LEARNING TO LEAD
LEARNING TO LEAD
An article about
UK Mountain Leader Training
Copyright Trail Magazine, originally published December 2007
The rope in my pack is discreet, but it's ready. I can tell the person at the back is more capable than they think, and the person at the front isn't as confident as they say. I know that the cold front forecast for this afternoon will arrive early and will bring thunder - but I know what to do.
I'm a Mountain Leader. And you'll be safe with me.
That paragraph up there - that's the dream. Rams it home a bit, doesn't it? Say the word 'leader' and all sorts of things happen. People listen to you. They trust you. They look to you to put a smile on their face. And if things go wrong, they look to you to take the worry from it.
I need to talk about myself for a minute, but don't worry - the good stuff's coming.
I'm extremely average. And, ascending towards 30, I was beginning to find this slightly depressing. Not that I've got a bad lot. I just haven't got one thing I'm bloody good at. Sting sings. Raymond Blanc cooks. Dammit, even George Bush has a mean golf drive. Me, I've got a habit of coming second. I'm reliable, but might be a little late. I can cook one thing. I play okay guitar, and bad piano. If someone were to write my biography (and, clearly, this is unlikely) they would be extremely stuck for a title.
My saving grace was this: recently, I'd noticed that in the eyes of friends, I was viewed as quite an experienced mountaineer. Competent in extreme environments. Someone who'd looked over the edge, and grinned at what he saw. An unflappable chap in whose company they could feel safe.
I liked this very much. Secretly, it was how I wanted to be seen: as a leader. Trouble was, secretly, I knew even this was - and if you'll pardon me - bullshit.
Oh, I can look after myself just fine. But when it came to looking after other people, I was useless. On the rare occasions I have found myself the most experienced member of a party I've been so indiscreet with my concerns, so unsure of my own decisions and injected so much melodrama into situations, I have led them to stagger home wrongly thinking they had just survived some kind of al fresco lethal injection. Of course this has ruined many days on the hill for a number of people, but it's also knocked my own confidence. Apparently, I wasn't the firm-handed, Miyagi-calm hub around which the party revolved. I couldn't maintain that unfakably calm veneer while problem-solving cogs whirred frantically within - the mountain equivalent of administering warm milk and adjusting a duvet while quietly stamping out a carpet fire. I wasn't that person. I wasn't a leader. And I really, really wanted to be. So I called Stuart Johnston, and said: "How do I get to be like you?" And he said: "Start by taking a Mountain Leader course." And - honestly, seriously and not-at-all melodramatically - it quite simply changed my life.
There were six of us in the living room of Stuart Johnston's Aberfeldy HQ. All recruits for the Summer Mountain Leader Course, we were of very different backgrounds and experiences. But as ever, the man in charge of raising us to the same standard of proficiency wasn't concerned as he talked us through the week ahead. Or if he was, he didn't show it. The Summer Mountain Leader course (SML) is more than just a course to make you a better hill walker. As hinted by the name, it's taken by people who want to lead others. A leader has to therefore ultimately demonstrate, under examination, that they are of sufficient competence to lead, look after, make decisions for and teach skills to groups of people - ranging from vulnerable children to adult first-timers - in the UK's most threatening environment - the mountains. On every level, it's a very big deal. By the time Stuart had briefed us, a week somehow didn't seem enough. But what was immediately clear was that the SML course wasn't all we needed to pass the exam and get our 'leader' gongs. Far, far from it.
As Stuart asserted, the course was just the beginning: yes, we would be taught the skills needed to navigate a group off Cairn Gorm in a white out, with a smile. No, we would not be ready to use them. The 20 'quality mountain days' we'd all filled out in the logbooks on our laps prior to arriving were our foundation. The course was to give us our bricks and instructions; then we would go away and build the bomb shelter. Then, after months of constructive, on-the-hill consolidation, the exam should be as natural as a knee jerk. Take the exam too soon, and we wouldn't have a hope. The timetable of lessons looked dramatic: river crossings, rope skills, emergency first aid, mountain weather, flora and fauna, leadership and - natch - navigation, capping off with a two-day expedition into a pathless, Munro-studded region of the southern Highlands. Briefing over, a sobering coffee later, and it was time to get dirty.
The level of understanding a Mountain Leader needs to have of navigation is a transcendent, zen-like approach that subtracts from, simplifies and galvanises skills designed to give the inexperienced a handhold in favour of the cleanest, most efficient way to solve a problem. Everybody present already knew how to use a compass as a purely robotic instrument; now it was time to unscrew the stabilisers, start developing instincts and actually use our brains to work the landscape. We spent an afternoon in one square kilometre of the most spectacularly unspectacular hill scenery imaginable, practising pacing, using the landscape to orientate our maps, looking at the most microscopically subtle shifts in contours and relating them back to the ground. Every now and again, Stuart would stop, bend over, pluck something green and charismatic from the ground and hold it up for everyone to see, occasionally nibbling on it or recounting a piece of trivia relating to it. This was our introduction to the importance of other knowledge - plants, animals, geology, geography - that any Mountain Leader needs. After all, your charges don't just want you to keep them alive: they want a good time too. We emerged from the hill a few hours later with a third eye opened as to the extraordinary amount of information squirrelled away within a map (seriously - kudos, OS) and a few more tricks on how to wield it effectively. We also learned which leaf tastes a bit like a sugarsnap (the liverwort). Which is strangely empowering. But nothing screams 'empowerment' like mastery of the rope. It was something all of us were looking forward to and dreading with equal fervour, and next morning we were to grapple it head on.
Charged with this were two teachers with extraordinary qualifications: Di Gilbert - the first British woman to have led a expedition to the top of Everest - and Dave Rudkin, a young instructor and climber of supreme ability. Both were hyper-qualified, infectiously cheerful, knowledgeable about green things swiped from the ground and engagingly approachable. As leaders, they were pyrotechnic examples. And it was today we would learn the phrase that is for prospective mountain leaders a made-to measure mantra. "Whatever you do, ask yourself the question: is it safe, does it work?" advised Di as she demonstrated the tying of a rope around a spike anchor, the term used to describe a nose of rock solid enough to tie a rope around for the purposes of abseil. We had spent several hours crawling around a boulder-crusted hillside looking for, testing and using spike anchors and their holey counterparts - thread anchors. Along the way we had learned the two knots we would need for creating abseils, safeguarding descents and making make-do harnesses. It was a day of total immersion in the rope - that alien, fearmongering object that's intimidating both for its implications and the technicality of its use. By the time we left, all of us without exception had found spikes, threads, tied abseils, abseiled, safeguarded someone's descent and been briefed about the importance of not flashing your rope needlessly in front of a nervy group. We also had a go at 'confidence roping' - a technique used to give a twitchy walker security on loose ground by way of tying a rope around them and wrangling them at a distance of little more than a foot.
Two knots, a few techniques and that was it - we all now had a working knowledge of rope. That's huge.
Next day, it was time for something even more immediately intimidating: the successful negotiation of a fast-flowing river. Stuart wanted us all to experience the force of a river: this was important. A few frigid soakings later and it was clear just why he was so insistent - no matter how fast and scary it looks and no matter how cold you think it is from the shore, triple it and you're still nowhere near. For this reason, learning how to get a group across a river is vital, and for the fact that rivers are some of the most elastically unpredictable and potentially damaging things on any walking route. We were taught several techniques - from rope assisted pendulum crossings to the conga-like line astern technique, all illuminating in their simplicity and effectiveness (hint: a walking pole? Essential expedition kit). It was safe. It worked. Once dry, it was emergency first aid and casualty management, in which we accumulated a repertoire of A-Team ingenious ways of building stretchers from survival bags, ropes and backpacks. Again, it was extraordinary. Again, I felt something small but significant inflate in my brain.
There isn't room in this article - indeed, in this magazine - to go into everything taught, but the entire week progressed in this way. Short, digestible but deceptively meaty meals of skills and knowledge delivered in exactly the sort of engaging and self-propelled manner we were all aspiring to.
The week's end was the apex: an expedition into the mountains south of Schiehallion for a two-day practical. This would not only be a chance to implement and practise what we'd learned but would give us real, on the-hill experience of being a group leader, each commanding the group for 20 minute legs as we navigated, plucked green things from the hillside and said something interesting about them. And, of course we would have to make sure everyone in the group was enjoying themselves. It would be an exciting trip and not without incident, which was lucky; had all been velvety it just wouldn't have been half as useful. I fell painfully off a riverbank into a load of rocks, then watched with interest as Stuart examined my leg for fractures. It rained, a lot. And then, as we began moving towards our high wild camp, a lightning storm began to worryingly molest the ground frighteningly close to the group. Six pairs of eyes immediately fell on Stuart. This was exactly - exactly - the sort of situation where successful leadership was paramount. With a face that said 'I'm not unduly concerned, he calmly asked us to get our maps out and find the camp spot. Grateful for something to occupy my thoughts, I did as I was told, found the spot and proceeded to it.
By the time we arrived, the clouds had turned from mauve to grey and the rumblings of the storm were receding into the gloaming.
The next afternoon, on the way out, the same thing happened - but worse. We had climbed two Munros that morning. An hour after leaving their summits, lightning was striking them. Again, we turned to Stuart. With hindsight - speaking from my comfy living room - there were two ways a leader could have handled such a situation. They could have nervously brought the group off the mountain. Or, they could have calmly brought the group off the mountain. The first way could have resulted in stress, hurry and injury regardless of the lightning. Using the second, the only danger would have been the danger posed by the lightning. Stuart didn't panic, or cause it. He merely suggested it might be a good idea if we went straight down, in the same gently regrettable tone of voice he might have used to tell a stranger that no, he didn't have change for a tenner. Result? We got down in a calm, orderly fashion. None of us died. It was safe. It worked.
After that, we were almost there. A few more talks on leadership, an individual debrief, a much-anticipated curry with the rest of the candidates, and then we all went our separate ways - springs coiled taut under the weight of newly loaded skills and positively desperate to bounce. For some, the consolidation period where we would start galvanising the skills we had learned with experience would last a few months. For others - me included - it could be a year. Two. However long it took.
The course told me that to achieve my dream, to be that person I wanted to be, I was a long way off - way further than I thought. But I'll tell you this: it's better to be clambering towards your goal from the bottom of a solid foundation than it is to reach for it from the top of fragile scaffolding. In the meantime, a continuing preoccupation with utilising what I learned on the course has crept into my day-to-day. After all, learn how to get a group through life-threatening situations on a mountain, and you can walk down most of life's streets bouncing on confidence.
It's started to work on the mountain, too. Last month on top of Glyder Fach, my mate twisted his ankle. I took charge, changed our descent route, kept us both smiling and got us down. It was safe. It worked. No, it isn't worth the Victoria Cross. But for me - arch-fear monger and belching factory of incompetence - it's definitely a start.
Words by Simon Ingram
Article Copyright Trail Magazine, originally published December 2007.
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