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Becoming a Mountain Leader

Passing your ‘ML’ allows you to trek round the British Isles with anyone who wants to experience our wondrous mountains.  You need to do a training course and a 5 day assessment, involving finding insignificant ring contours, the notorious night navigation and it can put the fear of God into anyone.  A perfectly together, competent, sane person said to me ‘my ML assessment was the most stressful week of my life’.  For me this was the starting point and prerequisite before you going on to the Mountain Instructor Award (MIA) meaning you can take/teach people multi-pitch rock climbing.  This is my aim, but first I had some walking to do…

Bleaklow Katherine

I deliberated and deliberated and finally decided, what the hell, just chug away at it, I might even enjoy it and certainly I would learn something.  And of course, once it’s done I can finally get onto the bit I actually want to do: the MIA.  So I booked onto the 6 day training course at Plas-y-brenin.  The week before, I examined my kit.  My walking boots appeared to be lost, I had no compass, no decent waterproofs, no nothing.  5 days before the course I bought some boots and my friend Elaine (an International Mountain Leader no less) gave me a crash course in how to use a compass.  I threw a bit of mud onto my new, shiny boots, scuffed them up a bit, tried to add some scratches to my compass (which seems stupid now) and headed off to Plas-y-brenin last June hoping there would be someone less experienced than me on the course.

My room mate Sandy, a woman in her 50s with a lifetime of walking behind her, was already tucked up in bed when I arrived, reading a book.  I bustled round the room apologising for the noise trying to grab a look at her gear and hope mine didn’t look too new. The next day we met the rest of the course.  Along with a smattering of teachers, hoping to pass on their skills to a host of DofE hopefuls, were 2 Ray Mears survivalists types from the south coast who would shudder at that comparison.

Crib Goch

My training course went by in a daze or was that a haze of appalling June weather.  At one point on day 3, cold & soaked (my clothing still needed attention), everyone else confidently marched to the designated spot we had to find.  Even after being explained in detail by the instructor Neil, I still didn’t get the picture and couldn’t match where we were to the map.  Re-entrants, spurs and ring contours all seemed like unnecessary jargon.  Further designated spots came and went and I always seemed surprised to be there or not there or no where near.  Over time I simply kept quiet and hoped each day would end soon and that maybe I’d have more of an idea the next day.  Was there any hope for me?

The day after the training course, I dragged Nic round the Glyders in 100 metre visibility and driving, cold rain.  Within ½ hour my mobile had packed in due to cold and wet, so I still couldn’t practice my timing; pretty much in silence for the 4 hours duration we trudged round, me counting paces, head buried in the map.  Was it fun?  Unsure (definitely not for Nic and still a novelty for me).  Did I find that small lake detour and make our way round?  Yes.  Were we cold and wet?  Yes. Mission accomplished.  However there were still some small questions: what do you do with your map?  Map cases are uncool, yet you need them and I’m too tight to buy a laminated map and cut it up.  Do you put your gaiters over or under waterproofs?  Despite the right equipment our feet were sodden.

Snowdon

Time went on and over the next few months I visited the Lakes, Scotland, Peak and Snowdonia in order to get myself up to speed.  Over that time I gained many experiences and new discoveries.

1. I discovered the Peak.  Despite living in Sheffield for the last 10 years my experiences had been confined to the cliff edges of Stanage, Burbage and limestone areas of Cheedale, all making up approximately 5% of the Peak.  I had never appreciated the true stunning bleakness of Bleaklow, the dramatic valley following the river Allport, the darting hairs and crazy geography of the never ending peat bogs and of course the fact that you never see a soul up there.

Bleaklow bogs

2. Then I discovered bothies.  What a joy these little stone huts in the middle of no-where are.  A day of trudging round in non-stop Scottish rain is all worthwhile when you see the faint outline of your bothy in the distance.  We managed to carry a whole sack of coal round with us for our 4 day walk, never actually managing to light it; if you could, you could light a fire every night.

Bothy 

3. It really does rain in Scotland all the time.  Even when it’s stopped, it’s still raining.

Fort William

4. Corrour is an interesting place. 1300ft up on Rannoch Moor this remote train station leads to what seems to be the social hub of the Western Highlands (at weekends anyway). My sister managed to sprain her ankle coming off Ben Alder and spent a night here while Nic and I continued on to Fort William. Local deer stalkers (and even visiting American ones) and women from the neighbouring towns (such as Fort William 50 miles away) will pass a night away here, living it up on the whiskies, wines and beers. If you want a bed and breakfast or a slap-up meal with fresh venison, this is the place. My sister had quite an experience by all accounts.

Loch Ossian YHA

5. I hate wind and take a spare map.  40 mph hour winds in Betws-y-Coed mean don’t go walking in the mountains.  Now used to the fact that you go walking in all weathers we pushed it rather too far at New Year.  This time I didn’t want to get out the car but since I’d dragged Nic to Snowdonia for New Year it was his turn “You’ve brought us this far Katherine, we’re going walking”.  The dizzy heights of Yr Aran (747 metres) were not quite low enough or enough in the shadow of Snowdon.  When we found ourselves crawling, and literally unable to stand up within metres of the top we had to turn back.  Back down off the main summit shoulder, but still a way from safety, with no visibility the map was whipped from my hands.  Fortunately we’d come up the complicated way and I’d memorised the easy way down.

6. Waterproofs need re-proofing.  After the New Year experience in even wetter clothes than normal I boldly called up Lowe Alpine to complain.  “Have you ever washed your jacket?”  No.  “Have you ever re-proofed your jacket?”  No.  Mmmnn, they were right, I was wrong.

Ben Alder

7. Pocket Rockets are the way forward.  Clearly I couldn’t take my car camping double burner on assessment, the MSR has too much of a track record of wild flames and Pocket Rockets are tiny, safe and perfect.

8. Know where you are at all times.  My friend Kirilee and I trekked off to camp up by Sprinkling Tarn under Great End in the Lakes.  We bumped into a fellow camper and we talked at great length and with great gusto and knowledge about our forthcoming night nav and did he want to join us.  Sprinking Tarn has a tiny little island on it accessed by a 10 metre bottleneck of land, we set up our tent here.  Confidently we dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags for our little foray around the bumps and contours of the lake.  By this time a mist had completely enshrouded us.  Off we went on our bearing and suddenly it became clear we had no idea where we were – we hadn’t actually made an exact note of where we had camped.  An unexpected drop in the ground and the water was no-where to be seen.  Our only option was to find the water and follow it round back to our tent.  After ¾ hour of circumnavigating a 50 metre diameter piece of land we re-found the tents.  Embarrassed and with deep puffs on cigarettes Kirilee and I went off to bed vowing how we seriously needed to hone our night nav skills.

9. I can now disbelieve weather forecasts.  Admittedly isn't anything new but now I can at least give reasons why they might be wrong.  Understanding the weather and reading synoptic charts can be useful for planning your day (or climbing and which crags will have good conditions).

10. Shop assistants can be a real pain.  On the Sunday afternoon before my assessment began I stopped at a well known outdoor retailer in Betws-y-Coed to buy a pair of proper walking trousers (I’d spent hundreds of £s so far on all this walking, why not splash out some more).  The shop assistant told me I would never pass my ML:  9 months between training and assessment is not nearly enough, or so he said.  Apparently the female pass rate is higher because women leave 3 years between training and assessment.  On and on he went; this was the last thing I needed.  Stunned and in silence I continued on to Capel Curig.  Six days later I called him to explain how I had passed the assessment and not to under-estimate a passing woman buying walking trousers.

In March 2007 under a glorious clear blue North Wales sky I passed.  Blessed with great visibility the whole week I managed to put all I had learnt into action, successfully. On reflection its been the most enjoyable experience.  I visited new places I would have otherwise shunned for a day out climbing, learnt new skills, caught up with friends and got fit in the process!