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Training to Become A Mountain Leader

Fergal Harrington, Mountain Leader on a Guided Walking Holiday in Ireland

How I Successfully Completed the Mountain Leader (ML) Award Programme

When I started first took to the hills I had no thoughts of becoming a mountain leader. In fact, I imagine most hillwalkers have more walking experience than I had in January 2017 when I signed up for Mountain Skills training. My experience was of The Kerry Way where I discovered the peaceful beauty and immersive feeling of the Kerry hills.  

The article 'Becoming a Mountain Leader' was published in the Summer 2019 Issue 130 of  Irish Mountain Log Magazine
‘Becoming a Mountain Leader’ was published in Summer 2019 Issue 130 of Irish Mountain Log Magazine

Signing Up for Mountain Leader Skills Training

Of course, back then, I didn’t have any aspirations of becoming a Mountain Leader.  Signing up for Mountain Skills 1 in January and Mountain Skills 2 February 2017 would simply help me explore more remote areas of Kerry. 

The basic mountain and navigational skills I learned opened a whole new world to me. Mountain Skills training is designed to give you the skills to look after yourself in the mountains. Indeed the Mountain Skills Training syllabus is comprehensive, offering a solid foundation for gaining personal mountaineering proficiency.

Leading in the mountains - Fergal Harrington
Fergal Harrington – Mountain Leader

Mountain Skills training teaches the necessary skills in mountain safety, navigation techniques, knowledge of hazards, and personal equipment. On finishing the course, you can safely, and competently, take to the hills. 

Passing Mountain Skills Assessment

By Oct 2017 I had completed the requisite 14+ mountain walks and I registered to do the Mountain Skills Assessment. This is your opportunity to put your skills and what you’ve learned to the test. You head out onto the mountains and your assessor puts you through your paces. Thankfully, I passed. 

As my experience grew, so did my desire to share the beauty and freedom of walking in Kerry and the Dunkerron Mountains in particular with others.  

I began considering the Mountain Leadership program to give me the skills to look after others in the mountains.  Mt first step was to complete a Remote Emergency First Aid Certified Course (Rec 3). This certification is valid for 2 years, which you update regularly thereafter.

Mountain Leader Training

I signed up for the Mountain Leader Training 1 (ML1) and Mountain Leader Training 2 (ML2) programs with Mountaineering Ireland.  These are intensive multi-day training courses in winter conditions. As you would expect the Mountain Leader training course syllabus is more advance than that of Mountain Skills.

ML1 Training in Leenane, Co. Mayo

ML1 took place from 7-9th December 2017 in Connemara with Tim Orr. The small group based ourselves in Leenane, staying in different B&B’s near the town. ML1 includes both classroom and outdoor elements. The former covers mountain weather, route planning, leadership responsibilities and first aid emergencies. The latter covers day & night navigation, movement over steep ground and self-location techniques.

Maamturk Mountains near Leenane in Co. Mayo

Conditions in the Maumturks were memorable & challenging. In my notes I wrote ‘need better hat or balaclava’ because of the blizzards we experienced during the day. Nightime navigating through the snow certainly was pushing my comfort boundaries. All the same though, I felt invigorated with positivity from part one of the mountain training experience.

ML2 Training in Sneem, Co. Kerry

For part two of the training i.e. ML2 , we traveled to Sneem, Co. Kerry and this time we didn’t stay in a B&B. Instead we camped for the weekend at Lough Sallagh at Coomyanna in the Sneem hills. This was my first ever winter time camp and I thought it was pretty cool. The colours and stillness of the sunrise was breathtaking and I felt privileged to be there.

Training Group Ready for the Hills
Ready for a Day of Training in Sneem’s Dunkerron Mountains

Winter camping requires an essential gear list, most of which I borrowed but have since purchased for myself. Good winter camping skills are essential for the Mountain Leader Assessment – a three day and two nights mountain expedition.

On completion of ML2, our debrief greenlighted us for the consolidation phase in preparation for the Mountain Leader Assessment.  The next assessment dates were scheduled for November 2018 and March 2019.

Building my Mountain Walking Experience

Mountain Leader candidates build their experience by logging hundreds of hours and kilometers in different mountain conditions and unfamiliar terrain.  After all, the best way to learn and improve your mountain skills is through experience. 

Logging Your Mountain Experiences

Like most of the assessment candidates I used the Digital Log on mountaineering Ireland’s website to record my progress. This involves logging the characteristics, route and images from each walk and most importantly your learnings. It takes a bit of getting used to but it will save you time and effort in the long run. Logging all your walks as you do them is best rather than in bulk as the assessment date approaches. 

Sneem Dunkerron Route Map
Sneem Dunkerrons Ridge Walk as uploaded to Digital Log Book

The log book requirements i.e. the consolidation period is undeniably a considerable commitment. I realised I would require more time, so I opted for the later assessment in March 2019. However, set yourself goals and targets and you will complete it. And don’t forget to enjoy the process and the sense of achievement at the end of your journey.

Reaching Out for Help in the Walking Community

I recommend reaching out to qualified leaders for advice as their insight and experience is invaluable. Consequently I am immensely grateful to all those who gave generously of their time and shared their knowledge.

I found observing on both Mountain Skills 1 & 2 courses great experiences. After all they gave me opportunities to refresh my practical skills, learn from the trainers and listen to the course attendees. Consequently, I’m quite happy to pass on my learning and experiences to others – just drop me an email.

Building Outdoor Leadership Experience

As my logged experiences grew, I switched my focus to leading others, which I found most satisfying and rewarding. As part of the Mountain leader course requirements I organized a weekend expedition to Kerry. This was my opportunity to put all my skills into practice.

Sneem Hiking Expedition Weekend

I invited a number of guests to the expedition, organised their accommodation and planned a weekend of walking. The chosen routes were in the Dunkerron Mountains and included contingencies for deteriorating weather and the group’s ability. Our group of six had different levels of experience and they all thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Spectacular Kenmare Bay Views from Dunkerron Mountains
Spectacular Kenmare Bay Views

We enjoyed the sights of hares, foxes, wild goats and white-tailed Eagles on the cliff faces. The friendly banter, crystal clear views across the Ring of Kerry and West Cork are memorable. Not content with two days of walking, some extended their stay to climb the snow-covered Summit of Carrauntoohil. 

The Three day Mountain Leader Assessment.

With my logbook requirements now complete, I was now nervously looking forward to the Mountain Leader Assessment. In preparation, all candidates submitted written assignements on environmental, flora, fauna, best practice and policies topics. So plenty of study was required to successfully complete these.

Mourne Mountains Chosen as Assessment Location

This Assessment was scheduled for the weekend of 8th to 11th March 2019 in the Mourne Mountains with seven candidates. On Friday 8th in Meelmore Lodge, all candidates met up with two assessors Kieran O Hara and Ronnie Smith.  Over cups of tea, we made our introductions and discussed what to expect over the next three days.

Snowy Slievenaglogh in the Mournes.
Crisp, snowy views back to Slievenaglogh. Photo by Barry Hannigan

Know Your Location at All Times

On Saturday morning with our gear double-checked, we split into two groups, each with an assessor. From here on the objective was to know where you were always, regardless of who was leading the navigational leg.

Initially, I felt panic and I should have done better on my initial navigational leg.  Surprisingly, however, I realized the Assessors were not only assessing but also offering helpful advice when appropriate.

Sandy Lough Shannagh in the Mourne Mountains
Sandy beach at Lough Shannagh. Photo by Barry Hannigan

Quickly we found our rhythm and grew in confidence as we perfected our pacing, timing, and feature reading abilities. Not easy, when you consider we’re loaded up with our heavy backpacks. The ability to always point to your current location on a map requires continual focus. Definitely quite a challenge but it did make the time to our campsite pass quickly. 

Harsh Weather Compounded The Challenge

(left to right) Conall O Fiannachta, Barry Hannigan, Ronnie and Fergal Harrington deciding on the next challenging leg. Photo by Sharon Porter.

Harsh weather, gusting winds and driving snow added to the challenge but also to the satisfaction of overcoming this adversity. When navigation or leadership issues arose, we resolved them quickly and learned from it.

Campsite During Mountain Leader Assessment Weekend
Second Night’s Moyad Road Campsite near Pidgeon Rock. Photo by Ken Doyle.

I believe this concentrated learning opportunity is the overriding benefit of the assessment weekend.  We had a nervous wait to learn if we had passed the assessment. After receiving the good news, I was on a high for days after. 

Newly qualified mountain leaders
Tired but happy team members – newly qualified Mountain Leaders, Conall O Fiannachta, Barry Hannigan and Fergal Harrington.

Benefits of Mountain Leader Award

Since gaining my Mountain Leader Award I have developed Álaind Lodges B&B and Álaind Walking in Sneem, County Kerry. I offer walking holiday tours with luxury ensuite accommodation and some of the best walking in Kerry and Ireland. You’ll relax at Álaind Lodges for the entirety of your holiday and walk to amazing places each day. If you like the sound of this walking holiday, contact me today or visit our holidays page to make a booking.

Kerry Trails Walking Holiday Advert
Álaind Walking Holidays offers both guided and self-guided walking holidays to meet all tastes and abilities. Click for more.

I’d like to thank all those who supported me along the way in becoming a Mountain Leader. They include:

Alan Mordaunt, Milly DeButléir, Wayne Jenkins, Niall Ennis Tim Orr, Kevin O’Hara, Ronnie Smith. Of course my thanks also go to Sneem Walking Club, and Mountaineering Ireland.

Irish Mountain Log is the membership magazine of Mountaineering Ireland.
Irish Mountain Log is the membership magazine of Mountaineering Ireland. The organisation promotes the interests of hillwalkers and climbers in Ireland.