Sitting in the atmospheric Caffi Gwynant in the southern shadows of Snowdon, I was still buzzing after spending a week with 10 other “students of the mountains” outside in amongst the peaks, crags and mountains of Snowdonia. Finishing the week in the café following a group debrief we then waited for our individual feedback on performance and elements we then needed to go away and develop during the “consolidation period”, before choosing to come back and complete the award on an assessment week.
(Click below for an audio version of the whole blog)
While each person went in for their debrief, it was a great time to chat and reflect with the rest of the group on the week gone by, what we had planned for the future and swap contact details to keep in touch.
I was the last one in, sitting down with the pros, Phil, George and the two other instructors we had had for the week, Sam and Greg. All super sound, mountain goats, guides and leaders: between them they had decades of experience in the mountains of the world, no doubt in some pretty spicy conditions, yet some of the most down to earth, thoughtful and spot on people I had met, so keen to teach, guide and develop everyone throughout the week.
Each taking their time to feedback on strengths and performance throughout the week it was reassuring to hear that they judged me competent and ready to come back for assessment as soon as I could, being deemed “comfortable in the mountains”. This phrase set in my mind, gently repeating and triggering thoughts about how feeling and being this way in lots of situations can make a difference in so many ways.
If you are curious as to what I am talking about and would like some insight into what is involved in this course then read on, if not then scroll through and look at the photos, maybe skip to the last paragraph or watch that video of the dog happily twitching in his sleep on Youtube..
I was attending the second stage of a Mountain Leader course, the first starting prior to the course, in having a minimum of twenty “quality mountain days” to your name. Ideally these should be self led, thus requiring you to have a basic level of competence in the mountains to attend the initial course. Following the course itself, you have a period of time of your choosing to go away and “consolidate”. You’re learning and developing the skills and capabilities to pass a final assessment week, five days of being watched and developed, with a three day expedition including two nights out in the mountains camping and navigating at night. Completing this successfully, along with a minimum of forty quality mountain days and an up to date first aid ticket, then qualifies you as Mountain Leader or ML, an internationally recognised award that amongst other things allows you to safely take groups or individuals out into the mountains and on some scrambles that don’t require ropes or equipment. It is a very popular course, well recognised around the world and a lot of people attend to pursue either a career or at least have some additional income from their hobby. In addition many people do it to add another level and way of being competent in the mountains, fells and hills, either for their own peace of mind or so they can feel safe taking out family and friends, so it has a huge scope and appeal which was highlighted by the variety and backgrounds in the ten people on my own training week. It is also a strong step towards other higher level awards and instructor courses run under the mountain training scheme, the collection of awarding bodies for skills courses and qualifications in walking, climbing and mountaineering in the UK and Ireland.
Before thinking that the course is all about slogging around the mountains and navigating, I think it is worth pointing out that we spent a lot of time stopping, discussing or being taught out on the hill. We spent about an hour each morning inside checking weather and doing some outline course work but most of the day was spent outside on the hill learning from the ground up, from fauna and flora to folk tales and legends! We also got to experience what the top end of technical terrain and scrambles an ML would be expected to go on, plus should things go a bit wrong how to then use a rope to get up or down to safety, nothing too technical and great fun to practice dropping each other off a few cliff edges! (only joking 🙂 )
Consolidation and fine tunning
Leaving Wales after my course, I was determined to make the most of this week and not let the trail go cold, leaving it too long and forgetting everything before heading back for the assessment. At the same time, I still had a business to run and my own winter training to take care of, so I didn’t want it to become an obsession to the detriment of everything else.
Realistically I already had more than enough quality mountain days under my belt but there were other elements I wanted to brush up on before heading back to be assessed. Learning more about reading weather forecasts, synoptic charts, geology, wildlife, fauna and flora were all elements I needed to work on, plus the obligatory sixteen hours of First Aid training I hadn’t really touched in the past ten years.
Of course, all of this is part of the bigger picture and has not been by accident. Going in this direction is part of a longer-term plan for me, another step and platform upon which to move to the next. My own winter training would benefit from long mountain days, navigating and carrying heavy kit up mountains: as I have found previously, I respond well to this high level of volume at low intensity. Then the coaching side and my own passion of helping others enjoy being outside, achieving and developing themselves comes into play. That phrase comes around again “comfortable in the mountains”(or moors or trails) is something I would love to help other people become.
After a little planning I had a sensible timescale to get everything to a point I would feel ready and comfortable for the assessment, and that would fit with mine and Kim’s holidays, work and training. So a few trips to Wales to practice navigation, camping and learning some new areas were necessary. Also it would be helpful for Kim as she is being ever inspiring with her desire to take on even more challenging races herself next. It was great to help with this and for both of us to see some stunning new areas of Snowdonia. In particular I really liked the Moelwyns, a fairly well known area for ML assessment, with its areas of undefined peaks, wet boggy terrain and many, many similar features making micro navigation challenging at the best of times. Adding mist, rain and darkness to this understandably justifies its label as the ML graveyard – where many budding MLs have been lost to wander, damned in the bogs and ferns, searching for elusive Purple Saxifrage!
Digital Log book (DLOG)
The Mountain leader scheme uses a great system to help record all of your adventures and now there is an online version which even lets you upload GPX files of routes you have done, a life saver for me as most of my days and runs out over the past 7 years have been recorded in some form or another. This, combined with some reflection, allowed me to put together a robust collection of time spent outdoors.
Not content with this I wanted to add as much pre-running life experience, so it was a trip down memory lane to look through old photos and diaries of experience starting with my Duke of Edinburgh awards at 14 years old (28 years ago! Man!) through to the great adventures and endeavours with the Army, in particular time served with 59 Commando Squadron in the Arctic, desert and mountains. It is not necessarily recent but it all counts, it is all ingrained for sure.
Five weeks after the initial training week, first aid course completed and my DLOG now as complete as it was going to get, I was back at Dol Peris, albeit a couple of days early to complete some other minor steps towards one of my future challenges post ML course (always trying to think ahead!)
Gathering on the first day, it was great to find that two other people on the course were also ultra-runners, Alexea and Douglas – a running coach himself! The fourth person in the team, another Jason, was a long distance walker from south Wales. With plenty of common interests, we all quickly got on: in addition to this we had all done our pre-assessment training with Phil so we all seemed to be on a pretty good wavelength from the off. Setting the scene, Phil reassured us of the expectations throughout but at the same time that it was still an opportunity to learn and develop, at the end of the day we were going to be watched for five days, so it would be easy to see if we would or wouldn’t be at the level required or if we needed to go away again, brush up a few things and come back for a single assessment day. Not too much pressure but there was still enough to keep you sharp.
Including the assessment week, I like the way that the scheme and people involved seemed to be much more about developing people in a positive way, encouraging the good things we could already do and allowing time and space to develop and learn in the areas we needed to grow. That being said you still knew where you stood and things were not dressed up, if you needed to improve something you knew about it but you were not made to feel crap about it in the process.
The weather gods were with us all week, a little cold, damp and windy but it was November and could have been a lot worse for sure. Spending the first couple of days going through the basics, knowledge of the mountain environment, rope work, moving and looking after the group on rough or technical terrain, there was also plenty of opportunity to practice navigation. At the same time, the group worked well and we all spent time talking, putting the world to rights, sharing stories of challenges, climbs and excursions as well as stopping to study the rocks, fauna and microcosms of life. All the time we knew we were being watched but I liked the way we could lead in our own styles and characters.
Into the final three day expedition and two nights out wild camping, including night navigation. The bonus of doing a November course is that we didn’t have to wait long before it got dark meaning we could be done and dusted early allowing plenty of time for sleep and food! The night navigation was the real test for this element and demonstrating the ability to trust the compass and your own pacing was key despite the temptation to try and use the force to guide you, it comes down to facts and data even more than ever. It is fascinating how different the landscape and features change size and feel in the dark; a shallow drop off the edge of some rocks in the day can look like the screaming abyss on a cold windy night. We all worked well through this and made it back safely, me feeling pretty chuffed with my last leg. I navigated us on a bearing for about a kilometre through the marsh and crags, bringing us back right on top of our home for the night, a small sheep fold: I think that one went well at least!
A little deja vu back in Caffi Gwynant on the final morning and our small team all buzzing, the group debrief put us all quickly out of our misery. We had all passed, a really strong group and team, we were chuffed to bits and the individual debrief followed with more great feedback, discussion and advice on where to go with it next. It was really nice to leave feeling like the years of experience and adventures I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with came together, embodied with a qualification and further confidence to help more people get out, play in the mountains and explore, but also be part of the ML culture and association. So far I have met some fantastic people, both leaders, instructors and also participants in trips out and about. At the end of the day that feels like health, happiness and life.
Comfortable in the mountains
One of the first things I was asked on the course was did I believe there was a crossover between the ML course and ultra, trail or mountain running. Initially I knew there was and the more I pondered it the more I thought about how that crossover merged closer and closer. I also started to wonder how close to the edge of being safe or comfortable people often are as runners in the mountains or remote and sometimes hostile areas. Some runners set out doing some straightforward 5k runs, then through clubs and meeting other people, become introduced to trail running and local fell races, developing further into longer distance events with the added desire and lure to do some epic mountain or ultra races such as the UTMB, Sky Races or longer fell runs, suddenly being taken from a world of comfort and relative safety into these places of wildness, extremes and remoteness. Though fitness may progress quickly the skills and knowledge to be more proficient and self sufficient may get left behind. The comfort of doing an event may be quite different to that of getting out and training in the mountain or moorland terrain on your own. It’s all good fun until it goes wrong: that moment or instant it doesn’t go to plan; your heart is in your mouth; you realise how alone and vulnerable you are; swallowing up that fear; counting to 10 and pushing down the irrational thoughts; breathe, take control and work through the problem. How does your mind deal with the situation? How comfortable are you in this mountain?
Being fully comfortable all of the time is not something you can or cannot be, every situation cannot be prepared for, and there are elements that build towards this. Exposure to difficult situations can build resilience. Despite the cold, wind or rain compromising your thoughts and ability to work out of the problem, wearing and carrying the right kit so you can think clearly is always going to help, yet at the same time, you may just need to accept it is cold or wet or windy and push the discomfort down, suck it up and numb your brain for a while. This can help you get some perspective. The more you do it the more comfortable it becomes, just like that interval session or first 5k Park run. Expose, learn, recover, adjust, get strong. Get comfortable…
Finally and very often overlooked, a sense of humour goes a long way: it’s bloody cold and wet, fingers a little numb, you have just topped out on a moonscape snow covered mountain summit blanketed in thick fog and the wind scarred rocks look jagged and unkind, with frozen icicles pointing out at forty-five degrees. Your partner doesn’t know you aren’t quite sure where you are, and the bloody dog attached to a retractable lead is going bat shit crazy every time the wind gusts over 40 mph – ffs! Stop, breath, count a couple of breaths, ask the question, “At this point in time, are we okay?” You realise you are all fine and just need to work through the problems. The wry smile creeps over your mind and out into your jaw as you chuckle at yourself and the situation. Head up, you laugh as the dog does another roll in a snow drift and you are joined by your partner with a deep connection to the wildness.
The practical stuff
I did my course with Phil George based out of Llanberis, an absolutely fantastic bloke, loads of experience and brilliant instructor, as are all of the people he uses for the training courses. The course runs from their Dol Peris accommodation which is well worth staying at if you are going on the course or want somewhere to stay in Llanberis, you have access to a kitchen and a really nice comfy house to chill out and relax in.
There are lots of other really good courses all around the country, one going on pretty much every week from somewhere, though they don’t tend to run through the winter months so much. Check out the mountain training website for a list of courses
Kit wise, I was given a very solid kit list when I signed up to the course, it isn’t too long, everything is there for a reason. Below are some of the top things I used throughout the courses and training period. Though it is worth keeping in mind I did this in the Autumn so there is a focus on warmer kit;
For general days out or even summer camp gear I loved the Montane Trailblazer 30, plenty of useful pockets on the back and top. For me the winner is having decent sized pockets on the straps at the front and also in the side that you can access without removing the pack, coming from a trail running and moving quickly point of view, the less you have to take the pack off the quicker you can move but also the more likely you are to eat the food you need or put those gloves on that are within easy reach.
I also used the Montane Yupik 65 litre pack, although the 65 litres was over kill for a 3 day expedition in almost winter conditions, I wanted something that would cover all bases. Again it has plenty of well thought out pockets in the side and some very handy stretch ones on the back to keep wet gear in and away from everything else, yet within easy access. It also compresses down really well so not filling it up didn’t matter as it didn’t feel like I was walking around with a house on my back!
On my feet I mostly used a pair of Hoka Sky Arkali boots, not a strict walking boot as such but a hybrid running, walking and scrambling shoe. I wanted something versatile that would work for long days out doing scrambles and fast approaches, they are so comfortable and felt really secure on some of the technical climbs, however not waterproof so on the edge of what I would want further into the winter.
I got away with the lack of waterproof boots by using a thick pair of Sealskinz socks to keep all that marsh water out and also a pair of Drymax socks underneath to keep any sweat or water away from my skin, this combination worked spot on and even by the end of the expedition my feet were only slightly damp from sweat rather than ingress.
On my legs I mostly used the new Montane mode mission pants (trousers!) which have a really nice fleece inside and weather resistant fabric on the outside, the smart part is that you don’t over heat in them, yet they keep you warm when it counts, they are also close cut at the bottom which I really like so I could fast-pack in them if I wanted and don`t get the annoying swishing going on!
As we were moving slowly and often stopping to talk, then heading up some steep scrambles there was a little temperature fluctuation going on so it did take me a few goes to get the layers dialled in. I found that the Fireball Verso jacket was great for this with the right amount of Primaloft insulation for October/November and its reversible functionality useful too.
Also this Autumn I have become very attached to my Alpine raid hoodie (wearing it as I am typing away now) a fleece with full zip, comfy hood, thumb loops in the sleeves, slim fit with a little stretch makes it comfy and warm on its own, combined with the Verso jacket I was toasty warm in minus 4 or 5 on the night navigation and also chilling out for the 16 hours of downtime we had in the tent on the second night
On top of the layers I liked the thicker Gore-Tex of the Fleet jacket, with the strategically placed thicker Gore-Tex on the shoulders and lighter else where it felt light but substantial enough to keep me dry in some pretty grim conditions. The hood was spot on, fitting really well and the arms long enough to go over gloves and cover the layers underneath.
Loads of other kit too, a lot of what I have I like it to be dual use. With an eye on winter/autumn fastpacking and longer summer adventures, obviously I am sponsored by Montane so my own choice of kit is influenced by this, I have always been more than impressed by how long it all lasts and works, however there is loads of other great kit out there, the key is getting out and trying things, don’t be afraid of the weather just respect what it can change.
If you are wondering about the course or just want to get out a bit more then I hope this has given you some useful information or perhaps a little nudge, at the end of the day it is there for all of us to enjoy, share, respect and appreciate so go and get stuck in!
Also a big thank you to every one who helped or were on the course and assessment weeks, I met some great folks and was thoroughly inspired. Big thanks to Kim as well for putting up with me draging her around some interesting places and not missing me too much when I headed off to leave her in charge of Indie xx