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Preparing for Your ML When You Don't Live in the Hills

Living far from the places you go to enjoy your hobby is hard enough to bear for most hillwalkers; but what if you're preparing for a Mountain Leader assessment, and stuck miles from the hills? MIC Jake Phillips has some ideas...

On Mountain Leader courses I regularly get asked about how to best prepare for an assessment, especially by those candidates who are somewhat geographically challenged. Their issue? They don't live in the mountains!

ML candidates in the Lake District - but we can't all be out in the fells every weekend  © Jake Phillips
ML candidates in the Lake District - but we can't all be out in the fells every weekend
© Jake Phillips

In the runup to my Mountain Leader assessment I remember racking my brains trying to figure out what would be the best way to prepare for it. At the time I was living in deepest west Cornwall, I didn't have much money and even though I was a student I didn't have that much free time either. Over the preceding few years I'd already logged more than enough QMDs so it was just the assessment prep bit that I needed a plan for. One obvious fact stood out - I wasn't going to get as much time in the mountains as I'd have liked.

While out on a run I got to thinking: You don't have to be in the mountains to prepare for being in the mountains.

With this new outlook I started to view things differently, and before I knew it I had lots of work-arounds for fine tuning my skills and practicing various parts of the Mountain Leader syllabus without needing to be in the hills. I thought I'd share some of these ideas with you. Some will probably seem obvious, others less so, but if this article only helps one person prepare a bit better then my time won't have been wasted.

"Living in Cambridge it can take me 4hrs+ to get to Snowdonia, my nearest serious mountains" says ML and UKH contributor Dan Aspel.

He might live in the hill deprived south, but Dan makes full use of his hill time when he gets it  © Dan Bailey
He might live in the hill deprived south, but Dan makes full use of his hill time when he gets it
© Dan Bailey

"That wasn't ideal in terms of building up experience and practising the navigation and rope skills needed for the ML assessment. The best solution I found was travelling either late at night or early in the morning. This meant that I never had to deal with any traffic and my journeys flowed by in an easy 3.5hrs, broken into two easy segments. Some weekends I'd leave at 7/8pm on a Friday night, arriving at a bunkhouse, hostel or wild camp for 10:30/11:00pm. With all my supplies already packed I could be up and fed with the dawn and spend two good long days in the hills.

"When work, family life or childcare meant that wasn't an option I'd sometimes leave on Saturday at around 4am. I secretly quite enjoyed those "alpine starts" - packing the car the night before, laying out my clothes, some quick breakfast foods and instant coffee so that I could be on the road within 10mins of my alarm going off. It was surreal and quite thrilling to find myself on top of a 1,000m mountain by midday, having woken up in the dark hundreds of kilometres to the east. It felt like a really personal challenge, and one that I still feel proud looking back on..."

Security on Staircases

Can't get to a crag? Then practise rope work at home!  © Jake Phillips
Can't get to a crag? Then practise rope work at home!
© Jake Phillips

I'm not going to lie. Without instant access to mountains, you're going to struggle to practice various parts of the security on steep ground skills in context. However you can dial in the nuts and bolts of the individual techniques without even leaving home. Try practising your knots with a pair of gloves on; abseil down the stairs; and body belay a friend/partner/dog/teddy up and down the stairs. The possibilities are endless. In the run up to various assessments (WML/IML/MIA/MIC) I know lots of friends who have spent many an hour honing their rope-work skills on the stairs, traversing the front room and abseiling off various bits of furniture! If you're lucky enough to have some craggy ground near where you live then use that instead of the stairs.


Orienteering does wonders for your nav... and you can do it in your local park  © Jake Phillips
Orienteering does wonders for your nav... and you can do it in your local park
© Jake Phillips

If you work five days a week and are going to struggle to get to the mountains for a whole weekend, then use your time wisely and do some navigation practice, including night nav, in the evenings or on one day at the weekend. Most people live only a short drive from somewhere that is suitable for practicing various navigation techniques. Consider joining a local orienteering club - you won't regret it, as it'll do wonders for your nav skills. Instead of doing one or maybe two navigation legs in an hour you'll get to practice loads in quick succession. Check out the British Orienteering website to find out more about local clubs, courses and events near you.

Get fit

We all know that hill fitness is different to running fitness but if you can't get to the mountains then some regular cardio in the form of running or cycling definitely won't do you any harm. If you've only got one day free and the drive to the mountains is too long then how about going for a big long local walk with a heavy rucksack instead? It'll help you with your mountain fitness, and along the way you can practice other syllabus areas.

Local Nature Walks

You can go on a nature walk anywhere - even in the city  © Jake Phillips
You can go on a nature walk anywhere - even in the city
© Jake Phillips

Head out on some local walks armed with a camera and an ident book or app. Stroll around and try to identify what flowers, trees, birds, rocks and landforms you see. Some of these may not be the same as those in the mountains, but they will add to your breadth of knowledge and often to get into the mountains you have to walk through lowland countryside and woods anyway. A handy plus is that actually being able to quickly identify something is a skill in its own right, so if you get good at it now you'll be slicker at it in the mountains. Some great books to read are: Hostile Habitats, Nature of Snowdonia, Rock Trails and How to Read the Landscape. Some brilliant apps are: Mountain Flora & Fauna, Birds of Britain, and British Trees.

Travelling Time

If you don't live in the mountains then there is inevitably going to be a fair bit of travel time involved to get there. Use this time wisely and view it as a gift. If you're on the train or bus then read books on mountain flora/fauna, mountaineering history, mountain weather, geology and mountain myths and folklore to help build up your knowledge. If driving, then get hold of some e-books. If you're sharing a lift with another keen ML candidate then give each other pop quizes to test your mountain knowledge.

Online Learning

Nowadays, with the Internet, we are only ever a few clicks away from some great sources of information (and some not-so-great). If you haven't already then I'd recommend checking out the e-learning modules on the Mountain Training website, the Met Office which has a great learning area and UKHillwaking which has a great archive of articles on all things walking related, from skills and destinations to inspirational features.

Join the Mountain Training Association

By joining the Mountain Training Association you'll be able to take advantage of the broad range of workshops that provide a fantastic opportunity to learn new skills, or to upskill existing ones. There are also regular members' meets and events where you'll meet like minded people who will be keen to head out on the hills with you.

Observing other instructors working can be invaluable  © Jake Phillips
Observing other instructors working can be invaluable
© Jake Phillips

Observe/Assist Experienced Instructors

If the time you can spend in the mountains is limited then you'll want that time to be of high quality and of maximum benefit to you. Therefore get in touch with some companies and/or instructors and see if you can come along and observe or assist on any of their days out; I can guarantee you'll learn something, and pick up some useful tips and handy hints as well as some real group work experience.

Get onto the hills before your assessment

This may not always be possible but if you don't live in the mountains then it can be worth arriving a few days early for your assessment and going on the hill. This can be of great benefit to you psychologically because it'll help you to feel 'current' which in turn will hopefully help to relax you so that the night before the start of your assessment you're not fretting about the fact that the last time you were on the hill was x number of weeks ago...

About Jake Phillips

Jake is the chief instructor at Adventure Expertise, based in Hathersage in the Peak District. He has been delivering training courses in hillwalking, climbing and mountaineering in the UK and overseas for the past 12 years. He holds the MIC qualification and he can regularly be found instructing and coaching on the Mountain Leader and Lowland Leader courses, as well as the various skills courses, that Adventure Expertise provide.

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