After all the long days out on the hill, seeking out the bad weather, and the nights spent practising navigation, it was time to make the journey up to Glenmore Lodge where I would be spending the next five days on a Summer Mountain Leader assessment.
I did my training course at the Lodge two years ago, which was a great experience. I learned loads about the responsibilities of, and what it means to be, a mountain leader. We also worked on the navigation and rope work skills required do the job. It was also super sunny!
My consolidation period consisted of the pursuit of the 40 quality mountain days (QMD’s) required before you can take the assessment. I was lucky enough to head all over the UK from Snowdonia, to the Lake District and the highlands and lowlands of Scotland, taking on long and challenging days requiring early starts and camping out in the mountains. This provided me with great experience of all the different mountain terrain, weather, and challenges that can be thrown at you, whilst also developing the soft skills which allow you to take less experienced people into that harsh environment.
A big challenge for me was learning about the flora and fauna, as well as the mountain geology and weather. Jessica, being a biologist, was a massive help with this, as were a lot of our friends who are also in that field. I also watched geology documentaries on “Youtube” and attended a “Getting to know your upland plants” workshop, which was one of the best £10 I have ever spent. Having weather posters showing the different air masses and cloud types above my desk at work, has helped me learn about weather patterns in the UK. Exciting stuff! Altogether this has provided me with a broad knowledge of the mountain environment.
So although I was still feeling nervous on the night before the assessment began, I knew I had put the work in and had a tool kit that I thought would get me through the next week successfully. We would soon find out!
Day One tested us on emergency procedures, river crossings and a good bit of environment chat. We did not need to go incredibly far and our assessor made us feel comfortable enough to show him everything we knew. When it was time to get in the river it was challenging but, dare I say it, fun!
Day Two was a different beast: it was the steep ground day. From the Cairngorm Ski Centre car park to in and around Coire an t’Sneachda, we were tested on our ability to look after groups on steep and rocky terrain. Having had a lot of climbing experience and taken people out on scrambles and mountain ridges, I felt confident throughout the day and was able to work freely, which was a good confidence booster. Getting out and practising all the rope work and abseiling during my consolidation period proved invaluable to making the task of lowering a person down a steep rock step as slick as possible.
Next, it was expedition time! Having packed my bag the previous night, we drove south, away from the still snowy northern Cairngorms to Blair Atholl, where our route would take us up and over Beinn Dearg and down into Glen Feshie. After setting off there was lots more environmental chat, but the main focus was on navigation. The real challenge hit us at around 2pm when the mist came over us and it was micro nav until the end of the day. In the evening we set up a high camp just north of Beinn Dearg. Fortunately no night navigation was required due to the thick cloud still covering the hills in the morning. This was to be the most challenging day of the assessment with low visibility and heavy rain. Our pacing, timing, map and compass skills were all thoroughly tested, and when we did eventually drop out of the clouds it was not long before we got to camp.
The final day of the expedition and the assessment was a simple walk out to our pick up point at Auchlean in Glen Feshie. Once back at the lodge we then had an agonising wait to find out if we had been successful. There was time for a shower and lunch before, one by one, we were called up to get our result. It was a nerve racking time: I was going over and over any potential mistakes I had made, as I walked up the stairs to the debrief room….had I done enough?
“Congratulations you are a Summer Mountain Leader!” were the words from Mark Chadwick, the course director.
It was an amazing feeling. All that hard work had come together and paid off and now I have the opportunity do what I love as a profession, which is just incredible!
Going through the award had been an incredible journey and I would recommend it to anyone who loves being out in the mountains. Advice I would give to anyone else going for this qualification would be to get out on the hill with other experienced people and ask a lot of questions; I was able to pick up so many hints and tips from the people I went out with. Although it is an individual award it’s very hard to do it on your own: those people who have woken up at silly o’clock and been out in the driving rain with you will probably be the reason you have your 40+ QMD’s. Thank you, Jessica. Also, respect the process. Do as much as you can and more than you think is necessary. It’s not easy and it will take a lot of hard work, but stick with it and stay positive. Look through the syllabus and tirelessly practise the skills required until you are in fact dreaming in contours.