News & Features — 3 June 2014 at 2:05 am

Mountain Leader Awards

Jamie van Oppen / Medical Student

James van Oppen is a 4th year medical student interested in Pre-Hospital Emergency Medicine. James supports his learning as a freelance expedition leader.

Challenging, satisfying, and well respected, the Mountain Leader awards represent ideal learning and certification opportunities for medics intending to work in the expedition sector. Regulated by Mountain Training and its regional boards, all levels of the scheme comprise training courses and extensive consolidation prior to assessment, recognising experience as well as ability.

Levels of the scheme range from courses lasting a few days for hobbyists keen to enjoy and challenge themselves in the outdoors, to assessments requiring years of training for those wishing to instruct technical mountaineering skills. At all levels, the fundamental characteristic necessary to achieve the awards is a keen interest in the outdoors. Candidates do not need to be athletes in order to be successful, however the ability to walk (and climb, for higher awards) for several days carrying a pack is a necessity. To get the most out of the available courses, some experience of hiking and navigating is a pre-requisite; however, technical aspects are covered in depth during progressive training.

The remit of most levels of the scheme is UK-based group leadership, although the transferable skills of personal administration and group welfare in remote environments would be invaluable for medics working throughout the world. Holding a Mountain Leader award demonstrates a level of experience and self-reliance in the expedition environment that is acknowledged by employers across the globe.

Expedition medicine

No longer the sole domain of sabbatical or FY3 doctors, expedition medics are called upon to cover events and trips scaling from weekend mountain marathons to explorations lasting several months. Duties are not limited to emergency care alone; indeed, the doctor is responsible for group welfare from start to finish and would be expected to take an active role in planning, training, and debriefing. The role is very much that of a leader.

Job opportunities do exist (AM jobs, ExpedMed) for the doctor who is comfortable working autonomously, however competition for the grander contracts is tough and medics must be able to prove their competence working in unfamiliar and sometimes challenging conditions. Medics who hold the Mountain Leader Award have demonstrable experience managing groups in remote environments and would be at an advantage when seeking expedition work.

Scheme levels

Lowland Leader and Hill & Moorland Leader Awards /  Superseding the Walking Group Leader award, the focus of these schemes is to develop the ability to lead groups in non-mountainous terrain such as Dartmoor or the Peak District. An interest in the outdoors and practical experience are essential, as candidates are required to demonstrate their ability to navigate finely using a map and compass (including night work). Group management, emergency drills, and knowledge of the environment also appear in the syllabi. An additional Expedition Skills module is available for those who wish to lead groups with an overnight camping itinerary.

Mountain Leader / Having a broader remit, Mountain Leaders may take groups anywhere in the UK in summer conditions where the use of a rope is not planned. That said, candidates must be competent to safely lower themselves and their group from treacherous ground in emergencies – and must demonstrate this ability at assessment. Navigation and route finding feature strongly in this scheme, and river-crossing techniques are also taught (expect wet feet!). During both the training and assessment courses, candidates take part in and lead a group expedition, with two nights spent wild camping in remote areas.

Winter Mountain Leader / A necessity for leaders wishing to take groups into remote areas in winter conditions, the Winter ML Award builds on the Summer ML (completion is a pre-requisite), in order to develop a leader able to operate in any UK environment. As well as ropework, steep ground security with axes and crampons is covered. An emphasis is placed on reading winter weather and operating in avalanche terrain.

Higher awards / Mountain Training oversees higher award schemes for those wishing to instruct skills or lead groups oversees. These include the Mountaineering Instructor Award and Certificate, International Mountain Leader Award and Mountain Guide.


Interested candidates build up a record of ‘Quality Mountain Days’ in a logbook (formatted pages available from Mountain Training). Various criteria must be fulfilled for a trip to count as a QMD, including a personal involvement with planning and leadership, trip duration exceeding 5 hours and navigation off of marked paths.

Once at least 20 QMDs have been logged, registration for each scheme costs £39-£50 and enables candidates to register for a training course. Taught by experienced instructors over several days, these provide an opportunity to revise and learn leadership skills and knowledge. An action plan is given to each candidate at course closure

Consolidation consists of a minimum of 20 further QMDs, with experience as a group leader or assistant particularly beneficial. Experiencing a range of regions is important to deepen knowledge of the UK environments. Candidates may then book an assessment course to demonstrate their skills.

Mountain Leader Scheme

Training and assessment courses – a personal view

Having previously completed the Walking Group Leader award and Mountain Leader (Summer) training through the military, I booked an ML(S) assessment course at Blue Peris in Snowdonia. This course format is similar at all stages of the scheme.

Mountain Leader (Summer) assessment lasts 5 days. Following three years of training and building experience (over two or three weeks each year), I devoted an additional week to final preparation, wild camping in the Glyders and Carnedds. Candidates arrive during the preceding evening to settle into their accommodation (a bunkhouse, dormitories or local hotel depending on the course provider) and meet others on the course.

Following breakfast (catering again depends on the provider), Day 1 normally takes the form of a ‘shake-out’ day, with each person taking turns to lead and navigate a leg of a cross-country journey, pointing out and discussing features of the mountain environment along the way. The second day of ML courses is devoted to steep ground security, tackling an ascent with confidence rope and belay techniques and then descending safely using abseils as if in an emergency. These skills can all be learnt during the training courses.

ML(S) courses also include a two-(training) or three-(assessment) day expedition. In my case we ventured deep into the Moelwyns, still taking turns to lead and navigate. Both nights are spent wild camping – although do not expect a lot of sleep as night navigation is assessed twice! My second wild camp was on the southern slope of Snowdon itself, well away from the tourist trails and high enough to appreciate the true beauty of Snowdonia. Having survived the wilderness, candidates are debriefed by their instructor and told their outcome (pass, defer or fail) before departing.

Costs / Registration: £50, training: £300-500, assessment: £250-500. The cost of travel and accommodation while gaining experience should not be underestimated, although candidates should consider this to be a hobby rather than a chore. I would estimate my total cost from start to finish over three years to be in the region of £2000

Time / A minimum of 40 Quality Mountain Days (often many more, and not including other courses) are required before candidates may present for assessment. The time taken to complete a strong logbook varies according to work and family commitments and base location within the UK – it is harder to log the days if you live on the South coast!

Equipment / Over time, prospective mountain leaders will need to build up a collection of reliable gear, some of which can be expensive. Many training course providers offer loan of equipment, however at assessment a candidate is expected to show that they are suitably kitted to lead a group safely. Costs vary enormously by brand and specification, but a Mountain Leader’s expedition kit may well be worth several thousand pounds

Booking / Course providers can be found on or through simple Google searches. It is worth planning ahead and shopping around to find a provider who suits your availability and budget


Although time-consuming and somewhat costly, the process of becoming a Mountain Leader is enjoyable and once completed the awards are valued by clients, enabling medics to certify their competence operating in the expedition environment.