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The knots are the easy bit......a day assessing on ML steep ground - Part 1.

“Mountain Leaders should be familiar with techniques to ensure safe travel through steep and broken ground” ML Handbook Section 4.1

I was working on an ML assessment last week, and we ventured into steep, broken and loose ground away from marked paths. We encountered wet grass, scree and short rocky steps, some dry, some wet. We went up, down and sideways. It was very windy too.

I knew the route for the day, but the candidates didn’t, which largely meant they had to make a lot of dynamic decisions and demonstrate sound group management. “Behind the scenes” I was doing the same. Four candidates I’d never met before on steep ground in windy conditions. I was having to balance the needs of the assessment process and our safety. The foundations for my decision making and strategies had started long ago during my own ML process in 2002. I walked off the hill at the days end pleased with what I had seen. It had been a good day.

So here is Part 1 of what I saw, whilst spending a day on ML terrain within remit of the award.

Part 1 covers the candidates personal confidence in steep terrain, route choice, management strategies and confidence roping.

Part 2 at a later date, will look at protecting rocky steps in descent and ascent, anchor selection and a personal descent.

The four candidates all went onto pass the award by the end of the week.

Personal confidence/competence.

Clear communication and briefing

It was evident the candidates had spent time on broken steep ground. Personal practical performance and Dlogs confirmed this. Whilst paths are sometimes hard to avoid, getting off them and moving through unfamiliar terrain is part of our skills set.

They all had the ability to interpret the ground and adapt their walking position accordingly. This resulted in a comfortable posture which allowed them to focus on what they were doing and therefore the needs of the group. No one was gripped on large open slopes or when things got loose, wet or steep.

It’s important to add here we were on steep variable terrain, with use of occasional hands for balance and to pull through a short step. None of it was approaching climbing territory.

Route choice

I make it clear to my candidates on assessment where I want them to head/aim for. I try to use an obvious feature we can identify, and hand over to them to interpret the best route to it.

Typically there are a range of options ranging from manageable to best avoided. By spending time in this style of terrain you can begin to develop an eye for what is possible and what isn’t. Looking closely at an area of ground often reveals natural weaknesses that can be used by walking groups. Ways to enter and importantly exit, good areas to stand, natural steps or flat areas, obvious easy options.

The candidates last week were able to demonstrate the following throughout the day:

  • Find a suitable location away from potential objective danger to look at the ground and brief the group. Manage expectations and put kit away. (poles, maps)

  • A very clear concise means of communication was used. Learning names, getting eye contact and telling individuals what they needed to know as succinctly as possible.

  • Position of maximum effectiveness - Good positioning of themselves relative to awkward sections of ground and the group. They were able to see individuals below and above, and we could still hear them. This did involve the occasional shout above the wind.

  • Consideration to individual needs of group members. I often use the first section of any day with new groups to observe and check them out. My plans might change either way based on this.

  • The term spotting is always an interesting discussion. In a bouldering context it is expected the climber is at a reasonable height, and may fall involving a short bit of air time. A walking group member should never be placed in this situation. Spotting in the walking context could mean a hand on the base of a rucsack, or briefly holding an arm or jacket as someone makes a step. It should be readily managed and be under control. Prevent the slip, rather than dealing with it once it has occurred.

  • They always protected from below when moving uphill, and weren’t on the edge of something offering an outstretched hand. Be careful not to make yourself vunerable to being pulled over.

  • On occasion group members were moved one at a time. Sometimes the strategy to move as a group and keep the day moving was used. Their strategies were always slightly different and varied. This told me alot about their judgement.

  • Moving point to point - Individuals were moved from boulders to areas of flat ground to the edges of scree. Not at any point was the whole group in the same place, but we moved carefully and deliberately before being given the ok to move. A good idea if there is potential objective danger such as other hillwalkers that may knock something down?

  • Collecting areas were used, where we could all come together as a group. The ability to read the terrain on the move and decide where the whole group can meet was evident.

  • Dead ends/steep drops were avoided. All of your work could be wasted and you’ll have to go down or back up the hill, or get the rope out.

  • They were practised in this terrain - The ability to move through steep and broken terrain away from paths, whilst looking after the group and yourself requires practise. You don’t have to travel far, but time spent moving and thinking in this terrain will develop interpretation skills and the ability to make appropriate judgements.

Confidence roping, the knots are the easy bit....

I use and demonstrate one knot only, the overhand. Many walkers aren’t climbers, and don’t have rope handling experience or skills. This is an important point for me to note as a trainer.

By demonstrating the ways in which one knot can be used,many trainees gain confidence in the fact it doesn’t have to be complicated. The knot can be the easy bit.

However, practsing the ropework in varied situations is important. Developing the ability to be slick with the rope comes with handling it in the context of how you might need to use it.

Back to the assessment day and the candidates demonstrated the following:

Effective rope work that gives confidence
  • Different strategies were used to avoid use of the rope, until I told them to use it. Use of the rope was used at the end of a continum.

  • The rope was well stored in their rucsacks and deployed quickly. It was slick with no fuss.It had been practised.

  • They considered their safety and that of the client when putting them on the rope. Getting someone to step unbalanced into a rope loop on tricky ground isn't the best option. Can they sit and you tie the rope to them. Think about where you are on the hill, consider this before you do anything.

  • They briefed and managed other group members. What are the rest of your group doing, where are they?

  • They had a plan, and verbalised this clearly. Voices were used well, they became a vital tool. Reassure, give confidence, praise, describe,tell,be directive,be supportive,tell them to stop! Depending on the scenario you might need to be some, none or all of these.

  • They gave confidence! The combination of a supportive rope and supportive tone of voice was great to observe and hear. What they were doing was being done effectively, and not just done incidentaly.

  • They had a good stance and position relative to the client. Slightly bent legs and a bent arm on the rope gave a lower centre of gravtiy. If a slip did occur they were less likely to be pulled over. On steep ground I never face downhill,and neither do my boots. I get my boot edges and heels into the hill for added support.

  • They were uphill of the client.

  • There was a focus on the ground beneath their feet, but also a focus and attention to what was approaching too. What is the easiest line, where were they heading?

  • They could relocate despite not looking at maps for good chunks of time.

  • They were slick.It had been practised. I’ve mentioned that several times now!

There are a large number of variables to consider when moving through this style of terrain. There is a significant amount of judgement. Terms such as steep, use of the hands and spotting can be divide opinion. This article doesn’t set out to define these terms or be a "how to pass" article. I hope it gives an insight into what might be asked of you, whether on assessment or with your groups when out on the hill.

The ML Handbook is an invaluable read when preparing for training or assessment, be familiar with it, and check out the skills checklist too!

We have a variety of ML courses for 2019, and all dates can be found at the link below:

#mountainleader #mountainskills #assessing #ML #MLassessment #steepground #MLropework

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