. Following can often be harder, especially when the assessor is chatting away to you, remember we all want to have a nice day out  in the hills too!

When you get to a point, I have no issue with candidates taking their time, having a quick look around etc., to make sure they are 100% sure where they are, I’d rather you do that than rush and give me a wrong answer.

As the day progresses we’ll probably start to navigate to smaller features, re-entrants, spurs and such like. At times I’ll let you just get on with it, other times I might ask you to let the group know what your plan is, along with any timings you’ve worked out. Remember to pick appropriate safe lines through any spicier terrain and keep checking that everyone is doing ok.

At the end of the day we’ll head back to Pete’s for a little review of what we’ve done and run through the home paper which is a pretty chilled affair, it raises some good points for discussions and lets us cover some of the less practical aspects of the syllabus.

mountain leader course

Navigation can be fun!

Day 2, meeting in Pete’s again we’ll have a look at the synoptic chart again and see what the weather has in store for us, we might then compare that to some forecasts such as MWIS to see if they match what has been said. On this day we’ll be going on some more rocky terrain to focus on security on steep ground stuff, group management and there’ll still be some nav involved. Somewhere like Tryfan is ideal for this day and the candidates will be taking a rope between two and a helmet each (the helmet is because we are planning to use the rope, unlike working as an ML when the use of the rope is not planned). As an assessor I won’t be carrying any extra kit than a normal mountain day, but I will make sure I have my camera because I can usually get some nice action shots! You’d also notice me taking notes on this day because there’s a lot going on and I want to be able to refer to everything I’ve seen, in part to make a decision on the candidates performance, but also to help give them feedback on specific things I’ve seen.

Arriving at the bottom of Tryfan’s North Ridge, with slightly heavier packs, the candidates will take it in turns to lead sections of the journey and at this point it’s more about route finding and safeguarding the group than nav with the map. I’m looking for people to pick appropriate lines, spot, shepherd, give good advice and such like, plus I still want people to impart some knowledge, maybe some geological gems as we’re in the Ogwen Valley and there’s so much there to talk about. I might ask some questions to the group at times too, “Why are there not many trees? Should there be?”

mountain leader rope work

Security on steep ground can be fun too!

This day requires a lot of judgement from the candidates, I’m looking for them to make the correct decisions of when to apply the various techniques in their tool box such as when to spot and when to get the rope out and if they do get the rope out, what kind of belay are they going to choose, and then how do they safeguard themselves? At some point they will need to use a rope and I’m not just looking at the setup, I’m wanting to see it used safely and effectively, I sometimes see a perfect setup, used perfectly until right at the end the candidate takes the person off the rope whilst they’re still in a precarious position, where just moving them on a couple of metres would have been much safer. At some point the candidates will probably be doing an abseil as well, and there’ll definitely do some confidence roping, which I often see being done really badly, make sure you practice it! Bent arms, twist in the rope in the lower hand, appropriately tight, good stance etc.

“Right folks, where are we?” A quick relocation somewhere on the ridge often catches people out, I’m careful where I do this, there’s a few good points where it’s not to hard if you think about it, but in some spots it would be super hard. Contours, contours, contours.

We might head down the West side and do some nav on the way down, maybe a leg each. At this point it probably enters my mind we were supposed to have done the 5 minute presentations on the hill that the candidates have been asked to prepare. Oh well, we’re out of time, we’ll do it back at Pete’s…

Scrambling course Tryfan the Canon

Taking a break!

On each day, but especially this day, I’d be giving out bits of feedback along the way and sharing any top tips that I feel may be useful, an assessment must be an extension of the training regardless of how well the candidate is doing.

At Pete’s, after a review of the day, we’ll listen to the presentations and probably have a chat about any salient points, before having a quick chat about the upcoming expedition… I’ll normally ask the candidates to come up with a route plan, having given them some key points that I want to get to. Snowdonia is a big place with so many awesome route choices, one of my favourites though is the Cnicht area of the Moelwyns, check it out on the map, lots of lovely contour features! If I’m happy with what I’ve seen day 2, we may not take ropes on the exped and wouldn’t normally take a helmet, however the exped gives further opportunity to see some rope work if I haven’t yet seen quite enough from anyone.

Day 3, we won’t meet ’til about 1030 so it’s time for a lie in! I wish, despite the best will in the world I won’t have packed ready the day before, so I’ll be up on time and sorting my kit and getting the head torch batteries out of the charger and such like. I’ll also be packing too much food, I usually do, 2018 will be the year of eating more healthily on expeditions I think, it’s too easy to pack junk food, which used to keep me happy but these days it makes me grumpy (and who wants a grumpy assessor!)

Mountain footwear boots shoes

What to wear?

When we meet, guess what? We’ll look at the synoptic charts again, followed by a bit of MWIS, then have a look at the route plan the team has come up with.

I once got to the parking spot at Gelli Lago and one of the team realised they’d left their boots back at Pete’s, don’t let that be you! Check and double check! That said, we all have little mishaps, I’ve eaten my dinner with a compass as a makeshift spoon before and I once took the pole set from a different tent (2 poles instead of 3..!) which made for a flappy tent…

Similarly to the previous day the candidates take it turns to lead legs, on the 1:25k again, while everyone else relocates each time, it’s important to manage the pace, we’ve all got bigger packs on, and it’s a full on few days, so make life easier for everyone, slow & steady! Up and over Cnicht and before you know it we’ll be at the camp spot where before anything else we’ll have a little chat, lead by the candidates about what makes a good camping spot and what considerations there are when taking a group out then we’ll get on with putting our tents up and getting sorted. I normally aim to get in to camp somewhere around 1700, after having a wander around and seeing how everyone is getting on it’s dinner then power nap time for me!

I’ll wake up to the sound of my phone’s alarm going off and reach for my head torch, it’ll be dark now which can only mean one thing, night nav fun times! The time depends on what time of year it is, in the height of summer it could be 2300, this time of year though it would be closer to 1900. Anyway after quickly getting the right layers back on, it’s time to bag up and get back out there for another few hours. Remember why we’re doing night nav, it’s to simulate poor visibility, so if the vis has been really poor already, we might not do shed loads of night nav, but expect to be out for a while. I’m looking for candidates to navigate precisely and with simple, bomb proof tactics, still keeping an eye on the group of course and not taking us on any terrain that’s too spicy. Relocating at night is hard, so make sure you concentrate when following legs too, especially as you’re probably a bit tired and weary. Keep plugging away, try and remember to enjoy it and it’ll soon be bed time, phew!

mountain leader navigation

Night nav fun times

At some point during night nav I’ll try and get some signal to check the weather forecast for the next day, and let’s be honest, I’ll probably get a cheeky update on to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter…!

A review of the day and chat about the next day and that’s day 3 done!

Day 4, I like my sleep so I’ll have asked everyone to be ready to roll at 0900, with their gear all packed and their 1:50k maps at the ready. I’ll make sure I’m packed and ready before that, having had the standard porridge and a hot drink to warm the core and fuel me for the day. I think for a lot of people this could be the toughest day, out for another full day with another camp to come. Did your kit admin pass the test, is everything still dry and organised? That can be hard when the weather is grim, as it often is, but it’s all part of the game so keep on top of it, you need to be able to operate with ease to have the head space and capability to look after your group when working as an ML.

More of the same today but on the 1:50k and with longer legs normally. If anyone needs to redeem themselves in terms of steep ground stuff, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for those opportunities too.

snowdonia camping, campcraft mountain course

Say cheese!

Into camp around 1600, and it’s time to get the tents up again, hope they’re still dry inside..! Night nav fun times? Well that depends on the previous night’s performances. Did everyone smash it? Great, no night nav. Did some people fall below the standard and need another opportunity to prove themselves? Oh well, out again then I’m afraid, that’s all of us. I absolutely would not say “We’re all going out because Mr/Mrs X didn’t do well enough”, it would just be a case of we’re all going out and everyone will be doing legs. I love night nav, it’s awesome being out in the mountains at night, but I love my sleeping bag too, so I’m happy either way!

Day 5, 0900 and we’re ready to go again, it’s nearly over. I look around, and think how people are looking, we don’t defer people for looking tired so don’t worry about that! It’s just interesting to see how people are coping.

Think back to what we haven’t covered in the week yet. We haven’t mentioned emergency procedures yet, so at some point during the morning we’ll have a chat about that and maybe do some improvised carries. What about river crossings? Who doesn’t love a river crossing? Well, me for a start! We’ll absolutely have a chat about them, mostly about avoiding them, but tactics for crossing them when we need to. Will we do them, sometimes, depends where we are, what the water conditions are and the particular group.

“Right, lets relocate!” “What info will Mountain Rescue need?”…

We finish back at the vehicles around 1200. It’s all over, there’s nothing more to be done save the reviews, debriefs and results.

winter skills course scotland

Winter ML next?

Back at Pete’s again, or maybe the Siabod to mix it up, we’ll review the week and chat about what happens next etc., before having individual debriefs. These can be happy or sad times, that depends entirely on the candidates. As an assessor I think the acid test is whether I’d be happy for them to take my loved ones out in the mountains. Put yourself in the assessors shoes, it’s a massive responsibility to pass someone and we take into account the candidates performance over the whole course, I’ll have chatted to any other course staff to make sure I have all the info possible and give a lot of thought not only to the result, but also to the feedback.

Most people pass, that’s ace, that’s what we want. The ones that pass are the ones that have consolidated well and put in the practice.

Some people defer, take the positives from that though! That means you’ve met the mark in some areas, awesome, just a little more effort and you’ll have passed in no time. You get really constructive feedback and an action plan, and I’m always available after the course after the dust has settled to have a chat whether that’s a day, a week or a month later, it’s not always the time to take on loads of info.

It’s possible to fail, this is rare and only happens when people have not put any effort in.

Done!

Well, not quite! Home time is followed by a well earned shower and then it’s time to sort and dry any kit that needs drying. I might need it again the next day! The course director also has to fill out a course report online with Mountain Training which takes a bit more time, personally I tend to do that the day after. I also have a personal reflection on the course, what went well, what could be better etc., none of us ever stop learning and I strive to never stop improving so reflection is an important part of the process for me.

Well, that was a monster blog so good effort if you made it to the end, your ML will seem easy in comparison!

Good luck to anyone going through the scheme!

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Comments

  1. Leave a Reply

    John
    18th October 2017

    A brilliant insight , many thanks. As someone who is totally dreading assessment , I find these pieces a real help in driving my anxiety away. For now more consolidation and practice is needed but hopefully in the not too distant future I will have the confidence to go for it. In the meantime http://www.google.co.uk/whyaretherenotreesintheogwenvalley

  2. Leave a Reply

    Paul
    19th October 2017

    Great read. Insightful and helpful. I’m dreading assessment but I’m trying to remember to just have fun and relax.

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