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Have compass, will hike

Jon Slater dons his rucksack and thermals and takes to the hills with a group of teachers on a mountain leadership course

Last time I was in Wales, I was trapped half way up a mountain with a group of fellow scouts while gale force winds raged around us. Our leader had no mountaineering qualifications and was from the "this'll separate the men from the boys" mould. We were an accident waiting to happen.

But, thankfully, times change. Recent accidents during adventure activities have concentrated the minds of schools and youth groups on the consequences if things go wrong. Gone are the days when they would happily allow inexperienced teachers to take children into the hills.

I returned to Snowdonia, to Plas Y Brenin National Mountain Centre, for a course designed to give group leaders the skills to avoid accidents and minimise the consequences if they happen. The Mountain Leader Award course takes five days with a four-day assessment. It is extremely popular with teachers - the centre runs courses back-to-back throughout the school holidays. The group I joined were all Duke of Edinburgh award leaders and included five teachers. They were keen to gain the MLA so they could take children out on their own and to higher altitudes.

"Since the Lyme Bay tragedy, it is getting a lot more difficult to take kids out," said Penny Hourahane, an information technology teacher from Builth Wells high school in south Powys. "The school won't let you out if you're not qualified - but that's not necessarily a bad thing."

Some of the things we learnt were fairly obvious. Avoid river crossings at all cost - especially if it is December and the water comes up to your waist. Others, such as predicting weather and accurate navigation, can prevent tricky situations becoming disasters. Navigation was particularly eye-opening. A few simple, easily-remembered techniques can make the difference between guiding a group safely off the hills and being completely lost.

We also prepared for the worst, practising sweep searches, learning to build makeshift stretchers and devising strategies to deal with problems.

The course also included an overnight camp and firstaid, although all those gaining the award have to hold a separate first aid certificate.

Taking young people into the hills, even in Britain in the summer, requires more than basic mountain skills. It also requires leadership. Even the most technically accomplished mountaineer is asking for trouble if he or she has little control over the group.

"The people skills are as important as the technical," said Rob Collister, our course leader. Mountain leadership requires a mixture of democratic and autocratic styles and is notoriously difficult to teach. "It is not easy to fail somebody for leadership because the situation is unrealistic. But assessment is not just pass or fail, it is also a chance for further training," he said. Candidates who do not make the grade are invited to go away, gain more experience and then try again.

Mr Collister emphasised the need for mountain leaders to avoid over-confidence and conditions outside their experience.

"This is very much a course for summer conditions. It doesn't include mountain climbing. It is a walking award at a very basic level," warned Mr Collister. "The training course is no more than that - training. It can make people more confident, but it shouldn't be used as a qualification."

Candidates are expected to spend a year after initial instruction practising what they have learnt: leading teams, climbing peaks and spending time in the mountains.

Teacher Jason Clarke said the MLA would give him confidence. "It is good, practical-based teaching. You learn your lessons on the hill. The course is based around safety and group protection, which is sensible," he said.

Ultimately, though, it is all about providing opportunities for children. "Lower ability kids may not get GCSEs but there's nothing to stop them getting a Duke of Edinburgh award," said Ms Hourahane. "If you take kids away from their home environment and show them something new, it makes them independent and broadens their horizons. A lot of our kids have never been out of Builth Wells."

Plas Y Brenin National Mountain Center, Capel Curig, Gwynedd LL24 OET. Tel 01690 720394. e-mail

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