Winter ML Assessment Success

The last 5 days have been spent on my Winter Mountain Leader assessment. These five days have been to focus of all the hill walking I have done over the last few months. Looking back, I see that I started my build up back in October with Summer mountain days before the snow arrived. Since New Year, I’ve been yo-yoing up and down to Scotland in an attempt feel ready for this week. The Winter ML assessment is commonly regarded as the hardest of the Mountain Leader Training assessments due to the excessive demands, both mental and physical, that an assessment in full on winter conditions can bring. Consequently, it’s not something to take lightly and hence my thorough preparations.

There were 8 of us on the assessment, split into two groups of 4. Seven of us worked in the outdoor industry in one capacity or another, which seemed to put quite a bit of pressure on the other member of the group. However, this is the kind of assessment where there is no competition. It’s all down to personal performance and whether you make the grade as an individual leader or not. As a result, everyone was very supportive of each other and well aware of the emotional ups and downs that are inevitable during the course of 5 days under pressure.

The North Face
The North Face

On the first day, we took the gondola up to 650m on Aonach Mor, and made our way across to Aonach an Nid. On the way, we looked at personal movement on steep ground, kicking steps with the boot, cutting steps with the ice axe, using crampons, self belay and teaching all of these skills to novices. On our arrival at Aonach an Nid, we were given the task of setting up an abseil that we could use to descend over a cornice, so that we could analyse the stability of the snow pack with a view to lowering a novice group over. It seemed rather ironic that I’d practiced this very thing in the same place only 5 days before. As it turned out, another member of the group had practiced the same thing here only the day before! Once we’d managed to lower our ‘group’ through the cornice we had a look at a couple of quick ways of lowering people off without having to dig anchors in the snow.

Day 2 was an amazing day for the weather, and the assessors decided to take us up to the north face of Ben Nevis. After some fairly straightforward navigation along the path into the CIC hut, identifying small contour features, we found an appropriate site for teaching ice axe arrests. The assessors were most interested in seeing that there was a natural progression in the stages of our teaching, that key points were included and that our personal demonstrations were up to scratch. Afterwards, we dug a couple of Walking Rutschblocks which are one way of assessing the stability of the snowpack. They generally take quite a while to dig, so aren’t particularly practical during a normal mountain day, but they are a really good educational tool for showing novices the different layers and identifying weaknesses.

Claire finding the navigation easy under blue skies
Claire finding the navigation easy under blue skies

Days 3 to 5 were all spent on a snowholing expedition around Creag Meagaidh. By the time everyone had packed all the necessary kit and food, and we’d had a brief stop in Fort William for last minute supplies, it must have been about 11am before we started walking in to Coire Ardair from Aberarder. The walk in was a fairly relaxed affair, giving us a chance to get to know our new assessor. It’s common practice on these things to have at least two different assessors during the week, so that a personality clash shouldn’t be able to derail someone’s assessment. From the back of Coire Ardair, we made our way up to the Window and did a couple of navigational legs into the snow hole site for about 3pm. I teamed up with James, and we got on with the process of digging which took about 3 hours before we were able to move in to our new home.

Night navigation started at 8pm and ran through to sometime between 2 and 3am. Not only was it dark, but the cloud base had dropped significantly, meaning that head torches couldn’t penetrate the darkness particularly far and making the task even more difficult. It took me about an hour to get in the flow of things, after which everything seemed to click and I rather enjoyed wandering around through the night. However, it was both cold and windy which made any standing around a bit uncomfortable. One thing that struck me was the level of experience our assessor had. He was quite happy wandering around in the dark without a map or compass and seemed to know exactly where he was at any given time – amazing!

After being so late to bed, Day 4 didn’t really get under way until about 10am. The day was mainly spent doing numerous navigational legs all round the mountain side. However, we did take some time cutting steps. The assessor got us working in pairs on steep ground with the front person making steps and the second following without an axe. A slip would have resulted in a big slide, so there was every incentive to cut good steps! Later, we also took some time to dig one man emergency shelters in a steep bank of snow. In theory we had 30 minutes to do it, but I was so focussed on the job in hand that I didn’t bother looking at my watch – I just dug for my life. In the end, I was pretty pleased with what I managed to produce. It wouldn’t have been that comfortable, but it would have helped me to survive a night if necessary. Navigation continued after last light, which seemed a bit harsh at the time, but we were all relieved when the assessor announced that he had seen enough of our navigation and that we wouldn’t need to go out again during the night.

Day 5 saw us aiming to leave the snow holes by 8am. We headed up to the Window, where we did some more teaching and practice of ice axe arrests. On the whole, it went well, although I did have one occasion when it all went wrong and I found myself tumbling out of control before I managed to sort myself out! After a quick bit of confidence roping, as we dropped down from the Window, it was time to get our heads down and shoot back to the minibus.

After waiting for several hours for the assessors and the course director to make their decisions about results, we all found ourselves feeling like school children waiting to see the headmaster one at a time to hear our fate. Of the 8 of us, we had 5 pass, 2 deferrals and 1 had chosen to remove himself from the assessment process during the second day. Personally, I was relieved to have made the grade  – all the hard work paid off. More than anything, I’m glad I don’t have to go through that again!

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