ML Training in not so Sunny Snowdonia
Each summer, UBES send out a group to complete their Mountain Leader (ML) training in Snowdonia with Paul Poole in order to prepare the cohort of walk leaders. Unable to make the usual summer course as a result of other expedition plans, UBES generously organised an extra date in Paul’s calendar allowing myself and Archie (who also wanted to do the ML training early) to do our ML from 19-24th November 2016.
ML is essentially a leadership award designed to equip people with the skills to lead groups in the mountains, hills and moorlands of the UK and Ireland. It covers everything you might expect: navigation techniques, understanding weather forecasts, rope skills, dealing with emergencies, and of course group management. The most unique part of our experience from doing it this time of year (apart from the puddles in my boots – because who doesn’t like walking around in wet boots) was meeting the other guys on the course. There was a Welshman, Scott, who runs an outdoor company that leads rock climbing, gorge walking, and coasteering trips in Wales and wanted to start throwing mountain exploration into the mix. A Frenchman living in Ireland, Umberto, who wants to expand his business from leading tours on the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) to the mountains. Two Englishman; Mark had just left Rock UK, Scotland after 3 years of teaching climbing and was looking to make a career in the outdoors. Josh, who after deciding to take a break from his career as a performance artist to follow his love for the outdoors, and has an impressive knowledge of local flora, is also looking to make a career as an ML.
Day 1, Crimpiau, Snowdonia National Park, North Wales
Slipping in and out of consciousness from 4-6:30am as a result of the heavy rain and a chilly night, we ventured out of our tents rearing to get the week going in spite of the previous transport filled day which ended with a 5 mile night hike along an A road from Betws-y-coed to a campsite in Capel Curig. Don’t we sound like responsible mountain leaders.
Arriving at the Moel Siabod cafe in Capel Curig slightly too early, I was pleased to find positively the largest collection of outdoor magazines I’ve ever had the pleasure of acquainting myself with. I amused myself for a good hour flicking through, reading the odd article, but mainly looking at the old climbing kit ads from brands like The North Face, surprised to see how much the style has changed over the past 50 years.
After making our introductions with Paul and the rest of the group, we walked right out the door up to Crimpiau. Today was all about Paul making sure we understood the basic navigation techniques. Not to bore you with too much detail, we took it in turns of groups of three to navigate to specific locations, with the main takeaway being – don’t make the environment fit the map, observe your environment first, and then scrutinise the map.
On the way down we learnt about local flora such as reindeer moss (which isn’t actually a moss, but a lichen), good for fire-lighting, and sphagnum moss which was used as dressing on wounds through World War 1. Before finishing the day we looked at how to read weather forecasts, draw conclusions from them, and ways these can influence your plans for adventures in the mountains. Apparently this is a vital component in getting your IML which I’d like to work towards as well.
Archie and I returned back to our campsite eager to get a hot meal down. Much to my amusement, Archie lit his pocket-rocket stove whilst holding it horizontally in rather strong winds, thereby encompassing the entire stove in flames which in a moment of transitory bewilderment decided to through towards me, and my lit stove. That part wasn’t so funny. Fortunately though, a split second later he jumped on it and switched it off.
Day 2, Yr Aran, Snowdonia National Park, North Wales
A ‘Quality’ Mountain Day in all senses of the word; really could not have dreamt of better November weather.
Another 6:30am early start to pack up the tents in anticipation of the oncoming poor weather as we planned to spend the following 3 nights in a bunkhouse (for only £1 extra a night). As we were pointed towards some rundown horse stables we realised why it was so cheap. But a roof’s a roof, even if it’s supported by damp walls and a leaking door; so we relieved our bags of everything we didn’t need for the day on the mountain and went to meet the rest of the group at the cafe.
After a discussion about the multitude of different resources we could use to continue our development after the training, we were introduced to IML, Pete (he does have a surname, I’ve just forgotten it). We heard about his experiences of having to provide special attention to people who’ve collapsed on Snowdon but still maintain his control over the rest of the group.
Around noon, we ventured out into the beauty of a day to do some off-trail navving just south of Snowdon and to the West of the Watkins path, near the lesser known mountain of Yr Aran in some quite difficult terrain.
Pete told us the engrossing story of Dinas Emrys and the origin of the Welsh dragon, all the while demonstrating that being a mountain leader isn’t just simply about leading a group safely from point A to point B. Giving people the adventure they’re looking for and teaching them something about the mountains is just as important.
As it started to get dark, Archie and I had the task of doing some night nav and getting the group back to the cars. We were fortunate enough to get an incredible sunset, but by the time we had got back the temperature had dropped below zero.
Even though we didn’t bag a summit and we weren’t very high at all, today was probably the best day I’ve ever spent in Snowdonia as I felt I learned a huge amount about a really beautiful area I hadn’t explored before, the fantastic weather certainly helped contributed to the euphoria as well.
Day 3, Capel Curig, Snowdonia National Park, North Wales
What was that about ‘quality’ weather? At this point, inspecting the forecast was quickly becoming part of our daily ritual, and unfortunately for us, The Met Office had predicted a rather unforgiving downpour on our rope skills day. This certainly came true. In terms of experience, I suppose it’s fortunate to be able to have a training scenario under these conditions so that when something does happen you know roughly what to expect.
We experimented with different ways of lowering people down steep terrain. When choosing a rock to anchor off, make sure you give it an almighty kick to make sure it’s not going anywhere. Apparently, if you’re carrying the rope intending to use it, it’s actually out of the remit of the ML award.
As someone who’s quite inexperienced with ropes (I’m more of a boulderer) today was certainly a learning experience that I really quite enjoyed. I’m going to make an effort to get into rope climbing as it’s a bit of a glaring weakness to have as as mountain leader (and it’s fairly enjoyable).
We also stopped at a river to talk about ways you might carry out a river crossing. A rugby style scrum with the weakest group members in the centre seemed to be the most effective. This obviously gets more complicated once you’ve got an injury to deal with. If you’re doing an unplanned river crossing in England or Wales you’ve been a real numpty.
By now Archie and I had cemented our titles as the ‘students’ of the group with our peculiar feeding and washing habits. I like to think my eating habits were slightly less strange than Archie munching his way through 2kg of cheddar in 5 days, eating dry weetabix, damp peanuts, and hot chocolate powder. As for the washing habits, we quite possibly didn’t have a shower and maybe wore the same set of clothes for the whole trip. We’ve done UBES proud!
Day 4, The Glyders, Snowdonia National Park, North Wales
Yet another early morning, we were the first ones in the cafe and went straight to the fireplace to unsuccessfully attempt to dry out all our kit for the day. Of course, the boots remained damp. Together we studied the weather forecast for the surrounding area to identify where we could spend the day, and settled on the Glyders.
As we made our way around Cwm Idwal, I had the chance to carve a route up a scree slope as Paul stopped to give regular examples of how one might manage a group on challenging terrain. This was the real focus of the day – learning how to properly manage groups on narrow routes with awkward steps. I can see these being particularly useful for leading groups up scrambling routes.
Things started to get colder and a hell of a lot more windy as we made our way above the snow line. We made good time and relocated on the plateau just below Glyder Fawr, deciding to descend via the low-pass route as the snowy conditions aren’t strictly within the remit of the ML.
We had some slo-mo fun on our way down:
I also found the Caped Crusader today as well….
Posted by Paul Poole Mountaineering on Tuesday, 22 November 2016
On arrival back at the cafe, we talked about improvising routes and going off the beaten path to give people a proper adventure, as well as getting some recommendations from Paul for improvements to the Snowdon Girdle walk (a circumnavigation of Snowdon). Possibly our own adventure to look forward to on the next UBES Snowdonia trip in February.
Day 5, Moelwyns, Snowdonia National Park, North Wales
On a morning slightly less rainy than the last, we planned the route for our night out in the mountains. The goal was to navigate through sufficiently challenging terrain to our chosen campsite by a lake just East of Cnicht in the Moelwyns through a lot of slush and some rather boggy terrain. This was firmly Type 2 fun. The misery of cold, wet feet was soon paid off with an exquisite sunset which I somehow managed to catch on camera.
After setting up camp by the lake and getting some hot food in; we set off for our night nav training in poor visibility. For the same reasons as the rope skills, it was a great experience learning the different techniques under challenging conditions. The bare bones of night nav are: choose an intermediary point, get a bearing, calculate the distance and count your steps.
Day 6, Moelwyns, Snowdonia National Park, North Wales
The final day of ML! Up at 5:30am to get a hot meal in, and started moving by 7. We each had a chance to play around with the handheld navigator, splitting the journey into 6 legs to get us out of the Moelwyns. If you’re wondering, apparently there really isn’t much of a difference between the more affordable handhelds like the eTrex and the more pricey ones such as the 64st apart from loading times. Don’t quote me on this though, I haven’t properly researched this yet.
On our way down we stopped at a sheepfold to talk about the ways we might move a casualty (and had some more fun with the slo-mo).
The Caped Crusader showed his true colours on our mini break……
Posted by Paul Poole Mountaineering on Thursday, 24 November 2016
Completely knackered from the week we had our final group meal at the Moel Siabod Cafe in Capel Curig. They make a really great gulash! If you’re thinking of doing your ML, I couldn’t recommend Paul Poole enough and whilst the weather at this time of year is kind of minging (that’s the technical term), I’d say it’s probably worth training in grim conditions so you know what to expect when you find yourself in a bad situation. Anyway, onwards to getting those QMDs in and working towards the assessment.