Mountain Leader training expedition

Gummers How

Back in July I made the decision to go for my Mountain Leader training. I wanted to get myself to a place where I would be confident with a group of clients in any circumstances out on the fells. Needing 20 mountain days to qualify for training I set myself a target of 10 mountains in 10 weeks to get me where I needed to be.

3 months later and I am waking up underneath Wetherlam in the Tibberthwaite fells. Yesterday we walked until dusk in pretty foul weather. It is also very cold and one of our group almost had to walk out due to the conditions. My boots are so wet that it’s not worth using a pair of dry socks as they’ll just be soaked in seconds. Last night we did night navigation for 3 hours. On the plus side I managed to cook sausages with bubble and squeak, and right now I am eating hot porridge with banana and blueberries. One of my luxuries was a coffee pot so I am also ‘coming to’ with a strong black Lavazza.

Camp One at the old mines by Greenburn beck

We’ve had 3 days based at Humphrey Head with Elspeth and John Mason, learning navigation techniques at Gummers How and on the side of Coniston Old Man, rope work and leadership skills, and the next 48 hours will test all of those skills to our limits. Today will be a long day climbing the Greenburn ridge to Wetherlam and down the side of Levers Haw to Seathwaite reservoir.

The ridge of Wet Side Edge in the distance

There are 6 of us on the training. We are all from completely different backgrounds and bringing our own skills and experience but we have bonded well over the last few days and are working as a team supporting each other. Today we are leading a section each of about an hour. or so. While one leads to a destination our instructor Ben has asked us to navigate to, the rest of us try and work out where we are by taking bearings and cross referencing features on the ground.

Ian with Ben confirming our location

After a good hour and a half hiking up the side of Greenburn our feet have warmed up, we have scaled about 250 metres and the views to the fells to our North and West open up.

We follow the ridge from Great Carrs to Swirl Howe and Wetherlam. Like so many of the lakeland summits, it feels a bit like walking on the moon.

We have been climbing for many hours now with only a few short breaks to change leader and check in on our location. I’m glad of the hot porridge this morning. There’s a cold breeze and it starts to hail. I wrap my scarf around my face before heading South towards the Old Man.

The Old man of Coniston in the distance

But the next bearing takes us off the ridge before we get to the Old Man and down from Levers Haw. Although there is a right of way on the map, it’s not visible on the ground. The angle of slope is less than a 1 in 1 so we take some time to creep down the sheep trod, practicing our confidence roping. I am glad of a stick for some extra support and for the first time in my life I understand why people carry sticks out on the fells.

Working our way down from Levers Haw to Seathwaite in the distance

It takes us at least an hour to descend the 400 metres to the valley bottom and there it becomes my leg to get us to the end of the reservoir and locate somewhere suitable to camp for the night. We’ve had to make 4 or 5 river crossings to get to my start point. And although the route on the North Western edge of the lake looks the easier route, the map shows a right of way on the South Eastern edge that we’re on and I don’t want to ask the group to backtrack and make the river crossings again so I make the calculations, about 2km distance and 30 minutes walking time to the camp area avoiding marshy ground.

The descent from Levers Haw in the background

But as we get about half way along the lake shore the paths peter out and there are more than a few craggs to scramble over. The light is fading fast so I re-evaluate my timescale. As I work out a new route around some craggs with a couple of the guys it’s also brought to my attention that one of us has a broken head torch. This is an issue if we have to negotiate craggs in the dark. Then as we discuss it, it turns out that we have two dodgy head torches. We can see the route on the far shore that looks far more straightforward so there’s no question now. I make the call to backtrack.

No-one likes to go back on themselves, and as we work around the head of the reservoir again the light is fading fast. I find a new crossing pace that only involves one river crossing and we’re now walking on much better ground. We head to the edge of the weir and find a perfect spot, close to running water with a bit of shelter from the wind behind rocks.

Camp two by the weir

Looking across to the other shore it’s very clear we made the right decision. We would have struggled in the dark, but within 40 minutes of turning back we have made camp and we have our evening meals on the stoves.

Seathwaite Reservoir weir

Seathwaite Reservoir weir

It has been a long days walking with 13KG packs on or backs, but after food we go out again to practice our night navigation. It’s not as cold as the night before but we’re crossing boggy ground and becks. We all have cold and wet feet again, but our spirits are up, we are supporting each other. Three hours later we’re back at camp. I have some soup to try and warm my body up before bed. I crawl into my bag. My feet have never been so wet and cold for so long and it takes me abut 3/4 of an hour before they are feeling warm and dry again.

Jack setting up an anchor point to belay us up.

I sleep well but am awake about 6am. I already have my coffee in my hand when our 7am call makes its way around camp. We have to be at the pickup point in the Duddon valley by 10:30 but we have time for a couple of hours practicing our rope work, belaying each other over the craggs above the reservoir.

It’s now a straightforward walk down a rough track and we meet up at the pickup point at 11:00am but it’s not over. My feet have just about dried out but we now have a session on river crossing safety.

Course Director John Mason shows us several techniques to get groups and weaker members across a fast flowing river using poles and each other. John is a fountain of knowledge and despite his age is straight in the freezing river up to his waist.

Amazingly we are all still smiling. We have tested our kit to its limits and beyond. I know myself that I need to kit myself out properly. I got through the bad weather days but only just. I have no spare dry clothes. Top of my list is a new hard shell jacket and a better compass.

And that was just the start of the training. Before assessment next year we all need to get another 40 quality mountain days in our log and with winter now on our doorstep I need the right kit.

I have learned so much this last 6 days. The course has opened my eyes. The training has been excellent from all the staff but I learned as much from my fellow trainees as anyone. The topics of conversation have made me think about problems I hadn’t envisaged (there will be a blog on Leave No Trace and Poo Tubes to come soon). Three of us live relatively close so we will be going out again as a team to hone our navigation and rope skills.

A big shout out to the instructors Dan and Ben, Elspeth and John from Mere Mountains and the rest of our team. That was a fantastic week. There will be much more of this to come…!

From Left to Right (back row) Tom LLoyd, John Mason, Jack, Liz (front row) Stu, Oli and Ian.

And I couldn’t write this blog without getting this line in from Oli.

“Legend has it that John Mason IS the Old Man of Coniston”