What To Expect On Your ML Assessment

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Stories, Living Adventurously, Practical Advice

Well, it’s taken me almost two weeks to write, but here it is! Perhaps I’ll split it up and sort it out a bit later, but I’m a little busy launching a women’s adventure magazine right now! Sorry. Here’s the story day by day. Definitely worth a read for anyone considering doing their Summer ML. It was not what I expected.

ML Assessment – Day 0

I’m lying face first on the floor, wondering what on earth just happened. My 60L rucksack has fallen off my back and over my head, pinning me onto the slate patio. I dropped the other bag somewhere on the way down.

“Hello! It’s great to see you!” Come the voices through the back door on my right.

I look up from under the rucksack, but none of the windows face into the courtyard. Somehow I’ve managed to do a spectacular beached whale impression without anyone noticing. As my ML Assessor would comment later in the week: I do all my own stunts.

I jettisoned the rucksack and removed my hand from the metal plant pot it had landed in. Fortunately it was full of water and not prized petunias… Although I had managed to splash half of it all over my left hand side – plus ripped the knee of my only “real person” trousers below a slime green stain.

Quickly, before anyone came outside to find me, I slung the rucksacks back on and stepped into the house, arm throbbing. “It’s a little slippery outside,” I said, smiling wanly.

In The Face Of Adversity

The Lake District is a long way from Devon – particularly if you don’t have a car and insist on over packing. We spent Saturday night with friends who, conveniently, live on the bus route to Keswick. But after less than 24 hours there, I’d managed to bruise my arms and knees, rip my trousers and crash into a bramble patch in a downhill flail to escape a game of tag. Not the best start to an ML Assessment.

I could see it escalating: “So why did you fail your ML, Emily?”

“Well, I fell over and broke my arm and then sprained my ankle and spent a lovely week in the hostel…”

We arrived in Keswick on Sunday afternoon, in time to stock up on food for the week. I now fully understand what the enormous trolleys outside of Booths are for…

They really do know how to cater for outdoor enthusiasts!

Shopping done, all we had left in the journey was to catch the bus to Borrowdale YHA. There were buses every quarter to and quarter past the hour. No problems.

We waited….

And waited…

And waited…

After over an hour, a bus came to pick the 8 of us stranded at the bus stop. But as soon as we’d all got into our lovely heated public transport, another bus driver came over to chat to our driver. He persuaded him to take the open-top bus that had disappeared into Booths’ car park half an hour ago instead…!

We were transported to the cold bus, transferred onto it and then driven down the Borrowdale road with a brisk gust of wind blowing down the stairwell.

ML Assessment – Day 1


Navigation skills are very important. Critically important on a Mountain Leader Assessment. But they’re only any use if you know where you are to start with. We’d been driven down the road to a lay by below Honister Pass and it was like being blindfolded and spun in circles. I had no idea where we were. In fact, I didn’t even know which map I was on – never mind if the car park was marked. Worse, there was no one I could ask.

We’d left Borrowdale YHA to start assessment day 1 of 5 after a quick meeting with our course mates and assessors. The course briefing was supposed to settle our minds. It was going well for all of 5 minutes. Talking about the deferral system, the chief assessor pointed out that a deferral in 3 syllabus areas was the same as a fail.

“For example,” he said, “1 – flora and fauna, 2 – geology, 3 – glaciation. That’s a fail.”

Considering I’d done basically zero revision in any of those areas, I was pretty concerned. You can fail for that?

Then he went on to mention that the most common areas for deferrals were the rope work day (Tuesday) and people having issues with map cases during night nav. They wanted everyone to have laminated maps so that they could mark a dot without it moving. I don’t like map cases, but for some reason I’d bought one especially for ML instead of buying waterproof maps. AAAARGH!

To top it off, we’d been told that we were allowed to talk about anything except navigation during the day. One person would be given a point to take the group to and everyone else had to relocate. That means when they say “I’m hear” you have to work out where here is. So, standing in a lay by with OL4 in one hand and OL6 in the other, I felt pretty hopeless.

“I think it’s OL4,” whispers Mike – another guy I’ve literally just met and happen to have a friend in common with (yes, that’s Devon for you!).

Other Points Of The Day:

  • “Pub Quiz” in the evening that turned out to be a written exam. No Quiz-Team Aguilera, no laughter, no beer tokens.
  • Kath is dubbed “Tuna Kath” because her hostel-made tuna sandwich somehow managed to invert inside its cling film wrapper.
  • Half the group drive to Keswick for WiFi because Borrowdale hostel’s can only cope with one user. They sit in Spoons updating their DLogs to fit the required QMDs before the end of the week!
  • Everyone spends the evening cramming on flora/fauna/glaciation.

ML Assessment – Day 2


In the morning I felt physically sick. That’s really odd for me. I struggled through a peanut butter bagel wondering why I’d brought so much food.

Ropework was the syllabus area I’d been most worried about. I’d practised it to death and I use ropes a lot, but never in the situations the ML course requires you to. Very happy to smash a talon into the ground and rig for a stretcher lower. More nervous about ticking the right boxes for belaying and abseiling.

Lowering your group off a 5ft cliff and then having to abseil after them would be, in my mind, a day in the hills gone beyond wrong. It all seemed a little bit forced.

To top off the day, we’d swapped assessors with the other group (eight of us in two groups of four – actually make that one 3, someone bailed after day 1…). Now we had the guy who’d almost brought the other girl on the course to tears yesterday. Great.

I could write for a long time about the ropework, steep ground and spotting. But what I will say is that assessments seem to do something crazy to your brain. I’ve practised this over and over and over. Yet I still managed to not wrap my left arm around the rope when belaying (once), to somehow let go of said rope for an instant when gesturing to my imaginary group with my right hand and to not sit forward enough so the rope between me and the anchor was tight (once).

It was an incredibly frustrating day.

I also managed to have a group a couple of meters above me, whilst leading on steep ground, where the assessor considered the ground to be loose. He had to stop me. Well that’s a deferral, I thought.

Other Points Of The Day:

  • Spending 20 minutes trying to explain to our assessor (playing annoying group member) why it’s better to use the edges of your boot not flats. And I mean to the extent of pressure distribution…
  • Cutting my finger open clearing a bomb-proof thread anchor from bracken. Tiny cut, but it just wouldn’t stop bleeding. Honestly, finger, it’s hard enough as it is without you playing up!
  • The most awkward lunch break ever, whilst assessor dug and dug and dug, mercilessly into what we did and didn’t know about the weather.
  • “But WHY?” became the theme of the week.

ML Assessment – Day 3

Expedition Begins

At 7:45am, I had to remove myself from the hostel kitchen. The smell of Mike’s chicken fajitas on the hob genuinely threatened to make me sick. I guess that’s how nervous I was.

We’d spent the whole evening swatting up on everything our brains could contain. I’d basically fallen asleep onto my exceptionally dense Collins New Naturalist of the Lake District. Rich, Rob and Joe had been abseiling down the hostel staircase the night before and Rich had been up until gone 10pm asking people to quiz him on the weather. Dom, Mike and Kath had gone into Keswick again for more WiFi, a couple of laminated maps for me (hooray!) and a bumper pack of Sharpies that would make a Geography student squeal with delight.

On the expedition, something changed. It was almost like we’d said “screw it” to being assessed all the time and decided to behave like normal people on a walk. Before asking questions made it seem like you didn’t know anything. Now everyone was asking questions, even when they were leading, and having a discussion instead of an interrogation.

We were given points to navigate to, just like on Monday, and had our original assessor back. It seemed somehow more straightforward now everyone was talking.

Other points of the day:

  • Camping with the other group, now officially dubbed “Team Tuna”.
  • Discovered that the oil-like film on a bog is actually a type of iron-eating bacteria…

Night Navigation

“I hope the weather gets bad,” said David, our assessor.

Four hours later, we’re pacing around in the dark, maps so wet that the permanent pen is coming off. Thanks David. But, I guess, at least that meant he might not mark us as harshly. We’d had a clear day and apparently that meant we should be accurate to 15 meters. To give you an idea, 1mm on a standard (1:25000) OS map is 25 meters. The corner of my compass is probably bigger than that!

All of my practice has involved taking a bearing, walking on it accurately and pacing out 100 meters until I reach the spot. It was always a “thing” and you always knew when you’d got there. This was something else.

We met David at the top of the hill at 7pm.

“I’ll give you two or maybe three points each,” he said. “I’ll start with an easy one, then get harder and harder again – so I can test what level you’re at.”

Okay, I thought. No problem. There are loads of features here, so we’ll probably get a mini tarn and a ring contour each. At least the first one will warm us up.

Rich went first. He took a bearing, started to walk, but there was an outcrop of rock in the way. We had to go down and around it and back up. But it wasn’t on the map. So by the time we’d woven in and out of crags and Rich said, “We’re here.” I had very little idea of where we were. Never mind that we’d just stopped on the side of a random hummock. Aaaargh!

I pointed at my best guess.

“Thank you,” said David.

By the time is was my turn, it was raining hard enough that the dots of permanent pen on my waterproof map were coming off. As were my extra grid lines. We were so close to the bottom corner of the map, that I didn’t have anything to line the compass up on. I still wasn’t 100% sure where I was starting my leg from either. All David ever said was “Thank you” to a relocation. He never corrected you. He never told you if you were right.

I looked at the route between where I thought I was an where I had to go. I couldn’t just straight line it. I couldn’t really box around features either. I took a deep breath and another jelly baby.

I remembered my friend saying that he confused the hell out of his group on night nav by contouring. There wasn’t a lot of choice. I took a general bearing, measured a rough distance and kind of threw the rules in the bin. Let’s have a go.

ML Assessment – Day 4

More Navigation

Expedition day 2 was entirely on 1:50k maps. Yes, that map with a pink cover that I only ever use on a bicycle. Still, we had a clear day again and the features we were set would have to be more obvious because the map has less detail. Right?

We left our campsite pretty late because all of us except Rob had something to redo from Tuesday. Team Tuna were long gone whilst we were still scrambling around on a loose outcrop by the river corner.

By the time we reached our third nav point of the day, it was already 1pm. Everyone else had given their 10 minute talks (Bob Graham Round, Birds of Prey and GPS, respectively) and we’re had more quizzing on the weather. I conversation in which I’d tried to articulate that some clouds “look like rain”.

My leg was next. It was quite long and I was trying really hard to demonstrate that I could navigate whilst talking to the group. This was going well until we got nearer to the ring contour I’d been sent to. In fact, I panicked. I panicked about how long my leg had been and picked a spot kind of similar but that I was 90% sure wasn’t “it”. I just wanted to get it out of the way, give my talk on Mountain Rescue and get that out the way! I could even see the point in the distance, but for some reason my fried exam brain thought “that’ll do”.

Becoming Team Epic

It was 3pm by the time we’d started the second round of nav points. We’d been going slowly all day and it was getting dark. I kept expecting that we’d be cut short and go to the campsite. But we didn’t. We kept going and going, until we were navigating in the pitch black on a 1:50k map. Never have I ever used a 1:50k in the dark before.

My leg scared the hell out of me. I was given ring contour 600m away. On the map it looked clear and rolling. I took a bearing. It pointed straight off a cliff. Ah.

Turns out someone had conveniently printed GLARAMARA in friendly black letters right across the cliff. So we had to go up to the top and down to a col. Then David pointed out the route he wanted us to take down. We scrambled down about 100m in the dark with 60L rucksacks on wet and slippery rock. It was pretty sketchy.

At the bottom I stopped and took a deep breath. Right. Where are we?

I was pretty sure I had us, so we continued on my bearing  through a massive bog that wasn’t on the map. Then another crag and cliff. Then more bog. Beyond the bog, out in the distance loomed something that looked like a tor. It was, miraculously, still on my bearing. I walked at the friendly silhouette and stood on top triumphant.

“David, we’re here.”

Other points of the day:

  • We arrived in the campsite down an “eternal convex slope of doom” at about 8:30pm. On the way we went from being assessed and stressed to making terrible cheese jokes with the assessor.
  • Halfway down a laser beam shines across us. “Yes,” said David, “I didn’t think you’d had enough of a challenge today, so I got some kid to stand on Rosthwaite Fell and shine a laser beam in your eyes…”
  • The other team had arrived ages ago and were already bedded down. We felt like we’d had an epic.

ML Assessment – Day 5

River Crossings

We woke up bright and early, then started to walk back down into Borrowdale. One by one, we were pulled aside to be quizzed about river crossings. It was another part of the syllabus I hadn’t really thought too much about. Thankfully the small amount of water rescue training I’ve done was enough to get me through.

We dumped our kit outside the YHA and got straight into the river to demonstrate said river crossings. It was considerably deeper and colder than on the training course! The last box ticked, we all ran for the showers.

The Outcome

As we waited in the dining room to be called in for results, I thought through the week. I was pretty sure I’d been deferred on ropework because I didn’t get a chance to repeat it. My feedback after the second go at steep ground hadn’t been resounding. I’d mucked up some macro nav, but had been told they were happy that area of the syllabus had been ticked off. Had I blagged my way through weather well enough? And that river crossing I’d just done was definitely not textbook. Ropework, steep ground, river crossings, weather… There was enough scope for three deferrals in there.

The person who had to get off quickest went in first. He came out: deferred. Two legs of micro-nav in daytime. The other person in his car went next: deferred. It wasn’t looking good. Then another deferral and another. Then a devastating fail. Then it was my turn.

I went in and sat in front of a panel of 3 assessors.

“Well, you had a bit of a wobble on steep ground and a little thing about the rope not being tight enough… which you beat yourself up about.”

“Yes, I did,” I admitted.

“But we’ve decided to pass you…”

I could not believe it. They gave me some more feedback and we had a quick chat, but that was it. Done. ML done. I’m a Mountain Leader and I feel like I’ve worked for it!