Never Fear Those Mountains In The Distance

Last Sunday I boarded the train that would take me from Edinburgh right up into the Scottish Highlands, to undergo assessment for my Summer Mountain Leader Award. I had completed my preliminary residential training course back in 2008. The plan had been to go for final assessment not long after that…but instead by Summer 2009 I had moved from Scotland to Philadelphia. Over the following summers I was always switching country. It didn’t seem like I had enough time or certainty to slot in a 5-day break during the time I was back in Scotland. Life happened. “Obtain ML Award” was a New Year’s Resolution for many years running.

When I accepted my PhD offer I decided to buckle down. I had no time or certainties for the summer of 2013…but booked a place on an ML Assessment course anyway.

Gosh, I was terrified. I considered deliberately missing the train…or turning around and returning to Edinburgh. I felt underprepared. I didn’t feel like any type of “leader”, let alone one on fickle mountainous terrain. I’d also lost all social skills during my Edinburgh sojourn, as you are all aware. The amount of stress and anxiety the ML Award generated was far greater than anything the ‘PhD in America’ thing ever could – the fact that my ML Assessment was happening barely 2 weeks before I moved to the States I guess acted as a beneficial distraction.

Well…I continued onwards to my final destination and stepped up to task.

That proved to be a wise choice.


Atmospheric morning mist, looking towards Schiehallion.

Atmospheric morning mist, looking towards Schiehallion.

The ML Assessment is roughly divided into 3 chunks. Water hazards (river crossings), steep ground (ropework), expedition (navigation & camping). The first two parts were done from our base in Aberfeldy, each taking up a day.

After the initial recoil of wading thigh-deep across a rushing river, the crossing day proved to be quite good fun – a nice ice-breaker with the first assessor and my fellow candidates (4 of us in total, myself being the only woman). Ropework proved to be a lot more challenging: unlike a lot of ML-type folk I’ve not done a lot of rock climbing, so handling a rope isn’t especially fluent to me. Still, the assessor was satisfied that I could do the technical stuff safely, even though he needed me to repeat the exercise.

The expedition gave me plenty to fret about, but since I’ve been involved with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme for years, a relatively short circuit around some Munros in the middle of some exceptional summer weather wasn’t going to be too taxing on me. The fear factor came from the navigation assessments.

One of our navigation "targets": a fork in the river, up in Glen Lyon.

One of our navigation “targets”: a fork in the river, up in Glen Lyon.

What happens on the ML Assessment Expedition is that the 2nd assessor points to a spot on the map that contains a miniscule geographical feature – a kink in a contour line, a change in the gradient of the slope – and asks you to get to that precise spot. If it’s not your leg then you don’t know where you’re going, but have to tell the assessor where you think you are. The assessor won’t tell you whether your guess was right or wrong until the end of the day. Naturally, that means if you get one location wrong you run the risk of miscalculating the rest. Navigation is the most important part of the ML Assessment – if you prove unable to navigate then you will fail the assessment. A lot of pressure was building up on the first day of the expedition.

Navigating around a mountain side on a sunny day is pretty easy you would think. Geographical features can be spotted from a mile off. Well, of course. That’s why there’s a “night navigation” test too.

Night navigation is awful. You head out of your cosy tent in the middle of the night when it’s pitch black. Armed with only a headtorch, map and compass the group spends a couple of hours repeating the navigation challenges. One of my friends recently completed her ML Assessment and reported that one of her fellow candidates got the entire group lost for a few extra, miserable hours. On my training I nearly mutinied and refused to leave my tent! Fortunately on the actual assessment the weather outside was decent. After about 30 minutes I “clicked” exactly where I was and the rest of the navigation was kinda obvious. No one got lost.

Looking up at Cairn Meag. Lots of rough, rocky stuff to enjoy.

Looking up towards Cairn Meag. Lots of rough, rocky stuff to enjoy.

So, by the final day of the expedition I’d received positive feedback on the navigation tasks to date, which made me realise that I was actually on track to gain my ML Award. Even better, my experience of briefing and interacting with DoE groups worked really nicely to my advantage when we got into “play-acting” group leadership situations.

Even more encouraging, despite fears that I’d lost all my abilities to interact with new people…it came back! Getting thrown into a residential setting with 3 new people and expecting to get friendly right away is a challenge for introverts…but certainly not impossible. It makes me feel more comfortable about heading back to the States – there’s more hope for a smooth integration than I initially thought. There’s also hope for me as a people-person: I can lead, protect, manage and support others. If I can do this in the remotest corners of the wilderness, I can do it in the workplace, lab or classroom. I need to hold on to that thought.

It is trips like these that remind me of how much I love the Scottish Highlands, and how proud I am of being Scottish. To me it doesn’t matter that I’m leaving such a beautiful place – my respect for the country means it doesn’t matter how far away I go, the country stays with me.

We rounded off our Expedition by all jumping in a waterfall pool. At 11am the temperature was baking hot, while the water was icy cold.

When I got home to my Edinburgh bed that night: I was grinning from ear to ear.

At the top of Meall Garbh

At the top of Meall Garbh


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