Summer Mountain Leader Award – four tips for passing your assessment

Over the five days from Monday 21 September, me and three others were put through our paces in the Cairngorms for our Summer Mountain Leader (MLS) assessment. MLS is a qualification which kits you out with the skills to take groups out into UK mountains and bring them back alive – and hopefully happy!

MLS is an all-rounder award focussed on nav, group management, river crossing, emergency procedures, security on steep ground and general mountain knowledge. It’s an excellent tick in the box if you have rocky ambitions and is increasingly required by organisations ranging from outdoor centres to World Challenge. I booked my assessment through Pete Hill MIC, working with Duncan Paterson of North East Mountaineering. Despite some pretty brutal weather – gale force winds and sleet/snow in September – all four of us passed.

The MLS assessment itself is a great experience and rounds off my summer of mountain walking. Assessment isn’t a black box though and others have shared tips on how to pass – check out Mal Creasey’s great article on the BMC website here. Bearing in mind that everyone’s experience is subjective and every assessor has their own ‘style’, here are my four tips for passing:

1. Brush up on your hill knowledge
By this I mean your knowledge of flora, fauna, landscape management, legal and conservation issues etc. Being an MLS means being an ambassador for the mountain environment. You need to be able to inspire enthusiasm and interest in your group, but without sounding fake! So use your pre-assessment consolidation to make sure you know a LOT about the above. Have a few interesting stories up your sleeve about the superstitions surrounding devils-bit scabious or butterwort, for instance. Group members might ask you about something which you haven’t ‘pre-prepared’ in your mind, so come clean if you don’t know.

2. Get to know your group
This one definitely isn’t in the syllabus! But it goes without saying that getting to know your fellow assessees and being sociable and outgoing, even if it just means a friendly chat for a half hour on the evening before the course starts will help create a more mutually supportive atmosphere and a more positive, cohesive feel. You’re being assessed individually and you CANNOT help others by giving them tips on what to do during assessment. You can however support each other more subtly, for example by not asking difficult questions whilst the nominated leader is trying to show off their hard-earned knowledge (see number 1).

3. Have conviction in your nav skills
Navigation is probably the single syllabus area for which the most has been written. There’s a good reason for this – the ability to navigate underlies almost every other syllabus area! This ‘tip’ isn’t about being up to speed with individual nav techniques, which goes without saying. No, this is about taking your time when asked ‘where are we?’ by the assessor and being deliberate and definite in your reply. There may be times when others give different locations, but if you have been through the (re)location process thoroughly in your mind and have the identifying features to ascertain your location as best you can, DON’T be panicked into guessing or suddenly changing to an alternative location! Have confidence and be prepared to explain why you thought as you did. Even if you are wrong, the chances are that you’ll have plenty of other ‘where are we?’ opportunities to make up for the odd mistake. Remember what the L stands for in MLS, and that leaders need to show leadership.

4. Enjoy it!
Cheesy? Maybe. But stay positive throughout and remember that even if you’re already confident in your abilities, the MLS assessment week can only improve them further.