After my week around Loch Tay and Glencoe it was time for me to head North and East to Grantown-on-Spey for my Mountain Leader training. I had registered for the award quite a while ago with Mountain Training, but never really made time in my holiday planning for attending the training course.
There are a few things you need to do to be allowed to do the training. One is to register for the award and two is, getting some experience upfront. This experience is 20 Quality Mountain Days which have to be logged in some way. Like an excel sheet, a notebook or a very handy online logbook (which is what I had done).
Those Quality Mountain Days have to fulfil certain criteria like climbing a major peak, being in the UK or very similar conditions/environment, at least 5 hours and a few other bits and bobs. So you can’t just go for a stroll in the nearby wood or nature reserve.
I had my 20 days long before booking onto the training, but since I was already up in Scotland, I had thought to simply add the 6 days of training to add another week to my stay.
I had never been to the Cairngorms before, so seeing a new area of Scotland/the UK was certainly one of the reasons why I had booked onto this course.
Drove over from Loch Lomond to Grantown-on-Spey on Sunday morning over some stunning single track roads with a stop over in Aviemore, which is along with Fort William one of the two big outdoor towns in Scotland, where everything is geared towards adventures outside. That of course includes most of the big names in terms of shops. I had a wander around, but didn’t buy anything apart from a pair of Darn Tough Socks to replace some old and not very well fitting ones.
My hotel in Grantown-on-Spey was very nice, a proper cosy Scottish hotel. And the WiFi a lot better! Nice little town with everything you needed: a decently sized Co-op supermarket, a butcher, bakery, coffee place.
Started our course Monday morning with some introductions and then straight out onto the hill. Well, we had to stay low due to some very cold weather and snow as low as 800m on the Cairngorm plateau. Shame, but still enjoyed a great day of covering some general topics around navigation, weather, group leadership etc.
My five fellow trainees were all very enthusiastic and happy to share any experience they’d had so far. I learned a lot about geology, plants, trees and how deer stalking and grouse shooting affects the walker (and countryside to be honest).
Evenings were always filled with some additional lectures around weather, the Mountain Leader scheme and all other parts of the syllabus.
Tuesday was steep ground day which we spent in a nice wooded, grassy, mossy gorge near Grantown-on-Spey. We learned how to use the rucksack someone is wearing to give them support on steep ground, basically when they lose their sh.t :).
Also learned how to use a rope (without harness) to belay someone climbing down a steep bit. Loved the day and despite a forecast of showers we stayed pretty dry all day.
Wednesday was the day I dreaded most as we were lined up for some river crossing practice. It was a dark and wet day and I was glad we spent it mostly inside with some slides around emergency procedures, weather and other stuff from the syllabus. Then went out to practice some of the emergency procedures only using stuff we would have with us on the hill to move a casualty.
The dreaded river crossing we did in the afternoon just before heading home. We found a fairly deep (knee deep) and sufficiently fast flowing river to try a few different techniques. The water was icy, but I was glad that my feet didn’t cramp, which they normally do in cold water. It was good fun, but I think we were all glad when it was over. Nothing you want to practice forever when it’s only around 5C “warm”.
Another hill day on Thursday to consolidate what we had learned so far. We did some micro-navigation to find interesting contours which was great practice and did some more steep ground practice in more realistic settings.
Thursday we headed into the Monadhliath Mountains just North of Newtonmore. A hilly area sporting three munros. We had all packed an overnight rucksack with tent and everything. The plan was to take turns leading some more, practice some more navigation, head uphill as much as the weather allowed and eventually come back down to pitch our tents near a bothy by a river, just in case the weather turned bad.
Generally a nice day… until mid-day, when it went from overcast to snow and from occasionally windy to constantly windy. Add temperatures around freezing and it’s no surprise we bailed and instead of doing Carn Dearg (one of the munros) headed down to the bothy.
Pitched tents, had some food, lit a fire in the bothy and waited until 22:00 for our night navigation practice which was intended to simulate zero visibility. Good fun until we spotted something glowing red from where our bothy was. Had to abandon ship an walked back. Turned out we had witnessed a chimney fire. Good to have a volunteer fireman in the group! No damage done luckily.
Off to bed we went after an adventurous day. I didn’t sleep at all. At least it felt like it. No particular reason, I was just switched on and wide awake.
Got up at 6am to enjoy the early morning views with much improved weather. Had a brew or two and some brekkie, before we all left at 9am. Some more skills practice on the way back to the cars and some amazing views from one of the hills down to the River Spey, Newtonmore and the Cairngorms.
Another river crossing literally just before we were back at the cars. Great. Got me boots soaked properly, haha. Then some individual feedback from our course director and off we all went home.
I went back to my hotel in Grantown-on-Spey and instantly fell asleep on the bed, lack of sleep finally catching up with me. Good choice to stay an extra night, since Sunday was a 9 hour drive back to Bristol.
What a brilliant six days of Mountain Leader training! It was much less exhausting – physically – than I had thought beforehand. But mentally I was knackered every night. Just so much to take in. I learned an awful lot about geology, wild flowers, group leadership, micro nav, using a rope in many different ways, weather and what to do when things go wrong.
So what’s next? Well, there is the assessment to gain the actual Summer Mountain Leader qualification. It’s another five days of basically the same, but instead of being trained, I’m being assessed. And it’s two nights out in a tent. I need 40 of the mentioned Quality Mountain Days, but to be honest, I’ve almost got those already.
Before the course I didn’t really intend to do the assessment at all, but I think it’s very achievable for me. All I need to do is a few more big mountain days, keep learning about weather and wild flowers and geology (this is the easy bit) and practice some micro nav and rope work (hello Rich!) whilst out and about. All sounds very much doable! I might just go for it after all!