Professional Mountain Leader Awards

 Love the outdoors?  Spend every weekend walking, hiking or bouldering? Want to escape the confines of the office and do it for a living? You can. Or maybe you just want to know why your activity provider is proudly stating they are ML qualified – what exactly is this ML- and why is it so important?

In short, ML Is a mountain Leader qualification, a voluntary but useful certificate gained from many hours of assessed training on the hills.

If you want to work as a freelance or full time outdoor leader, you need either years of experience, or a recognized qualification. These courses aren’t essential, but what we have found is that many people expect outdoor professionals to have them. They also give you evidence of your competence on the hills, should anything go wrong and are cheaper, and more specific than many degree courses. They are also really fun to take part in, with training being a great way to meet people, sharpen your skills and to get outdoors.

The courses vary from:

  • Walking Group Leader award (WGL) – teaching you to lead walking groups in summer conditions on the hills
  • Mountain Leader award (ML) – for leaders of walking groups in summer conditions in mountainous terrain and ML-W for Winter specific routes or International Mountain Leader awards (IML)
  • Single Pitch award (SPA) – for leaders supervising people on single pitch crags and climbing walls.
  • Climbing Wall Award (CWA) –For the supervision of climbers on indoor climbing walls or CWLA- Climbing Wall leading Award

These are all examples of the leadership awards which indicate a level of skill and competence in a particular outdoor activity. Most of the hill and climbing assessments are run by Mountain Leader Training UK (MLTUK). These are really worthwhile as they show not only that you have ‘passed an assessment’ but that you have also taken part in specific, relevant required experience prior to that- a prerequisite to attending.

Mountain Leader Training is more than just turning up, leading a team and getting your certificate though. You need 12 months hill walking experience before you even apply for the basic course. You must have completed a minimum of 40 quality mountain days and have logged some leadership experience, have a current first aide certificate and be a member of a mountaineering council before you take your assessment- and that’s just to do your Summer leading course.

Winter Mountain Leader training taken after your ML if you want to lead walking parties on the hills and mountains of the UK under winter conditions. To take part in the assessment for a winter ML you need to have completed an absolute minimum of 40 Winter Quality Mountain Days with at least 20 of them gained in Scotland, distributed over a period of at least three winter seasons. You also need to have completed at least 10 Grade 1 named Scottish winter climbs and to have held a First Aid certificate recognised as appropriate for the scheme.

The term ‘quality mountain days’ doesn’t mean ‘a good day out’ either. It tends to mean you got involved in the planning and leadership, spent over 5 hours in the hill or worked with a diverse weather unmarked paths or practiced safety skills- in other words, you were challenged.

We spoke to Tom, 21, at Bangor University who is presently studying for his ML awards.

“ I’ve logged over 60 hours of mountain days on my own in the UK, as well as in the Alps as I’m taking my ML this November.  It started as a sideline to my degree in Sport Science, but I really want to get my MIA (Mountain Instructor Award) so I can teach in the Alps and on mountain routes with the Alpine Guides, and the ML is the first step towards that. As well as making you well rounded professionally, in case I want a career as an outdoor instructor,  you do learn plenty of interesting stuff as well.  My hobbies are climbing, kayaking, surfing, scrambling and biking and I love a climb in Gogarth, Swannage, Scotland or Wales, so getting out on the hills and meeting people is what I would be doing anyway. There are lots of aspects to the ML and it helps you get that essential experience. I really recommend it.”

ML training courses are run over six consecutive days or a series of weekends. ML assessment courses are run over 5/6 days, either in a single block or in two three-day blocks, and they tend to cost around £300 plus. These are lead days of instruction and learning where you pick up on all you need to know.

Many of the courses are specific and very in depth. They will teach you all you need to know, which amongst many other things includes how to:

  • Identify windslab, neve, graupel and other snow types.
    identify possible windslab and cornice formation on a particular slope as a result of snowfall intensity
  • Make and use snow holes suitable for occupation as an expedition base.
  • How to carry an ice axe when kicking steps up, down and across slopes of hard snow.
    and in a way that allows rapid deployment for self-arrest.
    from any sliding position.
  • How to adapt your crampon technique to suit a variety of underfoot conditions, for example, water ice, hard neve, new snow and soft wet snow.
  • Demonstrate rope management including knots, tying on and fluent handling while belaying (including lowering).
  • Identify the signs and symptoms and then apply first aid to treat mountain hypothermia, frostnip and frostbite, snow blindness and sunburn.
  • How to interpret meteorological forecasts and synoptic charts, convert sea level forecasts for altitudes up to 1200 meters, recognise cloud formations and alterations of wind direction and temperature that are indicative of weather changes.

Many of these skills are things you would never know without a course guiding you, which is why only a handful of people attend the assessment without prior specific training.

Have you taken the ML or a similar course? What has been your experience of it?