Sunday, 21 November 2010

So The Red Needle Points North? - Mountain Leader Training

I peer down at the map, the glare from my head torch reflecting back at me obscuring the detail, the contours I'm struggling to match with the immediate terrain about me. Scanning the darkness I can see little more than 30m in all directions, hemmed in by a curtain of night yet aware of the vast space in which we are moving.

Night navigation; a baring, distance and time, three friends in this open landscape. I've paced the distance but the contours look wrong a depression where the map says there shouldn't be one. I look at the map again trying to morph the contours onto the landscape around me, then suddenly it fits I realise the depression does not matter "We're here" I announce.

Here is Mountain Leader (ML) Summer Training. I'm on night navigation in the north east Carneddau the rounded monsters that brood in the north east of the Snowdonia National Park. Nestled in the valley below Fole-fras I'm searching for a shoulder on the 590m contour line my leg in the night navigation exercise before we tuck ourselves up in our bags for a night in the hills.

Anyway rewind. I've decided to split this blog into two as it got quite out of hand when I planned it out as a solid lump. This first instalment is about my direct experience of the course and what I got out of it. The second will be about the UK mountain training system itself and how it works in allowing people to access the mountains. This was a key point hammered home to us on day one; the ML is not a personal skills award, it's about developing the leadership skills to enable an individual to take anyone whatever there experience into the hills and allow them to have a great mountain day.

Cloud inversion over Lynnau Mymbyr with Snowdon in the background;
not a bad view from the breakfast table.

My ML award is something I have wanted to do for for a while, I signed up in 2004 but for a number of reasons I never got myself organised. I am now particularly pissed of at myself for this as during my PhD I had both the time and the money to really push on. This year I've finally realised that I actually want to spend my life working in the outdoors and have given myself a kick up the backside and booked the training course at Plas Y Brenin (PYB) also known (by me at least) as the Hero Factory.

The Brenin is an outdoor pursuits centre run on behalf of Sport England (even though it's in Wales). It exists to provide experience and training across a range of outdoor sports. From complete novice to expert there are courses for anyone interested in walking, rock and ice climbing, all types of kayak and canoeing, skiing, mountain biking, mountain first aid, alpanism. The mountains and adventure are in its DNA and it's a fantastic place to visit (open every day to grab a coffee and a weather forecast). 

Tryfan and the north ridge

An enthusiasm pervades the whole centre you can almost feel it seeping out the brickwork, people passionate and active in their sports (actually I don't like the word sports, to me its an outlook and a way of life), walls lined with maps, pictures and photos, evening lectures and slide shows from staff and guest speakers about trips they have made to the far flung corners of the world.inspiration for a thousand adventures. I defy anyone to come here and not be opened to new horizons and new possibilities. I now have an obsession to jump in a canoe and go paddle through the north west territories of Canada. 

But I digress in my excitement; after a night in a comfortable room more akin to a hotel (no bunk rooms here) it's down to breakfast and to meet up with the other students and our instructors. The group is a mix across the ages and sexes but has quite a lot of experience. As for our instructors we have struck lucky, for most most of the week we are working with Stu McAleese and Paul Warnock both of whom are fully qualified British Mountain Guides. The Guide ticket is a very hard qualification to achieve requiring a huge amount of experience in the mountains. It's a bit like being taught football by Rooney and Lampard.

The Cannon Stone on Tryfan: Please note this is not a good example of ML bahaviour

So on to the hills; we practised navigation on Moel Siabod a hill I have always overlooked on my mad charge towards the Welsh 3000s but a hidden jewel offering fantastic views over to the Snowdon massif and the Glyder range. The movement on steep ground day involved a trip up the north ridge of Tryfan, and our expedition took us to the north east corries of the Carneddau an area that I had only ever seen from the top of the surrounding peaks. 

It's hard to pick out highlights (although the PYB afternoon cakes are up there) as I enjoyed pretty much every second of my time at the Brenin. The course certainly has pointed out to me my strengths and weaknesses. I proved to be quite pathetic at identifying any mountain plants an area along with geology and local history which is becoming much more important within the syllabus.

A brocken spectre, sunlight casting the walkers shadow onto low cloud.
The other group saw one on Tryfan, my group a couple of 100m lower missed out.

River crossings were traumatic (read cold!), navigation challenging, rope-work interesting to a climbers mind, and synoptic charts a revelation. I started the week with quite a poor understanding of weather; by Wednesday the start of our camping expedition I was getting the hang of it. This was just in time to comprehend the full horror as nature deposited a huge low pressure system over Snowdonia with weather almost guaranteed to put anyone on the mountains "In the hurt locker" to quote guide speak.

The expedition was great Stu and Paul made good decisions about the location. By going into the NE Carneddau we put Snowdon, the Glyders , and most of the Carneddau in between us and the incoming fronts. A bastion protecting us from the "walls of hate" (more technical Guide speak) rolling in of the Atlantic.

It's been a great experience, new friends, new ideas, I will definitely be going back for further training in mountain biking, mountain first aid, and kayaking. Plus there is a date with my ML assessment sometime next summer. First however I need to go out and rack up some more Quality Mountain Days for my logbook. It's a hard life.

Oh and the navigation? Nailed it.

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