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British Mountaineering Qualifications

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The UK has a fine tradition of producing great mountaineers. The accessibility and quality of Britain's wilderness areas have made it a popular place to hone skills for more serious mountains abroad, a testing ground on which to develop new equipment and techniques, and an enjoyable adventure playground in its own right. Many who enjoy these wild spaces look to learn the essential tools for mountaineering for their own pleasure and some to take groups of children or adults out into the hills. Most parents would also like to know exactly how qualified the leader of their child's group is.

If a leader is working for anyone, whether it be the Local Education Authority, a local youth group or an outdoor activity centre, the 'employer' will require a certain level of qualification before the leader is allowed to take sole charge of a group. Different organisations require different levels of competence, but all youth organisations require that the leader takes a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check to ensure they are 'safe' to work with children.

All potential leaders must first go through a registration system, which involves becoming a member of the British Mountaineering Council (or BMC; the 'governing body') and contacting their regional Mountain Leader Training Board (MLTB; Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have their own national branch, but England makes do with the UK-wide version) to register as trainees. The MLTB sends each prospective leader a logbook, in which to record their mountaineering experiences.

At this stage, it is worth introducing a couple of concepts that run through all the courses.

Quality Days

A prerequisite of attending training courses and assessments normally includes a specified minimum number of 'quality days'. A quality day fulfils one or (preferably) more of the following conditions:

  • The route should be new to the leader; it should not be in an area he/she has visited before.

  • The leader should have some responsibility for the planning and execution of the walk.

  • Adverse conditions should be encountered1.

  • It should take a full day to complete and not be just a few hours' navigation practice.

  • Ideally, the total number of days should be a mixture of days spent leading, assisting a leader, as a member of a group, walking with peers and walking solo. A variety of experiences and responsibilities is key.

Mountainous Areas

Clearly, a day strolling along a coastal path, although an undeniably pleasant experience, is inadequate training for taking a group up the savage expanses of the Glyders, in north Wales. The MLTBs have therefore classified some areas as mountainous, regardless of whether they actually contain any mountains or not. For example, Dartmoor is classified as a mountainous area even though its highest point is just 621m high; it is considered mountainous terrain as the navigation is difficult and the area is quite remote.

So What Makes A Mountain A Mountain, Then?

Quite simply, the MLTB does. Various people have tried to find a definitive answer to this question, most notably Hugh Monroe, who selected a whole series of 284 mountains in Scotland that still bear his name as a classification (all over 3,000 feet2 and 'separate peaks', according to his own definition). To be a mountain in the UK, you must be over 600 metres3 high and have a significant drop on all sides to form a summit. The definition is almost as arbitrary as it possibly could be.

In terms of training, the MLTB have produced a list of areas that they consider to be good training for mountaineers. A prerequisite of training and assessment is to have had at least a few quality days in three of these areas.

The Awards

Mountaineering at its highest level is a combination of navigation skills, climbing (on ice and snow as well as on nice summer days), campcraft, environmental knowledge, emergency techniques involving ropework, first aid and a myriad of other tools that make up the package. The awards system builds up to this, rather like a series of Russian dolls where the experience, knowledge and application of techniques widens at each level. The exception to this is the Single Pitch Award, which has very different criteria of its own.

Walking Group Leader, or WGL

A relatively new award, the WGL qualifies leaders to take groups out in summer conditions4 anywhere in the UK where steep ground is unlikely to be encountered. Hilly, but non-mountainous, areas like the Peak District, North Yorkshire Moors and Dartmoor are covered by the WGL, although the borderline is grey (for instance, WGL holders can lead day walks in the Brecon Beacons as long as they are away from the steepest sections of the central peaks).

It covers the key elements of walking; essential navigation skills (including navigating in darkness), nutrition, access issues and knowledge of upland species and geology. It is a suitable qualification for most leaders who wish to take groups out occasionally to revel in the outdoor experience.

As most prospective leaders will start by taking the WGL, it is worth a little explanation of the training structure. After a minimum of 20 quality walking days and MLTB registration, the candidate must attend training, which includes an overnight camping expedition. The duration varies depending on where you take the course, but can be done over four or five days in midweek or over two weekends in most cases. Before assessment (usually held over a weekend) the candidate must then complete a minimum of 20 more quality days. This progression, from preparation, then training, gaining experience and finally assessment is repeated through each of the awards.

This award should be well within reach of most weekend hillwalkers. A regular hiker who is confident in all weather conditions should have no problems in achieving this qualification.

Mountain Leader (Summer), or ML

The next award up entitles the bearer to take groups out in all 'summer' conditions anywhere in the UK. 'Summer conditions' effectively means there is no snow on the ground, and snow is not forecast for the day. The award builds on the WGL by adding in overnight camps, weather forecasting from maps and cloud formations, how to keep groups safe on 'steep ground'5 and emergency ropework. The assessment includes a three day expedition, during which the potential leaders are gradually exhausted to ensure they can cope with any conditions.

In the past, there have been occasional incidents where under-qualified leaders have taken groups out on the mountains of Snowdonia and Scotland, and tragically lives have been lost simply because the leader could not cope with worsening conditions. This award gives the leader the skills to handle most eventualities.

Experienced walkers who are confident of their mountain skills will, with some willingness to develop rope techniques, be able to reach this standard with few problems.

Mountain Leader (Winter), or Winter ML

The qualified holder will be able to handle anything the weather throws at him/her, anywhere in the UK, in any weather conditions. Technical gear such as crampons and ice-axes are used, and the leader must be able to demonstrate an ability to navigate in white-out conditions (when the weather is so bad, all you can see is falling snow). Emergency techniques include knowledge of where avalanches are likely to occur and when, and digging snow shelters.

Realistically, you won't need to progress this far unless you are a professional working in Scotland year-round, have Alpine aspirations, or desperately want to take groups out in snow for some other reason. The vast majority of mountaineers have no need to qualify further than ML standard.

European Mountain Leader, or EML

If you have completed your Winter ML training and regularly visit the continent for Alpine or Pyrenean excursions, you may want to consider this award. It qualifies the holder to lead anywhere in the European Union below the permanent snow line. There is a great emphasis on environmental concerns as well as the techniques prevalent in the Winter ML, and is a very highly respected award.

Single Pitch Award, or SPA

A pure climbing award. Usually candidates qualify as SPA holders around the same time as they complete their WGL or ML, but in the context of the entry it is most appropriate to mention it here. The SPA involves setting up climbs to introduce novices to the sport, and also involves 'lead' climbing, where the main climber is not secured to a top-rope but places equipment for his/her protection along the way. It is a fairly specialised award, highly prized, and fits into the mountaineering schemes in the latter stages.

The SPA is a stand-alone award, and no other level of mountaineering qualification is required to take it. Weekend climbers, particularly those who wish to take people climbing on a top rope, should be able to qualify in this award.

Mountain Instructor Award, or MIA

MIA's must hold the ML and SPA awards before even going for training. Effectively, they are qualified to do anything in the mountains unless there is snow on the ground. Not only can they walk anywhere, they can also take groups on multi-pitch climbing routes (where you climb as far as the rope lets you, bring your friend up and then tackle the next bit) on the highest routes in the UK and are able to teach lead climbing. Holders of awards this high, and beyond, are few and far between.

Mountain Instructors Certificate, or MIC

Similar to the MIA, but holders are able to take groups in winter conditions, including snow and ice climbing. MICs are pretty serious, having a free reign in all conditions and all areas of the UK. To become one requires years of dedication and hard work, and an immense knowledge of mountaineering.

British Mountain Guides, or Guides

Internationally recognised and respected, Guides (not to be confused with the 'Girl' variety) can lead expeditions anywhere in the world and at any time. Those with a natural flair and undying commitment might just get this far. Their territory is not just the UK, but unclimbed peaks in South America, undiscovered mountains in Asia and unclimbed routes in Europe. All aspects of mountaineering, even above the permanent snow line and ski mountaineering, are within their remit.

How Far Do I Need To Go?

The answer really depends on what you intend to do. If, for example, you are involved with the local Scout group and want to help out at weekends, the WGL will help you become more active, although many youth organisations insist that their leaders are ML holders. If you intend to work in the outdoor industry, SPA and ML are standard requirements, although pushing on to Winter ML Training will improve your prospects considerably. And if you aspire to be a Guide, frankly, you haven't got time to be reading this.

The MLTB awards are an important and reliable means of progression and development. Indeed, there is no need for the casual walker to see them as the preserve of the professional. Training courses are an excellent and convivial way of learning techniques to enrich the entire walking experience. If you enjoy hill-walking, put down the mouse and get out there!

You can find information about courses from the National Mountain Centres at Plas-Y-Brenin and Glenmore Lodge. Both are training centres with excellent international reputations.

Related h2g2 Entries

1Whether difficult ground, bad weather or an emergency situation.2914 metres.31968 feet.4See 'Mountain Leader (Summer) Award' below for definition.5Another MLTB definition.

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