Last week (24th to 28th September) I was working on the Isle Of Rum for Snowdonia Mountain Skills whilst assessing aspirant Mountain Leaders for their Mountain Leader Award, with Steve Howe as Course Director and along side fellow assessors Helen Howe & Graham Uney.
The Mountain Leader Award recognises that candidates passing a successful assessment have reached a level of competency to be able to lead groups safely within the mountain & upland environments of the UK over ground and in conditions requiring no technical equipment I.e no planned use of a rope or need for ice axe or crampons.
After reaching Kinloch on Rum the candidates were given a bit of time to get their tents up and themselves organised before they split into 3 groups and we headed out towards the Rum hills to start what is a continual navigation exercise over the week.
A good knowledge of the key navigation skills is a corner stone of good, efficient and safe leadership in the mountains. People like to know their leader knows where they are basically!
During assessing navigation I am looking for the candidate being able to recognise the target on the ground from what is shown on the map and to be able to put together a strategy that will allow them to lead us to that point in a safe and efficient manner.
After reaching the top of Hallival we descended and began the night navigation exercise. Night navigation is a necessary inclusion within the assessment week as replicates the need of skills required in poor visibility
This particular ‘night nav’ did give us the opportunity to see some of the islands ‘Manx Shearwater‘ population.
During the assessment candidates are also required to show safe practice of some rope work. This is ‘confidence roping’ – this is using a rope to help give a nervous client extra confidence to be able to cross terrain or ground they may be uncomfortable on, though it is not ‘short roping’ a client. Also to be show is competency to be able to bring a client up, or safeguarding them down a slope using a body belay and safe anchor, usually a loop or thread, after demonstrating selection of a safe anchor point. The conditions we experienced whilst demonstrating and assessing these skills could have been described as ‘inclement’ with strong winds and heavy rain starting to batter the largest of the ‘Small Isles’.
Before attending the assessment candidates must have completed at least 40 quality mountain days in at least 3 different mountain areas and have camped at least 8 nights with 3 of these being ‘wild camping’ + have attended a Mountain Leader Training Course. There is definitely a strong correlation between the number of quality mountain days logged in the candidates record and their level of ability shown on the assessment week. The assessment can be a nervous time for candidates so having put the preparation in before hand is of great benefit.
The assessment also required a 2 night ‘expedition’ where candidates are continually assessed on all relevant skills. Navigation is assessed by asking 1 candidate to take the group to a feature on the map and the rest of the group being able to show where they are when they get there. I will also often ask all the members to show me where we are if passing a recognisable map feature such as a stream junction, ring contour or contour feature etc
We made our way to Glen Guirdil due to the weather forecast of strong south westerly winds and heavy rain for later that day. After a day spent navigating to differing points on the map and the candidates talking about relevant environmental subjects such as the geology of the area, flora & fauna we arrived at a suitable caping site for the evening.
I was to go out again that evening on another night navigation exercise with a couple of candidates and I can only say it was a most miserable experience, with rain water soaking every item of clothing worn due to the amount of rain and the strength of the wind!
Using the same camp site for the Thursday evening allowed us to leave equipment in place and head out for the day with lighter rucksacks to again look at navigation and also looking after groups on some steeper terrain. This included leading the group over some scree areas, finding safe routes up and down steep slopes and ‘spotting’ both up and down short sections of terrain.
The day had brought a change in the weather and my wet clothes even dried out in the sunny spells, which was nice after having had to pull wet clothes on that morning!
After returning to camp and eating another night was spent at the area before packing up on Friday morning to make the journey back to Kinloch.
During the walk we back the assessor team discussed how candidates had performed over the week before giving each of them their result for the week, with 8 having passed and 2 being deferred.
Being deferred means that the candidate would have to be reassessed on one or more parts of the syllabus at a later date hopefully after having gone away practised or gained knowledge in that particular area of deferment. Speaking from experience being deferred after all the work you’ve put in is disappointing but hopefully candidates come back stronger for the experience, unless deferred only on log book after being judged to be competent in all other areas as I was then they are just bitter! 😉
On reaching Kinloch we made straight for the community hall where the cafe was open for tea and cake before boarding the ferry back to Mallaig and heading our separate ways,
Summary – I personally never intended to go for Mountain Leader when I attended a mountain navigation and an outdoor first aid course. ML Training was spoken about and I saw it as an opportunity for 6 days of learning. However I went on from there to take the assessment and it proved to be a life changing opportunity for myself as I have gone on and attended further Mountain Training schemes and am now near a full career change. It is a great process of training, consolidation and assessment that enables candidates to go on and work for providers or themselves in varying areas with different clients and is thoroughly rewarding, though having rain soaked clothes for a few days can be less fun 😉
It’s worth mentioning that all of us on the assessment team are very much in agreement that the assessment can also be a excellent opportunity for candidates to gain additional knowledge, hints & tips from ourselves. Often after candidates have demonstrated the necessary skill or technique then I would discuss further ideas gained through my further training schemes and experience which the candidates can go on to use in the future.
The Isle Of Rum is a wonderful setting for an assessment having pre history geological interest, a history from the Picts and the Norse settlers right through eccentric Victorians. Interesting flora and fauna such as the Manx Shearwaters, otters and Red Deer. With out traffic and only a tiny store on the Isle and with (sometimes) stunning views over the surrounding Isles and to the mainland it gives a sense of remoteness.