Passing Your Summer Mountain Leader Assessment

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Stories, Living Adventurously, Practical Advice

I passed my Summer Mountain Leader Assessment last year. It was quite a long time coming. I did my MLT during my first year of university. A friend dropped out of the course because he’d broken his ankle. I stepped in with all of a week’s notice to take his place. I still haven’t thanked him enough for breaking his ankle. I spent the next three years at university leading weekly walks to the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Scotland, Wales… Then I moved back down to Devon – about as far from all those mountains as you can get.

That’s why, last year, I decided I needed to do my Mountain Leader Assessment. I always intended to do it, but life and injuries got in the way. Now I was back down in Devon it required far more effort and was therefore easier to put off. My first aid was running out, so I booked it. You can read the full account of my ML here, written just after I got home. Here are the things I wish I’d known…

When Am I Ready?

To say, “You’ll know when your ready” is not very helpful, but probably true. You should be able to demonstrate everything on the syllabus with some ease – in a non-assessment environment at least. There were lots of stupid mistakes that I started making once the assessment scrutiny turned on. I’d do something weird or in a different way to normal and think to myself, “Why the hell did I just do that?”. Everyone responds differently to nerves, but it definitely helps to have the basics so good you can do them with your eyes shut.

The main thing, in my opinion, is to be able to navigate without it taking up 100% of your brain. A lot of the assessment is spent navigating to points on different maps and in different conditions. Particularly during the expedition, your assessors will want to see that you can lead and interact with a group. If you can’t get to the end of your leg without your nose in the map all the time, it’ll look a lot less confident on your part.

ML Assessment Ropework

Other areas it’s worth practising beforehand on the hill are:

  • Direct belay
  • Indirect belay
  • Spotting on rocks/scrambles
  • Walking up/down steep and loose ground or scree slopes

Do these with an actual group if you can for realism. It’ll be pretty obvious to an assessor if you are fumbling about with these tasks because you’re nervous or because you’ve never done them before.

At the end of the day though, Mountain Leader Assessment is something you can put off forever. Unless you’re trying to get work in the outdoors, it’s quite easy to push it on to next summer, then the summer after… If you’re on the edge, book it and put the work in.

Note: I am assuming that you have all the pre-qualifications to do the ML Assessment! Get your QMDs sorted, then fine tune your exam technique.

Which Provider Should I Choose?

There is a lot to be said about doing your Mountain Leader assessment with the provider you did your training with. This was the advice given to me and the advice I will give to you. Mostly, you will know what to expect from the personality of your assessors and what they really care about – based on your training course. Ultimately, there is a level of subjectivity in any assessment and some assessors will care more about some things than others. For example, I was never assessed on calculating timings whilst on the hill (phew), only on the written paper.

Important Point: If you know one area better than others, definitely do your ML there. For example, I’ve spent much more time in the Lakes than Snowdonia. Being assessed on familiar territory puts you at ease and gives you an upper hand. 

However, this doesn’t always work out. I am a fairly extreme case, since I left 5 years between my ML training and assessment, but times change and people change. On my training course, I got the impression the interesting information about rocks and plants was almost an added bonus. Not the case on assessment: we were grilled about trees, geology, glaciers, fault lines and the weather.

In spite of this – and knowing that other providers have a reputation of being easier to pass with – I’d still go with the ones I did my training with. There are enough unknowns already, without adding unknown assessors into the mix.

What to take on Your ML Assessment?

Luckily for you, I have a complete list of what I took on my ML Assessment right here. If your assessors send out a kit list, then read it and take heed. Mine made a comment about “laminated maps” which I stupidly interpreted as “maps in waterproof casing” – not the same thing. In the end I had to get waterproof maps from Keswick mid-course.

Reflecting on the kit list I wrote just before leaving for assessment, I’m glad of everything I had. Some thoughts on the list with the benefit of hindsight:

  • We weren’t openly assessed on camp-craft, so just take enough to be comfortable. I would point out that none of us had a roll mat on the outside of our expedition bag (or a mug or…). Think mountain professional not DofE group.
  • I ate far less food than I expected. Mostly because I felt sick with nerves at the hostel, but out on the hill we didn’t actually walk that far. We didn’t always stop for lunch, so make nibbles accessible if you’re a snacker.
  • Since I had an old style paper logbook, sticky notes for marking QMDs were essential. Make it easy to for your assessors to find your best 40 QMDs.
  • I did not print the ML Award Handbook. I deeply regret this. Take a look at the current version here: both the notes for candidates and assessors. Printing this allows you to check off what you’ve demonstrated so far.
  • TAKE YOUR TEXTBOOKS. Particularly if you need to blag a little like me. I knew nothing about the weather or the geology of the Lake District at the start of the week. What seemed like an unnecessarily dense set of books beforehand were invaluable once I was there.

What Is The ML Assessment Like?

Difficult. Complicated. Better with distance. At the time I described it at the “single most unpleasant thing I’ve done in my life”. Not to put anyone off by that: a lot of the stress was self inflicted because it turns out I really cared about the result and things weren’t quite as I expected. For the full experience of what to expect, read my post-ML detox here with an almost day-by-day account.

What Is Worth Stressing Over?

Get as good as you can before you go. I would have been a whole lot more relaxed if I’d appreciated the rules of the game and what’s included in the syllabus before I started the assessment. Save yourself evenings full of cramming by getting a good grasp of the syllabus beforehand.

Make sure you have the right number of QUALITY Mountain Days. Log everything to prove to your assessor that you’re a competent outdoor person who’s in this for more than just the minimum effort required to pass the assessment. That includes days overseas because some of them can count towards the total now (if only I’d known). Log multi-day trips individually – as in one day per log – and give detail about what you did. For example “Week scrambling on Skye” is not enough. That is a genuine example, submitted by someone on my assessment.

You might also like to read: Top Tips For Passing Your ML

Quick Fire Q&A

  • Should I book residential or sort accommodation myself?
    On my course, 7 out of 8 were residential in the same hostel. It gave us a feeling of camaraderie and we could all debrief/panic together. The person not in the hostel dropped out after day 1.
  • Should I go catered?
    Only if you like eating lots of food and don’t mind pre-made packed lunches. On one hand it takes away the faff of trying to cook for yourself. However, if you find cooking a good way to take your mind off other things… I self-catered.
  • What’s with the presentation?
    I am not extroverted and the idea of having to give a 10 min Powerpoint Presentation was alarming. We did not do this. At some point on the expedition, we stopped and said “I’d like to do my presentation now” and just spoke at length about a topic. No one timed it. We all sat around on the rocks and people asked questions at the end. I think you only would have lost marks if you couldn’t talk about anything. Topics included: the Bob Graham Round (from a runner), birds of prey (from a forest school teacher), how GPS works (from an engineer) and Mountain Rescue (from me).
  • How much food did you take?
    More than enough. See the kit list at the bottom of this post for camping food. Otherwise I had some cereal bars, sandwiches, crackers etc. Most went uneaten because I just wasn’t hungry.
  • Did you stop for lunch?
    Sometimes, but not reliably. Don’t expect a designated lunch hour.
  • Should I pack…..?
    As above, check out this kit list and anything your assessor sends through. Behave like it’s a normal walk you’re leading with a camping element. If you haven’t done that before, go out and practice at least one!
  • Is there a syllabus?
    Sort of… The book Hillwalking by Steve Long is sort of an unofficial syllabus. It covers almost everything you need, but it is only a guide and your assessor may disagree with some of the finer points in it (for example, in our case, 1 vs 2 handed spotting). There’s also candidate and assessment notes on the Mountain Training Website.
  • Should I buy the Hillwalking book?
    Yes. Beg, borrow or buy. Then ingest all contents…

How do I Fail?

Failing is actually harder than you think. It is much more common to be deferred. To fail, you have to under-perform on 3 or more syllabus areas. For example, that might be: ropework, geology and the weather; or river crossings, night nav and QMDs. You can be deferred on up to 2 of these areas without being failed.

Deferral means that you have to come back and do a day or half-day with your assessors to demonstrate that you’re competent in the area you were deferred in. That means that the assessors feel like they gave you ample chance to demonstrate that you were up to ML standard, but you didn’t for some reason.

You will be given a chance to recover mistakes made, particularly if they were made during the first half of the week. For example, I inexplicably kept making tiny mistakes on my ropework. I had a full verbal grilling on the way back to the hostel with the assessor in which I convinced him I did know what I was talking about, just having a bad exam day. On the same day, I made a full blown stupid mistake on my steep ground movement. I was given a chance to redo that section on day 2 of the expedition. To understand better how the assessment panned out, read my account here.

I have no idea if this is standard, but on my assessment course we started with 8 people. One dropped out after day 1, of the rest of us: 2 passed, 4 deferred, 1 failed. The deferrals were mostly for small bits of navigation. From memory, I think they were a few points of day and/or night nav over half a day. Some involved using the 1:50 000 map particularly. One deferral was for redoing the ropework.

Any Burning Questions I’ve Missed? Ask me in the comments below.