Last week I drove back to Plas Y Brenin at Capel Curig in North Wales. The visit was from Sunday night until Friday afternoon for the Mountain Leader assessment.
I did the training in the February half term in 2014 and I’ve spent many days, nights and weekends wandering the mountains of Scotland, England and Wales between then and now gaining logbook experience ready for the assessment. I booked my place at PyB months ago, as soon as the dates were published. As the months passed I became more anxious, wondering if I really was up to the challenge. Would I make an arse of myself?
I booked in and went to my room. Jim, my room mate and fellow assessment candidate was there already. A fellow teacher -one of several on the assessment (It was half term, after all) but from a very different subject and workplace.
The week began with the standard PyB welcome briefing to all guests and the centre director told us that on that evening Alan Hinkes, Britain’s greatest living Yorkshireman, top mountaineer and one of my heroes would be giving a talk in the evening. We separated off into our groups and Dave, our course director outlined the week ahead for us and introduced us to the assessors we’d spend the week with.
1:25k navigation. We were taken down the road by minibus and we set off to walk up Moel Siabod via a tussocky, boggy route. We were a group of four; Jim, Dom, Mike and myself accompanied by Greg, our assessor. We took it in turns to lead a leg and declare when we’d reached our destination. The other members of the group would have to identify where they thought they were by pointing a blade of grass at a relevant point on the map and explaining the evidence they’d used to make that decision.
While we were navigating our way Jim and Mike took the opportunity to deliver their 5 minute hill talks. Jim described what the Romans would have found when they got to Wales. This was a fascinating talk and easily ten minutes of enthusiastically delivered information. Mike explained glacial processes and the impact on the landscape.
Greg commented that as a group we kept up a really good pace as he was a fast walker and we took in the difficult ground without problem. He said that we may need to moderate our pace if we were walking with a less experienced group.
On the final descent back to PyB each of us was given individual feedback about our performance that day, good bits, things to improve on and other tips.
On the evening we were given a route planning task to be done that evening and handed in at reception along with our paper logs, home papers and first aid certificates.
After the homework was done I grabbed a pint and went to the Hinkes talk. Even had opportunity to speak to the man himself!
1:50K navigation and steep ground. We were dropped off by minibus part way between Pen Y Pass and Llanberis. Our groups was now without Jim who’d been re-assigned to another group due to changes in numbers. Today’s assessor was Dave, the course director. The format was similar; each of us was given a ‘leg’ to navigate and we’d make our way over the broken ground to our target, declare we were there and the others had to say where ‘there’ was. I was given a point to navigate to, which in hindsight was a piece of cake; find the flat bit on the spur down from Crib Goch and head to a small contour line. I completely screwed this leg up. I kept stopping, checking, walking off. I didn’t take in the big picture and got bogged down in the detail and basically lost it! Dave gave handy hints and tips and eventually I made it. On arrival I was questioned thoroughly as to how I knew (partly because I’d previously declared I was ‘there’ when I was nowhere near). This screw up hit me hard and really knocked my confidence. I took extra care over everything else I did that day but the thought that I wasn’t up to it began to take hold.
Coming down a ridge line I slipped on some wet grass and landed on my arse. Unhurt, I leapt up with a ‘Tah-Da!’ but it didn’t help my faltering confidence.
When we were back on easier ground we got our feedback. Dave explained that my poorly done navigation on that one point would have affected a group’s confidence in me if I was their leader. He was completely right, I looked like I didn’t know what I was doing. He gave me some great advice about how to plan the navigation, the big picture and things of that sort. I got back on the minibus beginning to think I was now fighting for a deferral, rather than a failure.
Back at base we were given instructions about the next few days which would be spent on expedition. We spent the remainder of the evening in the bar chatting and having a restful evening before the ‘big days’ ahead. I possibly had two too many beers and ended up getting to bed somewhat later than was ideal.
1:25K Navigation, rope use camp craft and expedition skills. Andy was our assessor for this part of the expedition. I was given the first leg to navigate, a truly easy point on a bend on a footpath! -I found it, using timings, the map and common sense (I had a feeling they’d given me an easy one due to my earlier screw ups). En-route I took the opportunity to give my five minute talk. I’d originally planned to talk about the CroW act the Scottish access code but had decided that it was too dry and instead gave a talk on choosing a water source to drink from. The other guys took their turns and I got my second one. Another easy leg to an easy-to-find lake on the slopes of Snowdon. (I really did think they were giving me the ‘Noddy’ points to keep me going but that I wasn’t going to pass). We walked towards Cwn Tregalan and I was given another point. In retrospect another completely simple piece of nav. I messed up again! I made a ridiculous assessment of the map and declared that the point was about 500m further than it was. Andy questioned me, gave me a bit of info and It fell into place. I was definitely not passing this course. Walking to the point the realisation of just how easy the point was to find hit me. What an idiot!
We reached the place where we’d spend the night. We got the tents up, not without issue, one of the poles from Mike’s Jack Wolfskin tent snapped! Luckily we’d both come prepared with a pole sleeve and I had a roll of duck tape. A repair made, we got the tent up and made a brew. We demonstrated our skills at lowering someone down a cliff and tying up an anchor to belay from. I kept on tying a stopper knot wrong. I climb most weeks and can do a stopper without thinking but something in my brain kept sabotaging me!
Darkness fell and we set off night navigating. The first leg was mine and I got us there no problem. On arrival I explained to Andy what my procedure was and the evidence I had found. A few more points and it was my turn again, a ford on the Watkin path. As we set off uphill to my point we heard a sound. Was that a whistle? A sheep? A person? We waited a while and looked around. It was definitely a whistle and we saw a weak torch on another path almost a kilometre away. We set off at once the whistling continued we also heard a shout for help. We arrived at the path to find a lady and her young daughter seeking help. They’d been up Snowdon with other members of their family but had come down a different route and got caught out by the darkness and had no map. Their torch was a keyring type torch, not really up to the job of navigating.
Our night navigation had become a genuine assistance! We checked they were uninjured and warm and set off. I gave my spare headtorch to the little girl who also had a few of our wine gums. She was very calm considering she was in the dark on a mountain. After a while we came across a pair of well-equipped walkers who were out practicing their night navigation in preparation for an ML assessment! They’d heard the help shout and were looking for the woman too.
We handed the lady and daughter over to them and exchanged phone numbers. We carried on our navigation exercise. Later on we got a text to say that all was well and the party were reunited.
We cooked dinner and crawled into our tents at about ten pm after what had been a long and tiring day.
1:50k navigation and security on steep ground, including rope use. We got up, packed up and donned waterproofs. Each of us in turn took a navigation leg. We walked far from tracks and other people eventually stopping for lunch next to Llyn Nadroedd. After lunch Dom gave us his five minute talk which was on the subject of droving. The movement of sheep from the valleys to the markets.
Talk done we shouldered our packs and set off down a small scree and boulder slop where we demonstrated our short-roping technique. Towards the end of the journey I was given a point to get us to and I screwed up. Again! I’d got it into my head that I was leading us to a camp site and this thought took over my brain and I missed the point I was to take us to. I declared “we’re here” when we were no such thing. WHile the others were relocating I re-checked the map and the ground and realised my error. I told Andy I was wrong and showed him the actual location and where we should have been. He said that he’d have been concerned if I hadn’t corrected myself but he was happy I had done. I was certain that I wasn’t passing the assessment.
We arrived at the location of our camp and set up the tents. We whispered amongst ourselves; “Are we night navving tonight?” “I dunno, hope not” “Lets not mention it…”
Andy came over and told us he’d seen enough the previous night so we didn’t need to leave camp until the next morning. We were very pleased with this! As we sat on a large flat rock enjoying a brew and cooking our dinner I asked if the assessment was effectively complete as we only had about 3km to walk into Llanberis the next morning. Andy said it was more or less over unless we burned our tent down. In which case we’d fail! As the night grew colder we began to yawn. We were all in our tents by 8pm.
The next morning dawned and we wandered into Llanberis and Pete’s Eats café and waited for the minibus.
Back at PyB we returned borrowed kit, showered and awaited our summons to collect the results.
I knew I’d failed. Too many mistakes. I waited glumly with the other candidates. One by one they went in to see Dave and to get their results. Pass, Pass, Pass, Pass, Defer (Ropes), Defer (Navigation).
Dom -Pass. My turn. I was hoping it was defer and not fail. I went to the office and sat down. Dave turned to me and said “Congratulations, you’re a mountain leader”
“Fuck me!” was my ineloquent reply.
I’d done it! I’d fucking done it! I couldn’t believe it. My brain had focused on everything I’d got wrong through the week. Everything I could have done better. I’d forgotten all the things I’d got right.
I came out with a huge grin and returned to the bar. Mike was last. He went in, got his result -a pass and came back to the bar. Our team had done it! The three of us had been together since the Monday and we’d all done it.
The elation of passing even made the five hour journey home (usually 2.5 hours) seem bearable!