How I’m Preparing For My Summer Mountain Leader Assessment

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Stories, Gear, Practical Advice

It’s just over 1 week until I start my Summer Mountain Leader (ML) Assessment. Here’s how my brain is handling it:

“I’ll be fine. I’ve got it down.”

“AAAAARRRGGGHHH I know literally nothing. Help!”

“It’s fine Emily, you’ve been leading groups for ages. Chill.”

“But what if they deffer me? I’d have to wait until next year. There’s no summer left!”

“Just show up and do your thing. Don’t focus on the assessing.”

“I dropped Geography in Year 9, I have no clue about rocks. What if they ask me about how the Lake District was formed?” (Runs out and buys Collins New Naturalist for Lake District)

“I can definitely talk interestingly about things related to the mountain environment for 10 min.”

“How the hell am I going to talk interestingly about the mountain environment for 10 min?!”

“I can do ropework. I do this all the time.”

“WHY can’t I use slings and karibiners and an ID? This feels so unnatural.”

“This is easy. I got it.”


You get the picture, but the dialogue inside my head goes on and on and on… I guess it’s normal before a test that you care about. I’ve also become so used to tests in the passive, written format that having an active, on-the-job sort of assessment scares me.

Looking, and feeling, a bit ridiculous whilst abseiling a small slab on Dartmoor.

My ML Training was possibly the single most useful thing I did in my first year at university. It happened something like this…

Me: “It would be great to do MLT some day. Maybe I’ll do it next year.”

Joe, a couple of months later, one week before the course: “Ian’s broken/sprained his ankle so he’s dropped out of MLT. I’ve told them you’re interested in taking the place.”

Me: “WHAT?”

But sometimes you see the bus coming and you have to run to catch it. I re-arranged my already booked train tickets, rang my bewildered parents, frantically tried to sign up to MTA, the BMC (plus get my logbook delivered on time) and found a floor to sleep on for a week. Simple.

What does the Mountain Leader Course Teach You?

The course blew my mind navigationally. I was a pretty decent navigator, but I thought that a lot of the map was artwork. You mean those black dots around the crag are actually on the ground? Yes. Yes indeed. My eyes were opened to a world where you can know your location on paper to within 10m.

All the group leading I’d done before was by accident. During many of the DofE expeditions I’d been on, I was the only person who knew how to read a map. On one occasion (Gold practice in the Brecons), I had to forcibly take the map off my team mates so that I could get us out of the situation whilst they trudged behind me crying. Mountain Leader doesn’t teach you how to lead a group per se, but it does highlight different leadership styles and when they might be appropriate. Perhaps I should have been more comforting, but after 2 hours looking for a footbridge that no longer existed (because our maps were so out of date) I honestly didn’t have the energy.

Feedback From My MLT Course

After the five day mountain leader training course (2 nights camping, 2 nights in hostel), you get an individual briefing with your instructors. I remember mine well, because I was so surprised. They sat me down and said, “We think you’ll be fine on assessment. Just go and get some practice in more areas than the Lake District.”

Considering I’d written down all my Quality Mountain Days (QMDs) on the back of a piece of paper because my log book was being posted to the hostel mid-course, this wasn’t surprising. The QMDs were a reflection of what I could remember recently rather than where I’d been. That said, little girl from Devon hadn’t been many places in the UK north of Bristol.

I write this recap of my training debrief to console myself that I might just be alright. I’m doing my assessment with the same guys who did my training (albeit 5 years ago now!) and all I’ve had since then is practice. I’ve led groups in mountainous and moorland areas from mid-Wales to mid-Scotland, every weekend of term for 3.5 years. I’ve been mountaineering abroad, I’ve safely navigated off a Scottish mountain ridge in white-out (mid-June), whilst keeping the group from freaking out. Heck, I’ve even joined a Mountain Rescue team.

Well, I sound good on paper. I just really reeeallly hope that I can translate that into not making a hopeless fool of myself on the assessment.

Like this…

One Week To Go – Summer ML Preparation

There are a few things I still have to do before I leave for the Lake District. A big one is pack and I’ve used some of this post to make a genuine kit list to help me do just that… because knowing me, I’ll somehow end up running around the house with half the amount of time I need.

The other key things are: actually do the home study paper (instead of just look at it), make sure my logbook is 100% up to date and think of something serious to talk about for 10 minutes. There’s my job for the weekend.

Mountain Leader Assessment Kit List

For On The Hill:

  • Day rucksack – Osprey Mutant 38L
  • Expedition rucksack – Vango Sherpa (60L+10)
  • Boots – Zamberlans
  • Waterproof Jacket – Mountain Equipment
  • Waterproof Trousers – Berghaus Deluge
  • Warm hat – Rab
  • Gloves for rope work – MTB bike gloves!
  • Warm Gloves – Sealskinz and cheap liner
    Waterproof, but definitely not warm on their own
  • Buff x 2
    You have got to wash the grey one, it actually stinks
  • Base Layer – Helly Hansan merino
  • Warm layers – Rab Photon belay jacket, Mountain Hardwear/Berghaus fleeces
  • Trousers – Craghoppers (x2 pairs?)
  • Compass – Silva Expedition
  • OS Maps – 1:25s and 1:50s of Lakes
  • Dry bags
    Excuse for a refresher – bought an Ortleib one, hopefully as good as they’re made out to be! Otherwise, rubble sacks all the way.
  • Headtorch – Petzl
  • Spare batteries – Varta
  • First Aid Kit – Standard Personal Outdoor one
  • KISU – Summit Gear Bothy 6-8
    Another impulse buy…
  • Camelbak – 2.5L
    Had this since I was 13. Only “quite” mouldy in the tube…
  • Steri tabs
  • Personal toiletries and medication
  • Vacuum flask
    On the kit list, may as well.
  • Treats/sweets for the hill – JELLYBABIES!!!
  • Survival Bag – bright orange standard
  • Sun Glasses – from Boots, only ones I haven’t destroyed yet
    Unlikely to be using these in stormy October!
  • Notepad and pen(cil)
    Take waterproof ones and normal ones
  • Emergency rations – inc hot chocolate powder

Expedition Extras – ML Assessment

  • Expedition food – Ration packs x 2, breakfasts x 2, lunches x 3, LOTS of snackage
  • Spork
  • Sleeping Bag – Mountain Equipment 3/4 Seasons (snuggle supreme!)
  • Sleeping Mat – Alpkit
    The legends have fixed it and are getting it back to me within a week!
  • Tent – Vaude Taurus II, my second (read: first) home
  • Stove with gas – Primus Eta
    Most of the gubbins taken out to leave just one smaller pan
  • Lighter
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • Thermal leggings

Off Hill Kit – ML Assessment

  • Old trainers for river crossing demo
  • Normal person clothes
  • Hairbrush
  • Log book including QMDs
    Check first aid certificate is in it before you leave!
  • Sticky notes for marking QMDs
  • BMC & YHA membership cards
  • ML Award Handbook (to print)
  • Cash for buses
  • Book for journey/evenings
    Perhaps Hillwalking by Steven Long?! Or Collins New Naturalist?
  • Completed home study paper
    DO THIS!!
  • Flipflops/Slipper socks

Things I am Prone to Forget

  • Underwear
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Towel (this took me a full 20 min to remember…)
  • Socks (a further 10…)

You’ll notice a few things missing from that list. We’ve been told that we don’t need to bring ropes or helmets for the ropework. Or at least, we haven’t been told to bring them, which isn’t quite the same thing… I’m already having bizarre dreams about not having the right type of karabiner (which is, by the way, not a requirement for ML).

Some other things you wouldn’t usually need for your ML Assessment (but I do)

  • Dress
  • Heels
  • Tights – if I can find any light enough!!
  • Jewellery?
  • Hair pins, sparkly things, sock
  • Hair scissors – in case of fringe growing over eyes, maybe just cut reeeally short before leaving?

Odd? Certainly. This is my life, remember. It would be too easy to just nip up to Cumbria by public transport (3 trains, 3 buses and an overnight stay) to do my ML Assessment and pop back again. I’m also taking in a wedding – fortunately not mine – so will be picked up dirty and sodden from somewhere near Keswick to exchange my dry bag of wet clothing for a party dress. Yes really. If it’s not too inappropriate, I may try to dry the tent out in the venue somewhere over the weekend.

So if you’re reading this in the present and have done ML – any words of wisdom would be thankfully received. Or comfort perhaps? If you’re reading this in the present/future and haven’t done ML, I hope it’s useful as a guide.

Fingers crossed!