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Becoming qualified as an International Mountain Leader: the challenges of winter

With his International Mountain Leader summer assessment completed, Cicerone author Andy Hodges was ready to take on the white world of winter in the Alps.

To qualify as an International Mountain Leader, candidates need to prove they can safely lead clients through rolling Nordic terrain. This beautiful winter wonderland hides some pretty serious challenges – avalanches, navigation through impenetrable forests, map features hidden by snow, more rope work and another round of environmental knowledge – this time trees in winter and footprints in the snow.

‘Congratulations, you have passed your Summer Assessment,’ said Helen, Plas Y Brenin course director, IML and assessor. The relief washed over us all like a wave. And then, the next hurdle loomed almost immediately. There was excited chatter mixed with: ‘When are you going to go for winter training?’ As a teacher, I am very lucky and also very unfortunate. Lots of holiday time to get those elusive International Quality Mountain Days, but fixed dates to do so. IML Training and Assessment for winter never fall in school holidays so some negotiation was needed. My school governors were incredibly helpful and repaid weekend and holiday work with time off in lieu.

Winter training in France

Flights were booked, bags were packed and I was off. Le Grand Bornand was one of those unheard of French treasures – rolling snowfields and soaring mountains were our playground for five days of adventure.

Although everyone came to winter training with a great deal of experience there was also a lot to learn.

Our first day consisted of snow profiles and snow analysis – who knew there were so many different snow types (Cicerone's simply titled book Snow was at hand to help me know my graupel from my depth hoar). Avalanches are never far from the off-piste and winter back-country traveller and the equally simply titled Avalanche! was also at hand. These little gems are perfect for pocket-sized advice and the included cards help with further analysis and decision making – absolutely priceless!

Each day we covered more skills and deepened our understanding of this most wonderful and, frankly, frightening world. Our confidence grew and journeys became more adventurous. We became adept at understanding the avalanche forecasts. We could plan routes taking into account prevailing conditions and explain how the sun and wind affected our route choices. Then, as the week was coming to an end, we came face to face with the most feared and talked about aspect of winter assessment. On assessment this was a critical pass-fail test. No second chances, no extra time. We would have to locate two buried rucksacks each containing an avalanche transceiver within eight minutes.

This was training. If we didn't locate them this time it didn't matter too much. Next time would be different.

Experience gaining

Training completed, the experience gaining began. Cicerone stepped up to the challenge again. Vanoise Ski Touring gave some interesting days out and about in my summer 'backyard'. Some days on skis, others on snowshoes, the secrets of the winter forests and alpages opened up. Footprints revealed just how many animals are hidden in the forest throughout the winter months, although the perennial favourite, the marmot, is deep underground hibernating.

After a couple of seasons trekking on raquettes and squeezing in the odd day on skis I felt I had enough winter days to go for assessment. Trips to the Lake District in winter kept up my British walking experience (some of the winter days are expected to be in the UK, which has arguably harsher weather than the Alps much of the time).


And then there I was, on a plane to Geneva again, rucksack and kit bag stowed.

My head was full of slope angle measuring, footprint identification hints, avalanche forecasts for the previous weeks and snow condition reports. I was ready, wasn't I?

I'd found Chalet D'Amo on AirBnB and it was perfect. I had shared it on the IML Aspirant Facebook site and was surprised to discover the entire place was going to be full of fellow candidates. Nine of us met around the table for our first dinner. Everyone looked fit, skilled and mountain ready. I hoped I matched up. Our hostess for the week, Linda, was a fount of all knowledge and couldn't help us enough.

Nervous chatter and last-minute revision over, we went for an early night. The following morning, we met the assessors – four mountain professionals who would watch our every move over the next five days.

We headed off for our first day. Nerves were a bigger enemy than any avalanche; maps were fumbled, we tripped over our own snowshoes and were far too keen to try out our tree spotting skills until Mark told us that we wouldn't be stopping to look at every single tree in the forest. We had other things to do. His main task was to calm us all down and help us to show ourselves at our best. And what a good job he made of it. I began to relax and, I dare say, even enjoy my day out as we took turns to lead the way and show interesting things en route. We stopped for coffee and, oh so casually, Mark pointed to the old wooden guttering so common in the Alps. "What wood would you say is chosen for the guttering?" he speculated. Wham! A bolt out of the blue which brought me back to the reality of the situation. This was an assessment and we were being assessed. Every step of the way! Each of us answered in turn. I'd noticed the guttering was broken and its inner was a reddish colour. Two of us thought larch, two thought spruce. I was right, maybe the gods were with me.

We stopped at a clearing and buried a rucksack complete with transceiver. Not two, just one. This would be a practice. Next time was the real deal.

I was asked to take over the lead to a summer chalet. The slope ahead looked OK. We'd seen others making their way up the slope between the trees and I decided to go for the more direct route. Mark had told us that the imaginary group were 50 to 60-year-olds wanting a gentle stroll. ('Direct route' should have been a mental warning to me.) We set off and it was steeper than I thought. Mark 'slipped' down the slope as I looked down in horror.

That evening in the chalet there was a group therapy session as we shared our woes and triumphs. Linda poured endless tea, cakes and sympathy, as needed. Tomorrow was another day.

The day dawned, we were in a different place and fresh snow was falling. Today would be steep ground work. We belayed from trees, dug bucket seats and buried axes. I tested a 'bomber belay' in the soft snow. It flew out! I reburied it and it held like a rock.

Day three came and we were into the swing of it now. Trees had been identified, rope work was solid. I was pretty adept at kicking steps up down and across the slopes. Today was a longer journey, higher into the mountains. And then the bomb was dropped – we had to dig deep pits to bury some rucksacks. We gathered out of sight of the 'avalanche zone' and one by one we had to go around the corner. Eight minutes…

Just about to do the Eight Minute test
Just about to do the Eight Minute test

From the start point the victim zone was well over 100m away. That ground had to be covered, on snowshoes as fast as possible with my pack on my back, before the search proper could begin. Running in a zig-zag pattern in soft snow at altitude was tough. By the time I got a bleep I could hear my own heart beat. I closed in, got low, went slow. I marked the lowest figure, 0.8m. The sack was buried deep! I began to probe into the snow, well over a metre. After beginning the probe pattern, I hit a soft spot. I tried again 20cm away. Soft, squidgy. I indicated the point to the assessors and began to search for the second 'victim'. I had absolutely no idea of time. This one was trickier; the indication took me off in a curve and began to reduce in distance. 12m, 11m, 8m, 5m. Onto my knees. ‘Go low, go slow,’ I said to myself; 0.9m, I marked the spot and began to probe. Nothing, it went to well over a metre. Again, 20cm away. Nothing. Again, 20cm away. Again. Again. And then, just when I was wondering whether I'd missed this one entirely I thought I touched a soft spot. Twenty centimetres away, soft again. Dare I call it? Once more. Yes, this was it, but what was the time? Five minutes? Ten minutes? I had no idea. Helen came over, she agreed I'd 'hit'. The relief was quickly replaced with a concern over the time. Six and a half minutes. I smiled, mostly from relief.

The following day seemed to float by. I had to dig a trench for elderly clients to descend a steep slope. My snow profile was, I thought, a match for those I'd spent hours studying in my precious little book until 11pm in bed the night before.

And then, there I was. In the chalet, waiting with the others for the final decision. My turn came. Helen and Mark shook my hands and, without the extended pause so favoured by TV shows, Helen uttered the words: ‘Congratulations, Andy. You're now an International Mountain Leader.’