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Royal Marines seek new mountain kings as they expand demanding course
5 June 2013

The Royal Marines’ are opening the elite world of specialist mountain leaders to the most junior Royal Marines for the first time.

The leaders – who are not just experts in Arctic warfare and mountaineering, but also covert surveillance and reconnaissance – have traditionally been drawn from corporals and above, but the branch is now available to all marine-level ranks.

Commandos scale an icy cliff in Norway during Arctic training. Picture: Sgt Ben Briggs

THE Royal Marines’ mountain leaders are opening their elite branch to the most junior Royal Marines for the first time.

And in doing so they want to show that the world of mountain leaders goes far beyond climbing, mountain training, clambering out of holes in the ice or building makeshift snow shelters.

For joining the branch also opens up the world of reconnaissance and information gathering in the Brigade Patrol Troop, the small, specialist team which goes in ahead of the main Royal Marines force.

Typically the mountain leader branch, which traces its roots back to the Cliff Assault Unit in World War 2, has been the domain of corporals and above.

A mountain leader abseils down a rocky face on Dartmoor. Picture: LA(Phot) Emz Nolan, CTCRM

But the Corps is now expanding the branch to all marine-level ranks as it introduces the Mountain Leader 3 course (the most experienced are Mountain Leader 1s).

The new course sees them taught how to carry out surveillance and vertical assaults, spending two weeks in Glencoe for practical mountain training, and take part in two exercises where they practise close target reconnaissance and guiding attack troops to their objectives.

“We are the only organisation in the UK that teaches military mountaineering and military climbing,” explains Maj Ads Rutherford, in charge of mountain leader instruction at the Commando Training Centre in Lympstone, Devon.

“Military mountaineering is different because everything we do is orientated to having an effect on the ground in terms of combat operations.

Two mountain leaders are silhouetted against the Dartmoor sky during training. Picture: LA(Phot) Emz Nolan, CTCRM

“We teach guys to work in cold weather conditions which range from +3˚ to -30˚ C – as well as desert and jungle. We teach them to own the environment in which they operate so they can exploit the unique capability they have to UK defence.”

What’s perhaps less well known outside the Corps, however, is that mountain leaders are also taught specialist communication skills and how to be reconnaissance operators – skills vital in the patrol troop.

The troop – part of the Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron, based at Stonehouse in Plymouth – has seen action in every major Royal Marines operation from the first Gulf war to Afghanistan.

Royal Marines of the Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron leap over the Galloway countryside during this spring's Joint Warrior exercise. Picture: PO(Phot) Sean Clee, RNPOTYx3

They’re taught how to parachute – demonstrated recently over south-west Scotland during the Joint Warrior exercise; how to drive a multitude of vehicles; how to provide first aid; and how to escape or evade capture.

“We can see everything, hear everything and get an understanding of exactly what is going on in our area,” explains C/Sgt Lee Waters, who runs the Mountain Leader 3 course at Lympstone.

“It’s become a very important part of the training for mountain leaders. It’s no longer just about the climbing and tactics. Now we concentrate massively on the end product and making sure from the marine level right up to the Mountain Leader 1s all have a thorough understanding of how important their role is and how important the way time-sensitive information is treated.”