Mountain Leader assessment on the beautiful Isle of Rum

June 4, 2019 0 By NatalieM
Mountain Leader assessment on the beautiful Isle of Rum

My presence on Steemit has been very intermittent recently, mainly because I’ve been working towards achieving my Summer Mountain Leader (ML) qualification.

My ML Assessment took place over five days at the beginning of May, on the beautiful Isle of Rum, off the north west coast of Scotland, just south of the Isle of Skye.

Map showing the Isle of Rum and the Rum Cuillin traverse route.

Since I returned, I’ve been so busy that I’ve hardly paused for breath, but I’ve finally found the time to write about my experience. And it was certainly an experience to remember: intensive, gruelling at times, and lots of fun. We were lucky enough to have dry weather for the entire five days, with glorious sunshine at times.

There were five candidates, three assessors and two dogs. With the ferry to Rum only £8.90 return (about $11.28) I feel ashamed not to have visited this beautiful island before.

View back to the mountainous mainland from the ferry to Rum.

Three of us were accommodated for the first two nights in the BBQ Hut, a hexagonal wooden hut with a barbecue and chimney in the centre.

The BBQ Hut.

The Mountain Leader Award training covers many subjects, including navigation (day and night), leadership and organisational skills, managing a group on steep ground, basic ropework, understanding weather and synoptic charts, environmental knowledge, river crossings and general safety. These various skills are assessed during mountain walks and a two or three-day camping expedition.

Right from the start, each person took charge of a leadership leg, in turn, doing navigation – and later on, demonstrating that their ability to manage the group on steep ground.

One of the candidates leading a navigation leg.

The five-day assessment is seen as a learning as well as assessment period. You’re not expected to get every single thing exactly right, but you are expected to show enthusiasm, responsibility and a high level of competency in the skills being assessed.

For example, candidates are expected to demonstrate an interest in environmental issues. This can be flora, fauna, geology or a related subject. It can be done by pointing out interesting plants seen along the way – the idea is to show that we can make a walk interesting for a group we are leading. If, during the assessment, candidates get some of this information wrong, it doesn’t mean they are automatically penalised. We’re not expected to be environmental experts.

Unique wildlife and rocky mountains

Manx shearwater in flight. Photo by Ómar Runólfsson.

Rum is an ideal environment for this kind of training. It has some notable wildlife. About 23% of the world’s population of Manx Shearwaters (seabirds) nest on Rum, in numerous burrows. The birds spend their days flying over the ocean, catching fish, returning to fight noisily over their burrows at night.

When we spent a night camping in a remote part of the island, the birds made an extraordinary din from about 11.30pm on, wailing and shrieking above my tent. Luckily it didn’t keep me awake, so I’ve no idea what time they stopped!

Rum is also known for its rocky mountains. They’re not particularly high, with the highest, Askival, having an altitude of just 812m, but they are very rocky, and technically quite tricky to climb. This makes them an ideal location for practising hillwalking and group management on steep ground.

The Rum Cuillin. Left to right: Halleval, Askival, Ainshval, Trollabhal. The fifth mountain, Sgurr nan Gillean, is just out of view. 

The Rum Cuillin traverse is considered by many walkers to be one of the best mountain walks in the UK. It takes in five mountain summits, covering a distance of almost 22km (13 miles), and a total ascent of 1847m. We visited one of the smaller hills on Rum, Barkeval, on the first day of the assessment, for day and night navigation sessions.

The following day we did ropework practice at a rocky area on the lower slopes. I was relieved that my demonstration of abseiling went without a hitch (just as well, as we had to abseil about 15 feet down a large rock!).

I had been practising abseiling at a rocky area not far from my home, which is very popular with dog walkers, and a couple of times, to my embarrassment, I had literally tied myself up in knots.

My demonstration of “confidence roping” wasn’t quite up to scratch, and along with two other candidates, I had to repeat the process the following day. This time it went well for all of us.

Scrambling up Trollabhal.

Later in the week, for the assessment camping expedition, we did the Rum Cuillin traverse over two days.

Although I found it impossible to properly relax during the five-day assessment period, knowing that at any time I might be asked to point out our location on the map, or to take the lead for a section, I could not help but be distracted by the breathtaking views.

Spectacular view out to the neighbouring Isle of Eigg. The vastness of the sea and sky, as viewed from the mountains of Rum, provide an ever-changing panorama.

I think the other candidates felt the same way. They were all very fit and healthy young guys (I was the only woman), and at times I found it hard to keep up with them – though they were really kind and patient about this. If I said I was going to take a 30-second breather, and that they should just go on ahead, they always stopped to wait for me.

Overall, I felt quite proud of my abilities at keeping pace with the other candidates! I had put in a big effort to build up my fitness a week before the assessment, doing three big hillwalks on three consecutive days. I’d then had a week to relax, with just a couple of evenings at the climbing centre.

I generally find that if I need to get fit for a big event, it’s best to do a lot of aerobic and muscle work over a few days or weeks, followed by a few days of rest.

A silvery glow made the cloud bank look like a work of art as seen from the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean.

By the time we reached Dibidil, the bothy at the foot of Sgurr nan Gillean, the last mountain in the Rum Cuillin traverse, we were all exhausted. We had another overnight stay here, with a 7km walk back the next day.

The weather was warm, and this is a coastal beauty spot. We pitched our tents and then had a rare chance to relax for an hour or two.

The rocky sea shore at Dibidil.

I found a pebbly beach and went to dip my feet in the freezing cold water. It was bliss! Some of the others stripped off and immersed their bodies in the chilly sea water.

Pebble and cold water therapy to help soothe my aching feet.

That evening we had to each present a previously-prepared five-minute talk on an environmental subject of our choice.

It wasn’t hard to get to sleep that night, even though we were all a bit nervous, as the following day would be the final assessment day. That’s when we would find out the result of our assessment week, and whether we had passed or not.




To be continued.

All photos author’s own, unless otherwise stated.