In October 2014, Daniel Neilson undertook the Summer Mountain Leader course at Glenmore Lodge, learning a variety of outdoor skills, and making a bunch of new friends. But is it for you?


By the time the ‘helicopter’ arrived at the ‘incident’, Hugh was having to tell alarmed hillwalkers it was just an exercise. Alex Parmenter, the instructor, actually sat up from his ‘probable spinal injury’ to satisfy himself that Norrie hadn’t actually called mountain rescue such was Norrie’s acting ability (we reassure Alex that it wasn’t that easy, yet, to make a phone call speaking through the pinkie and listening through the thumb). The fact that, by coincidence, the sound of a real rescue helicopter going to a real rescue nearby probably added to the already quite convincing role play. 

We were four days in to the Summer Mountain Leader Training course at Glenmore Lodge and the accumulated knowledge of those days was being put into practice. I was making a stretcher out of backpacks and walking poles, Colette had taken charge of the patient’s head and neck ensuring stability at all times, Norrie was doing a rather convincing job of talking to the police and mountain rescue, Hugh, a retired GP, was simultaneously directing the imaginary helicopter (with the proper hand signals) while trying to appease the alarmed hillwalkers nearby with arm actions that, frankly, looked pretty similar. Kathyrn then unpacked the emergency shelter and we bundled under and calmed down. It had been an exciting introduction to a hillwalking incident. And we did OK. The patient should have been under the shelter earlier, and there was probably no need to stretcher him as far as we did on to flat ground, but we coped pretty well. By way of reward, instructors Kirk and Alex took us to a freezing river to practice river crossings on the way back to the Lodge, presumably retribution for leaving him to freeze a little.

Who takes the ML?

The Summer Mountain Leader Training course starts like so many others: A brief introduction and a question as to why you are on the course. The answers are surprisingly diverse. In our group of 12 (there was another 18 on the waiting list), there are those you’d expect. Teachers wanting to work closer with Duke of Edinburgh Award students, those in the Highland tourism industry who run or work in outdoors centres and want to add to their qualifications, but then there’s a retired doctor hoping to do what he’s always wanted and work in the outdoors, members of hillwalking clubs who are increasingly asked to lead less experienced groups up big hills, and a cocky journalist from The Great Outdoors. There isn’t one person, however, who doesn’t say ‘personal development’. Not even me who is here to write a report in the magazine.
 Is it for you? Well, it’s important to say what the Summer ML isn’t. It isn’t, we are often reminded, a teaching qualification. It’s a qualification to lead people in the mountains, safely. We’re not taught to teach navigation, safety or anything in fact, and it is most definitely, definitely not a rope course. But we are taught an awful lot about the following areas: navigation, weather forecasts, steep ground, inspiring confidence, the mountain environment, dealing with nervous members of a group, nutrition, gear and clothing, emergency rope work (“It’s not a climbing course” we’re reminded again), legal issues and medical problems. 

By the end of the week you’ll be able to navigate your way to a minor ‘re-entrant’ (a valley or bowl that is reflected in the contours of the map – ‘re-entrants’ are an ML favourite) several kilometres away, lower yourself and others over a steep precipice, pace yourself and your group across a narrow ridge... in the dark, cross a river safely and spot Dwarf Willow from 30 paces. And who, reading this magazine, doesn’t want to do that?