Mountain Leader Award

Mountain Leader Award

(by Allister Gerrard, June 2008)
How to achieve the ML, with one holder’s personal experiences.

I.M.C. Winter Camp; Carrauntoohil and Beenkeragh in the background

At the tender age of nine, in runners and jeans I traced after my father, Fergus, on the way to reaching the summit of Lugnaquillia. Mountain Leadership was far from my mind. Instead I trailed behind him munching on our rations of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk on the way up, much to his amusement when he found there was little left by the time we got to the top (Ironically I now work with Cadbury’s). We had climbed many hills in Ireland together when I was a kid and following a long absence from the hills due mainly to competing at my main sport in my teens, swimming and water polo. I returned to the hills some years later again. As many others would testify, the rock and hills draw many to climb and hill walk, even addictive and certainly obsessive in many cases. Such is the draw of nature, the desire to wonder and marvel at the beauty of the mountains and crags whilst hill walking and climbing. Having been back hill walking with clubs etc., I soon got bored following others and wanted to learn about this navigation stuff myself so I could be independent and confidently head out into the hills myself and eventually able to lead. Knowing the basics I enrolled on my first course, Mountain Skills I.

At the time ‘Tiglin’ in Co. Wicklow was the national training centre for mountaineering and other outdoor sports in Ireland. Sadly it has since closed down in recent years, a place of fond memories & laughs. An alternative, a national centre of excellence for outdoor sports, particularly for climbing and mountaineering for people to attain professional qualifications and the like many would say is lacking in Ireland. That’s not to say there are not many excellent centres for training around the country, there are.

In any event, Mountain Skills (M.S.) courses are widely available (MS I & II) countrywide, designed so the person finishing the courses may be in a position to pursue hill walking as a hobby safely. Having competed MS I & II, one can complete the Mountain Skills Assessment (M.S.A.) which deems people with the ability to look after themselves on the hills (not lead) in respect of navigation, safety, weather etc. People with enough personal experience and who submit a logbook can do the MSA; those with extensive and suitable experience and competence in the mountains can do the MSA without having to do the MS I & II courses. I completed my MS I & II courses back in 2003 & completed a separate 2-day recognised outdoor first aid course also. In early 2004 having completed the MSA I registered with BOS (Bord Oiliúint Sléibhe, Irish Mountain Training Board). This is the first step to the ‘Mountain Leader Award’. The requirements to register for the ML Award are: 1) Hold a first aid certificate 2) Be a member of MCI 3) Have passed the Mountain Skills Assessment.

Incidentally, in Northern Ireland or the U.K. the ML can be obtained without the need for doing the mountain skills syllabus, however, the assessment is longer, 5 days instead of 3 in the Republic of Ireland and regardless in each case the ML syllabus covers all aspects and is for all intents and purposes the same.

The requirements to gain the ML Award are:

  • Meet the board’s pre-entry requirement.
  • Be registered with the board.
  • Satisfactorily complete a recognised Mountain Leadership Course (5 days or can be done in one week or as two weekends, 3 days and 2 days.
  • Maintain a logbook of mountain activities over a period of not less than one year.
  • Possess a first aid certificate (must be recognised by BOS, for the outdoors).
  • Be at least 20 years of age.

For the M.L. logbook itself, in summary, the following must be completed:

  • Gain hill walking experience, at least 20 quality hill days in a variety of areas, post – ML registration.
  • Organise a minimum of one weekend hill walking trip, (in consultation with an ML holder).
  • Lead parties in varied areas in Ireland, at least six.
  • Spend 6 days assisting one or more ML(s) or higher, with at least two of those days on a BOS-recognised course.
  • Camp in two non-roadside locations in the hills in winter.
  • Be an active member of a recognised mountaineering club or individual member of the MCI.

The listed requirements are generally considered to be a minimum and candidates are encouraged to exceed the requirements as far as possible, as it is experience that breeds skill, competence and confidence in the hills.

Having spent a number of years building up my log book at my own pace, as my hobby, I finally took the plunge and did my ML assessment in April 2008.

ML assessments take place in many mountainous areas throughout the country with various assessors, depending on whom and where you book with. Our assessment was organised by the IMC training officer, Declan Craig (to whom I am grateful) in conjunction with the MCI training officer, Tim Orr (tim@mountaineering. ie). I did the assessment alongside fellow I.M.C. members Declan Craig, Conor Doherty, Tony Barry, Willie Whelan, friend Darragh Carroll and two others who work in outdoor training centres in corners of Ireland. Our assessors for the weekend where the vastly experienced and respected Calvin Torrans, IFMGA mountain guide ( and Ronan Lenihan, IML (, medical and first aid instructor and mountain rescue leader. Our area for the assessment was the Twelve Pins, Connemara, Co. Galway; incidentally you only find out the morning before you go where you are going for the three-day, two-night camp assessment. Obviously we were in the general vicinity of Connemara before driving there that morning, specifically Petersberg Outdoor Education Centre on the shores of Lough Mask. I did all my formal ML training with Bren Whelan, MIC/IML (, who provided me with the skills and standard at which to train and aim for. Bren offers excellent courses in all aspects of mountaineering, including Scotland. I also was lucky to have some other ML people to train with and had a great time training with the likes of Declan Cunningham, Pádraig Halligan (Wayfarers), Herbert Herzmann, Tony Barry, Willie Whelan and D. Carroll, with people like Eileen Murphy & Denzil Jones as a mentors. A completed written paper and logbook must be submitted to BOS prior to the assessment covering all aspects of the syllabus.

The assessment itself covers all aspects of the syllabus:

  • assessment of ability to navigate in day and night for extended periods;
  • assessment of leadership skills;
  • assessment of personal equipment for mountain expeditions;
  • camp craft;
  • steep ground security;
  • emergency rope work (demonstrating how to bring a number of people up & lower on steep ground, abseils, anchor points, belaying, confidence roping etc., all without using climbing equipment);
  • first aid & emergency procedures;
  • mountain hazards e.g. river crossings, choice of line & supervision of party skills;
  • planning a route;
  • a knowledge of weather systems, mountain geology, flora, fauna, access & conservation, local and mountaineering history, clubs, organisations, including knowledge of code of ethics, MCI good practice etc.

It may sound like a lot, however, don’t be deterred, you would be surprised if a regular hill walker how much you all ready know and take for granted. Also, you need to know a little on each theory subject so you can pass on some knowledge of your surroundings so the people following can appreciate and learn a little about the environment they are in. Having said that, I have heard comments from people who hold ML and SPA that the ML is certainly a lot more comprehensive in terms of amounts of time required to complete. Half of the eight people on our assessment where completing the ML award to aid them with their professional outdoor careers. When focused on the training, I suspect it can be all done and achieved in just over one year. For me it was a leisurely four years from date of registration (the MS was prior to this); some take longer again.

Regarding the training, you generally pick it up as you go along, by experience and with some formal training. However, I did find that the rope work and night navigation most definitely required some hard work, on nights when I should maybe have been out with friends slugging back pints in the pub having a laugh but instead was trailing around the tops and sides of mountains having a laugh with a friend or two in the lashing rain or stuffed up in a crowded and smelly tent or even bivy bag! Again, don’t be deterred, you can go to the pub any time.

For further information on BOS and mountaineering training courses etc., you should contact one of the following:

On a personal note, hill walking in general and in conjunction with ML training has taken me to a lot of the most beautiful places in Ireland and abroad. Although hard work at times, it keeps one fit and healthy and has helped me abroad even in places like Scotland and the Alps. I have met lots of people enroute, made many friends and shared the experiences of great joy with many family members. I cannot understate the crack and fun I have had as a result of all time spent in the hills and countryside with people over the years, cumulating in some of the happiest days of my life to date.

Some photos taken along the way

Allister, John Duignan and Ben Warren on ‘Cantilever’, Snowdonia National Park – 2004

Allister and Shay heading down off Aonach Mor

Barry Watts on the summit of Cruach Mhór on the Reeks Walk

Lorenzo, Allister, Dairín and Tony; the Reeks on a winter camp

On the Snowdon Horseshoe, Crib Goch Ridge

Summit, Snowdon – Sandra, Joe, Joanne, Jimmy and Allister