Left, right, left… Why mountain leader skills are a useful tool for runnersSee our WR nav courses
I first decided to become a Mountain Leader while hanging on to a creaking glacier in the dead of night, 6000m up a mountain in Peru, watching my detached crampons sliding down the face in the opposite direction. Strangely it transpired, I was waving goodbye to a certain type of dependency.
My local guide, who had replaced my ‘for hire’ crampons with the wrong sizes, had also invited along an assistant at the eleventh hour, who was still high from a party the previous night.
Never again did I want to feel so at the mercy of someone who thought it routine to ascend a 6,200m mountain within 24 hours, with no acclimatisation. When you are task orientated, as many runners are, it is easy to imagine that strong will and a bit of bravado can get you through most things. A cathartic shock then, isn’t always a bad thing. My experience in the Cordilleras Blancas, was a road to Demascus moment of sorts. Rule number one: Plan and prepare well and pack your own kit!
I signed up for a navigation course in the Brecons. It helps to have a healthy fascination with maps. If you don’t have one, cultivate one. Maps help to bring the landscape to life, by annotating topographical way marks. They also make great picnic rugs, as long as they are laminated!
Our instructor was also a caver. His job sometimes involved pulling bodies from underground caves, an experience which would have had some men crying over their shredded wheat. I learnt about clandestine paths used by Welsh militants who were fighting the Romans but more importantly, it ignited a latent curiosity in navigation, which had lain dormant for years. Alongside the basics, we learnt micro navigation, boxing, relocation and mapping. These all form an essential part of the night navigation on the Mountain Leader assessment.
You definitely don’t have to be a regular fell runner, orienteerer, or work in the outdoors industry, to benefit from the ML qualification however. It is also a great transferable life skill to acquire, in terms of mountain craft, for those times when you are tempted to go off piste with a group, who have little or no experience of spending a night camping out in the mountains. I’ve a friend who is dyslexic and regularly confuses left and right. But his sense of direction is top class, having learnt to read maps and study landscapes while in the army.
On the initial training course, our night nav took place near the pass of Llanberis. In horizontal rain, we mapped the ground, looking for the features, which our instructors had identified for us to find. The hardest part for me was tracking, which meant we had to be able to point to the map at any given moment and say where we were, even when we weren’t leading a leg. There is no back seat driving on the ML, which is why the six day’s training and five day assessment seems so intense.
Four years and many mountain traverses after my first ML course, where I was told to go away and ‘fill out’ my log book, I had become familiar with all of the National Parks across Britain. I felt suitably qualified to put my navigation skills to the test. For Dartmoor and any upland landscape which doesn’t include mountains, it is enough to have your Walking Group Leader Qualification, which was recently replaced by the Hill and Moorland Leader, with an optional Expedition Skills module. The main difference being the rope work, which forms part of the emergency high ground skills base required of a mountain leader. If like me, you are not a regular climber, you will have to practice belaying and abseiling from a suitable anchor. In reality runners are unlikely to take a 30m rope with them on a long run. However for the ML assessment you need to be able to improvise a safe descent or a possible a rescue.
If like me (in the days before GPS) you rarely log your runs or walks, it is never too soon to get started. Although living close to a navigational playground like Dartmoor National Park, is a very good training ground with a compass and map, it is devoid of any mountains. This didn’t really pass mustard for the ML. I had to go away and focus on higher ground. The hindsight method of filling in walks or runs done with friends, four years previously, is just a form of self delusion. You can not bluff your way through an ML assessment and nor should you want to. The only way is to practice every element of the syllabus over and over until it is second nature.
For the assessment, I got back in touch with Phill George, an International Mountain Guide and member of the Association of Mountain Instructors, whose family run business at Dol Peris B&B is based in Llanberis. Phill, an amiable Welshman, who has spent most of his life passing on his passion for his craft, is that rare beast; an expert who also has a top flight personality, a great role model for anyone seeking to earn their trade from mountain leading.
Although it was he who had told me my log book needed ‘filling out’, I found him to be fair and personable, so much so I had no hesitation in contacting him four years later.
Day one and two of the assessment involved a discussion of mountain weather, access and conservation issues and a micro navigation excursion in to the hills near the Roman Camp beside the equally famous Pen y Gwryd Hotel. The Gwryd is a Madam Tussauds of famous explorers, climbers and sportsmen. Scrawled across the walls and ceiling were the signatures of Hillary, Shackleton, Chris Bonnington and Sir Roger bannister, to name a few. Fittingly, it’s where we would start and finish the assessment some five days later.
The rain in Wales, when it comes, comes in buckets and bucket it did on us that day. Rule number two: Learn to read the weather. If you can recognise a weather front as it passes overhead, you will feel a lot more secure and able to enjoy the experience, because you won’t be at the mercy of the elements. Wind speed doubles on a mountain peak and in some cases trebles. A warm front can be recognised by grey, dark and gloomy conditions with light rain, while a cold front often involves cumulus clouds building to heavy rain. It is also worth remembering that the temperature drops by one degree every 100 metres on a mountain below the dew point (approximately 600-800m) or every 200m above the dew point where it is cloudy at the peak because the rate of condensation has exceeded the rate of evaporation. You can gauge wind speed by looking at the isobars on a synoptic chart, marking them off on a piece of paper and transferring that measurement to a scale on a geostrophic scale which you find on the synoptics page of the Mountain Weather Information Service website.
On day two after a discussion on leadership, we ventured out on to the slate tipped slopes looking down on to the Pen y Pass and beyond to the Cwm Hetiau (valley of the hats) where the gentlemen had once lost their hats on their way up Snowdon.
Day Three started with some bad news: The forecast for our expedition that day, looked grim, with predicted winds of 70mph. The saving grace was that we could get our night nav out of the way with a full moon scheduled. Our guide John, took us out to the slate mines around the back of Nant Gwynant.
On the way he pointed out some rushes (which are round unlike sedges which have edges). These contain a white wick like fibre, which had once been used by entrepreneurial miners to make candles on the black market, when candles were being taxed. Every single slate had been hewn and lifted from the mountainside, leaving a permanent reminder of the miner’s burden. In Snowdonia, the rock is predominantly volcanic, the smoother type, which is rhyolite, or the courser kind, which is dolerite. This makes it tough on the feet but a climber’s mecca.
It’s useful to know if you’re running on a bearing, crossing some red fescue plants that they are a likely indicator of marshy, boggy ground, as is bog myrtle,sedge or bog cotton. Sphagnum moss, which is also found in boggy, peaty areas can be used as an antiseptic, if you take a fall.
We made our camp below Bwlch Ciliau, the pass where legend had it that Arthur was shot and killed by an arrow. Later as the moon scaled the sky,we climbed Yr Aran in the dark and took it in turns to walk on a bearing, pace and time to the waymark indicated by John.
The moon cast shadows over the landscape, making this the easiest of night navs. It was clear though that everyone knew what they were doing.
On the penultimate day, we finished by camping in the sheepfold and the next morning after a cold river crossing, we gorged on a Full Welsh breakfast in the Gwynant Cafe and reflected on the unusually enjoyable test we had endured together. We started off as strangers but finished as a tight group, ready to put our skills to the test.
Sign up for a navigation course with Wild Running https://www.wildrunning.co.uk/shop/navigation-courses-uk-dartmoor/
Mountain Leader Assessment (Summer)/Training:
The cost is roughly the same for the training and the assessment at around £375.
Recommended Navigation App:
You can buy 1:25,000 map tiles with app providers like Viewranger or Anquet, then import your GPX and embed it in a blog.
What are the pre requisites for enrolling?
Mountain Leader Training – 20 quality mountain days
Mountain Leader Assessment – 40 quality mountain days in at least three different mountain areas of the UK and 8 nights camping, 4 of which should be wild camping
What is a quality Mountain Day?
- You have to take part in the planning and leadership
- navigation skills are required away from marked paths
- experience must be in terrain and weather comparable to that found in UK and Irish hill
- knowledge is increased and skills practised
- attention is paid to safety
- five hours or more journey time
- adverse conditions may be encountered
First Aid Certificate: This is a pre requisite for the assessment.
The minimum requirement is at least sixteen hours or two full days of instruction and include an element of assessment.
Useful websites (Weather):
Good route finding for runners: If confronted by boulder fields, steep vegetated slopes, rocky and broken ground, scree, gullies and tussocky grass in poor visibility and darkness; break up each leg in to sections, especially if you are in a group, so you can regroup at the end of each section.
Work out your average number of running strides for 100 metres (count every two strides as one). You can use this for pacing in micro navigation.
Work out your average running pace (km per minutes) on flat/moderate but grassy terrain.
Add on roughly two minutes for every four contours going up hill. If they are very close together, you may want to avoid this route!
Mapping the terrain and relocation in poor visibility:
Use boxing (walking/running and pacing at right angles around an obstacle) keeping track of strides and distance. In poor visibility you can map the surrounding terrain by walking at 90 degrees to the direction of travel for 100m, then turning at another right angle and again until you are heading back to your starting point.
Relocation: This is about gathering information from what is around you and on the map, in order to place yourself when you’re not sure of your exact location. Comparing features on the landscape with the map, especially linear features like a river or boundary wall, which are easy to spot or a spot feature like a cairn. The slope aspect or type of terrain can also help you to relocate, as can taking a bearing of two or three obvious features which are also on the map.