I loved doing my ML training (all those years ago). It was a week away in the mountains gaining a formal understanding of what I already loved doing and it was a pathway opening up new possibilities for my future.

Assessment on the other hand felt a very different ball game: and I did it twice (passed it twice too) – once with the army and then years later as a civvy. On each occasion it felt stressful because I knew I would be on the spot. So here are some top tips to give you that edge and to help you perform at your best.

Make sure your log book is full, varied and well itemised

By this I mean, get as much breadth of experience as possible. It’s taken for granted that you will log days in a variety of mountain areas from across the UK and you will have gone out on solo overnight expeditions as well as having led groups of friends on days out. But have you worked with students as well as adults? Have you depth of experience on grade 1 scrambles with people? These sorts of experiences you will find invaluable when faced with scenarios on your ML assessment.

And make sure that breadth of experience shines through when you’re being assessed. So when you are asked to deal with a situation on steep ground be sure to ask questions about the context of this theoretical situation. In my time working as a mountain leader I have had to deal with a range of situations on steep ground where I have had make a decision to rope up or not. The client in concern may be afraid of heights, or maybe they are hypoglycaemic and in danger of stumbling over, or maybe they have an ankle injury and you’re walking them off the hill or maybe you’re leading a student expedition overseas and you’re escorting a hypoxic casualty down from altitude… There are many reasons why you might need to closely supervise a client on steep ground as a summer ML but it is rare that the deployment of a rope will be needed and you need to demonstrate appropriate judgement.

With experience you will learn that the gradient of the ground is only one factor in the decision making process. The nature of the client, the weather and the time of day all play into the process. So when your assessor asks you to escort a “client” down or up a stretch of ground be sure to ask them what the context is. By doing so you will (a) be able to make the best decision on which is the best course of action, (b) show how you have learned from your experience and (c) be helping the assessor spell out exactly what objective they’re trying to assess.

Get 100% on the pre-assessment paper

Ok – maybe nobody has ever scored 100% but there is no reason not to aspire to do so. In this day and age with a bit of application and the internet at our fingertips there is no reason not to score highly on this paper. But that is the whole point – it’s not just set to assess your ability but it is also there to prompt you to think about wider issues, demonstrate your willingness to do a bit of research and to get your head into gear. Doing well in this paper means you will have done your homework, it will give your confidence a boost and it will reflect well on you as a first impression for the assessor marking your paper. Don’t stint on this.

image of two men on Hill Skills Gold Navigation training reading their maps by torch light in night time darkness

Make sure that your technical skills are slick

Navigation and steep ground management are the two topics that most lead to people failing or being deferred on ML assessment.

When out practising your navigation skills develop familiarity with using all scales of map and practise with not just OS maps but with 1:40K Harvey maps too. There is a time and space for using different scales of map. When you get asked questions such as the pro’s and con’s of using a 1:50K map be sure to contribute confidently to the discussion from a position of experience and knowledge. But more importantly you will be expected to work with different scales on the day. Don’t let any single scale map be your Achilles’ heel.

And, while we’re talking nav’ skills, don’t be worried if you cock up from time to time: it happens to all of us always. If those klaxons are sounding in your head, take a break. Tell the team to take a break, to sit down and have a wet while you take the time to look around you and to relocate properly. If people are sat down you won’t feel under half as much pressure and it will give you the best chance to sort it out. Be honest with the assessor; if you realise you have made an error then say so. Keeping quiet means the assessor has seen a mistake. Admitting to the error and saying what went wrong means the assessor has seen a mistake and that has been rectified.

For your rope-work – whatever you do be good at it. For ML assessment you could pass with knowledge of the overhand knot alone. Whatever skills you have be sure to be able to cover all sorts of ‘what ifs’going up hill and down hill. And if you’re hoping to use a sling and a carabiner (assessors vary on whether or not to allow this) be sure you know how to use this kit and be sure you have the skills to deal with any situation without it.

Have good kit admin

On my assessment one of the guys with me used a big orange survival bag to line his rucksack on the expedition phase. On the first night he also used this as a groundsheet for his tent. The next day it ended up being packed back into his sack last (instead of lining it). That day it rained and rained all day long. Consequently all his kit was soaked through – his spare clothes and sleeping bag included. It didn’t reflect well on him and to then perform the next day following a long cold night couldn’t have been easy. If you want to work as a mountain professional be sure to act like one. Have good systems and discipline born from experience and it will be another feather in your cap on the day.

Be entertaining

There’s more to this than just being an expert on flora and fauna – after all the birds and the bees aren’t everyone’s bag.  So if looking through a book of mountain flowers leaves you feeling cold get good at other topics too. How about boning up on the geology, or star gazing or the local folk-lore (there’s loads everywhere you go in the UK)? And most importantly don’t wait to be asked to offer something to the pot – volunteer it. It sounds weird and it won’t feel normal but when you see something, point it out to everyone. So it might be half way through a navigation leg and you might say “Does anyone know the history behind the name of this mountain?” And before they answer – make sure that you’re the one that tells them!

Finally …

Finally remember the assessor is a human being. The person assessing you doesn’t want to fail you. It’s much easier to tell someone that they have passed than anything else. They will want to give you every opportunity to show yourself at your best and you should remember this. Do what comes naturally and don’t try to ‘second-guess’ the assessor. Don’t do something you aren’t familiar with just because you think ‘that is something they want to see’.

So be prepared, but try try try, to be relaxed too. Good luck – it’s a great role to have once you have it!

Further Reading

This article was written by Will Legon, JSMEL, ML, RCI, MIAS L2 mountain bike leader, first aid trainer and former teacher of maths and Territorial Army soldier. Now I describe myself as a blessed man who leads people walking, climbing and mountain biking in the hills, mountains and on the crags of the UK. I also run damn good outdoor first aid courses!