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The journey to Mountain Leader

October 2017: Martcrag Moor

It’s the end of the half term holiday, and I’m on one of my increasingly frequent flying visits back home to the Lake District, escaping city smoke and a hectic job. Tomorrow I’ll have to make the big drive down to London again, but for today I’m intent on my new interest in ‘bagging’ the Wainwrights – the 214 Lakeland summits which appear in Alfred Wainwright’s ‘Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells’. I’ve made my way around Pavey Ark, Harrison Stickle, Loft Crag and Pike O’Stickle, with the assistance of my guidebook, which I rely on for direction – I don’t really know how to read a map, and while I own a compass, I only understand that the needle points north.

‘When the constructed path ends, continue north west across Martcrag Moor, descending damp moorland’, or words to that effect. How do I find north west? Does the path just vanish? I am suddenly deserted by my friendly book guide, abandoned at the end of a clear path, with my only instruction to walk into featureless grass on a compass direction I can’t find.

Of course, now I know that my destination was Stake Pass – a very clear path that forms part of the Cumbria Way, carrying walkers between the valleys of Langstrath and Mickleden. If I’d simply continued in the same direction, sooner or later I’d have struck this path. Instead (so my Strava trace shows) I veered off the correct line, bearing left towards the top of Mart Crag. I remember picking up a narrow sheep trod, hoping this was the correct path. Arriving at the top of what seemed an impossibly steep descent, I could tell I wasn’t in the right place! But I could see the valley bottom, so resolved to pick my way down the hill, and hope I didn’t simply fall and roll down it.

About half way down, suddenly, impossibly, the space around me filled with flying figures. Lean, tall, mainly male runners were hurtling down the slope, making my halting progress all the more ridiculous. In a sheepfold in the valley I spotted an orange and white flag, and realised this was their goal. I later understood that I’d found myself in the middle of the OMM – a mountain orienteering race I was very loosely aware of. The presence of other humans made me feel better, even if they were moving at about six times my rate. I hobbled back into the valley, and made my way to Sticklebarn for a consolatory pint.

October 2023: somewhere in the Moelwyns

It is dark, very wet, and quite windy. I am kneeling on the sodden ground, trying to orient my map and take a compass bearing in my headtorch beam. It’s close to 11pm; we’ve been roaming around a small patch of hillside in the darkness for around five hours, taking it in turns to locate improbably small features in the landscape. This is night navigation: a key component of the Mountain Leader assessment. I have been tasked with taking us back to the sheepfold which is to be our campsite for the night. At first glance the job looks straightforward; I simply follow a small stream until it meets our destination. In my tired state, I neglect to notice that the stream turns and winds frequently, making it tough to follow in the dark. Several times I think I’ve lost it, and have to cast around the tussocky grass to pick it up again. The tussocks make for heavy going; I fall on my face once or twice, but thank my past self for having prepared and trained on precisely this type of rough ground. Once or twice, the stream flows briefly in the ‘wrong’ direction, making me question whether I’ve accidentally swapped onto some other watercourse.

Eventually, to my indescribable relief, I see the walls of the fold appear through the rain. My tent is still standing in the wind, well-tensioned and inviting. Inside, peeling away my waterproofs, it is pleasing to discover that my base layers are dry, as are my hands and feet, and I’m warm enough to jump straight into my sleeping bag. I sleep a deep and exhausted sleep that night, secure in the knowledge that my navigation was good enough to meet the assessment standard.

Two days later, after another eight hours of gruelling navigation tasks carrying a heavy expedition pack, another night in the tent, and a morning spent demonstrating emergency river crossing methods, I am delighted to learn that I have passed the assessment.

The years in between: the Lake District, Snowdonia, the Mourne Mountains, the Cairngorms

A lot happened, in between! My passion for the fells became even greater, and my skills and confidence expanded. I became a less-anxious explorer of the high hills, and slowly my knowledge grew. No longer would I be lost because I couldn’t find north west! In 2021 I gave up my job and London flat and finally made the one-way journey ‘back home’ to set up my business in the Lake District. Many of you know JBA as a running coaching business, and I love that side of things. But my mission alongside that has always been to enable people to explore and enjoy the mountains.

Thanks to the Mountain Leader qualification, I now have the skills to do this to the high standard I expect of myself. I know how to look after a group, setting objectives, managing expectations, and taking care of the practical skills of the day such as pacing, eating, drinking and going to the loo. I can teach you how to move comfortably, efficiently and safely in the mountains, and explain the history of our right to walk in these beautiful places. I can tell you about the flora, fauna, history, geology, culture and industries of the Lake District. If an emergency happens on the hill, I am an Outdoor First Aider; I can look after you until help arrives. Should you unexpectedly struggle on steep ground I can assist you, using a rope if needs be. I can navigate on both large and small scales, reading the landscape and matching it to the map, as well as using techniques such as pacing and walking on a bearing in poor visibility. I know how to read surface pressure charts to anticipate the day’s weather. I can advise you on the kit, food, footwear and clothing you need to bring onto the hill, and if we’re going camping I know how to spend a comfortable and well-fed night in the wild.

Most of this knowledge was acquired over hours, days and nights of personal preparation and time on the hill. The qualification requires 40 ‘Quality Mountain Days’ in three different mountainous regions of the UK before a candidate can be assessed, and this gives ample time to develop one’s personal skills, and learn how to take care of yourself in all kinds of different situations and conditions. There is also a training week, undertaken after 20 of the QMDs have been gained.

The Years Ahead: who knows?

I’ve heard it said that passing your ML assessment is a bit like passing your driving test. You’re now considered safe to be leading in the mountains, or behind the wheel. But all those who drive will know that it’s once you’ve passed your test that the real-life learning starts! I don’t know where this next phase of my journey will take me, but can say with confidence that it is a joyous road to be on. Do get in touch if you’d like to spend a day on the hill together.

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