How I’m Preparing for my Winter MLT

Emily Woodhouse Living Adventurously, Practical Advice

My Winter Mountain Leader Training course has been a long time coming. Not least because I’d planned to do it in the winter of 2020-2021: a fabulous winter by all accounts, but travel restrictions made it impossible. Now the B2 boots that have spent a year sadly waiting to be Christened are finally getting ready to touch snow. My training course is booked with Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms and I’m on my way.

Winter Mountain Leader is a step up, or specifically a step colder, than Summer Mountain Leader. You have to have completed ML, have a valid first aid course and do 20 winter QMDs to be able to book. I did my ML when paper log books were still around, so having to navigate the new DLog system was interesting… Definitely not as intuitive as a ring bound file and post it notes. But my DLog was accepted, my registration completed, my course booked and accommodation too. We were hoping for an all in one package, but the places were full by the time we booked. (I say we because I’m doing it with a friend from university.)

I’m not sure exactly when I decided I wanted to do Winter ML. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever do the assessment. I like to think I will, but I’m taking this as a long old marathon. Slowly but surely, year by year, I’m improving. One day I’ll be ready and good enough to pass the suffer-fest of a Winter ML assessment. But ultimately, I’m doing a UK winter trip every year and often in situations where I need to teach, coach or look out for people with a less experience. On the flip side, I’m trying to go steeper and more technical in winter routes. I want to feel like I know what I’m doing – there’s only so far you can go with books and peers. At some point you need someone who actually knows what they’re doing to instruct you. It feels like time for me.

Before I even booked the training

Like all Mountain Training courses, there is a long trail of preparation work before you are even allowed to go on the course. I started collecting winter mountain days as long ago as university (I graduated in 2015, if you’re wondering). But it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve made a concerted effort to hit my required 20 winter quality mountain days. Actually, I was scraping the barrel a bit more than I would have liked.

Training Pre-requisites (QMDs)

The trouble with trying to get your Winter Mountain Leader and living in Devon is that it’s an incredibly long way to Scotland. Sure, you can get qualifying winter days in the Lake District and Snowdonia. But the best of them and the most reliable snowfall is in Scotland. (There is a requirement to have more than 50% of your winter QMDs in Scotland by assessment, but no restrictions for the training.) You also can’t predict the weather. For example, I spent a week in the Glen Coe and Glen Nevis area, during February 2020. Out of that I got maybe three solid QMDs. The rest of the days had 100mph wind and lightning on the forecast. So you can’t guarantee anything. Some people go and live in the Highlands for a season, but that just hasn’t been practical for me.

As well as just ticking the required boxes, getting lots of winter days under your belt also helps you sort out things like kit. Winter MLT is a leadership course, not an intro to winter skills. At this stage you’ll already own your own crampons, ice axe and winter gloves. You’ll have worked out how to stay warm in the winter mountains and not be a passenger in a group. Basically, you can look after yourself well before you start thinking about looking after others. You’ve probably spent time being the most experienced – or one of – in a group of friends out enjoying the snow in the mountains. All that said, I don’t feel particularly experienced compared to people who live up north and do this stuff a lot. But I feel ready to step up and have proper instruction on how to look after others properly.

The other bits…

Another thing that comes with the territory is taking an interest in snow. I’ve found myself going to talks about avalanche awareness and learning about things like snowpack out of pure interest. Plus I got the Winter Skills book several years ago. You know you’re heading towards a qualification when you buy a textbook because you want to.

Winter MLT Prep

Right, so that’s the long term preparation for my Winter Mountain Leader Training. But now I’ve booked the course, what am I doing short term to get ready? Here are a few things I’ve done or am doing, that you might think about too.

1. Getting my Kit in Order

In winter, you really need to have a good set of gear that you can rely on. It’s important to do a once over of the technical stuff too. Especially if it only gets used once a year and in my case missed a year because of Covid. Here’s a list of the kind of things I do to get my kit in order for winter. You can guess some of it – things like reproofing jackets and checking everything still works like you expect. My new boots have never had crampons on yet. I need to check that they are set up right (even though I just bought the same boot again) because I don’t want to find out there’s a problem on the hill.

The other thing I’ve done is give the kit list for the training course a thorough look. Check that I have everything required. Buy the necessary maps. That kind of thing. There are some things I can borrow from Glenmore lodge, which I will take advantage of because…

2. Go up early

I’m going up ahead of the training course to just refamiliarise myself with winter mountaineering. I was last in proper Scottish winter in February 2020 and even then we weren’t able to do that much thanks to the weather. The more prepared you are for a training course, the more you get out of it. And I really don’t want to be that girl from Devon who doesn’t know what snow is. So basically, I’m taking a few weeks up in the Highlands to get back in the swing of things. Hopefully the weather will play ball.

Also, the Winter MLT course I’m doing is with Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms. I have never been to the Cairngorms before ever. So although I’m not spending a full week there, it will be good to just have a few days to get familiar with the lay of the land.

3. Swot up

Like I say, you really get so much more from a training course if you’ve prepared. There were people on my Summer MLT course who’d never taken bearings before, so were being taught how on the course. That’s kind of fine, but you’ve got this week with the instructors and this one opportunity to pick their brains. So you could use that going over the basics, or you could arrive confident in the basics and use it to push the boundaries of your knowledge. I’m intending to have a list of questions to ask or specific areas to target that I don’t understand so well on the syllabus.

Related and very important: print the checklist. Both winter and summer ML have a candidate checklist (and a logbook that’s now online only, since MTA went paperless). I have printed the checklist in a handy little A5 booklet. It has all of the syllabus areas, that will be covered in training and assessed in due course. This means I can make sure there aren’t any huge gaps in my knowledge and, again, really target filling those gaps.

At some point, nearer the time, I’ll go through the Winter Skills book too and just cross reference a few things. Sound like an overkill? Maybe. But I have a feeling it’ll be worth it in the long run.

Bring on the Snow Holes!

So that’s an overview of how I’m preparing for my Winter Mountain Leader Training. I’ve been looking forward to this for a while, so fingers and toes crossed for good snow conditions. At the time of writing, winter has been very late in the Highlands. Part of the course is to spend a night in a snow hole and I’m really looking forward to that. All we need now is enough snow to actually be able to dig one…

As ever, I’ll give you a full account of how it all went as soon as I get back. Plus a kit list of what I’d recommend taking – but I’m sure I’ll benefit from hindsight on that one.