Monday, 14 March 2011

Mountain Leader Training Some Thoughts

I recently started the long process of becoming a qualified mountain instructor with Mountain Leader training. The training is to allow me to take groups into the mountains whatever their skills and experience and to facilitate them to have a great day. The training also brings out the key areas that an instructor needs to get a handle on and some of the techniques that can be used to teach outdoor skills. This is a huge and complex subject and I feel I’m only just going to be able to touch on it during this blog.

Why do we even need training for leaders who take others out into the mountains? I believe passionately in the outdoors and our wild places and feel much more at home there than in any city. I really enjoyed my time in the University of Leicester Climbing Club including a lot of hours spent teaching others the basics of climbing. I believe anyone should have the opportunity to get out into the mountains, regardless of who they are. There is a problem with this though; nature does not like beginners, it’s not supposed too; evolution got us to where we are today by ruthlessly culling those that were physically weaker, and those who made mistakes. Unfortunately if you make mistakes in the mountains you could end up dead very quickly.

This is true to the extent that the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) which represents walkers and climbers feels the need to very publicly promote its participation statement:

"The BMC recognises that climbing and mountaineering are activities with a danger of personal injury or death. Participants in these activities should be aware of and accept these risks and be responsible for their own actions."

To get to here...

The modern world has robbed us of some of our sensitisation to our environment. In our day to day lives we are very sheltered from nature especially now the vast majority of us rarely leave buildings, be it centrally heated houses or air conditioned offices. These structures hold us in a narrow comfort zone which we move between in our climate controlled cars. We rely on systems to look after us, heat and light at the flick of a switch; we don’t really look after ourselves anymore the system does.

This means many people don’t realize how harsh our mountains can be, on occasions cold, wet, with fog to get lost in, wind to take you off your feet, uneven ground to trip on, cliffs to fall off, rivers to drown in. You can die out there quite easily if you don't know what you’re doing. Nature does not play by the same rules as we have come to expect in our daily lives and it can be hard to get people to switch to a completely different mindset if they are not used to being out on the hill.

I started here.

Mountain sport also has a very individualistic ethos, as is clear in the BMC statement. You make your own decisions and look after yourself and I think most people involved in our sport would not want responsibility to fall any other way.

How then do we square this circle? Get as many people involved as safely as possible but without dragging ourselves into a prescriptive hell of rules and regulations? The traditional way into mountain activities was either through a self taught ethic or via an apprenticeship to an “experienced” person.

First off apprenticeships, in my opinion these fall down in two key areas. Firstly there is no real inclusively in this route; when I became interested in the outdoors I knew of no one to look to for guidance or to take me on my first trips. The system only works for those lucky enough to have a contact for everyone else it’s useless.

There is a second floor with the apprenticeship route in that there is no reason to assume that just because someone has been climbing or walking for years they are competent and/or able to pass on their skill in an inspiring or informative way. Just as a bad teacher can spoil a subject for a lifetime the same is true of a bad instructor, only here the consequences can be worse.

So what about teaching yourself, I’m mostly self taught, so are most of my friends, it’s the route that most in keeping with the individualistic nature of mountain sports but it’s also the route that’s most likely to see you end up in hospital because you are not exactly sure what you’re doing.

You will always have epics in the mountains even if you’re really; really good it’s the inevitable consequence of pushing yourself. With knowledge and experience epics can usually be dealt with but for beginners the epic is much more likely to turn into an accident. It’s not a coincidence that males 18-25 are the most likely group to have a meeting with mountain rescue.

ULMC Freshers meet Circa 2004, I think?

Clearly all beginners taking an instructor out with them every time they go out is a stupid and financially ruinous idea. But if those first session with a school or youth group are led by good people I think relatively quickly good foundations can be laid to allow people to branch out on there own in the true spirit of mountain activities.

The event which really crystallised the need for a high standard skill and training for people leading groups in the mountains was the Cairngorm Tragedy. In 1971 five teenagers and their instructor, who was only 19 themselves died when caught in a blizzard on Cairn Gorm mountain. The instructor made mistakes that day but more importantly the system which put them in charge of that group failed to insure that the leader was properly qualified for the roll they were to undertake.

Out of this need for training and guidance grew the Mountain Leader Training Associations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The roll of these organisations is to supervise the training of people who want to teach others in the mountains, it's a road I'm just beginning. The system is very much set up to teach leadership not personal skills. Your personal skills are your own responsibility and in this way the system stays true to the individual responsibility ethos of mountain sports.

The MLTA have constructed a system which although prescriptive delivers the opposite, producing instructors who can think for themselves, adapt, make the right decisions on the hill and who can pass this ethos on to there clients. 

Further thoughts on knowledge, experience, and ethics with respect to mountain sports are in the works. These will be view from someone just starting the MLTA syllabus. It will be interesting to see how my views change when I get to MIA/MIC level. I did want all four blogs written before releasing the first one but that's not going to happen. I've sat on this blog for three months trying to find time to marshal my thoughts and finish the others. They should appear eventually, promise.

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