The Mountain Leader training is prestigious but very difficult to complete. Phil Revell joined a new, simpler Walking Leader course at Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia
'We're not lost. It's just that the place where we think we are doesn't correspond with what the map says should be here. No farm. No steep hillside and inconvenient lake. Aha - two car parks, so we must be here. Right?" Plas y Brenin's Carl Haberl nods patiently. "Now that we know where we are," he says with no detectable irony, "we can get our rucksacks on and start the walk."
This is one of the first training courses for the Walking Group Leaders (WGL) award. Eight cartographically challenged folk - teachers, youth leaders and a couple of disconcertingly fit trekkers - are in north Wales for three days of instruction in the essential skills of leading a group over "remote terrain".
Carl is an instructor at Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre in Snowdonia. "This is a new qualification," he says. "It's very much a matter of 'How far do we take this? What do people really need to know?'" Some people might be sceptical about a qualification in what is basically a fairly simple activity. But Carl has no doubts. "It's a hell of an area to be in," he says. "It's not just a walk in the park. You've got to have the skills. If the weather comes in you have to be able to get off the hill. If someone is injured or if things go wrong you may have to survive a night in the open. Hopefully people are going to avoid things going wrong as a result of the WGL."
And unfortunately things have gone wrong. In the past eighteen months we have seen two girls die on a field trip in Yorkshire and a ten-year-old boy killed on Snowdon. Parents and local authorities increasingly demand that party leaders have appropriate qualifications.
In the past that hasn't been as simple as it sounds. Until this year people who take groups into the hills were directed towards the Mountain Leader (ML) award. The ML is acknowledged as a high quality, rigorous qualification. It demands high level navigation, wild camping, emergency procedures, essential ropework and scrambling skills. But ML involves two six-day courses separated by a lengthy period of 'experience and consolidation', which requires candidates to demonstrate knowledge of mountain areas across the UK.
A lot of potential candidates were unable to give the time required. Others felt the ML was too demanding. Did they really need ropework and cliff face skills if all they wanted to do was lead groups in their local hills?
Some local authorities created their own qualifications, but the demand for a national award remained and the United Kingdom Mountain Training Board has been working on the new Walking Group Leaders Award for some years.
The WGL requires six days of training and assessment as opposed to 12. There is no wild camping, and the additional experiences are tailored to the weekend rambler.
"There's no requirement for steep ground and no rope skills," says Haberl. "It fills an ideal slot alongside the ML."
The award is aimed at scout and guide leaders, Duke of Edinburgh award volunteers and youth workers. "But a large percentage will be teachers," predicts Haberl. The course I walked along with would seem to prove him right.
Sarah Foster, Sarah Harding and Kirsty Hunter are teachers at Bromsgrove school in the West Midlands. All three are involved in the school's Duke of Edinburgh award programme. Bromsgrove encourages all its students to gain the D of E bronze and ten of the school's teachers were booked to take the WGL award.
Once we had navigated ourselves out of the car park the WGL group spent a day practising micro-navigation, following exact bearings and estimating distances travelled down to the last metre.
"This is more practical than courses I've done before," said Kirsty, who as a guider had taken other group leader awards.
"Estimating distances was difficult," said Sarah Foster. "I'm going to have to work on that."
The kind of remote terrain the award is aimed at is the open countryside walkers would find in North Yorkshire, Dartmoor, the Welsh borders or the Pennines. It's not a mountain qualification and there is guidance on how to avoid "steep ground". What it will do is ensure that teachers who lead field trips and expeditions into rough countryside have had appropriate training. Carl Haberl points out that accidents are rare on these trips and the award has as much to do with education as with safety. "If the leader is wandering around in circles the kids are losing out," he says.
Quite. Now which car park did we start from?
ContactPlas y Brenin, National Mountain Centre Capel Curig, Conwy LL24 0ET, Wales Tel: 01690 720214 Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgWeb: www.pyb.co.ukFor more information about the new qualification and other venues offering it, contact the UK Mountain Training Board Tel: 01690 720272 Web: www.mltb.org