Mountain Leader Training with Trail Magazine
‘Expedition’ is a damn fine word, guaranteed to send shivers up your spine. And if
it’s adventure you’re a er, a big-scale mountain trip is the place to find it. But unless you’re cosy with Sir Ranulph Fiennes and he’s likely to invite you somewhere unspeakably cold or remote or steep, how can you take part in something that truly justifes the epithet?
Well, here’s one answer: it’s in the second half of your Mountain Leader training course. As you may have read in Part One (see May issue), this six-day jaunt is your chance to study, steal and imbibe the secrets of a bona de mountain professional whose wing you’ll be under for an intensive week. Not only this, but it’s your golden ticket (should you choose to pursue it) to becoming a dues-paying guide yourself. By this stage in Trail’s journey the first four days, which mingle a little bit of classroom with a whole lot of outdoor skills practice, are done. The finale, in which it’s time to head out for a wild camping trip with a twist, is next. e twist, of course, is that every step of the way you’re learning, observing and never switching off. Whether it’s navigation skills (constant), team management (perpetual) or learning about the environment (incessant), this is more than just two days of walking without a comfy bed in the middle, it is a journey with a purpose.
So you meet us in Nantgwynant, on the south side of Snowdon, on a secluded and beautiful trail that the world for no reason in particular seems to ignore. Highly qualified Rob Johnson (MIC) is our guide, while we of us take it in turns to lead the group to various waymarks along our route. This route – of course – is not being improvised, but was closely planned between us the previous night, complete with timing estimations, possible escape routes, and suitable rest and camping stops. Most of this will go out the window as we begin to practise our skills.
Once we’re up into some suitable terrain our navigation work begins. Rob (the sly devil) finds the knottiest, twistiest, least remarkable and broadest landscape the south slopes
of Y Lliwedd can offer, devoid of obvious landmarks or any signicant slopes or – in fact – anything to help out the apprentice navigator. Enroute we have to locate exact points within this little slice of unexceptional wilderness. is could be a rib of soil, a slight dip in the ats, a fork in a stream… anything that isn’t a cairn, a fence, a trig point or anything else you’d traditionally rely on to locate yourself.
It proves a great training technique. If you want to get better at something, afer all, you need to push yourself. If you want to be a great batsman, you practise with a cricket stump and a golf ball. Likewise, if you want to be a confident navigator you work your way across the blandest terrain, not the most dramatic.
So, we slowly work our way across to the scree-riven remains of Y Lliwedd’s old copper mine – rusted, long-collapsed and strewn with abandoned wheels and other strange detritus. Suitably warmed up, we take it in turns leading the group onto high ground.
Like most of Wales, it’s an achingly gorgeous place to spend time, whether you’re taking part in a training course or simply wandering with no particular place to go. In our case it’s a beautiful late autumn day, with the rich grasses of green and brown beneath our feet o set against bruised and glowing skies. ere is a so breeze, carrying the cool sense of the sea inland, and the day is far from over.
We climb up onto the highest slopes of Y Lliwedd, and views of Crib Goch and the shrouded summit of Snowdon open up. e ru ed slopes of Moel Meirch to the east lie in a golden light, and there’s a clarity and a keenness in the atmosphere as we leapfrog each other onto Snowdon’s n-like arm.
An evening haze glows in the distance, the setting sun shines in our eyes, our party are just silhouettes against the mountainside. If it didn’t already, it feels like an expedition now.
Each of us enjoys a 15 minute session leading and guiding the group to a speci c feature picked out by Rob. By the time we’ve all done this twice, we’re descending into the wilds of Cwm Tregalan. is utterly overlooked slice of Snowdon remains a mystery to everyone who hasn’t walked the Watkin Path – the only obvious reason a person would come this way from Nantgwynant or the mountain’s peak.
But it’s absolutely ideal for our purpose. With plenty of green space, craggy ground and spindly waterways to work with as it leads into and mingles with Cwm Llan, it’s not only a secluded area to set up camp for the night,
but also a superb navigational playground.
With the light swi ly failing, and the evening redness in the west deepening, it’s time to nd suitable camping terrain that isn’t too soggy, bumpy or remote. is proves simple enough, and soon we’re spread across a small area, each unrolling his tent in the twilight.
ere’s only one problem – and it’s me. I’ve always been pretty proud of my tent cra , looking on it as more or less the trump card in my outdoor skill set. But, whether it’s fatigue, low light or unfamiliarity with this particular shelter, I nd myself minus a solid home for the night a er 10 minutes of wrestling with fabric and pegs. My mind has gone blank. I have literally no idea where the main pole goes. Worse still, I’ve foolishly chosen to pitch within easy sight of instructor Rob. ankfully, he doesn’t seem to have noticed my di culties. It takes some deep breaths and a mental reboot to get rid of the crippling frustration that’s taking hold. I sit and think, then (eventually) set up the main pole via the obvious central sleeve, peg out the four corners and get my shelter
up and ready for the night. If I were leading
clients or kids – or even mates – then a hapless struggle with my kit like this could look pretty
bad (I tell myself) as well as keeping me from helping them with any potential problems.
I resolve not to let it happen again. But as I look up from my freshly nished tent, I notice that everyone else is only a few steps ahead, and there’s certainly no sense of pressure or judgment in the air. at’s just not what a Mountain Leader course is about. Individual errors are not highlighted. Nobody is made an example of. Everybody’s here to learn. We have a brew and a bite to eat.
en, darkness complete, there’s night nav to be done. is is where merely ‘knowing where you are’ becomes an important and hugely impressive skill. Rob calls us together, headtorches, maps and compasses to hand, and leads us o downhill. ere is no moon tonight. Few stars. In these conditions a half- a-minute walk in an unknown direction can leave you suddenly and utterly lost. In total we walk for around eight minutes. Without a are gun, a satnav device or a pair of night-vision goggles in my pack, I’m le wondering how we could ever get back to where we started.
“How many streams did we cross?” asks Rob. “Seven,” says someone who was paying better attention than me.
And so begins the ‘relocation’. We cluster around a map, the combined light of six headtorches forming a cheerful beacon of warm amber. Rob’s using his traditional stem of grass or straw to point out the various details we can use to gure out our location. Counting the features you’ve crossed plays a big part (hence the streams question), but measuring slope angle and direction proves vital too. We take a bearing directly down the slope we’re on and compare that reading to the map. A stream babbles loudly at the slope’s base. Again, we check the map. We then walk down the hill until we hit this obvious line of water. Walking up it, we cross-reference the articles we see
(a wall here, a fork in the water there) and soon there’s only one place we could possibly be. We’re no longer lost.
Now that we know where we are, we use bearings and pacing to hit distant targets, aiming comfortably inward from the end of
a physical feature so that a slight error doesn’t see us miss it entirely. Here another lesson is learned: pacing is upset by the steep slopes.
fact, they add as much as 20 per cent to our total footfalls due to two factors – rstly our strides are simply smaller going uphill, and secondly you actually cover a greater distance reaching the same point uphill than on the at (it’s confusing, but think of the hypotenuse of a triangle compared to its base).
Eventually we reach our final destination – right back where we started. Our reward? The privilege of hopping onto a cold roll mat for the night. Bliss.
All too soon we’re awake in the heavy air of
a cool, wet morning, ready for (you guessed it) some more navigation and leading work. Camp
broken, we climb into the quarry on the north side of Yr Aran. Acres of slate – cut, shattered and slabbed – lie around us. A collapsed hut stands among it all grimly. From there we move from the hard to the so , into the mossy wilderness west of the peak. And then up it. e dark Beddgelert forest sits behind us, an ankle-deep spongy bed of moss lies beneath our feet and a beautiful ridge pulls away ahead – an upward tunnel through the murk. Another peak (and it’s a truly great one) ticked o , we nish our journey with one nal challenge. It’s a river crossing, which at this stage in the expedition and within a kilometre
of the car, seems as much for Rob’s amusement as anything. Nevertheless, we indulge him. And, not to sound too jolly hockey sticks about it, but it proves to be pretty good fun. Once you’ve got over the fact that you’re ice-cold
and soaking wet from the knee down, you can begin to enjoy the pure sensation of the water and the fact that your socks and boots don’t pong quite as terribly as they did a few minutes before. We work our way from one bank to
the other, grouped together in a triangle to cut against the current. Reassuringly, it works.
“You guys are lucky: the ropework element has just been removed from the syllabus or you would have been in there longer,” says Rob as we hop about on the bank squelching loudly. It’s di cult to feel too grateful at this point.
Our course nishes in true expedition style: with a slap-up breakfast in Capel Curig’s Moel Siabod Café. A er this we have our individual debriefs with Rob, in which he highlights areas we can focus on to become the best hillwalkers (and if we choose to go on to assessment, Mountain Leaders) we can be. I can’t speak for the other four, but his conclusion in my case?
I need to boost my logbook. Get out more. More walks, more camps, more scrambling. He won’t have to tell me twice.