The Mountain Leader Assessment

Deciding when to take your ML assessment is personal to every candidate. Whilst on a CPD course for ML skills I was persuaded to book onto do my assessment so that I would have a timeframe and something solid to aim for and motivate me. So, I did… Then I regretted it and stressed like mad about it. Ultimately it was the best decision I could of made as it did motivate me to get the time in the hills, work on my skills and be more confident. 

This article simply covers my ML Assessment with Chris Ensoll, a highly regarded British Mountain Guide based in the Lake District. I would imagine the general programme will be fairly similar for most assessments but they are obviously going to differ in many different ways too. Two close friends who are current ML holders had similar assessment programs but both had very different experiences. 

Thankfully, the kit side of things was sorted early on and my only concerns were clothing choices for the weather. The article I wrote earlier on my Kit List covered all of my kit for the expedition phase and as this was a non-residential assessment I could pick and choose my kit for the first two days depending on the conditions that morning. I was staying at a lovely B&B in Ambleside and upon checking in I realised that I had definitely overpacked when carrying multiple kit bags up to the top floor where my room was located.  

Day 1

The first day is arguably the most nerve-racking, all what if’s and worst-case scenarios. The drive up out of Coniston along Walna Scar Road was great and the parking area at the top was ideal for accessing the fells in no time at all. We all gathered and went through introductions with two assessors and 8 participants before splitting into two groups and heading out. A clear timetable of the week was set out so we all knew exactly what to expect and could plan accordingly. Chris was really clear about this being an opportunity to learn, practise and show our skills and knowledge rather than a test which they were looking to pass or fail people on and this was reassuring to hear. 

Within the space of a couple of hundred metres, we were being asked to relocate and taking turns locating specific features. This was exactly as you would expect heading into your assessment and although it was still a bit nerve-wracking at least this was what you train for and it was good to get going. Our walk covered a maybe 2km in the first couple of hours with a relaxing approach to the navigation and general chat amongst the five of us about general hill conversations on history, the environment our background and experiences. Things started to get more serious when our navigation legs got longer and route choices on the steeper technical ground above Lever’s Water became more important. Our assessor for the day, Simon, had a friendly and relaxed demeanour which was ideal for me and I genuinely began to enjoy the experience. Group management was probably the weakest area for all four of us at this stage as we were so focused on getting our own leg spot on but you only notice this with hindsight. We took our lunch break on the eastern side of the Old Man, sheltered out of the way of a cold wind blowing across. With views across to Dow Crag and down to Goat’s Water, we had lunch and there were more discussions around our backgrounds and experiences as we got to know each other.  

On the descent, we were asked to take legs and pick safe lines down. This was interesting as the terrain was quite technical at this stage and group management became more of a factor. It was still a really enjoyable task and was followed by a nice, easy walk along a footpath as we headed back towards the cars. However, with time to spare we headed up towards Nettle Crag where we each had one final leg to navigate and each one was difficult in amongst the ever-changing, subtle features of the south-facing slopes. We made our way across towards Timley Knott where I messed up my final leg while talking about outdoor kit. I was given the opportunity to sort out my mistake but this wasn’t without doing some serious wandering to relocate accurately. Despite knowing that we were off and trying to rectify the mistake while discussing this with Simon, his calm manner and questioning really helped and it felt less like an assessment and more a learning point to take away. 

Our total distance walked for the day was less than 9km but it had taken around 6 hours and was much more tiring than a normal day in the hills. Both groups then headed down into Coniston for a little ‘exam’ paper which consisted of a number of questions based around general hill knowledge. Just what you want to do at the end of a day like this! To be fair, it was brief and in a fairly relaxed setting in a café. It was then back to the B&B to change, relax and recharge ready for the next day.    

Day 2 

This was the steep ground management day, admittedly my most dreaded day. Coming from a running and riding background rather than climbing meant that the ropework wasn’t as easy or natural to me. I had put in a lot of effort to improve my skills taking friends out to practise with, working at home using the bannister and stairs, sat in front of the TV tying knots until I didn’t need to look. This all meant that I was feeling a little less on edge about the day but I certainly wasn’t relaxed about it. Thankfully the climbers were in the other group on assessment and we were all at a fairly similar skill level. 

We met at the Old Dungeon Ghyll, had a quick kit check and headed out. Some tips from Chris on our movement over more technical ground and line choices were helpful to start the day. We headed straight out the back of the ODG and began picking our way up Raven Crag. We were very quickly involved in steep ground management it was interesting seeing how everybody dealt with group management when they were leading. We take for granted how to speak to people and manage the group as we’ve had years of teaching students and managing large groups in the outdoors were for most people that is a foreign concept. The first part of the morning was about picking lines, helping people safely through technical terrain and managing the rest of the group as this is going on. There is a huge amount to think about when you are focussed on keeping one person safe while planning ahead and managing the rest of the group behind. 

We took turns doing the emergency rope work where two of the group acted as casualties/clients and the other two worked separately to retrieve them from the different situations and places they were in. Despite feeling pretty confident watching the first two in our group complete their activity when it was our turn, the area we had moved to was much more difficult to work in. Some were fairly straightforward but mine involved getting someone up from gulley but there was absolutely no anchor point anywhere around. With discussion with an MIA who was shadowing Chris during our assessment, I was able to use her as the anchor and complete the task. Knowing I’d had to bounce several ideas off someone (much more qualified and able than me) was good in one sense but also made me worry about how my skills were being assessed. To be fair, Chris has said at the start of the whole assessment week that this wasn’t necessarily a pass or fail process and that he hoped we would learn a lot and keep learning after it. This certainly seemed to ring true that more the week went on. 

After a short lunch break on a comfortable ledge, I delivered a mini-presentation on the research I’d done on corvids. Since we were on Raven Crag, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity and yet, not a bird could be seen anywhere in the whole valley! Typical, but at least I’d made a start and was hoping to get across some of my knowledge. One problem with aspects like this is that in your group and especially with your assessor, there is already a huge amount of knowledge and you don’t want to mess it up or get things wrong where people may well know a lot more about the topic than you do. My geography teacher background gives me a wide breadth of general outdoors knowledge but no real specialism which is where I needed to do extra work to get up to scratch. 

The first part of the afternoon was spent working on short roping techniques. This is an area I’d practised after doing a ropework masterclass with Chris the year before. I hadn’t realised just how difficult the technique is until having the finer points highlighted so although it looks simple and uncomplicated the constant adjustments needed to your foot placement, body position and placement in relation to the other person are never-ending. Practise with a real novice is helpful as their footwork isn’t as confident and they may put more reliance upon the rope and you than you’d expect. It is a really interesting area to work with people on and the discussion around each person’s performance and watching others carry out the task was really valuable on assessment. Finally, we started to descend and more intense group management was needed. The constant discussions about different options, techniques and people’s choices were invaluable and not what I was expecting from assessment. I obviously had a more formal, rigid, exam-style approach in my head so the way Chris and Simon worked was a really pleasant surprise.  

Once back down at the ODG we all sat around and completed the second written paper, this one on the weather. Thankfully, this is one area where I’m pretty confident on as the main phenomena involved in weather are taught in schools at an early level and having taught up to A-Level I was pretty happy to get a paper focussed on this. As the week had gone on the weather had steadily improved, with the forecast for our expedition section being pretty spectacular for the time of year in the Lakes. This obviously had a significant impact on my packing the night before as I swapped and changed certain kit items in the search for balance between comfort and weight. 

Day 3 

For the first day of the expedition, we had a later start to the day and met at 10 am at the Old Dungeon Ghyll. After a little bit of last-minute organisation, we all had to weigh our packs and justify that weight. I’m glad to say that my pack weighed in lightest out of the 8 on assessment at a few grams over 10kg. The heaviest pack weighed in at well over 15kg which I winced at when I saw the reading on the scales. Not everyone is in a position where they can access the lightest kit for reasonable prices but there are certainly a number of bits of kit that you should seriously think about upgrading and saving as much weight as possible as it makes a huge difference. The weather was already warm and the sun was shining without a cloud in sight.  

The group split again into our usual sets of four and we headed out from the ODG in the same direction. We headed along the farm track for a nice introduction and were given our first presentation by one of our group. There was a pause as we soaked up the sunshine and listened to our talk on Herdwick Sheep. We had all done a bit of research on this breed since we were going to be doing our assessment in the heartland of the Herdwick. It was a good presentation that was only let down by the fact that we were surrounded by fields full of sheep – that were definitely not Herdwicks! We carried on alongside Oxendale Beck with some simple relocation tasks as we went. We crossed the footbridge and headed up the ridge between Crinkle Gill and Isaac Gill where the navigation got a lot more technical. We each carried out a navigation leg to some small features on the way up towards Great Cove. I genuinely thought that the legs you were not leading on were more difficult to relocate on than your own where you’ve plotted the route so carefully. The last leg took us up onto Crinkle Crags with a great example of group management as we went up Mickle Door. Despite seeing the other assessment group ahead of us there was probably a 30-minute gap between us and very different line choices. 

Once we were up on top, we dodged and weaved through the tourists and day-trippers as we were set a series of short, sharp navigation tasks that should have been easy but really threw a couple in the group. We made our way along to Three Tarns before descending down to Green Hole. I was genuinely pleased by this as my ML training course had used this spot for our expedition training and I’d used it a couple of times since. The last time was a few weeks prior to the assessment when I’d camped there after a long walk around then used it as my night navigation spot and found a few difficult spots while practising. I was glad to see where we were camping and knew our night navigation would be in the same area. We all set up camp, started cooking and spent the next couple of hours chatting and relaxing.  

Thankfully, the time of year meant that it went dark at a reasonable time and the cloudless night gave us some natural moonlight to use too. There are loads of really good features, from large obvious ones to small, subtle ones in this valley, making it ideal for night navigation. I felt like I’d had a really good day in terms of my skills being assessed and as our group set out, I was confident of the session ahead. The first two legs ended at points I’d used while practising so I was more than happy to have relocated successfully. My leg was much further away than I’d been previously and it was to end at a very subtle contour feature. I got us to the right area then used every technique I had to get to the spot I thought was correct. The light was not on my side but after moving around, ticking off other features nearby I decided this was the only place it could be. My whole group took a long time to relocate themselves which enforced my ideas on its difficulty. I was really pleased to have nailed it given who I’d had to use everything I’d learned and practised to pinpoint the final area. Our last leg took us up onto the top of Long Crag and with night well and truly set in and the wind picking up on the top three of us stood together and heard that we’d been successful in the activity. Unfortunately, one of our group had not had a good session, which none of us realised until the walk back to camp where we chatted casually while he and the assessor discussed the issues at hand.

Once back at the camp we realised that the other group had already returned and were all fast asleep. Despite getting back to the camp before midnight it was well after 3 am that I was actually able to sleep. My mind was racing after the day’s events and I did not feel remotely tired so despite my best efforts I simply laid awake. As an emergency for such occasions, I’d actually brought along some headphones so I started listening to some old podcasts so I didn’t need to listen properly or think as they played. I eventually drifted off to get my three and a half hours of sleep. Perfect for the long day ahead… 

Day 4 

The morning was warm and the sun was climbing over the hills ready to meet us as we packed and headed out, swapping assessors for the day ahead. We headed up over Gait Crags and down towards Great Moss first of all. Our first real relocate was on this descent and I realised after we’d set off that I had been slightly out. Rather than ignore this I went straight over to Chris to explain that I had been wrong and that I should have pointed out the correct point that I was now showing. He was positive in responding to me being proactive and correcting myself which was a relief. That was my last mistake of the day as I dialled in my navigation technique to a level never before seen (by me!). The first relocate had not gone well for another one of our group and he was under pressure after his poor showing at the night navigation before. For the rest of the day, his focus was laser-like and he worked so hard to get everything right from there which was great to see as all of our group wanted him to pull it back.

We spent the next few hours leading extended legs for the group where there was some navigation but it was more focused on choices, decision making and group management. We picked our way up How Beck aiming up towards Broad Stand and this was a really enjoyable route with nobody else in sight. As we stopped for a break, I decided to get my presentation out of the way. I’d picked ‘Ecosystem Services’ as a talking point as it’s a fairly new concept that has simple, real-world meaning that everyone can understand and see the links in. It went well and allowed everyone to get involved, ask questions and gives examples of their own. Little did I realise that two of the others from our group would escape having to give their presentations at all. We continued on our route up to Foxes Tarn where we stopped for lunch. It was a really nice sheltered spot with the sun beating down on us where we relaxed and chatted before heading on up to Sca Fell.

From the summit cairn on Sca Fell, it was my leg next. I only had to get us across to the Cairn on Scafell Pike but I had to manage the group along Lord’s Rake. Although not technically classed as a scramble it is a steep gulley covered in loose scree leading along the side of Sca Fell to Mickledore. The first issue was the fact that my Harvey’s Ultra Map didn’t have Lord’s Rake marked on it. Today was our day of using only 1:40,000 scale maps yet here I was struggling to find a major feature on mine. I had to swap maps with Chris and use his for this leg. This was an interesting and nerve-wracking leg where all of my communication and group management skills were tested. The route itself is challenging anyway but highly enjoyable if you are confident with your own footing and ability. There are a couple of points where you might need to use hands and just after one of these while I was talking the group over it, I realised that instead of standing still offering help I was actually sliding down the scree slope without moving my feet. This wasn’t ideal while trying to offer a helping hand but something that I can laugh at now. The short climb up onto Mickledore then onwards to the summit of Scafell Pike was nice and easy after that and I was glad to be able to rest mentally for a little while after that. 

We were then led over Broad Crag and we descended towards Round How after that. In the heat and on the terrain there were some jealous conversations about my footwear choice of lightweight Inov8 Roclite boots over traditional mountain boots. I was more than happy with my footwear choice as I skipped over rocks and although the thin soles will not provide enough cushion for some, I pretty much live in Inov8’s these days. The next stage was being led by Chis over what was arguably our most technical terrain yet. We relocated time after time on such small features on difficult terrain, looking back I’m amazed at how consistent and accurate our relocations were. We skirted around Lambfoot Dub picking our way around to the start of Skew Gill and the very steep gulley it inhabits. We then headed up and over towards The Band before hitting Sprinkling Tarn. There was still plenty of time left in the day so we carried onto Allen Crags where we were given a few very short, difficult navigation tasks on the undulating terrain. We met up with the other group and swapped tired stories from our day. The wind had picked up significantly by this point so we were desperately searching for a sheltered camp spot. It was decided that we may as well head over to Angle Tarn and I can happily say that is the most tiring kilometre I have ever dragged my feet across, ultra-marathons included! We set up camp, scattered across the northwestern side of the tarn and began to relax. We chatted and laughed knowing it had been a successful day and we were almost done. Then Simon came across to tell us that night navigation was definitely taking place that night for one of our group members to fix last nights showing. Thankfully, we didn’t have to go out with him as we’d already proved ourselves so we cooked and waited for the light to fade before watching three head torches disappear into the distance on the way up to Rossett Pike. I can’t remember sleeping so soundly in a tent as I did that night.

Day 5

After what felt like a fairly relaxed morning we set off as a whole group for the first time during the whole week. We headed along the path, which was a novelty, before starting to descend into the valley and quickly went off-path contouring across beneath Rossett Crag. Here we spent time working through emergency procedures and carrying out a few role plays involving injuries and incidents as a group. After finishing this we were told that we had passed our ML Assessments! After yesterday I did feel confident but hearing it was a huge relief – a cheeky, excited text was sent to my wife before we crossed over to Stake Gill and began descending from there. After a genuinely lovely walk down and along the valley, chatting to members of the other group who we had barely had a chance to speak to all week we were all in high spirits. 

A quick change back at the car and we headed off to a café at Chapel Stile to fill out some self-evaluation forms so that we had a chance to reflect and then look ahead to our future plans. This was particularly useful as it gave you an opportunity to pick out strengths and weaknesses from the week and discuss them with the assessors who were open and honest about your abilities and performance too. I stopped to refuel and make a couple of calls before leaving the Lakes and starting the drive home which was a strange mix of euphoria and exhaustion! 

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